‘IT’S MY NANI WHO TAUGHT ME HOW TO COOK BENGALI FOOD!’

Celebrity consultant chef Ajanta Burman feeling relaxed and happy to chat at her home: Loves her traditional Bengali food and caters for discerning foodies, ask for her latest Khai Khai menu (she also features on Facebook, Instagram and has a blog of her own). Interestingly, to a query she replied that there may be 400 to 500 Bengali families in Goa, but more Goans love her recipes and place orders with her.

By Tara Narayan

Take a bow Ajanta Burman, homemaker extraordinary and home cook with a magical Bengali touch, you’ll be left licking your lips an fingers!

I’M absolutely in love with Ajanta Burman. Quietly so of course. Finally I caught up with her to do some Bengali food chatting for one day I realized she lives quite close to where I stay, in fact, in the same residential colony. I have an old passion for Bengali food and that’s a subject close to Ajanta’s heart too — except that she can cook Bengali dream dishes like a professional chef.
Meet Ajanta Burman. I’ve been acquainted with her for some time for she is one of the moving forces in the Bengali association Ganga-Zuari Academy in Goa. For some time now I’ve also known that she enjoys a just reputation for being a perfectionist home-based caterer for Bengali food or cuisine. She is a longtime resident of Panaji, “I’ve lived in Panaji for 25 years now…but I love to travel and would like to do that more!”
She says she divides her time between her passion for cooking to order and you may find this interesting, being the daughter of a well to do Bengali zamindari family she says there was never any pressure for her or her sister to cook at home! In fact, “My father was very strict about this, his daughters must not waste time cooking!” Later on he came to realize that his daughter Ajanta was crazy about cooking and where is it written that a woman should not be interested in cooking. Even if her own mother who imbibed Rabindranath Tagore’s Shanti Niketan Bengali renaissance cultural values keenly pursued sports, music, singing, also engaged in doing exquisite floral masterpieces.
Her mother would have been happy if her daughters walked in her footsteps and not take an interest in cooking in the kitchen at all! Or something like that. Really, it was a most unusual situation. In most homes parents urged their daughters not to step out of the kitchen! But in this case her loving parents were worried that if their daughters entered the kitchen they may burn or cut themselves while cooking. Still, confided Ajanta, she managed to sneak into the kitchen to cook to cook something secretly when no one was paying attention.
She is an amusing raconteur and tells me all that the stay out of the kitchen scene changed later when her mother fell prey to low blood pressure and felt sick, “So I got a chance! My father cooked chicken, mutton curry and fried puri every day till we got fed-up and I said stop it, I’m going to make chappati…” The sisters got into the kitchen and after several adventures with sticky masses of dough learned how to cook a decent meal, “We became experts and I was assigned by my father to do the chicken and mutton curries!”
She got married quite early at 19 years and it was off to Mumbai where her mother-in-law contributed to her knowledge of cooking techniques for various traditional Bengali dishes. Lost in her memories Ajanta added, “It is actually my naani (maternal grandmother) who lit my passion for cooking; she taught me how to do yakni-style food, where we put 20-22 spices in a clean cloth potli and drop it in boiling water to get an aromatic stock, before adding in the two-hours soaked basmati rice….it can be plain yakni rice, yakni actually refers to the aroma of spices.” It’s the aromatic yakni stock which makes all the difference to a pulao or biryani.
TO come to the present it is not at all surprising that Ajanta Burman, honorary chef par excellence, takes her Bengali food catering seriously, “for instance I got quite nervous after I got an order to do 200 fish paturi at short notice!” Yes, she is a one-woman show, doing the shopping, preparing, cooking, packing, labeling “and I also write something explaining the Bengali food…” She has good kitchen help though and “I love them and they love me for they have been with me for that long.”
