BENNINGTON — “Heartwarming.”
In a word, that’s how chef Shanta Ghosh describes her homey culinary style, one the region has embraced for everything from catered events to meals for one.
Her journey as a chef started almost 22 years ago with supplying home-cooked, authentic Indian meals in Bennington, which became so popular that she established her own Indian food-takeout business Corner of India in 2005.
Today, when Ghosh looks back, she said she has received a positive response from the community, which has been “open to trying new things.”
Ghosh’s relationship with food is a long one, predating her coming to Vermont. Hailing from a small hamlet in India’s West Bengal, she remembers as a child feasting on roadside delicacies like samosas (fried flour pockets containing cooked vegetables), aloo chop (spiced potato patty coated and fried) and sweets like laddoos, jalebis and gulab jamuns.
With both traditional dishes like samosas and chicken curry, and innovative fusion items like lamb vindaloo and salmon curry, Corner of India’s dishes reflect Ghosh’s own multicultural life — a potpourri of flavors that celebrate India, America and everything in between.
But at heart, and at her home with spicy traditional cooking, Ghosh dons the cap of a nurturer, a mom. Vermont News & Media caught up with Ghosh for a candid chat about her cooking, myths about Indian food, her journey as a chef in Vermont, her experiences during the pandemic and more. Excerpts from that conversation follow ...
Q:: Can you share one of your earliest memories of food or cooking?
A: I have a vivid memory of having a picnic with my friends when I was 4 or 5 on the rooftop of my house in Jamshedpur. We made cabbage curry, rice and rice pudding. I also remember helping my mother cook for the family and farm workers, grinding spices on the sil nora (grinding stones), peeling garlic and ginger and picking vegetables from the garden.
Q: And what were your favorite dishes as a child?
A: Singara, aloo chop, postu, macher jhal, panta bhat [and] kosha mangsho.
Q: Tell us a little about the origins of your business.
A: I started Corner of India in the early 2000s. I began catering for a local business group that was very interested in authentic, home-cooked, Indian food. After that I began selling food at the local farmers’ market. I have many family members and my children who inspired me to start the business. Around 2005, I stopped catering and worked with local businesses for a few years to sell my food. Thanks to a friend’s suggestion to post my menu to Front Porch, a local community group, I restarted the Corner of India in 2019 with to-go orders from my home.
Q: Did you face any challenges when you came and settled in Bennington? What are your thoughts on the melding of Indian and Vermont cultures?
A: Some of the biggest challenges I faced early on were high expenses as a vendor at local markets, building reliable, long-term partnerships, and misunderstandings about Indian food. It’s not all spicy! The challenges made me stronger and helped me grow the business differently.
I was lucky to come to Vermont with some of my brothers, so we were able to keep some of our home traditions alive as we learned new ones. It took time to acclimate and adapt to a new culture in Vermont, but I love it here now. Over the years, there seems to be more of a desire from the community to learn more about my culture and the history of the food I cook. I’m grateful and excited that people here are open to trying new things and supporting local businesses.
Q: You are from Nayabasat, a small hamlet in the state of West Bengal in India. How have Bengali cooking traditions influenced your own cooking style? Are there any places there that stand out in your mind?
A: I come from a big family, and we are very close. We all cook our traditional Bengali food and have regularly done family dinners with our children. My siblings and kids have always encouraged me to cook in a traditional style. I love spicy food and enjoy adding spice to my recipes.
I have many memories of the small, family-owned shops at the local market in my village. As a kid, we would stop there on the way to school or for puja (a religious observance) to get home-cooked snacks, like warm samosas, aloo chop and chai or different sweets, laddoos, jalebis [and] gulab jamun.
Q: Do you travel to India to visit?
A: Yes, I do, though not as often as I wish I could. Our last trip was in 2018. My children, nieces, nephews, two of my brothers and sisters-in-law attended this trip all together. I have gone back home to visit my other two brothers, my two sisters, cousins, friends, teachers, as well as my extended family in different areas. Visiting with family and friends is a big part of our time spent there. In addition, I do shopping and of course make stops to eat some street food such as masala muri, pani poori, dosa and hot jalebi.
Q: Among the expansive menu items of Corner of India, what are the most popular dishes that your customers keep coming back for?
A: Salmon with Indian spices, lamb vindaloo, chicken curry.
Q: What are some of your fusion or Vermont-Indian mashups?
A: I enjoy exploring other types of cuisine and cooking new recipes. I often like to add new ingredients to recipes I have made before when I am cooking for myself or my family. I love using local maple syrup in many of my dishes, such as chai, salmon, rice pudding and barbecue sauce.
Q: When home for your family, what do you make most often for them?
A: Daal, torkari, dim bhaja, alu bhate [and] begun pora.
Q: How about the most interesting ingredient in your kitchen right now?
A: Methi powder. This is a spice I use in a lot of my recipes. It’s a bitter flavor that enhances and compliments others flavors well.
Q: How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect you and your business?
A: My family and I were fortunate to stay healthy during the pandemic and business actually grew quite a bit. With folks unable to dine out at restaurants, takeout orders were very popular. Word spread quickly with the help of Front Porch, Facebook and word of mouth from happy customers.
Q: As the world tries to make a return to hopeful normalcy, are you witnessing a surge of catering orders?
A: I haven’t seen a steady surge in orders, but am grateful for my regular customers. As news about Corner of India continues to spread, more opportunities are arising to partner with businesses. Fridays and Sundays from June to September, I will be selling my food at the Bennington Museum for the second year, in addition to movie nights at Park McCullough from June to July. I will also be returning to the Vermont Art Exchange for their 25th anniversary art show on June 18th.
Q: What is the one, simple dish that is closest to your heart? If you would like, please share the recipe with our readers.
A: Macher jhal (see attached or visit this story online).