Category Archives: Bengali

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?

-p

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

Kolapata. Making peace with Bangladesh

Recent events have caused me to take stock of my life’s contents. Family (still mildly insane); cookbook collection (Amazon share prices on the up); Maggi Noodles (Ma will have to replenish stocks); and friends (97% foodaholics).

One such friend has wanted to introduce me to the “best Bangla restaurant in London” for ages. I finally agreed when he promised me it wasn’t on Brick Lane. And so on a particularly dreary Friday, we played hooky and made our way to Whitechapel in east London. We arrived only to discover that every kitchen was closed until namaz ended at 2pm. (This was clearly a much better plan in our heads.)

We spent the hour walking up and down a street of endless money exchanges, bras for £1.50, and sweet shops that wouldn’t serve us. When we finally saw crowds leave the East London Mosque, we began to make our way to Kolapata.

JhalmuriJust outside the mosque, flashing me a very toothy grin, was a tiny man making jhalmuri. Sheikh Bhai is a Bombaywallah who moved to Bangladesh in 1993 after the riots. My half-Bengali friend and I found it unbelievable that an Indian Muslim felt safer in Bangladesh than in his own country! Bangladesh gave Sheikh Bhai a safe home and the perfect jhalmuri recipe. My half-Bengali friend said it was as good as the muri he had on the streets of Calcutta. At £1 for a large cup, this was the best start to our several hours of eating.

Kolapata is where Bangaldeshi film maker Mostofa Sarwar Farooki goes to eat when he visits London. It’s where my friend’s mum said she had the best elish in town. It is also the only restaurant that will get my postcode snob companion to take three trains to a meal. We took all these as positive signs and ordered.

BorhaniThe Bangladeshi Borhani (£1) is far superior to anything from the lassi family I have ever tasted. Shafiq, who was serving us, made me a glass himself, with half milk-half yoghurt, mint, coriander, black salt, cumin, green chillies, and sugar.

Next arrived some unremarkable foscas (£2.95) followed by the rest of the meal. I was most looking forward to Shoirsha Elish (£5.50) – the national fish of Bangladesh. Even though Shafiq told me that the fish had arrived frozen, from his country’s Jamuna river, it tasted fresh, was soft, flaky, and so delicious. The mustard sauce it was prepared in was sweeter than I was expecting. Next time I will remember to ask for it spicy. The Bagun Bhaji (aubergine, £3.50) and Sag Bhaji (spinach, £2.95) are prepared in very little oil and a bare minimum of spices. I could taste the delicate flavours of the actual vegetable instead of packet masalas that usually assault one’s palate in such restaurants.

Bhaji ElishI strayed from the Kolapata Chef Special list of dishes and ordered a haleem (£3.75). Don’t.

KaalojaamOn our walk back to the train station we made an essential detour to the Moubon sweet shop. The original object of our affection (kheer kodom), was unavailable and we settled for a box of kaalojaam (£1.50 for two juicy pieces).

The incredulous story of a jhalmuri maker, a gentle request by a chef to come back for lamb chops, a drink that rocked my world… and I finally made my peace with Bangladesh.

I let my heart do all the eating. Now to let it guide all my other relationships…

-p

Kolapata on Urbanspoon

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Filed under Bangladesh, Bengali, Dessert, Fish, London, Open kitchen, Street food

Bengal in Bandra. A food walk

I grew up in Hyderabad but all my meals came out of a Punjabi kitchen. The few exceptions were Sunday morning breakfasts of dosa at Hotel Harsha, sweet corn chicken soup at Hi-King, post-swim sandwiches at Hotel Banjara, and Maggi Noodles. I had such a Punjabi palate that meals at Mamma’s Bombay Sindhi kitchen were just painful. (You still can’t get me to eat sai bhaaji or sindhi curry.)

