Eating Kolkata

Here it is, you lovely bunch – the food, the food. Oh hell, the food.

It’s everywhere in Kolkata. On Ma’s table (she’s one of the finest, most casual cooks I know), on the streets, in conversations, on wooden carts, in smart restaurants and ramshackle ones. It’s a city where gluttony is a pastime. And while we were there, it didn’t feel like no sin.

So here are the spoils of the war we waged over three weeks. Most of the places where we ate were worth their weight in pure nostalgia. A few were uncharted territories. And some were just grabbed off the street, on the way, without a plan.

And thrown in there are the bazaars, the wicker baskets full of fresh produce, the fish market, the local butcher Baba swears by, the street food, the sweet shops. Sweet sin!

Tell me what you think, which ones you like – for this plate is as much mine as it is yours. The list here is by no means complete; just scratching the surface, my friends.

So. If you go to Kolkata for one reason, and no other, let it be fu-hood.

….

First the sweets. It had to be the sweets.
Here are some of my favourite picks.
From Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick: Baked rossogolla, baked mihidana, patishapta (as close as it gets to the homemade version)
From Banchharam: Kanchagolla, aabar khabo, notun-gurer shondesh, pantua (gulab jamun)
From Jadab Chandra Das: Mishti doi (sweet yogurt)

Something to try: A combination that D and I absolutely love, and which was passed down by my father-in-law, is ‘tok doi aar bondey’ (plain yogurt topped with sweet boondi).

S. Sharma & Sons, opposite Saturday Club – a friend took us to this hole-in-the-wall on Wood Street for the most amazing rabri. Rabri would be best described as sweet, thickened milk with a creamy-cheesy consistency. Wonderful.

And you know you’ve got to have jalebis, right? Just after they’ve been fried and dipped in that sweet sticky syrup. That’s right, you’ve got to.

Kulfi, or Indian ice-cream, from this man, here.
Where: Shakespeare Sarani-Wood Street crossing.
My top flavours: Nolen gur, chikoo, santra, sitaphal.

A few must-dos on Park Street, the street where Kolkata eats out:
1. Chelo Kebab in Peter Cat
2. Chinese food (I really should say Indo-Chinese) at Bar-B-Q
3. Breakfast or tea at Flury’s (overpriced though it is).

For Indo-Chinese, outside of Park Street, you can’t leave the city without:
The weekend buffet at Mainland China
And a meal in Tangra (Tangra is Kolkata’s Chinatown, and Kim Fa is the restaurant where People In The Know go now)

Now street food! What can I say. For me, Kolkata is the Street Food City of India. You could have something different every day, and still not run out of options. Start with puchkas, end with chicken rolls, squeeze in some momos in between. Have a chai. Run wild.

Years and years ago, Kookie Jar redefined baking. I’ve eaten cakes in many different cities in the world, but their Black Forest still can’t be beaten. It was D’s birthday cake this year.

The first time we ate in Benjarong was in Chennai. They now have a restaurant in Kolkata, and it’s as good. Go there for beautiful Thai food.

When dinner’s done, start all over with breakfast. Radhabollobi and Alu-r Dom (puris stuffed with lentils that come with a spicy potato curry) from Ganguram in Golpark, or Maharani-Maharaja in Lansdowne, or Tasty Corner in Mandeville Gardens.

Kolkata’s Chilli Sauce is unlike any chilli sauce you get in stores here; maybe the only sauce that can look Sriracha in the eye. Pick up a few bottles of it from this shop – Sing Cheung – in Tiriti Market. They accounted for much of our luggage weight. But so worth it.

For the thirsty: Daab-er Jol, or tender coconut water. And sugarcane juice. Sweet salvation.

Dacres Lane. Now this is a street in Kolkata that stands for decades of good food. They’ve been feeding office-goers for years, and are known for their Chicken Stew. And their Bengali-style Chilli Chicken and Chowmein. And their egg curry. Really, it’s all good.

These bottles of little black salty-tangy balls are a Kolkata thing. Thye’re called Jaina Shipa Mandir, and apparently, they help you digest all the food you shouldn’t have overeaten in the first place. But I eat them because they’re lovely.

Here comes the fish. Fresh from Gariahat Market. Hilsa, prawns, bhekti. Or pabda, tengra and chitol. Fishmongers with their day’s catch.

And then the alleys of vegetables, an absolute mayhem of colours.

I know. Some of you’re going: “Enough with the vegetable already. Where’s the bloody Biryani?”
So what is it about Kolkata’s biryani that makes everyone go a little bit mad? It’s the saffrony rice layered with the tenderest meat and the softest, seasoned potatoes. It’s the subtle smell of spices. It’s something that no one can quite put a finger on.
There are two contenders for the city’s biryani-throne: Arsalan and Shiraz. I’ve tried both, and for me, there really is no competition at all. Shiraz wins by a mile.
This is what I would have: chicken or mutton biryani, mutton chaap, mutton shammi tikka, firni.




























I love big vegetarian thalis, especially Rajasthani or Gujarati. We tried a new place this time called Khandani Rajdhani. They were very good.

And then there’s your pick of fresh fruit and street bazaars. They’re everywhere. In wicker baskets and roadside stalls. On your walk, in every colour.

This is the butcher my father swears by.

This is the best place for tea, in a city which knows it tea better than any other. Dolly’s Tea in Dakshinapan Market. I always have their Mint Julep, or the Darjeeling 2nd flush. Dolly’s used to be a regular haunt during my days in Jadavpur University.

There’s the puchka again. Really, it keeps creeping in. I’ve tried the one in front of Dakshinapan, the one in Vivekananda Park, but I’d still vouch for the puchka-wala opposite New Market, in the lane that heads to Treasure Island. 

These are fresh pumpkin flowers (kumro-phool). Just before they dunked themselves in batter and leapt into the frying pan.

And here endeth the food trail; with mishti doi (sweet curd) from a Kolkata institution – Mother Dairy.
Sweet mother!

Was it worth the wait?

She lives in an Altoids box

Did you all have lots of toys when you were little? I didn’t. It was a different time, wasn’t it? At least where I was standing. Parents didn’t just go out and buy a talking doll along with their weekend grocery, nor a hopping bunny when a child did all her chores. Money was far more thoughtfully spent, and children far less, well, indulged.

I have to admit, I liked that time. I liked it even when I was in it. When you don’t have a lot of toys, you become a little more ingenious with your time. Which reminds me of a line I saw on this poster recently – Creativity is subtraction. It really is.

Till I was about nine years old, we lived in a joint family, in a large old house in Central Calcutta. I remember sitting on the terrace with my friends and making clay utensils, and dolls from scraps of cloth. We would bake the little clay dishes in the sun, and have lavish weddings for the dolls. With real food. The food was always real. And usually stolen from our respective kitchens.

D and I try to give Chotto-Ma a sense of that…lessness. She still has more than we did, but less than most. And one of her favourite toys is a little cloth girl that I made for her some time ago. Like the little cloth girls I used to make in the old terrace in the old days.

This is Zaza. She lives in an Altoids box.

To me Zaza, and her curiously strong bed, stands for the sparseness of another time. A time when I made do with what I had. And made memories that stuck in my head like multicoloured Post-its.

It’s also the way I cook best: making do with what I have. Foraging through my cupboards without a plan. Throwing things together as I jigsaw tastes in my head. Do you do that?

Butter beans & pistachio tikki

You can soak the butter beans overnight and boil them, but I had canned butter beans sitting in my cupboard. (Because sometimes you just need cans.) And then my eyes landed on a jar of pistachios.
Tikkis came about, and they were very good, so I had to share them with you.

Ingredients

These tikkis have a very interesting combination of spices, but don’t hold yourself to them. Make do with what you have. Swap butter beans with black-eyed beans, pistachios with cashew, basil with parsley. Let your cupboards take the call.

3 cups boiled/canned butter beans
1/2 cup pistachios
A handful of basil
1 green chilli
1/2 tsp sumac (if you don’t have this, add a squeeze of lemon juice for a slight tartness)
1/2 tsp coriander seeds (dry roasted in a pan)
A sprinkle of coarse black pepper
1 tbs flour (if needed)
Salt
Olive oil

In a blender, or with a mortar and pestle, coarsely ground together the pistachios, basil, roasted coriander seeds and chilli along with 2 tbs of olive oil
In a bowl, add the soft butter beans, the oil-herb-spice mix, sprinkle in the sumac/lemon juice, pepper and salt. Mix well with your hands, coarsely mashing the butter beans. Sprinkle in a tbs of flour if you need to tighten the mix a little. With your hands, form flat, round tikkis.
Heat a flat pan, and drizzle in some olive oil. Pan fry the tikkis till they’re nicely browned on both sides. Enjoy!

A Sunday breakfast

When I walk into a cafe for my midday caffeine shot, I try to find a table that’s far away from pre-schoolers and from large groups of new mothers. The first because I get my fair share of pre-school chatter at home, and the second because I have reached a stage where I can no longer bear conversations about nappies, weaning and how “fast their fingernails grow!” In the supermarket, whenever I see two new mums, deep in conversation, I quickly move to a different aisle. Even if it’s ‘Canned Soups’.

At this point, I need to repeat an annoying cliche – it’s not personal. I really have nothing against new mothers. In fact, I know their lives only too well. A couple of years ago, I was knee-deep in the very same conversations. Like sleep-deprived sadists, D and I would be drawn into long chats with parents whose 3-week olds were already sleeping through the night. And everyday, I would groggily trudge to playgroups to catch up on the latest brands of baby food. By the end of year one, I had had enough. Now, I break into a rash every time I hear ‘nappy’.

So yesterday, at the Waterstones cafe, I became slightly concerned when the table next to me filled up with a mother, her 3-year old daughter and 9-month old son. Pre-schoolers have no concept of volume. They speak very loudly in quiet places, and whisper when you need them to be heard. This lovely little girl was no exception, and the quiet cafe was soon privy to her every word.

Mum (spooning mash into her son’s eager mouth): Sarah, eat your ham sandwich please.
Daughter (loudly): I don’t like ham.
Mum (utterly confused): You LOVE ham!
Daughter: I love ham everyday except Sat-ur-day.
The mother turns her head away, willing patience in public, and continues feeding the little boy, who fortunately can’t speak yet.

Yes, my coffee-hour could have been quieter, but this little bit of conversation made up for that. It made me grin into my black Americano, this litle girl’s utter conviction about ham on weekends. The mother had all my sympathies, but I understood exactly what her daughter was saying.

At home, we have a mix of muesli, milk and fruits everyday for breakfast. But never on a Saturday. Or on a Sunday. It just doesn’t feel right. Everything about the weekend needs to be different. Less ordinary.

So today, even though we needed a quick breakfast before going out for the day, it couldn’t be muesli! It was Sunday.

I made an old favourite – an open sandwich that Ma would often make for us on weekends. She calls it ‘Corn on Toast’. It’s quick, it’s simple, it’s delicious. And it reminds me of Sundays in Kolkata. Ma’s version was harder work, because the fresh bhutta, or corn on the cob, would have to be boiled, the corn scraped off, and then cooked. My corn came shamelesly frozen, in a packet.

The sandwich was followed by fresh strawberries with honey & almond creme fraiche. A good start to a Sunday.

Ma’s Corn on Toast

The corn is cooked in White Sauce, a simpler version of the B
échamel Sauce. There’s the classic way of making White Sauce – melting the butter, sauteing the flour, then stirring in the milk, very slowly, a bit at a time, so that no lumps are formed.
And, there’s my cheat-version, for those days when you have no time to stand and stir.
For me, it’s almost always the latter.



Ingredients

1 1/2 cup milk
2 tbs flour
1 tbs butter
Coarsely ground black pepper
A sprinkle of chopped parsley (tarragon is a lovely alternative)
1/2 cup grated cheese (I used a mix of Cheddar and Gruyere)
2 1/2 cups corn
Salt to taste
Wholegrain bread to toast



Take the flour in a bowl, mix it with a few tbs of water and make a smooth paste.
Heat the milk in a pan.
When it’s hot, but before it has boiled, pour in the flour paste, and stir as the milk quickly thickens. Add the frozen corn. Add salt (remember the cheese will add some salt too). Stir occasionally till the corn has cooked, maybe 3-4 minutes. If you want to thicken the sauce further, add some more flour mixed with water. Take pan off heat.
Sprinkle in the cheese, pepper and parsley (or tarragon). Add the butter. Give it a good stir.
Pop bread into toaster or oven. Time the toast well. It should be golden and crisp.
Spoon the corn on the toast. Sprinkle with paprika, and serve immedietely.

Serves: 2-3

Fresh Strawberries with Honey & Almond Crème Fraiche

Ingredients

3 cups of strawberries, all halved
1 cup cr
ème fraiche
2 tbs honey
1 tbs ground almond
1 tbs brown sugar
Few sprigs of fresh mint

Sprinkle the strawberries with sugar and refrigerate for 10-15 minutes.
Mix the cr
ème fraiche, honey and ground almond, stirring it all into a nice, smooth paste.
Divide the strawberries into bowls or cups, and top with the creme fraiche.
Pretty it all up with a sprig of mint.

Serves 2-3