Matunga. A walk in the idli clouds

When you love someone more than they love you, it can drive you a little crazy. When you love someone who doesn’t care that you do… what do you do then? What do you do when you take a leap of faith and the ground below your feet crumbles away? What do you do when you look up from your sand castle and you’re the only kid in the playground?

I go back to a time of unconditional love: breakfast with my grandparents.

Having grown up a Punjabi in Hyderabad, idli-dosa may not have been the most obvious choice for breakfast. Yet, every weekend Dada & Dadi Ma would take us to Hotel Harsha for topi dosas or Sarovar for 70mm dosas and some post-meal swan feeding. More than anything else, I remember those mornings as pure joy. But sometimes I can barely recall their faces. And on these days people like Vipul aka Sporty Baba arrive like food angels. Not so long ago he organised a walk through Matunga’s cafés and I was allowed a quick glimpse at the joy of my childhood.

I stepped out of my cab and almost stepped on to a very tiny person. She was the smallest flower seller, with the brightest smile I had ever seen. Anxious to start eating, I bought an overpriced gajra and made my way to Arya Bhavan. We began with cylindrical Brahmin Idlis (Rs. 85) and “flying saucer” Paniyaram (Rs. 80). Our waiter didn’t have the patience to explain the difference or story behind the shapes to me but I was given one version of the story by a TamBrahm couple a few weeks later. There was a time when idlis used to be cooked in bamboos – we’ve moved on to steel steamers but the cylindrical shape seems to have stuck for the Brahmin Idlis.

IMG_4954The Paniyarams, traditionally only made at home, have a more Ayurvedic heritage. I was told that when buttermilk turned sour, which according to sattvic diets causes distress in our bodies, it would be added to the idli batter for a sweet/salty evening snack.

IMG_4955Our next stop was Ramashraya a few doors down. The dish to order here is Upma (Rs. 27). Even though we had three more stops ahead of us we couldn’t resist an Onion Mysore Rava Dosa (Rs. 52) and my staple order at all Udupis, a Sada Dosa (Rs. 32). Vipul insisted on also ordering their sheera (Rs. 35) – pineapple and blackcurrant. I did not care much for the weirdly flavoured sludge but an order of sheera seemed to be going to almost every table in the house.
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We strolled through leafy colonies and coffee-tinged streets sprinkled with flowers and fruit sellers. It didn’t feel like any Bombay I had ever been to.

IMG_4903 IMG_4958 IMG_4957 Around the corner from Matunga’s famous Asthika Samaj temple is Amba Bhavan. Best coffee (Rs. 22) I’ve ever had. Just the best. After a customary stop at Mysore Concerns to buy coffee, we joined the longest queue in Matunga.

In Bombay’s dining scene, I have seen no greater equaliser than an Udupi café. And Café Madras is a perfect example of this. Cool-hunters and proper diners alike stood in a queue that snaked around the block – no reservations, no do-you-know-who-I-am, no special treatment. While in the queue I eavesdropped on taste debates of Café Madras over Café Mysore, Kamat-style sambhar over real sambhar, butter over white butter – this was my kinda crowd.

IMG_4952We ordered more food than we should have and licked our plates clean. The standout dish for me was Idli Butter Podi (Rs. 55), with an extra order of Mulga Pudi (Rs. 15). No synonym for cloud, soft, airy can do these idlis justice. A strong contender for my Last Meal…

Our final stop was at a decidedly non-Udupi shop – Gupta Chaat Centre for Chocolate Sandwiches (Rs. 50) run by six brothers from Uttar Pradesh. Would I come back? Probably not. Was it the perfect end to our walk around Matunga? Absolutely.

IMG_4959As I hailed down a cab I saw the tiny flower seller again, and not for the first time think about life occurring in circles.

I started this blog four years ago to distract myself from heartbreak. Four years of distractions later I find not much has changed. Life occurs in circles for as long as you let it I suppose. For as long as you choose distraction over dealing with things. The time seems right to stop for a while – the distractions, and this blog – while I learn how to deal with things.
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Mayur. Dialling back

Sometimes, I have to give up on my version of things. I have to accept that I can’t feel enough feeling for the story to go on. That in this life, at this exact moment, the universe needs to arrange things differently. Sometimes I have to accept defeat.

