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Watch what you eat

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on November 02, 2018

Fishy tunes: In her Bengali matriarch avatar, Sawan Dutta doles out recipes as songs on her video log, or vlog, The Metronome

Why thumb through a recipe book when an instructive video can cook it in front of you

A pair of hands is the only human ‘touch’ on YouTube channel Bong Eats’ videos. These well-groomed hands speak more than a host ever could. Carefully carrying out the written instructions on the screen, the hands — a woman’s — move deftly as traditional music plays in the background. The recipes are largely from Bengali cuisine, but the hands cooking them have none of the adornments typical of that region: there are no bangles of conch, iron, coral and gold.

 

 

Showcasing the food of Kolkata, the channel is particular about getting the recipes exactly right. So instead of saying sugar or salt “to taste”, the exact measurements are given, so you can replicate the dish to a T. How to measure out 7g of salt in a layman’s kitchen may be a valid question, but Bong Eats will have it no other way.

The chholar (chana) dal has the right amount of coconut pieces and kishmish (raisin) fried in ghee for garnishing. The egg torka (the Bengali reinvention of the north Indian dish featuring egg ribbons in whole moong dal) gets a detailed rendition on the channel, which is dedicated to the probaashi Bangali — the Bengali diaspora — which takes its food and cultural nostalgia very seriously.

Home again: Showcasing the food of Kolkata, Bong Eats with its precise recipes is a hit with the Bengali diaspora

 

They are not the only ones hooked to the food of their region -- or of a kind. Flip a channel on YouTube and you will find yourself in the earthy kitchen of Sanjay Thumma aka Vah Chef, a former restaurateur from Chicago. He appears in a mundu that has climbed dangerously up one leg, and he’s armed with a pot of toddy. He’s teaching his audience how to make toddy chicken (there is a disclaimer at the beginning which says the video is meant only for adults with “stupid humour”). As Vah Chef cooks, he gets progressively drunk, in competition with the chicken he’s stewing. He claims his chicken was begging for more toddy, so he tips some into the dish and some into his mouth, and keeps at it until he runs out of toddy. He credits the recipe to... who else but... a toddy tapper.

 

Happy go lucky: His quirky style has earned Vah Chef’s YouTube channel over a million followers   -  CV SUBRAHMANYAM/THE HINDU

 

Would you rather sing for your supper? Go over to The Metronome, a vlog (video blog) where 48-year-old Mumbai-based video producer and director Sawan Dutta dresses up as the proverbial Bengali matriarch — cotton saree, big bindi, exaggerated accent and disapproval in place — and croons about the perfect way to cook kosha mangsho (dry mutton curry). “Heat the oil in pressure cooker, did I hear a scream? Kosha mangsho in pressure cooker, never not even in dream!” she sings.

In another video, this one on fish curry, she belts out, perched at a piano: “Today our goal is to make maachher jhol. Good for the tummy and good for my soul… maachher jhol!”

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From Tarla Dalal’s much-thumbed recipe books from the ’70s to Sanjeev Kapoor’s hit cookery TV show Khaana Khazana in the ’90s, and the host of online videos today, the guide to Indian cooking has nimbly kept pace with changing times and technology.

The internet is a cornucopia of cookery wisdom dished out by everyone from home chefs to professional cooks and food archivists. Even Kapoor’s cult show has migrated smoothly to the digital medium, with his YouTube channel boasting over 3 million subscribers. The late Dalal, likewise, has 6 million subscribers for her channel.

The Web doesn’t discriminate: the ability to put up an engaging show is more than enough. Along the way, many unknown faces have become household names and the go-to for thousands of wannabe-cooks. And from the variety on offer, it is obvious that there isn’t any one recipe for success either.

Over the phone, Dutta attempts to explain the popularity of her vlog, “As far as I know, there is no one else making songs out of recipes anywhere else. Which is what motivated me to create my first recipe song, maacher jhol,” she says. “What music — combined with my songwriting — does is help create an easy-to-recall format for the recipes.”

Despite the effort involved, only a few of the online cooks are full-time food show hosts. Bong Eats, for instance, is run by Saptarshi Chakraborty and Insiya Poonawalla, who live and work in the United States, and upload a video every week. “At Bong Eats we document the food of Kolkata. We cook traditional Bengali recipes prepared in home kitchens, as well as some of the most beloved dishes found in the myriad streets, cabins, and restaurants in the city,” says the channel’s “about us” section. It has faithfully reproduced the beloved Iranian chelo kebab served at Kolkata eatery Peter Cat (providing vital tips such as adding saffron, a key ingredient, only after crushing it and mixing it with milk, rather than dropping it in whole, as this enhances the flavour).

What’s not to like: Youngsters living on their own are attracted to Nisha Madhulika’s clear instructions

 

Alongside the street-style Kolkata chilli chicken and momos, and classics such as shorshe ilish (mustard fish), chingri malai curry (prawn in coconut milk) and mishti doi (sweet curd), the channel also makes space for a range of comfort food that’s “eaten in the privacy of our families”.

Some of their popular videos such as kosha mangsho and Calcutta egg roll have over a million views each.

Equally popular is YouTuber Nisha Madhulika. “...(she) makes vegetarian Indian recipes that are easy to cook and good to eat,” reads the no-nonsense bio of the the food show host. Her straightforward approach and clear instructions are a hit, especially with young people living on their own and cooking for the first time in their life, as is evident from the comments section. Her dishes are prepared with everyday ingredients.

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In an age of hugely popular flash cooking videos, where an entire recipe is shown in less than 30 seconds, YouTube’s longer format may seem outdated to some. But Dutta believes the long format allows the food videos to be creative, going beyond just the recipe. Her The Metronome, in fact, had started out as a music vlog . “I started it as a means of having fun with music and songwriting outside my professional work. The idea was to create a sort of musical diary where I record a variety of experiences through original songs. The experience has been fabulous — beyond anything I’d imagined... for an independent solo musician, without any kind of industry support, or PR budgets, to be able to carve out a global audience of this magnitude,” she says.

Thumma set up his YouTube channel in 2007 and became an instant viral sensation after he recorded his first video in a Chicago studio. His wife Rekha, too, is a chef and handles the channel’s production work, while he takes care of the recipes. Enormously popular with Indians living abroad, Thumma’s channel has over a million followers.

Alongside the soaring fame, these online cookery stars have also encountered their fair share of controversy. Recently, a Fortune oil ad featuring Dutta ran into trouble for showing non-vegetarian food cooked during Navratra/Durga Puja. Similarly, Bong Eats was the target of online hate for showing an egg roll recipe during the festival season.

Nevertheless, in a country where food is policed as vigorously as any other aspect of culture, the duo stuck to their guns and defended their right to upload any recipe. In an increasingly homogenised and globalised world, you need look no further than online to find your tribe, and cherish the shared quirks and habits. And when served with a delicious dish on the side, it makes for a good repast indeed.

Published on November 02, 2018

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