Food is always on the mind of the average Kolkata resident. Ruminations on the tragic state of affairs of the world, football, or debates on the ideological leanings of different parts of the country may jostle for mind- space occasionally, but even this activity must be accompanied by the munching of some jal-khabar (snacks) such as jhaal-mudi, ‘roll’ or ‘chop-cutlet’. Indeed, Kolkatans look for excuses to eat out, for their city has an enormous variety to offer to the gastronomically inquisitive at prices that are easy on one’s wallet.
Over its history, the city has internalised several culinary influences. While the first coffee houses and bars of colonial origin are still frequented by people from all walks of life, the European food on the menu of hotels like the Grand and exclusive clubs like Bengal and Tolly is considered amongst the best in the country. The colonial hangover continued right into the 1970s with restaurants such as Mocambo, Trincas and Moulin Rouge on Park Street, where live music and star singers such as Pam Crain and Usha Uthup drew in crowds, as captured in the Bollywood film Parineeta. Even today, the upmarket environs of Park Street and Chowringhee are synonymous with dining out in style. Irani hotels, biryani corners and restaurants serving ‘Chinese’ thrive alongside.
Though Bengalis will maintain that traditional Bengali food is best prepared at home, in recent years, many restaurants showcasing the cuisine, like Suruchi, Aheli, Bhojo Hori Manna, Kewpies, Taro Porbon and Oh Calcutta! have gradually come up in the city.
Bengali cuisine has a distinct style. Cooking in mustard oil with a judicious use of ghee, or clarified butter, and tempering with the famous combination of cumin, onion seeds, fennel, fenugreek and mustard seeds known as panch-foron, results in dishes ‘where richness and subtlety are closely interwoven’.
Each dish is savoured separately with a little bit of rice, the sustaining staple of the Bengali, in a typical multi-course meal. The order of courses begins with bitters, which clear the palate, followed by dal, or lentils, accompanied by vegetable fritters. After this come one or two vegetable dishes like ghanto or chachchari, precursors to the inevitable fish jhol, a consommé, and some richer fish preparations like jhaal and kaalia. Bengalis swear by river fish such as rui, katla and iIlish. On special occasions, meat or chicken dishes follow while chutney and papads provide a break before the sweet dishes.
Islamic rule in India enhanced this repertoire with pulao, biryani, kabab, korma, rezala and parantha, common at feasts and banquets today. Restaurants well known for this spread are Nizam’s, Badshah, Aminia, Bedouin, Zeeshan, Royal and Arsalan.
Similarly, European traders and settlers introduced Kolkata to myriad exotic delights. They brought a culture of baking, which culminated in some very popular confectioneries including Flury’s, Nahoum’s, Kathleen, Mongini’s and Jalajoga. The Portuguese introduced cottage cheese, the Armenians contributed the dolma (pointed gourd stuffed with meat, fish or eggs) while the English gave sauces, jams, marmalades and sandwiches.
Recipes were tweaked to suit the local palate, giving birth to chops (fried potato cakes with fish or meat stuffing) cutlets (meat, chicken or prawn, seasoned, pounded and fried) and champ (crumb fried breast or loin pieces).
Kolkata’s Chinese community gave birth to the ubiquitous Indian Chinese cuisine. One finds this curious blend of Chinese, Indian and southeast Asian culinary influences in exclusive restaurants in plush hotels as well as street-side stalls. The largest concentration of Chinese restaurants in Kolkata being in Tangra. Staple dishess like chilli chicken (spicy and fried) and chow mein have become an essential part of the city’s cuisine.
Kolkata’s passionate absorption in sweets is evident in the fact that almost every alternate shop sells them. Some shops such as Bhim Chandra Nag and Nakur date back to the mid-19th century. KC Das is known for its world-renowned tinned rosogolla, and is supposed to have been created by KC Das’ father, Nabin Chandra Das. Bhim Chandra Nag created a new sweet, the ladikanee, for Lady Canning, wife of the then Viceroy of India. Some other well known shops such as Jadab Das, Sen Mahashay, Banchharam, Hindustan Sweets and Suresh sell delectable mishti doi, natun gurer sondesh, chamcham, rasmalai, kalo jam, langcha and khir kodombo.
The city has a vibrant street food culture. Every street corner has make- shift stalls of jhaal-mudi (puffed rice mixture), phuchka (gol-gappa, in north India), tele-bhaaja (vegetable fritters, literally, ‘fried in oil’), mughlai parantha, (a stuffed parantha) and rolls (meat wrapped in flatbread). Roadside joints on Lord Sinha Road, Camac Street and Russell Street are popular haunts for chaat. The kachuri (stuffed fried dough), fulkopir singara (samosa stuffed with cauliflower) and peyajis (onion fritters) at Putiram on College Square are also some all-time favourites.
On SN Bannerjee road are two eateries – Anadi Cabin and Regent – known for making the best mughlai paranthas and kabiraji cutlets respectively.
Although roll sellers are a dime a dozen, foodies in the city swear by Kusum on Park Street, Campari at Gariahat and the Bedouin and Nizam chains of restaurants.
For more on the city, pick up Goodearth Publications: Kolkata City Guide ISBN 9789380262154
(Available at all leading outlets and online stores)