People looking for something to do with their retirement often buy a caravan, learn Spanish or rediscover the joys of ballroom dancing. Anna Kochan went to Kolkata to teach street children… and came back with a cookbook.
Not that this was ever the plan: “I find cricket commentary soothing when I can’t sleep,” she tells me, “and one morning, instead of the Test Match, I woke up in the middle of a documentary about Future Hope, a charity working with some of Kolkata’s poorest children – and I was hooked.”
So off she went, this middle-aged technical journalist from London – intending to help these street children with their reading, but her love of cooking soon got the better of her. Volunteers were encouraged to eat supper in the charity’s residential home, and Anna ended up preparing food with the house parents, and then managed to invite herself into the school kitchens, too. “There was this group of women at the side of the hall in brightly coloured saris, surrounded by piles of cabbages, and I wanted to know what was going on.”
She wasn’t all that helpful in this Kolkata kitchen. “They used a thing like a sickle even on tiny cloves of garlic,” she says. “My fingers! So I stuck to shelling eggs and peas, and stirring. I did a lot of stirring.”
Undaunted, however, and inspired by the feasts these local ladies cooked up from very little, she decided to put together a book of their recipes instead, to raise money for Future Hope. Though the ingredients were humble, with meat and fish playing second fiddle to local vegetables, and puddings only a very occasional treat, the flavours knocked her socks off. “I’d eaten quite a lot of vegetarian Indian food in my time, but this was different.”
Tim Grandage, the former banker who set up the charity in 1987, explains that in the early days, catering was a struggle. “The children were used to eating huge piles of white rice with very watery dal, because that’s all they could afford, and they wanted to fill their tummies. Our challenge was to gradually reduce the amount of rice and make it more nutritious.”
Rice and Spice: A Bengali Food Adventure contains recipes from children, house parents, teachers, alumni and, of course, those dinner ladies. There’s the spiced potatoes one young boy, Sanjib, likes to make for his friends in the Ballygunge Boys’ Home, and a crunchy chickpea salad beloved of the Future Hope cookery club. It’s a fascinating collection of the region’s everyday cookery, and the food is quite different from what passes for “Indian” in the UK – authentic Bengali means “lots of potato, and a sprinkling of turmeric and sugar in everything”.
There are indeed a good number of potato recipes here, and innumerable clever ways with lowly veg such as cabbage and cauliflower, as well as the more familiar fried breads, biryani and sweets. Anna also includes curiosities such as the cucumber and coriander sandwiches her Kolkata landlady served at bridge parties, crispy potatoes from the city’s Jewish merchant community, and the no-bake chocolate biscuit balls she taught the very smallest pupils to make.
Future Hope has helped thousands of vulnerable children on their way to being healthy, happy members of mainstream society. It’s done it through education, but also through simpler things such as a safe place to sleep and, of course, good food to eat. Never underestimate the cheering power of a pakora.
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over