Chaotic is the operative word to go by if you ever find yourself lost in the lanes and bylanes of Colootola during Iftar. An unfailing melting pot, Calcutta has always been a place where differences in cultural narratives are not only embraced and celebrated but also shared, often over food. Thus, it comes as no surprise when thousands throng the Ramadan celebrations around Nakhoda Mosque, sharing tables and opinions as they wait for the siren to mark the end of the day’s fasting. Nobody asks you your religious or ethnic identity. Nobody asks if you are a believer or not. You join the locals around rickety makeshift tables, perspiring and praying for a cool draught of wind while sipping on glasses of milky kesari chai. All around you, in brightly lit shops people holler for the best bargain and owners of street food stalls hang skewers of marinated meat from hooks, arrange delicate rolls of lachha, stir cauldrons of haleem in preparation for the evening. Nobody can tell at what point this chaotic come-together floods the confines of a religious ritual to become a carnival, a celebration of life, under the summer skies of Calcutta.
Of course, this world and its people will impart a lot of education to you. But have you ever, on an evening stroll, wondered what to do about that sondhyebela’r khide? Have you ever felt that pressure of impressing your Bangali premika with a thesaurus like knowledge of chop, cutlet, and peyanjis? Has the Herculean responsibility of arranging the finger food for a murimakha and adda session ever been bestowed upon you and you have no clue what to do? But no more worries! You, dear seeker, have come to the right place. Read on to find out how you can be a chop expert too and be ready for the next renaissance, the industrial revolution that is chop shilpo!
Note: Much has been spoken about the singara, the Bengali cousin of the samosa, and though we love it immensely, we are giving it a break from this article.
My love affair with traditional Bangali food had a long incubation period. During the rather impressionable growing up years, my daily diet was a strictly home cooked North Calcutta affair. The repetitiveness of the dishes meant that they soon lost their appeal and unsurprisingly, I found my little self craving, more often than not, a kathi roll with extra lime or a Moghlai porota dripping with oil. But every story contains a story of coming of age in which the prodigal son returns to take up the mantle of the King. In the story of my life, this story revolved around returning to my roots, to the food habits of my ancestors and ethnic clan. As I grew older and began to explore the city’s gastronomic secrets, I learned about the nuances that differentiated what I call gharanas within a cuisine. The more I learned the more I found the reverence for the simple home-cooked dupurer khabar making a comeback. Where else would you get something like panchmishali torkari in which the vegetables despite being tempered with spices as pungent as mustard still retain their delicate flavours? The thought of swapping the robibarer mutton for a creamy and nutty alu posto no longer gave me nightmares. In the cultural mingling that occurred during muktijuddho, ingredients and techniques used in the East Bengal or Bangal style of cooking seeped into kitchens of West Bengal to create a unique profile. Now we, the children of a later generation, have an important responsibility: To dive into archives (and kitchens) and re-discover shaabeki recipes that are slowly vanishing from both ghoti and bangal rannaghors.
When you live in cold, wet Oregon some thousands of miles away from your boyf, you regularly experience what I called “foodpangs” or busts of painful craving for a dish you have enjoyed with someone you love. This list started off as a random conversation with Aninda on a night my taste-buds were aching for some Calcutta-style Chili Chicken. I ended up making a dish that my father often makes and talking to Aninda about chicken dishes we had enjoyed on our weekend eating sprees since December 2014 when we started dating. It was an interesting list-making that drew very different reactions from both of us; while Aninda was oohh-ing and aaah-ing and planning the next trip to the eateries, I was sinking deeper into a chasm of helpless hunger and making loud slurping sounds in the air. It was weird, alright, but my roommates were out that night and I ultimately ended up making some extra-spiced Chana Masala. So here you go, in no particular order:
1. Chicken Shapta at The Blue Poppy, Middleton St.
Blue poppy shines when you join them in embracing their fiery ambitions. It is somewhat ironic that a dish tracing its roots to the snowy landscapes of Tibet can be this lip-smackingly hot. Thin slices of chicken fried till golden are generously paired with shredded chilli peppers and onions, and presented in a light sauce that is the perfect balance of sour, sweet, and umami. No turmeric means the dish has a rather pale colour but what it lacks in looks, it makes up in taste by unfurling fireworks as you place a spoonful in your mouth. Pair it with their burnt garlic fried rice. Fair warning though, not for the fainthearted!
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.