It’s raining in Calcutta and traffic on MG Road has been standing still for the last 20 minutes. I get off the bus and take what used to be called Harrison Road and wonder if this practice of changing the names of cities and streets is the right way to escape history in order to respect your culture. I walk briskly past the row of Tasa Party’r Dokan, front offices of marching bands for hire, and wonder how out of character the up and coming buildings look with their neon signs and shiny exteriors. But I don’t have time to muse today. I’m on a mission and I know where I’m heading.
Join me for a food walk through Boi Para, our beloved College Street!
The key to powering through winter mornings on the weekend is a filling breakfast and being the North Calcuttan kid that I am, breakfast floats a scene of hot radhaballabi (fried flat-bread stuffed with dal) with chholar dal and jilipi or sondesh for dessert. I turn right on College Street More, outhustle the busy boipara book-hustlers, and squeeze through the narrow entrance into College Square beside the very square-jawed Hindu School building and exit on Surya Sen Road, across the street from Putiram, my first stop on this food walk in College Street.
The radhaballabis and accompanying chholar dal, and plates of alur dom are gone quickly. Since no Bengali breakfast is ever complete without a little mishtimukh, I order malpua. Malpuas are similar to pancakes made of flour, milk, grated coconuts (sometimes they contain ripe bananas, but those varieties are hard to find in Calcutta) seasoned with cardamom, fried in oil, and served in syrup. I add in a few chhana’r sondesh for good measures. Now, I have had better malpuas elsewhere but the sondesh is just divine. Low on sweetness, but delicate, fragrant, and melt-in-the-mouth.
Most Calcuttans think of College Square as the place where some learn to swim & some learn to kiss but what most miss is the food you get in the YMCA canteen. Retrace your steps to aforementioned narrow entrance and you will find your second stop on your College Street food walk bang in front of you. Arabinda Patra, the manager whom I’ve seen ever since I had my first plate of chicken stew here (call it isstew and you’d earn local brownie points) is an institution in himself. Overseer & chief hunger-quencher, he has seen more students graduate than the schools of the area combined. The YMCA canteen remains open for the better part of the day to in-house swimmers and general food seekers alike.
The options are simple and there is no seating. Crisp buttered toasts laced with sugar or seasoned with crushed black pepper, Chicken Stew, Vegetable Stew (Full disclosure: it is the same broth minus any pieces of chicken), Alur Dom, and Ghugni. I pay INR 50 (80 cents) for a plate of Chicken Stew and decline the bread. The serving contains about 1/6th of a chicken floating in the broth along with well-cooked pieces each of a potato and a raw papaya. The stew is generously seasoned with ground black pepper. The chicken is fall-off-the-bone tender and the broth is flavorful. Put a spoonful in your mouth and you will know that this is made by expert hands. If you are lucky and/or reach early, you will find pieces of a carrot here and a few beans there. Come late and you’ve to settle for chunks of soya bean.
The next stop on our College Street food walk is a 94-year-old Calcutta institution named Paramount. It was founded by Mr Niharanjan Mazumdar in 1918. The name was changed from Paradise to Paramount in 1936 when it moved from 1/A Bankim Chatterjee Street to its present location, 1/1/1D Bankim Chatterjee Street. Paramount has been frequented by Subhash Chandra Bose, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Prafulla Chandra Ray, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Satyajit Ray, S.D. Burman, Uttam Kumar, and Suchitra Sen. Inside the first thing that catches your eye are the mounted antlers on the wall, and the newspaper clippings about famous personalities who have visited this institution.
Soon after we started dating, we both discovered that our favourite was the daab shorbot at Paramount and that’s what I order this afternoon. It comes in a tall, frosted glass with chunks of white daab or tender coconut at the bottom. In all seriousness, this is heaven in a glass. If you have never had this before, then my friend you will regret what you have missed for so long just after the first sip. This is INR 50, but if you request no ice & pay INR 5 extra, you get more of the real deal. They also sell bottled sherbets. Good time to mention that it is an exceptionally brilliant idea to bring some home & spike it up with some good quality vodka. Serve it to your friends and your mixologist creds will go up by quite a few notches.
Now, I am lactose-intolerant and she dislikes curd, and thus we haven’t experimented much but I hear the malai variants are particularly delicious. Today, I feel adventurous. Today, I feel like I can conquer the world. I ask for their cold coffee (a decision I may or may not regret later). A frothy concoction of coffee with copious amounts of milk and cocoa powder. What blows my mind away is not just the taste but the texture the cocoa powder imparts into it. It is almost granular when it hits the tongue, slightly bitter but disappears if you try to discern more. At INR 60, this stuff should stop being a Calcutta mainstay but obtain global acclaim!