And on days like this, when I feel sorry that the world is no longer revolving around my desires, I need to dial back to a simpler time; and if that becomes difficult, then at least to a simpler place that reminds me how uncomplicated life can be if I allow it.

Mayur, in Bombay’s suburbs, is a simple place. I was introduced to this rare, if not only, Udupi restaurant in the city that also has a permit room, by my London family Laxmi and Naman. It’s where a photograph of Lord Venkateswara shares shelf space with bottles of Red Label; where a former policeman plays his collection of Bismillah Khan cassettes over lunch; and where diamond store owners come to unwind (read: drink many drinks) at the end of the day before vegetarian dinners with their wives.

IMG_5733Mayur s also where a waiter was impressed that I only wanted ice with my whisky (Rs. 350 for a single shot of Black Dog), and served me the second best chilli cheese toast (Rs. 120) in town. This one was made with Amul cheese and lashings of garlic, and has magical powers to slow life down to just the one emotion you experience as you bite into a simple piece of toast.

IMG_4824Mayur is also where I am reminded that “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” That chap Winnie the Pooh knew how to dial back.

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Mayur Restaurant & Permit Room, Gautam Apartments, Juhu Road, Santacruz (W), Mumbai – 400054, +91 (22) 2649-0654.

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Game changer. La Folie

When a young chef is promoted at a Michelin-starred restaurant in one of the leading hotels of the world, the last thing one expects them do is resign. That is exactly what happened when Sanjana Patel was asked to take charge of the chocolaterie at Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris. She says, “If I could get promoted there, then why couldn’t I start my own?” And so began the inspiration for pâtisserie La Folie which will open its doors in Bombay’s Kala Ghoda art precinct next week.

A highly skilled chocolatière, Sanjana’s resume lists the who’s who of the French pastry world – Ecole Gregoire Ferrandi, Pierre Hermé, Emmanuel Ryon and Jean-Charles Rochoux to name a few. Determined not to let trend come in the way of tradition, La Folie hopes the strength of its savoir-faire will snap Bombay out of its dessert cloud darkened by the likes of hotel pastry shops, red velvet cupcakes and endless macaron shops. In advance of its launch, Sanjana and her team of all-but-one female chefs took me on a tour of their kitchen, with plenty of stops for dessert.

IMG_5354First up is ‘Tart Folie Passion’ (Rs. 165), light-as-air, the dessert surprised me with the avalanche of flavours in each mouthful. The tartness in this seemingly simple passion fruit cream tart is beautifully balanced with the sweeter flavours of apricot. For added texture, the dessert is decorated with orange crumble-topped profiteroles. I reluctantly moved on to a Mille Feuille. La Folie’s ‘1000 Leaves’ (Rs. 245) served with figs is an honest tribute to the classic French dessert.

Sanjana rues how chocolate-mad Bombay is. I predict that her ‘100% Chocolat’ (Rs. 235), which I tasted next, will go a long way in deepening this craze. It is a decadent tower of chocolate custard, dark Venezuelan chocolate mousse and crispy praline feuilletine (thin flakes) blanketed in a dense chocolate fondant.

While working with Pierre Hermé she learnt how French pastry could survive in tropical climates. This training has come in good use as she begins operations in muggy Bombay. Not one to adapt traditional recipes for the sake of trend, Sanjana has made one innovation that will have the city’s vegetarians jumping for joy. Borrowing from the principles of molecular gastronomy, Sanjana has created several eggless desserts without compromising on taste or texture. The 100% vegetarian ‘Infinite Caramel’ (Rs. 215) is a layered wonder of milk chocolate mousse, caramel sea salt cream & a hazelnut praline crumble base.

The La Folie macaron flavours are a welcome change from the usual fare of coffee and passion fruit crowding pastry counters. The tastemaker in Sanjana comes to the fore with a macaron list ranging from blackcurrant and violet ganache, lemon grass and basil, to paan and gulkand. At Rs. 75 each, are they more expensive than any other in the city? Yes. Are they better? Most definitely. I first tasted a yuzu (Japanese lemon) macaron, followed by the caramel sea salt flavour and was left overwhelmed with their burst of pure flavours. Next up was a pop rock candy macaron oozing with childhood nostalgia, bubblegum marshmallow cream, and a strawberry jelly centre.