Kaali daal, sarson da saag and mountains of paneer aside, I was raised with a timid palate. It wasn’t until several years later when I had my first Hyderabadi biryani in Bombay that I realised what a food wonderland I had left behind. And it wasn’t until I left India that I really appreciated what a fantastic food heritage I came from. Now when I go back home I would rather eat Maggi Noodles than at the latest “Continental” restaurant.

Last week I hit the jackpot. One of India’s favourite food bloggers (and an excellent chef), Kalyan Karmakar was hosting a Bengal in Bandra food walk and I managed to bag a last minute spot.

The sweltering evening began with Kalyan introducing the spirit of the walk. He was going to guide us through some of his favourite Bengali dishes available in Bombay, and share stories about where they came from, how he would eat them back in Bengal, and the compromises he makes in his new home. (No there were no puchkas in our luck as Kalyan assured us we would not find even remotely authentic ones outside Calcutta.) He couldn’t have had a more ravenous dozen hanging on to his every word.

We began at Hangla’s (which is Bong slang for “greedy for food”); a street stall on Bandra’s throbbing Turner Road with chefs from Calcutta handpicked by the owner. We ate egg and mutton rolls (my favourite), fish chops (delicious with kasundi (mustard chutney)), veg cutlets, and Calcutta biryani. Our group had a healthy mix of Frankie-loving Bombayites and kathi roll enthusiasts and Kalyan played a (very) biased referee while explaining the differences between the two.

As we made our way through a bustling Bandra to the next stop, Kalyan regaled us with Bong food stories and tips – about not using ketchup except in egg rolls; about how the Brits caused the biryani to travel from Awadh to Calcutta (losing some meat and gaining eggs and potatoes on the way); and how dessert isn’t strictly a post-meal indulgence.

In true Bengali style, we next marched into Sweet Bengal between our appetisers and mains. Until today I had never ventured beyond Bengali classics sondesh, rossogolla and mishti doi. Kalyan’s picks were a revelation! My favourite was kheer kodom – a juicy rossogulla enveloped by delicious khoya. I paid little attention to the pantua vs. gulab jamun debate as was completely distracted by the kalo jaam, dorbesh, gurer sandesh and excellent kachoris.

Kheer Kodom

Not being trained to eat sweets whenever it suits our fancy, the non Bengalis in the group struggled to keep up with the rest. We moved on to the third stop, hoping that the walk will help make room for the final dot on our food map tonight.

Bong Bong is bijou. We were greeted by the owner Surjopriya who explained that her restaurant served food the way she cooks Bengali food today. Read: not traditional.

Panch Phoran Potatoes

Kalyan’s chose a menu that included panch phoran potatoes (their version has yoghurt. I was told Bombay is mad for these but they weren’t to my taste at all), fried fish, prawn malai curry (excellent), mustard fish (strictly OK), Calcutta version of Anglo Indian pork vindaloo (I prefer the Goan version), lachha parathas and mango pudding. The vegetarian on my table was less than happy with her veggie alternatives.

Kalyan’s food walk is so much greater than the sum of its parts, and totally worth the Rs. 2,000 (£24) I paid. His stories infused so much local flavour into the menus, I met fantastic people I would have never come across otherwise, and I now know that the Malai Sandwich is as Bengali as Chicken Tikka Masala is Indian! Kalyan sent us off with bursting tummies, and a goody bag full of Calcutta snacks mukhorochok dalmut and jhalmuri.

Bong Bong was my least favourite stop of the day. Not because their food doesn’t taste good to most, but because I am old fashioned about Indian food. I have been on either side of the immigrant debate and I understand why people feel the need to modernise tradition. This is more than my memories being frozen in time – it’s about preventing a day when I won’t discover a kheer kodom because nobody remembers how to make it; about not wanting my children to grow up thinking tofu-almond butter-masala is traditional Indian food; about wanting to preserve my heritage before it disappears completely.

It’s about genuinely being worried that I can’t know where I will end up, if I don’t protect where I came from.
-p

Read Kalyan’s blog on the walk here.

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Filed under Bengali, Bombay, Foodie adventures, Indian, Small Plates, Street food