Sujit Chakraborty is a senior journalist and author of three books. He has worked with various publications and was the first Indian to manage Bhutan’s first independent daily, Bhutan Times. He has also specialised on environmental issues
Saurabh Kumar, a diplomatic correspondent, reached Calcutta on a pleasant November afternoon after completing his assignment in Dhaka. From his small hotel room in the Sealdah area, he leaned out the window to catch a glimpse of one of his favourite cities. Saurabh’s plan was simple: stay put here for a couple of days and gorge on the mind boggling street food. And as he leaned out, wafted in the delicious aroma of alur chop (potato chops, Bihar style) and fulkopir shingara. Of course, there were the big sweet shops across the street, but Saurabh’s hunt was for all the junk food Calcutta had on offer. He made a quick calculation about how many days he would need to taste every single such item, but came up with naught. It is impossible to calculate!
It was late afternoon when he started his food foray. First, of course was the alur chop. Slightly oily stuff, but what taste. The lady frying them was from Bihar. And the chop was typical. Well mashed potato with red chilly powder, jeera (cumin) powder, a smattering of bitnoon – the kind of black salt available only in this city – and the rest he couldn’t tell, and the lady would not reveal. Fried in slightly liquid besan, or gram powder, the stuff was given another level of taste by a bit of bitnoon again sprinkled over it before being served in the paper packets. Saurabh had four of them, then stopped… the shingara was beckoning him.
He moved to the makeshift glass box where the vendor was frying the shingara. This is what people call samosa in northern India, but it is totally different. Pieces of potato are cut into small cubes, along with similar sized cauliflowers and broken pieces of peanuts. This is then carefully fried and later stuffed into the samosa. But wait, the casing here is not made of attah, the normal wheat flour, but of maida, the finely milled and polished wheat flour which has a highly refined taste. The stuff just melted in his mouth. Saurabh wondered how these people manage to retain the same taste year after year.
Feeling rather fullish, Saurabh started walking down what was originally Harrison Road, now called Mahatma Gandhi Road. Rickshaw, autorickshaw, cycles, private buses with their rowdy conductors, and the tram, with its same old snail-pace and the ting-ting as a warning to people walking along the tram line. The tram has been retained as a Calcutta heritage, possibly from Jurassic Age, but it is a delight. If you have time take it. It rolls on at an easy pace, and you have a view of the entire area.
But Saurabh went walking. Not that he was in a hurry. But walking is the best way of discovery, and he was out to discover the food on the streets. A few hundred meters down the road, he found what he was looking for as his supper: the roll stall. Few know that roll, or kati roll as it was called, is an original culinary invention of Calcutta. Barely put, it originally had some kebabs wrapped in maida-made flatbread. It was invented by one of Bengal’s oldest eateries, Nizam’s which still rules to roost in Hogg Street, New Market. Some say the origin lies in a keen demand from office- goers to grab a bite on the move. Some even say that the British loved their kebabs but were too fastidious to touch them bare hands, so a wrap was invented. Whatever it is, kati roll became an instant rage. The word kati comes from the fact that originally Nizam’s used the traditional iron skewers to make the kebabs, but with rising demand they needed faster delivery and a lighter skewer, so they started using sliced bamboo sticks, or katis, as skewers. Putting history behind, now the street rolls are neither just kebabs, nor are they skewered, so there is no kati, barring in Nizam’s. Now the roll can be of anything: egg roll, mutton roll, chicken roll, vegetable roll. There can be mixes too: egg-mutton roll or egg-chicken roll, etc. And depending on how much you can fit it, there is the double egg-mutton roll, and even the double-egg-double-mutton roll, and likewise for chicken. Saurabh is a proselytising non-vegetarian, so there would be no question for the vegetable roll for him. The rolls on Calcutta-streets are made of ready to eat mutton or chicken filling, some cauliflower shavings, raw, and then the sauces. The problem lies with the sauces. Most of the smaller shops, which are lined up side by side in many areas of the city, use cheap sauces, ‘tomato’ sauce made from pumpkin paste. The chilly sauce of course is genuine chilly stuff. Saurabh stopped at what seemed to him a shop that is better of the lot. The man was busy making three rolls on the huge tava. Saurabh waited and watched his skills. The man had the maida flatbreads. He first light fried the roll bread. Then he broke two eggs and put them on the oil in the tava. Then he put the roll bread over the omelette, deftly swirled the whole thing. The aroma was killing Saurabh, as if he was returning from a famished country. The seller then took up the bread and put a double helping of mutton on it, some sauces, then quickly wrapped it in a fine paper wrapper and handed it over to our hungry man. Rs 60, and that was full dinner, that too, most people would not be able to have that much. Saurabh took a bite and smiled to himself. His day was made!
