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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)
The Great Punjabi Wedding – a time for music and dance, rich food soaked in butter, and sweets dripping in syrup popped from hand to mouth. A time when mothers shed copious tears while brides sit with heroic smiles through hours of make-up and mehendi, wrapped in silk and heavy with gold. A time for uninhibited dancing and covert romance, lavish gifts exchanged over the murmur of family banter and gossip. A time, in fact, of gargantuan celebration around the compact, self-sufficient couple that forms its core.
Over the last few decades Punjabi weddings have become a part of pan-Indian popular culture. In part, this is thanks to Bollywood. Bombay’s film industry found a perfect complement to its own larger than life portrayal of the world in Punjab’s understanding of weddings.
So, for decades, movie weddings have dictated many aspects of such celebration, from the songs to which guests will dance, the design of the elaborate lehenga the bride will wear.
As young men formulate intricate plans to gate-crash the exclusively female sangeet ceremony, young girls and their mothers and aunts come together to sing songs and pass the secrets of married life from generation to generation.
The ghodi, or white mare on which groom rides to his beloved is slowly becoming ubiquitous from north to south; and swaying processions of merry-makers wind their way through broad city streets and narrow village lanes alike.
The dark orange of mehendi spread in ornate patterns on the bride’s hand evokes a familiar sense of separation, loss and new beginnings; and songs in which she grieves for the loss of her father’s house will not leave many Indian eyes dry.
And so marriages seasons come and go – bands are hired, and cooks prepare bubbling curries in cauldrons; extravagant tents are erected and younger cousins rehearse dance steps; and, at the event’s centre, the bride and groom, sleepless, tense and excited, watch the colours and scents of the most splendid day of their lives swirl around them, waft upwards and disappear into the night.
For more on the city, pick up Goodearth Publications: Punjab Travel Guide ISBN 9789380262178
(Available at all leading outlets)
It is said that Nizam-ul-Mulk, first Governor and then independent ruler of Hyderabad, visited a pir shortly after breaking free from the Mughal court. The holy man, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aurangabadi, offered his guest a plate of kulchas, of which Nizam-ul-Mulk ate seven. The pir then prophesised that the new ruler of Hyderabad would have a dynasty that lasted seven generations, and ever since, the Nizams’ official flag carried an image of a kulcha.
Arguably the most famous component of Hyderabadi food – and a prime example of the city’s free mix of influences – is the biryani. The city’s kacchi biryani comes in up to forty varieties and is often hailed as the ultimate experience in the genre. Hyderabad’s haleem is also famous. An integral part of the Iftar meal – which breaks the fast during Ramzan – haleem is a thick gravy of pounded meat, lentils and wheat, cooked for hours on low heat.
Hyderabadi cuisine is distinguished by its use of spices, which can range from sandalwood powder to dried rose petals, and are often infused into a particular dish through a muslin cloth. Other dishes are flavoured with more sour tastes, derived from local Telengana cuisine. Tamarind, lemon, raw mango, starfruit and other souring ingredients are not only turned into pickles, but also used in preparations like baghare baingan and achar gosht.
Indeed, Telangana cuisine in the city is eminently worth exploring. Its spicy-sour repertoire includes the fiery pachi pulusu (a rasam flavoured with tamarind, chilli and onions), telangana kodi vedupu (chicken cooked with tomatoes and onions) and gongura masam (mutton or lamb cooked in Gongura leaves), accompanied with rice and jonna (or jowar: millet) rotis. The sour gongura leaves, in fact, are the most well-known facet of Telengana cuisine, and are most commonly found pickled.
The meal is rounded off with the rich khubani ka meetha (mashed dried apricots and cream), the more modern double ka meetha (a kind of bread pudding), sheer khorma (a vermicelli pudding) or, on really special occasions, nimish – a divine preparation of milk foam gathered into clay cups. However Hyderabadi sweet dishes have much in common with their north Indian counterparts and it is not unusual to find savouries like kulfi and faluda in abundance.
A century ago, such a spread would have ended with a redoubtable elder seated by his ‘hubblebubble’, or being lulled to sleep by a professional storyteller; today, it may or may not evoke such remembrances, but, nevertheless, it still gives immense satisfaction.
‘Some are delicate in taste, some intoxicatingly aromatic, some are flavoured with saffron, some with cream and milk and some others with rose water or screw pine flower water’ (Pratibha Karan). Indeed, ‘food critics argue that Hyderabad’s is the only true biryani. The biryanis of Lucknow, they say, are no more than pulaos, combinations of rice and meat cooked separately. In the Hyderabadi biryani on the other hand, raw rice and raw meat are cooked together. A counterargument is that biryani derives from the Farsi for ‘fried’, so in fact the pakki biryani in which the meat is fried separately from the rice may be more ‘authentic’. At any rate, so popular are Hyderabadi biryanis that most well-established restaurants in the city are prepared to vacuum-pack the dish which is taken by expatriate Mulkis to various parts of the country and the globe. However, if one goes by Pratibha Karan’s collection of Hyderabadi recipes, A Princely Legacy, the best biryanis are cooked in private kitchens, not restaurants. A test for a wellcooked biryani? Throw a small amount of rice on the floor – if the grains fall separately, the biryani is well-made.
For more on the city, pick up Goodearth Publications: Hyderabad City Guide ISBN 9789380262031
(Available at all leading outlets and online stores)
We’ve been writing about Madhya Pradesh for many years now, so we’ve all grown quite familiar with its long and varied history, but it wasn’t until we started researching and travelling for Rock Art of Madhya Pradesh: Travel Guide that we realised how MP’s past stretches wa-ay back into the really, truly long ago.
An utterly unpredictable concatenation of geographical phenomena means that the ‘heart of India’ is chock full – quite literally – of ‘rock shelters’. Typically, a rock shelter looks like somebody armed with a really big spoon scooped a chunk of rock out of the side of a mountain – leaving a little hollow, complete with an entrance, a roof and a floor. In fact, the perfect place to catch your breath – particularly if you were wandering the prehistoric jungles of central India and were in no mood to confront a hungry tiger.
Tens of thousands of years ago, the men and women of the Stone Age wandered through these thick jungles, climbing up the many undulating ranges of MP – and turning the Vindhyas, the Satpuras, the Kaimur hills into crowded colonies.
For Rock Art of Madhya Pradesh, we went tramping in the footsteps of our most distant ancestors, and discovered how they spent their spare time.
No matter what they were painting, though, prehistoric settlers certainly knew how to pick the most scenic spots.
While working on our book Temples of Madhya Pradesh, we came across several incredible temples, some whacky, some awe-inspiring, and some just caught my fancy! Check these out:
We’ve just published Jharkhand’s very first state guide!
Carved out of Bihar in 2001 as a separate state, Jharkhand is barely thought of as a tourist destination by most people.
When we began working on the Jharkhand state guide, we were hardly aware that the state was virtual treasure chest that was waiting to be discovered.
It was a real challenge, albeit the fun kind, conceptualizing the guide and trying to weave together the various aspects of the state, from mineral wealth and biodiversity to archaeological and cultural heritage, in our quest to make this the definitive guidebook on the state!