The multiculturalism in Kolkata manifests through its food. With a distinct culinary culture of its own, Kolkata food is unconventional and doesn’t fit the bill of how Indian food is standardised with its high spice content. And who better than chef Gary Mehigan to validate this culinary supremacy of Kolkata?
If you grew up watching MasterChef Australia like I did, Chef Gary Mehigan needs no introduction. For the uninitiated, meet the man behind making MasterChef Australia the cult that it is today. He, along with George Calombaris and Matt Preston, handheld the show through 11 seasons with the finesse and expertise that MasterChef is known for today.
But that’s not what we are here for today. Chef Mehigan was in India for a pan-India workshop with Conosh. And we found out that after his multiple visits to India, Chef Gary Mehigan has spent the most amount of time in Kolkata, which also happens to be my hometown. For an epicure who idolises the exemplar set by MasterChef in the culinary world, this could mean only one thing. A tête-à-tête with the OG himself, about two of my most favourite things – Kolkata and food.
In conversation with Chef Gary, here’s what he thinks about Kolkata and its undying love for food.
Chef Gary Mehigan and his take on Kolkata and its food
Q: I know that you have been to India quite several times. What brought you to India this time?
View this post on Instagram
Two reasons: I am filming a new series for National Geographic India called Mega Festivals, covering India’s biggest and most extravagant celebrations including Onam, Durga Puja and the Hornbill festival in Nagaland. I have two more episodes to film early 2023 and then a second series in the second half of the year. We have also been chopping at the bit to host a series of dinners and master classes which came to fruition thanks to our friends at Conosh.
My relationship with Conosh started during lockdown 2020 when I was lucky enough to host a number of classes over Zoom to an eager Indian foodie audience. In in all honesty, it was a surreal experience being in lockdown here in Melbourne in Australia and demonstrating in front of a modest iPhone set up, live to over 1000 enthusiastic attendees across India.
Neha, Vaibhav and the team at Conosh have been fantastic organisers and facilitators and it’s been wonderful to reconnect with fans in the flesh. We hosted six dinners and three masterclasses across three cities along with Taj Hotels in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi. A fabulous experience and hopefully more to come!
Q: Would you say that each trip that you have made to India has given you a new takeaway in terms of food?
I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled fairly extensively and now in India, every trip has been special. It’s a big country and I certainly have a lot more to see. I make every effort to scribble down new recipes and jump in and have a go at something I haven’t seen before if I can.
A recent visit to Nagaland in India’s northeast is a good example – full of surprises, unusual ingredients, interesting recipes and a fascinating culture. For me it’s not just about the food but the rich history and culture. In all honesty, I think India is home to the world’s most obsessed foodies. (We agree!)
Q: You have fairly travelled across India. What are the most distinct differences you’ve noticed between food in Kolkata and the rest of India?
The most obvious one is mustard and mustard oil, distinctive and addictive. My first taste of Bhapa Ilish, bhetki and pomfret will stay with me always! Whilst filming in Kolkata in October, I was struck by how deftly the locals on the crew would sift through the tiny bones of the hilsa fish and almost reconstruct the skeleton on the side of the plate. An enviable skill to a clumsy outsider. Of course, Kolkata has a sweet tooth like no other city in the world…the roshgulla, the sandesh and the mishti doi – all sending you into sensory and sugary overload.
Q: What’s the one street food in Kolkata that you tried and has now become your go-to whenever you are in the city?
I do love phuchka…they are like little shots of deliciousness. The question is how many can I eat in one sitting, is 10 too many? This may seem silly, but I also love a nice cup of masala tea. I stop often from place to place just to take a moment to watch the passers by, have a chat (not a chaat!) with someone and enjoy hot sweet chai maybe with a little cardamom or ginger.
Q: I have read in your interviews how you compared notes between Indian and Australian food, drawing parallels on their texture and more. Now, if you had to give the street food in Kolkata a spin and make it fit to be presented at a fine dining restaurant in Australia, what would you change? Or how would you go about it?
Chef Manish Mehrotra has done it already, but I love the puchka as a simple vehicle for lots of other flavours and not necessarily Indian. Much like an Italian bruschetta, it’s the toasted bread that’s the carrier. Thinks like a ceviche, a tartare of meat, fish or vegetables, purees, in fact any flavour combo that works seems like a no brainer to me.
Q: Do you have a sweet tooth, chef?
View this post on Instagram
I love cheese over dessert, you might know but I’m a bit of a Francophile and when I need a sweet treat I tend to go for something small and really sweet. A really dark good quality couverture chocolate or a salty caramel ice cream normally does the trick.
In India, a malpua with rabri, a couple of jalebi or gulab jamun with an espresso coffee.
Q: In Kolkata, you will find everyone gushing over roshogolla, which is a traditional Bengali dessert. However, a chef’s curiosity can take him places. Did you find any offbeat or a non famous dessert in Kolkata that you absolutely loved?
Does malai toast count, from a little shop off Dalhousie square? Very nice with a hot chai. But properly Bengali and certainly well known, I like Balaram Mullick. It does a baked rosogolla which was pretty tasty as well as a countless selection of sandesh, chhanar jalebi, chaler, dudh puli, mishti doi roshogolla, and nolen gurer roshogolla.
Q: When you came to Kolkata for the first time, did you curate a food map/food guide of sorts to take you across the city?
The short answer is no. I never seem to have time! My last visit in October was during Durga Puja. So, very busy indeed. I did some pandal hopping, Garihat markets, a wander through Kumartuli to see the idol makers and artists, Mullick Ghat flower markets and Armenian Ghat, Victoria Memorial, and St Pauls Cathedral. I spent a little time around New Town, Chetla, various points along the Hoogly river, Howrah Bridge and Doi Ghat for instance. I did promise Iftekhar Ahsan from ‘Calcutta Walks’ that the next time I’m in town, I’ll be a proper tourist!
Q: What are your top 3 places to eat in Kolkata when you are in the city?
Raj kachori at Tiwari Brothers, Bada Bazaar
Bhetki machher fry at 6 Ballygunge Place
Thali at Sonar Tori – City Centre, Salt Lake
Watch the world go by – A little tea stand at Marquis St., and Mirza Ghalib Street.
Q: If you had to pick one food item from Kolkata and recreate it in classic Chef Gary style, what would it be?
I do love bhapa ilish (steamed Hilsa), and the flavours of mustard are wonderful. However, the bones in the Hilsa make it difficult for most of us non-Bengalis to eat. So, a sophisticated arty version using a medley of fish & shellfish would be beautiful.
Q: What is your favourite holiday comfort recipe that you like to make repeatedly?
Summer holidays for me are all about crisp, juicy and fresh ingredients, so I make lots of salads and pop on the BBQ to grills some prawns, lamb or chicken. Korean Barbeque Chicken with a simple slaw is a spicy family favourite of ours. It’s quick and easy to make and always hits the spot.
Hero Image: Courtesy ceoseries_india/Instagram; Featured Image: Courtesy Eva Rinaldi, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons