Oh !Calcutta... you are truly the City of Joy
I have been to Kolkatta before but it was during this trip this summer that my sister ( and foodie partner) decided to walk down the famous and much talked about food haunts. Also known for it's street food I wanted to indulge in its culinary jewels available to many , as not only Kolkata can surprise and delight many when it comes to its formal cuisine but its street food is very much part of its rich culture .
We met our food guide, Ramanuj from Calcutta Walks at the Oberoi Grand , which in itself is an iconic landmark in Kolkatta and is known as the Grande Dame of Chowringhee since the mid 1800's.
Views of Kolkatta; Victoria Memorial, the Oberoi Grand Hotel and the Howrah Bridge hanging over the Hoogli River, Park Street, Flurys, Tollygunge Club, Dimsums at Flavours of China, Writers Building, Kathis at Kusums...
Our foodie guide, Ramanujan, led us through the bustling streets behind the Oberoi Grand Hotel in New Market we came upon a small restaurant called Anadi Cabin. Pronounced as ‘Kabeen’, the Cabins are a legacy of the British Raj in India. Named after the plywood partitioned curtained cabins which are non-existent now and were essential for a highly conservative society and were meant for women to be able to eat out in peace with their families. There are a few left now in Kolkatta, serving up fried dishes to satiate passers-by and often office goers who stop by in the evenings to have a snack.
Why did they become so popular? I can guess it was purely due to the taste and the high-fat content of the food that would provide energy after a long day. Generally, Bengalis eat a late dinner so this would get them through after lunch. What Irani Cafes are to Mumbai, Cabins are to Kolkatta. (That's food for another blog post). Cabins have played a very significant role in the development of the culinary scene here but are now dwindling in numbers.
Anadi Cabin is legendary in the Esplanade area of Kolkatta. It celebrates 100 years of operation this year and while I was at the Cabin, I had the privilege to meet its owner who, rightly so proudly announced this ...though very humbly. A few steps away from the Oberoi Grand, it is known for its Duck filled Mughlai Parantha. If you cannot eat Duck egg then they serve Hen Egg Mughlai Paranthas too. It is known for introducing this dish to the gourmands of Kolkatta. This is a very flaky, soft and delicious stuffed flat bread, enough to provide energy and carbs for 2 days!
Serving an age-old menu, like the Kobiraji or Kabiraji (In Bengali – Coverage)which is fish cutlets with a covering of egg wafers and Mutton or Chicken Kasha which is a rich stew or Just Plain Omelettes, toast and tea.
Service is still on porcelain plates and cutlery(very unlike the Punjabi dhabhas serving in steel ware)
There is always a dash of Kasundi or local mustard and some salad served on the side.
Mutton Gasha or stew and the crispy Fish Kabiraji
a potato accompaniment
After tucking these delights, we made our way to another page in history, Nizams. I have to admit, this name has been ringing in my ears ever since I was little since it’s my mother’s and much of any Indian's favourite Kathi Roll. I was standing outside and couldn’t help thinking that this was it – where the Kathi roll seems to have been born during the 1930s. As a story goes, the British patrons did not want to eat Kebabs with their hands and someone decided to wrap the meat in a crisp and flaky parantha covered with paper. The meat was grilled on metal skewers which gave way to bamboo ones, thus giving its name – Kati or Kathi which means stick in Bengali.
Such is the confidence of the cooks there, they invite you to see how the rolls are prepared. A special mention to Mohamed Ibrar and Mohamed Sohrab for chatting away and graciously inviting me to their kitchens to see how the most famous kathi is prepared.
As some Indians love their vegetarian meals, they don't disappoint. Vegetarian Kathi Rolls prepared of Paneer (cottage cheese) or potato with or without egg apart from the chicken and mutton rolls with double the amount too called a double chicken double egg are recommended to try. Prices ranging from Rs. 55-165 depending upon the ingredients, though the specials remain the chicken and mutton rolls. If you are feeling a lot more hungry then don't just grab a roll, an assortment of tandoori kebabs are also served at the restaurant.
The age-old Kathi, still going strong as the top street food in Kolkata .., not overrated at all...delicious, juicy, and just as it would have been half a century ago.
Crossing across the crowded market area through back to back cartloads of fruit and other street vendors, we went inside the covered portion of the market, to visit Nahoums a bakery that has stood the test of time and while many new age bakeries have sprouted in the city, this one has remained the same since its inception in 1902. Though the restaurant was established in 1916, its founder, Nahoum Israel Mordecai would sell his treats door-to-door, until it captured the attention of colonial rulers. Kolkatta's obsession with sweets or mishti can be seen with the survival of the bakery to this day.
The Old fashioned glass displays with its famous puffs, macaroons, croquets and fruitcakes, the wooden ceiling and teakwood furniture , all are standing the test of time of over a century.. Think of all the deserts and snacks that would be available 50 years ago or more and Nahoum still sells these. Snake- like ques would be the norm here for its fruit cakes at Christmas.
As we left New market, at the corner of the street is a very small sandwich shop, Maa Kali Stores, that sells a few small knickknacks where Kolkatta serves its sandwiches...Move over Mumbai, you have competition from the Kolkatta sandwich. This shop has over 40 kinds of sandwiches. All the ingredients are displayed, some already cut, not unhygienic at all, as they have a fast turnover. He has a small griller ...and he builds his sandwiches on a mini counter. He prepared a chicken tikka, carrot, cucumber, capsicum, potato, onion and tomato sandwich and sprinkled his masala...At first, I was a bit wary of the taste that would come out but as we took our first bite, we knew this was special.
Grilled Sandwiches on the go are very popular in Kolkatta today ...made in a few minutes .
We tried the chicken bharta, a very well made curry of finely sliced chicken, with a plain roti ..whilst catching a glimpse of neat samosas being rolled and prepared by very seasoned hands. Must haves are the aloo paranthas or deep fried stuffed potato flatbreads, samosas and chai.
From boiled eggs to local seasonal fruits -Kolkatta streets are abundant with different foods that are pocket friendly making it a part of the daily routine for passers-by.
Russels Punjabi Dhaba, as it is called now due to its location on the crossing of Russell Street(now Anadi lal Poddar Sarani Street) and Middleton street in Chowranghee. Originally it was called the Bharat Hindu Hotel .
A bit congested, this is a small eatery on the road with tons of cars parked in front of it. Rows of chai kulhars or eathern pots align the front of the dhaba. it has a first floor or if you may call it so, since the ceiling upstairs os really low and we had to bend to sit down.
We tried the chicken bharta, a very well made curry of finely sliced chicken, with a plain roti ..whilst catching a glimpse of neat samosas being rolled and prepared by very seasoned hands. Must haves are the aloo paranthas or deep fried stuffed potato flatbreads , samosas and chai.
We started on our street snacks that are unique to Kolkatta..the first one being Jhal Muri. Jhal means spice. This is a very light snack made of puffed rice mixed with various ingredients like onions, tomatoes, potatoes, coriander, chili, peanuts and spice powders etc. Its very popular and has also a cousin in Mumbai called the Bhelpuri, the major difference being the jhal muri has mustard oil in it. When I was little my nanny would make a non-spicy version but very simple, with just puffed rice, some turmeric and salt and roast it lightly in a wok and serve it to us with as our evening snack!
Ghunghi is a curried whole yellow pea or Matar dal based snack cooked on a large griddle with lots of onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and whole spices. It should remain whole while cooking and have a slurpy consistency. It is very healthy and very delicious.
Spiced up, Shaken and served in an eco-friendly way
One of the most common street foods in India is the Golpgappa..you will come across this street snack in various cities but it will be called by a different name. Gol Gappa is in Mumbai or Panipuri in Delhi. It's a whole wheat puffed snack which is broken at the middle and filled with sprouts or chickpeas etc depending upon the place you are in and topped with spicy tamarind water. In Kolkatta, it goes by the name ..Puchka and its the spiciest of its cousins. Neatly arranged on wicker baskets, or huge bowls are these or in glass boxes, the Puchka walas will call out to you trying to lure you to have at their cart. Our Puchkawala , near Vardaan Market , spoke excellent English and claimed to be the most watched on his Youtube channel! And you cannot just stop at one. One has to forget dining etiquettes while eating these as they must fit into your mouth in one go while the tamarind water might ooze out a bit.
Every nook and corner in Kolkatta has a puchkawala. Some sell many varieties deviating from the classic as I am told selling schezwan and chocolate puckkas too leaving it to my gastronomic imagination regarding the taste that would burst out.
Kolkatta has much more to offer than our afternoon walk, this time I got a glimpse. There are many many more street foods to be savoured and many many more delicacies that it has to offer. The city won the title of the best street food hub beating Mumbai, Amritsar and Delhi! according to the 'Taste of Travel' survey conducted recently.
Lastly, I leave you with some other tempting Kolkata delights that I was treated to at my Nanny's home and a must-visit restaurant.
My Nanny knew what we would love to eat at her home
Sour lentils and cottage cheese and peas- Khatti Daal and Paneer Matar (very Punjabi)
Charchari - a hit of panch poran with vegetables like brinjal, pumpkin and potatoes
Puffed fried wheat breads