From Chhaner Payesh to mutton chops fried in an ‘ancient’ oil, and served on newspapers, Agartala, the state capital, is a magic cauldron of cuisine one could die for
by Rajat Ganguly
The smallest among the Seven Sisters of North East, often mistaken as part of Assam, a lesser known Princely State always found it challenging to exhibit its very own distinctness.
Naturally, that challenge extended to the cuisine too and all the gems the state had to offer lay confined amongst the residents and few tourists who visited.
Over the years the state became a melting pot of different cultures, ethnicity brought by people who came over to settle and was so openly welcomed by the original inhabitants and the King himself.
This thankfully added to the richness in food and variety.
Like most God fearing Indians let the start be with a reference to the Almighty. Tripura Sundari Temple the abode of Devi Tripureshwari, who blessed the state with her name, offers peda as a common prasad.
One bite, ofcourse after you have offered it to the deity, and you would experience something that your taste buds had not experienced before.
Lingers even with someone who is not known to have a sweet tooth. Religiously inclined people would say how it’s blessed by the deity herself which even an atheist would find hard to disagree.
If one travels from the state’s capital to this famous temple, few small towns would come in way and in one of them resides the next gem.
I personally survive on sweets which thankfully has not taken a toll on my health and encourages me to continue this indulgence.
Needless to say that this too is a sweet, “Channer Payesh” is the name. A close cousin of rasmalai, but the dollops are distinctly small and the sweet sauce is not super rich and heavily laden with dry fruits.
It is beyond my literary skills to explain the taste and even without heavenly intervention, unlike the peda, it would bring a smile to your face.
Exercising the freedom extended to writers, taking the liberty of dwelling on those adventures which remain in my not so powerful memory cells, I can assure you each of these had enchanted me all through my childhood with their everlasting taste and even if winds of change caught up with them over the years, enough punch remains to leave their lasting impression.
During Durga Puja, the shop would be teeming with people. The orders were shouted out at the top of customers’ voices, and only the lucky few could reach the front. Onions were the only accompaniment served with the mutton chops, but honestly, they needed none
Desserts giving way to the main course, in an inverted multi-course Dinner or luncheon. Not ‘Anton Ego’ as in the epic animated movie “Ratatouille” hence liberty taken.
One of the downtown hubs in the city is ‘Battola’, which houses a huge market, both wet and dry and also is a connecting point for vehicles plying to the southern fringes of the state.
Imported goodies from Bangladesh procured legally and not so legally also find a place, and all of these make Battola high on footfalls.
Over the years, a few eating places have cropped up catering to all the people who pass through and also stay in and around.
One particular eatery serves the most delectable pulao I ever had. It is distinctly different from Kashmiri or Afghani, or even the ones so popular in West Bengal.
It is usually served with chicken curry, but such is the might of this particular pulao that it needs no other dish to go with it and can conquer even the most critically discerning mouth.
Lastly the entrée, which is plenty in any Indian city and some distinct to that particular region. Agartala offers chops – vegie and non-veggie ones. Two shops in particular stand out: “Mantu’s” and the other one in Kasharipatti or Motorstand.
The later specialised in chops with mutton fillings. Never did I see the shop devoid of any customers, such is their pull.
During Durga Puja, the shop would be teeming with people. The orders were shouted out at the top of customers’ voices and from a distance, and only the lucky few could reach the front.
Onions were the only accompaniment served with the chops, but honestly, they needed none.
The stuff was served on newspapers, but then those were the times when people cared less about health concerns about lead poisoning. The oil used to fry the chops were invariably from a different century, but probably that was the magic secret recipe.
Taste is all that matters, and those chops had bundles of that.
Buyers forgot all differences ‑caste, creed, colour, social status, ethnicity, religion‑and all were treated as equal, queuing up for a piece of hop which could be afforded by all.
Yes, occasionally lovers had to hide, since a small town offered less anonymity and no parent wanted to hear: “Saw your son with that girl sharing a piece of chop so lovingly that it brought tears to my eyes.”
And tears definitely would roll after they came back home!
This is just a snapshot, and I have left open an entire arena and ofcourse, the more ethnic ones like Shidol and Godok and Shutki Bharta that are part of the rich heritage.
More about all that later, but let me draw the curtains this time by saying that India is united by its diversity, especially the gastronomic variety!
Photographs by Rajat Ganguly, Debraj Das, Ali Hasam Mia and Amit Chakraborty
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Rajat Ganguly is an electronic engineer and has led business development across industry verticals like manufacturing, banking and finance, healthcare, defense & Government in East India and five SAARC countries. Currently AWS as Region Lead North & East - State & Local Govt., his personal passion is writing.