For smaller bites of enchantment, La Folie offers an assortment of caramel, ganache and praline chocolates (Rs. 175 for four) made from single origin Criollo beans from the same growers in Venezuela and Ecuador who sends Alain Ducasse his cocoa beans. The truffles and pralines are made by Sanjana each night, once all her chefs have gone home. “There are some secrets that I am not ready to share with anyone,” she smiles.

In addition to the desserts, petit fours, macarons and artisan chocolates, La Folie will also offer a selection of drinks that will include teas, traditional whipped hot chocolate, single-origin coffees and fruit juices.

The experience of a La Folie dessert begins from the moment you set your eyes on one. And with the exception of a cream too dense for the delicate Mille Feuille, the La Folie desserts I tasted were faultless. With not a cronut in sight La Folie makes its stand on desserts very clear. Still, as it starts finding its groove, I wonder if those prices won’t come down a bit. Then again, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise—because otherwise, I would be too tempted to start every mornings with a freshly baked croissant (Rs. 110-125) and spend my weekends devouring their Tarte Tatin (Rs. 325 and served with hand-churned Tahiti vanilla ice cream).

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IMG_5401This review was commissioned by the newspaper Mint Lounge and was first published by them on 25th January 2013. The edited version of the article can be read here.

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Filed under Bombay, Breakfast, Coffee, Dessert, French, Patisserie

B. Merwan’s mawa cake. How the Bombay cupcake survived

The year 1981 saw the release of Manmohan Desai blockbuster Naseeb. While most may remember it for Amitabh Bachchan’s cage fighting, Kim’s lip reading talent and Hema Malini’s pink boa, I will always associate the film with the beginning of a love affair with the mawa cake. The cake that travelled from the streets of Bombay, through a cake fight in a five star hotel kitchen, and hand delivered by an airline pilot to a casino in London, had to be a special one.

Mawa cakes, the soft, buttery, cardamom-infused cupcakes rolled in wax paper, have been a menu staple at Irani cafés and bakeries from the time they opened in Bombay and Poona in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A hundred years later, Bombay’s mawa cake still travels from the city’s Irani cafés to The Big Smoke and is savoured by the likes of celebrated Parsi chef Cyrus Todiwala, OBE. “The B. Merwan family bakes the best mawa cakes ever. In fact we have three mini ones in our freezer right now,” shares Todiwala.

B. Merwan & Co. recently celebrated a century of serving patrons an affordable breakfast and delicious mawa cakes; and also announced that March 2014 would be the last time this would happen.

Just as the very first Irani café in India has never been identified with any certainty, the origins of the mawa cake too are shrouded in mystery. Dan Sheffield, a lecturer at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, researched three old texts for any references to the cake: 17th-century Gujarati Zartoshtnamu (The Book of Zarathustra), Persian-language Khulāsat al-Maʼkūlāt va’l-Mashrūbāt (The Essence of Edibles and Potables), and Parsi cookbook Vividhvani published in 1903. He says of Vividhvani, “By this time Bombay Parsi cuisine had already been very anglicized. The book, which is around 1500 pages, has recipes for 57 varieties of cake ranging from coffee cake and cherry cake to things with exotic names like Cake Napoleon, Chantilly Cake, Cake Baqirkhani, etc., but still no mawa cake.

Irani cafes opened during an interesting time. On the one hand, the city’s “respectable” members still preferred to dine in private clubs or at home, and on the other, the large number of itinerant male workers flooding the city, living away from their families and home cooking, created a market for inexpensive dining. Irani cafés like Kayani, Ideal and B. Merwan sold them hundreds of cups of tea every day; and with that, mawa cakes and khari biscuits.

Almost every Irani bakery in the country claims bragging rights for its invention. However, the café most inextricably linked with mawa cakes is Grant Road’s B. Merwan.

Cyrus Todiwala is convinced that the cake was a B. Merwan brainchild: “In the early 1900s our milk was not pasteurised, neither was refrigeration available. Milk had to be boiled over and over again to stop it from going off in our heat and humidity. This boiling created an automatic mawa and by the end of the day they would have a lot of it. The Irani owner experimented with it by adding it to a cake and created one of the most significant tea time cakes Bombay has ever known.