Gunjan Chinese Restaurant:
Michael da, the proprietor of Gunjan Chinese Restaurant is nothing short of a father figure to the pork-loving hostel kids and mess residents who live nearby. Be it the students of Medical College or CU undergrads or resident Presidencians, if you like some swine when you wine and dine, then this is the go-to place to satiate your urges.
From the outside, it is small & doesn’t look that assuring. From the inside, it is decidedly crampy, dimly lit, and smells of vinegar and chilli sauce. But then geniuses are always eccentric. A cursory glance through the menu and I ask for a plate of Hot Garlic Pork. It arrives soon in a thick gravy adorned with shukno lal gota lonka. I taste & it is my lucky day. The dish is extremely well made with thin slices of a blessed swine tempered and cooked in a gravy that has been heavily fortified with garlic. Yet, the gravy tastes divine, hitting all the right notes upon your taste buds. The pieces are succulent and are almost the perfect balance between lean & fatty.
I don’t waste my time, it is gone even before I can think of taking a break. For about INR 150, this is the best pork you can find on College Street. They also serve other vegetarian dishes along with the staple Chinese chicken specialities, noodles, and fried rice. But whom are you kidding? Just look at this luscious plate of Pork in Hot Garlic gravy!
<eats between eats> As I walk, I see a street vendor selling chops on a cart by the side of the road. Lonka’r Chop, the perpetually hungry adolescent in me exclaims! It convinces me that pre-starters are as important as the starters themselves. Plus I’ve always loved those spicy besan coated deep-fried green chillies that leaves your tongue tingling. Soon I am chomping on a fat lonka’r chop that comes sprinkled with black salt, and some mint-cilantro chutney on a piece of newspaper.
Kalika is one of her favourite telebhaja spots. There can be KFCs and people might learn to accept fried broiler chicken and french fries, but no true Bengali will forego their love of telebhaja and chop-cutlet. This shop, next on our food walk in College Street, came into existence on the auspicious eve of a Kali Puja in 1965. It was founded by Sukumar Dutta who was a freedom fighter in his early days. You save the country and then, after you have achieved it, you open a chop’er dokan. Mantra to live by, folks! Ideals I respect. At Kalika, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Some swear by their beguni (thin slices of eggplants coated in besan and deep-fried) while some opt for their chicken cutlet (filling of minced chicken, onions, and spices coated in egg, flour, breadcrumbs and deep fried).
Now I’m a simple man; I like both and more. I order a mocha’r chop (pronounced mo-cha meaning banana-flower) and an egg chop. Those are INR 10 apiece. Bite into the mocha ‘r chop and you can taste the mocha inside. Now, this is an important thing. So many places are making chops these days but all of their fillings remind you a spicy mix of potato. This ability to ensure the different taste of the different master ingredients into the end product is the benchmark of excellence. The egg chop, actually is where the potato mash is necessary to complement the halved eggs. The halved eggs are encased in potato coating and the potato then becomes the yin to the yang of the egg. I bite into it. I overpower the oh-so-slight resistance of the crunchy outer layer a take a large bite. On the side is a tiny salad of match-sticked cucumbers slathered in pungent kasundi.
As I walk out and plan to finish the food walk in College Street by retiring into Coffee House, I remember I have a detour to make. Reaching back to College Street crossing, I walk a few steps towards Amherst Street and stop as I spot the old-west salon door like entrance to Dilkhusha Cabin. Another regal place, famed for their cutlets & chops and celebrated for the deliciousness they have managed to hold on to. More than a hundred years old and known to be a favourite of Kazi Nazrul Islam, this is what an institution is supposed to be. A crowd favourite, even after one hundred years!
It doesn’t take long for me to decide what I want. I go for the Mutton Kabiraji. Just under INR 100 (around $1.5), it is their speciality. The name kobiraji is believed to be an offshoot of the English word “coverage” as the minced mutton filling is entirely covered with a lacy crispy melt in your mouth cover made of egg whites.
I retrace my steps to Coffee House and plonk myself on a chair, and sit, rubbing my elated belly. I control the urge to order the Mutton Afghani and spend over an hour with cups of infusion, a vegetable cutlet, and missing her. Now this place needs no introduction. But there is one thing you need to understand. This place is not to be visited for or judged upon the quality, quantity or taste of the food and drinks you get there. You visit, only to bask in the glory of the history this place exudes. It is old, possibly a million years old if you go by the appearance of the servers (who also sometimes tell you the prices of the dish you ordered including the tips they want). It was founded in 1942 and named Coffee House in 1958. Here is the place where you while away hours. Sometimes in a large group of friends debating the depletion of the socio-economic fabric of the current Bangali culture or sometimes wondering when it is the right time to present the poem you wrote for the lady sitting across your table. This place is neo-mythical. And if you have ever fallen for the mermaid tunes of Coffee & Cigarettes, you will always find a home.
Note: Some of these eateries are closed on Sundays. To experience the best of College Street, visit on weekdays.
What are your favourite eating joints on College Street?