Aaheli: Traditional Bengali Food in Kolkata

I had left Kolkata when I was 17, and for about a decade I was in Banaras, Jamshedpur, and Bangalore during my student life and for my initial work years. While I got exposed to some delectable cuisines of Bihar, Eastern UP and Karnataka, I used to miss home food as well as the larger Bengali cuisine. So, on my transfer to Kolkata in the late eighties, I was happy and eager to explore Bengali food in the city.

My office used to be on Camac Street and except for a few small but popular Bhaat-er  (rice) hotels or pice hotels, there were not many places which served traditional Bengali food. One of our popular destinations used to be Suruchi in Eliott Road which was run by ladies from a self-help group and served decent Indian food. However, the lack of a fine dining restaurant for pure-play Bengali food was still an issue before Aaheli opened at The Peerless Inn, bang on Esplanade in 1993. I had visited the restaurant in its initial days and used to love the way they brought home food as well as dishes for special occasions to the restaurant table. Though I relocated to Hyderabad a couple of years later, I never used to miss a chance of visiting this place on my trips to Kolkata. There was an exceptional situation when I was staying for a corporate training course at The Oberoi Grand next door, but I ditched the lunch there and ambled across to Aaheli for all four days. However, after 2009 as my mother relocated to Hyderabad to stay with me, my trips to Kolkata became sporadic and somehow I could not make time to revisit this restaurant.

Finally, during my trip to Kolkata last month, an opportunity came my way.  I had met the management of the hotel in Hyderabad, and they had extended an invitation to me to visit them during my trip to Kolkata. So on the appointed afternoon, I landed up here on the first floor of The Peerless Inn at Esplanade to sample the latest fare at Aaheli.

I found that the restaurant has completely changed its ambience in the last decade to a much more elegant look. The d├ęcor is ethnic with nice paintings of life in rural Bengal. The table has cane table mats and all the items are served in kansha (bell metal) utensils. The napkin cloth sports the famous batik art of Bengal.  As I had a look at the menu, names like Chatokdari Jalpari, Pulao Rajnandini and Dhumrogondhi Ilish talked about a menu extremely tastefully designed. “Sheetal Parash” was a perfect part of the menu to calm ourselves down from the heat outside. We relaxed with a Gandharaj Ghol (a chaas flavoured by the special lemon from Bengal) and Aam Porar Sarbat (a drink from roasted green mango).

Rui Macher Patisapta

Rui Macher Patisapta has become one of the signature dishes of Aaheli over the last few years.  Patisapta is a Bengali delicacy, a pancake usually stuffed with a sweet filling. Here, the filling was savoury, minced Rohu fish cooked in ghee with some spices and coriander leaves. The very well balanced taste of the filling makes it a must order dish here.

Many of the items on the menu looked extremely inviting and I was at a loss for what not to order.  The Chef came to my rescue saying that he will present a customized thala with his favourite delicacies. Soon, a huge thali with more than fifteen dishes was served to me. This was an exotic spread with many tracks. Luchi was served with Chholar dal and long Begun Bhaja (fried aubergines). Goyna Bori is a delicacy which you usually do not find in most Bengali restaurants, sun-dried lentil paste given the unique shape of an ornament and fried. This is a delicacy of Midnapur district.

Begun Basanti (Top) and Mourala Macher Bora

For us, the tastiest dishes from the thala was Tel Koi-er Hoi Choi (a special whole fish cooked in an oily gravy), Borishali Ilish (a mustard based Hilsa curry from Barisal district of Bangladesh) and  Chirontoni Chitol Macher Muitha  (a traditional preparation from boneless Chital fish). Among the vegetarian preparations Begun Basanti (an aubergine dish) and Bhapa Chhanar Utsab (chhana cooked in a very subtle gravy) made their mark. Apart from these, I also tried their Goalanda Purer Mangsho and Chingri Ramta.  Unfortunately, my average appetite did not allow me to taste few of the dishes, but all that I could manage tasted very traditional and delicate. We ended our humongous and tasty meal with some high-quality Mishti Doi and a unique sweet named Sarer Naru.

Tel Koi (Top), Barisali Ilish (middle) and Chingri Ramta

Aaheli has four types of complete meals (bhoj) on their menu. The completely vegetarian Aahelir Mahotsab costs Rs 1425. Then there are Bhoj, Rajbhoj, and Bhuribhoj with two to five non-vegetarian selections. The pricing for the non-vegetarian feasts ranges from Rs 1700 to Rs 2200. Of course, apart from these, there is a long list of traditional Bengali dishes which can be ordered on an a-la-carte basis.

A visit to Aaheli provides a comprehensive exposure to the Bengali cuisine. They also have food festivals from time to time focusing on particular aspects of Bengali food, such as Ilish-e-Guri (festival of Hilsa fish), Boroniyo Manusher Swaraniyo Khabar (dishes from the kitchens of respected celebrities) and Zilla Parikrama (a roundup of district food). There is a boom of Bengali restaurants in Kolkata now, but Aaheli surely deserves its place of leadership as a pioneer in bringing traditional Bengali dishes to the forefront.

The Peerless Inn
12, Jawaharlal Nehru Road
Telephone 98317 80403

Disclaimer: The review is based on an invite from the restaurant.

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