It’s a believable story. But there are others too…

The second spate of Irani Zoroastrians that fled from the Islamic Qajar regime were mainly bakers, sweet makers and café owners. It is believed that this is when the mawa cake inspiration came to Mumbai along with a host of other Irani delicacies. Parsi food specialist Katy’s Kitchen’s Kurush Dalal is convinced that the mawa cake is an adaptation of the traditional Zoroastrians tea cake kumas. “The Irani refugees were not very educated but knew how to bake. They modified their traditional kumas with local ingredients – khoya and cardamom – to make the mawa cake,” he says.

There are still other stories that inform us of mawa cakes being just a clever twist on the homely sponge cake. When Sheriar Irani’s grandfather started Pune’s first Irani bakery, the legendary Royal Bakery, he experimented with new flavours for a sponge cake until he hit upon the perfect recipe and called it the mawa cake. “The British soldiers stationed in the cantonment came to buy my grandfather’s cakes after their daily exercise. Even today we sell almost 70 kilos of mawa cake every day. But the recipe is a secret,  whispers Irani.

Irrespective of how and who created the mawa cake, by the early 1920s, more locals than ever before were enjoying this treat from Irani bakeries. Up until now bakeries were restricted to British cantonments, but the Iranis began to serve no fuss food in a no fuss setting, bringing hitherto considered extravagances within easy reach of the public.

Even as Irani café’s and bakeries fight for survival in a culinary landscape that doesn’t have the patience for, nor an interest in languid brun-maska-chais, the mawa cake manages to hold its own on counters crowded with cronut-esque creations. Modern bakery Theobroma’s Kamal Messman spent her childhood eating B. Merwan’s mawa cakes. “That is what inspired me to make my own,” Messman shares. “I sell several mawa cakes every day even now.”

Unconfirmed reports even suggest that the trains would stop longer at the Grand Road station so that passengers could get their daily fix of mawa cake.

As Bombay became Mumbai and macaroons replace mawa cakes, the city must brace itself for the death of yet another institution. When it downs its shutters on March 31st, B. Merwan & Co. will also declare the end of an era. It isn’t often that just a whiff of something has the power to evoke a generation of memories; that a humble cake has the power to command queues for a hundred years. It isn’t often that the closure of one café would end so much living – of its owners, its bakers, its city.

It is possible that Mumbai will once again see an invention with the ability to summon such nostalgia; but until then, we must learn to live without its most famous buttery mawa cakes, loaded with cardamom and charisma of a disappearing time.

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Mawa Cake in Mint Lounge

This story was commissioned by the newspaper Mint Lounge and was first published by them on 18th January 2013. The edited version of the article can be read here.

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Filed under Bombay, Breakfast, Cafe, Cupcake, India, Indian, Parsi

Koya Bar. Living in is-ness

I left London three months ago; in as much as I could leave a city that had become part of me over the seven years I lived there. As I began to map my two weeks back, around meals and friends I would eat them with, I realised that I have spent a lot of my life going back. Back to the same cities, back to favourite restaurants, back to old lovers. It’s never the same though.

The city doesn’t change, a favourite meal still tastes good, and old lovers are just as happy to see me – but it’s never the same. I remember London as picture perfect, sans the years of lonely meals and freezing walks in the rain. I am excited about dinner with a lover, having clearly forgotten his refusal to commit any feelings. I order cocktails in my favourite bar, and then…. reality kicks in.

The truth is that today rarely matches up to my airbrushed memory of its yesterday. And yet, I spend so much time trying to recreate perfect experiences; seldom focusing instead, on what is.

On a day when London was especially bleak, I abandoned the temptation of puncturing the memory of a comfortable old favourite with its reality. Not convinced I could revisit a place without “going back”, I chose somewhere new. I walked into Koya Bar – a cosy collection of 24 low stools arranged around an open kitchen. The noodle bar almost forces you to eat in the moment, urging you to leave your baggage at the door.

