January the sixth being my birthday, my daughter Ananya, a soft ware techie invited us for lunch at Mainland China, a premier restaurant in Kolkata specializing in Chinese cuisine. My wife and I along with two of my uncles [both octogenarians] and their better halves, my cousin sister and my sister –in- law and her daughter made up the team.
The restaurant is quite a groovy place and at lunch time is rather crowded. We were ushered in by smartly attired waiters to our table and on sitting down everyone sang ‘A happy birthday to you’ to me. Not that it was embarrassing but I would have appreciated a quieter welcome. The ambience was sophisticated but not stifling. And who is bothered when one is among one’s very own, the few, the very few whom one loves dispassionately.
Ananya advocated a buffet to which all of us agreed. The waiter served us chicken soup along with mou-mou, both steamed and fried. It was simply divine. Afterwards we lined up for the main buffet. There was a wide range of choice and dish in hand we helped ourselves to each item.
``Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber!
To whom the Romans pray,
A Roman's life, a Roman's arms,
Take thou in charge this day!
Baby corn in sauce, ladies fingers with mushrooms, two types of noodles, rice with shredded chicken, two preparations of chicken, fish in whitish sauce and crabs. Yes crabs; and they were the main attraction. Forgive me, I am not much of a connoisseur of Chinese delicacies and I am unable to give an exact description of the dishes, but the food was indeed delicious. Aditi, my niece, is quite at home with chopsticks and she used them with delectable élan. The rest of us used fork and spoon but when it came to the crunch we had to use our fingers. Yes your guess is right; for the crabs, especially to get at the claw-meat there was no other way. And the crabs, both the corpus and the claws were exceedingly succulent. The elder of my uncles did not try it; his dentures would not permit. Time and again we went to the long table and refilled our dishes and the conversation that flowed was congenial.
There were two ladies, both Indians, in their late fifties dressed in European style eating with chopsticks sitting immediately behind me. Nothing unusual in that but suddenly one of them felt unwell and was comforted by the other. I approached her and thought of saying ‘ete vous malad?’ mistaking them to be well versed in French. However she spoke in chaste Bengali that she was allergic to ajina moto [sodium glutamide] and the food in the restaurant had a generous sprinkling of the same. I further gathered from her that ajina moto was banned in the hotels of Europe when I politely informed her that it was in regular usage in India as an essential ingredient of Chinese cookery. Anyway her vitals were well maintained and I informed the maitre’d who had come running by then to offer her some brandy. She gulped down the drink and quickly recovered and her spirits soared.
Time slipped by as we did justice to our fare. My cousin informed me that ajina moto was indeed banned in Europe; I wasn’t all that certain though. Aditi, the sweet darling, regaled us with tales about Switzerland which she had visited last year. I was intrigued to know that the second and third piercing of her ears were a Swiss affair! Ananya later recounted her life in the information industry at Hyderabad, the pranks they play and the dressing down they receive from the project manager.
My sister–in–law Sharmila, who is Aditi’s mother, is a many splendoured lady. A product of Presidency College, Calcutta, she has an excellent academic record, and wonder of wonders, is a superb cook to boot. Her forte is ice-cream and soufflés. But the drudgery of a home-maker is taking its toll; she says she no longer makes ice-cream on her daughter’s request, on the contrary she hands over the money for ice-cream to her daughter and tells her that all the ice-creams in her repertoire are available in the City Centre. There is wisdom somewhere in this but it overshot me.
Talking of ice-creams, its time to describe what we had for desserts. There were fried crispies dipped in syrup and ice-cream. We had an over generous helping of the dessert.
We ate and ate is if there was no tomorrow, my better half making innumerable bee-lines to the ice-cream table. Talk about watching the calories; its ‘gone with the wind’.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.
It was time to say goodbye; but wait a minute. No we did not sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’. The waiter brought a cake and a tumbler with an electronic cracker to me and I had to do the honours to blow out the candle. We all shared a piece of cake before we left.
It was an experience worth the visit. Mainland China is indeed a place where good food can be had for the asking at competitive rates. And believe me the clientele there, as it appeared, are well behaved and do not flaunt their wealth and N.R.I manners if any.