The next morning he woke up leisurely, then having done the loo bit, he went down to the road and started strolling. He wasn’t really looking for food, which could wait till afternoon or evening. But then a few steps from his hotel gate he stumbled upon an emaciated old lady selling just three items: luchi, alurdum and ghugni. Apparently she had just arrived and the stuff was still hot. Saurav first started with four luchis (which is the same shape as north Indian puri, but is made of maida) and a plate of ghugni. Ghugni is also a typical Calcutta food. It’s basic is dried green peas. This is boiled, then fried with onion and garlic paste and tiny pieces of fried coconut, spiced with garam masala (which has no English, but is a paste of clove, cinnamon and green cardamom). It is either dry or loosely wet. But the trick lies in an additional spice which is sprinkled over it, which is a powder of various herbs dry fried. Saurabh found the taste amazing, and was contemplating having a second plate when he decided to try the aludum. So four more luchis and aludum, four pieces of alu, or potato boiled, then fried in a paste of ginger, garlic, onion. This was hot, but delectable. Eight luchis downed, Saurabh felt it was good enough for breakfast. Calcutta has an amazing variety of snacks sold on the streets, which include comparatively recent entrants such as momo, chow mien, idli, dosa, dhokla, etc., but these are not the blue-blooded Calcutta street food.
For lunch it had to be Dacre’s Lane in the heart of the business centre, BBD Bagh, named after a British collector called Phillip Milner Dacre. This place as a food joint is more than 200 years old. The shops are non-descript, small, often dingy, and often too, it is just a long wooden bench to sit on, with the food served in steel plates. Saurabh started moving around… the famous shops: Chittoda’s, Apanjan, shops now being run by the third generation of the original owners. Amazingly inexpensive, the place is packed in the afternoons with office-goers gorging on the absolutely delectable stuff. The whole lane is an experience of mixed aroma. Saurabh chose Chittoda’s and had a Dimer Devil and Kobiraji. Dimer Devil is another Calcutta invention. It is a boiled egg, wrapped with very spicy mashed potato and minced meat. The egg is given a covering of crunchy bread crumbs and then deep fried. Saurabh did not use the chutney they served, desiring to taste the original stuff, and chewed on it slowly, gradually taking the juice in. Then he attacked the kobiraji cutlet. Cutlets in Dacres Lane is a British legacy. But the Kobiraji of today is starkly different from its British progenitor. This can be fish or mutton. Saurabh settled for mutton. It is minced meat mixed with garlic, onion and ginger paste. After marinating, it is dipped into beaten egg, given a covering of bread crumbs and deep fried. It is usually served with kashundi, a very Bengali mustard paste, and Saurabh found the taste divine. All for less than Rs 100. But for his kind of appetite, these two were starters, really. He contemplated going to Anadi Cabin, one of the oldest restaurants of Calcutta. But then decided against it. He wanted a Mughlai Paratha and Kosha Mangsho, which latter is known as Mutton Kassa in the rest of the country but is vastly different. He strolled around BBD Bagh. It was an amazing range of food being sold there, just in the penumbra of the LIC Building. There the foodie stumbled upon a small makeshift shop with no name, but selling Mughlai Paratha and Kosha Mangsho. Although together they make heavy dish, but usually foodies go for the ‘joint venture’, as did Saurabh. Mughlai Paratha, a Mughal-time recipe, came to Calcutta via Dhaka during the Mughal rule. It is paratha made of maida, with a stuffing of egg yolk and minced meat as a stuffing. And this is one paratha that is square in shape. Kosha Mangsho is mutton cooked in a sauce of garlic, ginger, onion, green chili paste and stir fried for a long time. It is just amazing, and the price came for nothing, really. By then it was just 2.00 pm. The bustling office area just ahead of Bara Bazzar, was still teeming with eaters. Afternoon is also the time when the jhaal-muri sellers begin their operations… the phuchkawallahs would come a little later. The Calcutta phuchkas are unlike the golgappas of north India. They are made purely from atta, and never suji, or semolina flour. The stuffing is of black chickpeas, potato mashed, the spices, chilly powder, coriander leaves, and they are dipped never in mint water but in tamarind water, which also has a lot of spices in it. But may be that can wait for another day. Saurabh marched towards College Street. The legendary old book shops were his target, for he knew that if you search well, you can really get anything you want second hand. He walked along the footpath, checking out one shop after another. He picked up a few books he needed, and then went to Paramount, the fabled sherbets and syrups shop. All the eating and walking had made him thirsty, so he ordered a rose-pineapple juice. Paramount has been around for ages and serves amazing mocktails, though here the prices are a bit stiff.
Back at the hotel, Saurabh called the room boy and gave him Rs 200. “Take an auto with this money and reach Kalika Telebhaja shop by 4.30. I will write down what to buy, so bring all that.” Kalika sells only ‘telebhaja’ or fried food… chops, cutlets, beguni (brinjal fried), piyaji (onion fried in besan) and so forth. It is amazing that the shop opens at around five and sells out everything by six or seven. Shutters down. It is a tiny shop but has become a fable. Mutton cutlet, chicken cutlet, fish fry (the stupendous Calcutta variety), fish roll, all just Rs 20 a piece, and the rest of the fries at just Rs 5 each. Which means for 80 rupees, you could have a sumptuous meal and that is it. That was for dinner. But as he lay down in bed planning the next day, the handset rang. It was office calling. There will be a major meeting the next day, so Saurabh would have to leave the food paradise!