I started with Otsukemono (homemade pickles), £2.90 and a delicious Kakuni (cider braised pork belly), £6.90 washed down with a chilled Kirin, £4.60. Then I waited patiently as the chef decided on the right moment to serve me Kinoko Atsu-Atsu (mushroom with walnut miso in hot broth), £11.60. The beautiful bowl arrived with hot udon noodles that are made in the traditional manner, dough kneaded by foot. “This is such a leisurely dish,” I said to myself several times as I mixed the large lump of walnut miso into the broth. After my first slurp I was lost in the dish, coming up for air only when the last mushroom had disappeared.

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Each dish is layered with complexity, but presented with such an effortless style, that you can’t help but pay attention to what is. This spirit of is-ness comes from the kitchen and its attention to detail. The dashi would not be as fresh and their umami-rich stock would not have the power to cleanse away your worries if the chefs were somewhere else in spirit.

I left inspired. Determined to not let would-ness and was-ness from taking over the is-ness of my life.

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Dhansak at Ripon Club

Nobody plays cricket in their compound anymore. My teenage sibling doesn’t know the story of the Ramayan. The bhelpuri-wallas have been kicked off the streets of Bombay. Cricket, mythology, bhelpuri – these are traditions I wish had never changed.

The Indian taxi driver’s obsession with the horn; an absence of food writing in Indian fiction; the chutney recipe at Swati Snacks – these are traditions I would like to change.

The Ripon Club, established in 1884, is one Bombay establishment rooted in tradition yet in desperate need for something to change if it is to survive this decade. I was recently invited to their famous Wednesday-Afternoon-Dhansak-Lunch. The first time I ate dhansak – a Parsi lentil and meat curry – was in the summer of 1997 in my then Parsi boyfriend’s mum’s kitchen. I didn’t love it then and haven’t cared for it much since. So while I wasn’t looking forward to the food I was definitely excited about a meal in one of the Parsi community’s most closely guarded social clubs.

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We walked into a large dining room flanked by the kitchen at one end and the Bombay Fornicator-lined library at the other end. Wednesday lunch is the most popular meal of the week and the room quickly filled up with members and other guests who had bagged an invitation.

We begIMG_4184an with a tomato soup; a recipe I only see in mum’s kitchens and India’s gymkhana clubs. It was tart, creamy, completely inappropriate for lunch on a hot day, but ordered with such love by Mrs. Host that I had to finish the entire bowl. Mr. Host’s stories about the origins of the Ripon Club helped!

 

We then made our way to the dhansak buffet, and I stood in line behind octogenarians and their walking sticks. We served ourselves mutton dhansak and its traditional accompaniments of brown rice, kachumbar (raw onion salad) and fried kababs. The mutton kababs were tiny taste bombs and I could have easily made a meal of them. The dhansak could have probably done with more cooking and the salad with more onions. The main course was followed by club favourite dessert – caramel custard. This one was fragrant with rose, and oddly delicious.

 It wasn’t the best food I have ever tasted, but I wouldn’t have missed out on that meal for the world. We were a table of nostalgics and nothing beats an afternoon in an old Bombay institution surrounded by storytellers and the kind of history they never teach you at school.  Mr. Host ended the afternoon with a tour of the club which is spread over two floors. It is heart-breaking to see a piece of history fall apart before our very eyes. One could easily mistake their upper floor for an abandoned old home, or one that had not seen any life in decades. The massive room wears a forlorn look, occupied by a dusty old billiards table, few broken chairs, and not a soul.

IMG_4316The original membership of the club was all male. A dwindling number of Parsis (and I suspect a disgruntled female population) encouraged them to change the traditional all-male membership rule to include women. Ripon Club serves a traditional funeral meal as a weekday special, but won’t open up their club to non-Parsis even though they are desperate for new membership. Time stands still at the Ripon Club, but not in a good way.

Tradition plays an important role in creating cultural and ethnic identities. But it is also natural progression for rituals to change as priorities, practices, values and economics of societies change. When a custom stops serving its purpose, isn’t it time to consider a change? When a city’s legacy is threatened, isn’t it time to allow progress to overtake tradition?

Who makes the decision?

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Calcutta. Of pujas and puchkas

Calcutta felt like a wedding. Every street dressed up in lights; everyone resplendent in their traditional best; music pouring out of every household; and food stalls at every corner. The entire city was pulsating with celebration, coming together as one, to pray at a festival dedicated to Goddess Durga.