So is it only Bengali food? I asked. Mostly but surprisingly, “These days I’m also doing dal-dhokli if someone orders for it!” Ajanta is a home-based cook and hostess with disarming charm, forthcoming with queries about how she got started doing orders for Bengali dishes for a discerning clientele in Panaji and Goa. Oh, she is very low key and although she has a menu which she sends you on request, she says she also needs 24 hours notice to do serious dishes like yakni pulao/biryani or kosha mangsho (spicy mutton curry), maach paturi, chicken dak bungalow which she enlightens has British colonial influences; I must know Bengali food has been influenced here and there courtesy British colonial history .
Remember Calcutta, Kolkatta now, was once upon a time the headquarters of the British Raj across India and S E Asia in fact for some years. What are her bestsellers? Her changing “Khai Khai” menus which she WhatsApp if you make a request lists assorted dishes: Try her steamed prawns in mustard sauce (mustard sauce is different from mustard paste, this is not the famous Bengali mustard sauce called kasaundi); another bestseller is paturi fish where she applies mustard paste to chonak pieces and steam cooks them in banana leaf; there’s also the Bengali-styled “panch meshali” which features five veggies like say pumpkin, ribbed gourd, turai, brinjal, carrot, beans, radish…with bodi (spicy sun-dried lentil nuggets) dropped in and which offer piece de resistance flavors.
All this and much more (see boxed list of menu here). An old favorite of mine is mishti doi, the famous Bengali sweet doi or curd traditionally sweetened with noton gur or palm jaggery (Ajanta keeps noton gur syrup in fridge ready to lace in whenever she makes mishti doi, it is so chillingly yumilicious). In conclusion, the next time I feel like something to cheer myself up I’m going to order maybe some yakhni pulao or kachkolar kofta or gatte ki sabji (not Bengali but Rajasthani) to savor with steamed rice…
So Ajanta is straying now and again from her time-tested Bengali repertoire and why not! Her idea of life is doing business with pleasure and who doesn’t feel rewarded when a certain recipe is cooked and presented to fill up the senses on a red letter day or even a blue letter day?!
A few last questions. How come you don’t think of doing a Bengali food restaurant, Ajanta? Well, look around at the odd Bengali restaurant scene in Goa? They open and close in double quick time. Someone opened a good restaurant but if the key person is not around all the time staffers can never do a job as creditable as the boss! The restaurant shuts down. One of the reasons she doesn’t feel like doing a restaurant is because she loves to travel and this means any restaurant she sets up will suffer from lack of consistency, so the idea hasn’t jelled with her. Either you devote a hundred percent to a job or you don’t entertain it!
Today Ajanta Burman is a most respected honorary chef and has won credit, awards, she is a Bengali food consultant with five-star properties such as the Raddision Blue, Fisherman’s Wharf; and one of the highlights of her travels, she remembers, is when she was invited to the annual Jaipur Gourmet Getaway Festival where she was one of eight internationally renowned chefs, “that was a top of the world feeling for me! I remember I made five dishes… bappa chingri, paturi, posto bodo, kosha mangsho.”
Her heady road to fame started with her winning the Kitchen Queen 2005 award at the Cidade De Goa…after that there was no looking back for her, she knew exactly down which road of life she wanted to travel and so there are no regrets; but she would like to travel more to live life happily ever after. Five years ago Ranjit Pande (Operations Head, Holiday Inn) asked if she wanted to travel? So she went to Bangalore, Hyderabad where there is now a Fisherman’s Wharf too. There was no looking back for her after that.
After having come a long way, says Ajanta, “I’d like to research the lost recipes of West and East Bengal…like say panta baath, a farming folk’s rice porridge eaten the next day.” She is also contemplating getting a formal degree in catering to learn the galaxy of terms and standards of international cuisine and catering! Hey, I teased her, she doesn’t need it. She’s got more chutzpah than many hot-house chefs I know, but have fun doing what gives you joy and pleasure.
THIS is to say after a long time I enjoyed an interesting tete-e-tete with a woman who does whatever she does including making food worth living for — proud. Hey, I’d trust Ajanta Burman with whatever I put in my mouth. It was worth catching up with her and I think for some time now I’ll skip my own native Gujarati food and learn a few Bengali dishes like my favorite doi machh, shukto (featuring bitter gourd), mishti doi, etcetera…also maybe one of these days a yakni pulao with lots of berries and nuts in it, let’s see! Thank you for the recipes Ajanta!

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