Wednesday, March 19, 2014

West Bengal

My boss Mark arrived on mon night, and I took him through a little stroll through the back streets of Calcutta.  He had never been to India, so I can imagine it was a bit eye-opening.

On Tuesday morning, we had our first pre-tour meetings for the US Consulate in Calcutta at the American Center to discuss the upcoming Next Level hip hop program in Patna and Calcutta.  We met with a number of musicians from the city involved in hip hop, and other live music. We were also joined by some OneBeat Fellows at the meeting.  We hashed out some contours of the program and collaboration, and got a sense of the Consulate's strategic goals for the program.

After the morning meeting, we were joined the Cultural Affairs Specialist Saadia and her colleague for some delicious South Indian dosa.  The paper thin lentil crepe was perfect, as was the masala potatoes stuffing with a hint of ginger.  The whole thing was dipped in coconut curry and sambar, and was an incredible treat.

After lunch, we met with a cultural NGO called Bangla Natak, who does work to promote traditional cultural arts.  We were discussing with them about partnering for some workshops.  The head of the foundation asked some very good, very valid questions about the long-term  nature of our work, and what is the effectiveness of one-off activities.

After the last meeting, we headed back to the hotel.  I tried to take a power nap, but it turned into a two hour knockout.  I woke up disoriented in the darkness, and stumbled my way down to the elevator to meet Mark for dinner.

We headed out into the busy market thoroughfare south to walk a bit and catch a cab to a traditional Bengali restaurant.  We walked for a while to get away from the hotel to get a cab, but it proved elusive to hail down a taxi. Amazing given the ubiquity of the yellow Ambassador taxis that swarm the city and are always around when not necessary. But Mark figured out the restaurant was not far, so we decided to walk in the cooling night air.

We walked about a mile to find our way to Kewpie's, a somewhat famous Bengali restaurant although I can't remember why I know the name.  We sat down in the nice restaurant with white walls and various masks and drawings, and ordered some Bengal thalis.

On a plate covered with a banana leaf, I received some rice, a puri (fry bread) and a grilled eggplant slice.  There were little bowls of daal (lentils) and small potatoes swimming in a sauce.  I poured them over the rice, as the main bowls were delivered.  I had been told of the deliciousness of the Bengal fish dishes, so I opted to try.  I received a bekhti fry- a small white fish filet fried in a brown crust, a small bowl of a yellow mustard curry fish that had been deliciously steamed in a banana leaf, and a bowl of lamb curry.  Also a small bowl of jackfruit curry.

I alternately dumped the various dishes on the banana leaf plate and ate the sumptuous mustard curry fish and the crispy fish fry,  The jackfruit was deliciously meaty, that is always a fav.  The lamb was tasty but a bit out of place with the rest of the dishes.  We also received a delicious little bowl of sweet tomato chutney to eat with the fried papad crisp.  All washed down with a fresh lime soda.  It was all pretty yum.

For dessert we received a little bowl of mishti doi, a Bengali sweet favorite of fermented curd and yogurt, with a hint of cardamom.  It has a supple yet subtle sweetness, almost like a slightly more sour custard.  There was also a small square of kalakad, a small sweet cottage cheese square that is a favorite Indian dessert.  And of course a sweet paan to aid in digestion.

And of course this got me thinking about Bengali gastrodiplomacy and paradiplomacy.  The Indian State of West Bengal could do so much to promote its culture and cuisine, which is unique from the rest of "Indian food."  Bengali cuisine is a very under-appreciated form of South Asian cuisine.  I was flipping through a little guide book about cultural tourism in West Bengal, and there was the typical logo of a nation branding effort, and some attempts to showcase the culture.  But an active Indian state like West Bengal could do an amazing amount of paradiplomacy to show off its unique cuisine and culture.

Perhaps an op-ed coming to the Calcutta Telegraph....

Anywho, Mark and I meandered our way back for a constitutional on the return.  We watched barefoot kids play street soccer with bricks as goals.  

Along the way, we noticed a little board with four gentleman playing a game under a light bulb.  As I got close, they invited me to come play.  It was like a game of finger flick pool, only with four players and four corners.  Each person got to line up the big white marker and flick it at his small round checkers.

I can't say I was very good.  In fact, I was awful, and didn't get a single one in.  But it didn't matter, because the fellows got a huge kick out of the gora who joined them for a round.

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