But this is a very romantic notion of Calcutta, one that I only witnessed briefly. If I had visited during any other time I would have come in search of the Calcutta of poets and philosophers, of colonialism and character. And I would have been disappointed to find that these don’t live on its garbage ridden streets anymore. I had come to Calcutta for its famous puchkas and for the puja, and wasn’t going to let the city get in my way.

My first port of call was Aaheli. Every first time visitor to Calcutta should do themselves the favour of a delicious meal and outstanding service at this Bengali restaurant. Even though I was referred to as “single madam” by the entire service team I enjoyed my Bhuri Bhoj Thali of topsey bhaja, begun bhaja, Gobindo bhog, dal raibahadur, bhaja masala alur dum, phulkopi kadaishuti, chingri malai curry, ilish paturi, shorshe bhetki, kasha mangsho, pualo, loochi, kalojam, and doi. My favourite from this feast was the ilish – the magnificent hilsa fish cooked in a banana leaf.

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IMG_3441The next day I ate a very similar meal at Kewpies, housed in a restored bungalow. The city’s food lovers seem to be divided between the two. I, unlike the locals I consulted before my travels, am firmly in the Aaheli camp.

Calcutta is an awkward city and most interesting neighbouroods are drives away from each other. The trick was to follow each meal with a walk. So Aaheli was followed by a stroll in the city’s Esplanade area and its absurdly popular New Market; I explored Park, Camac and Russell Streets and Shakespeare Sarani after tea at Flurys; and a much-awaited Calcutta chaat evening was preceded by a walk through Rashbehari Avenue and its innumerable saree shops.

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IMG_3488It is true what they say about killing an experience with anticipation. That happened with me and Calcutta’s street food. I ate all the right things at all the right places – jhal muri on Russell Street, dahi papri chaat outside Lighthouse Cinema, puchkas at Vivekananda Park, alur dum outside Dakshinapan – but give me Bombay’s bhel, Delhi’s gol guppas, and Benarsi papri chaat any day.

It wasn’t until I was picking my way through bloody intestines and goat’s hooves that I realised Saturday – dedicated to animal sacrifices to Goddess Kali – was not the best introduction to the city’s revered Kalighat Temple. There is nothing spiritual, or religious about going to most temples in India. There are more shops than devotees, priests sell their blessings for a quick buck, and people like me treat it like a tourist destination. But when I looked past the crowds, and silenced the cacophony of temple bells, mobile phones and mantras, what I was left with was the power of utter devotion.

IMG_3482I saw more of this power at the seven Durga Puja pandals I visited that night. Each one more exquisite than the next. Preparations begin eight months in advance and each neighbourhood puja committees fights for artistic supremacy, but the majesty of their devotion is undeniable.

One of the best meals I had was at Shiraaz – a simple meal of mutton chaap and chicken rezala in a room crowded with families on plastic chairs and laminated tables, takeaway orders, and too many waiters. It was also the restaurant where I was informed by a disapproving cashier that I was their first ever single, female diner. I loved it!

IMG_3491I drove on Howrah Bridge, walked across Dalhousie Square, got drenched in Victoria Memorial Park and paid my respects at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the way to my last stop – mishti at Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy. What I thought would be a quick stop turned into a 40 minute chat with the man in charge – Pranab Nandi. Seeing how lost I was before the sweet counter teeming with sandesh in every shape and flavour, he took pity on me and I was invited to wait in their kitchen. Over limbu cha and a sandesh tasting he spoke about his love for Bombay, of Calcutta’s milk being the best in the country, and how I had the eyes of a Bengali actress.

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IMG_3577I had only three days in the city, and so I must come back. For the rolls at Nizam’s, and a proper Calcutta paan; for a tram ride and a drink at the Tollygunge Club; to visit Dakshineswar and a first chai at the Mullick Ghat flower bazaar; a sherbet at Paramount after a stroll down College Street, and an afternoon in Tangra.

I must also come back to give puchkas a second chance.

Will the second chance I give Calcutta be an honest one? Do I really believe in second chances? In life? In love? I’ve had my version of the-one-great-love. Recently, I experienced something different. Something better. But will I free this new future from comparisons with my past? Will he?

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Filed under Bengali, Calcutta, India, Indian, Street food, Travelogue