Kolkata: Cuisine

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Traditional eateries

As in 2023

Zeeshan Javed, January 22, 2023: The Times of India

When Eater magazine put Kolkata as one of the top food destinations of 2023, residents of other metros probably went, ‘aw, that’s too maach’. But ask anyone who has sampled the city’s culinary delights and they will tell you there’s much more to Kolkata than maach, mishti and momos.

One reason for this is the melange of influences. Bengalis alone did not make the food in Kolkata what it is, although listening to them talking about it may give that impression. The Europeans left their meat stews; the Chinese came and cooked up a storm; and the ousted nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, brought his biryani. In an interview some years ago, his granddaughter told TOI about how his enterprising chefs added aloo to the biryani to deal with the shortage of meat (biryani purists shouldn’t diss it till they try it!). Then there were the refugees from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, who gave the Bengali fish curry a robust chilli-mustard kick. The food pot of Kolkata was heated by many other hands as well — Armenians, Baghdadi Jews, Gujaratis, Marwaris, Punjabis, Sindhis, Oriyas, Tamils and, of course, the city’s Bengali residents. Falling in love with the city means falling in love with the ever-changing landscape of Calcutta’s cuisine.

“The discourse around food often focuses on this idea of people being caught between cultures or identities. But in Kolkata, there is an embracing of all cultures simultaneously. This is best seen on the streets where carts selling dosas, chilla, chowmein and biryani sit by side doing brisk business,” says Swagato Basu, a Kolkata food historian. Kolkata’s streets stew and simmer with close to 2,00,000 vendors who rustle up an astonishing range of dishes. At any time of the day, it is possible to feast on fried veggie fritters or tele bhaja, succulent kebabs, Tibetan momos, the lightly spiced lentil-meat stew called haleem, and chickpea curry or ghughni.

Ravenous for More

In Kolkata, neighbourhoods have food IDs. Tiretta Bazar is famous for Chinese breakfasts, Zakaria Street in central Kolkata is a kebab hub, Rabindra Sadan is famous for Tibetan food, and Free School Street is where people savour the flavours of erstwhile East Bengal or Bangladesh. But while ethnic and foreign influences gave Calcutta its rich culinary heritage, the Kolkata of today is buzzing with modern iterations of Bengali food and trendy cafes like Sienna Café, Abar Baithak, Paris Café and Bunaphile. Even though old favourites like Peter Cat and Mocambo continue to attract snaking queues, the father and son duo behind them have opened a new eatery serving pan Asian food called Peter Hu to tap the tastebuds of a younger, more travelled demographic who are eager customers of innovators.

Creative twists

And the city’s restaurants, old and new, haven’t shied from experiments. The first momo any Kolkata denizen must have relished is in Blue Poppy near downtown Park Street. Started by Kalimpong girl Doma Wang almost 20 years ago, the Tibetan restaurant now run by her daughter Sachiko Seth as Blue Poppy Thakali continues to be the momo magnet it first started out as. “I used to dish out quick-service, eat-and-go momos. Nobody would have imagined spicy aloo dum with cheese as momo filling. But Sachiko has proven us wrong and today it’s one of our bestsellers,” says Wang. Even heritage sweet makers have given their mishti a fusion twist by whipping up innovations like nolen gur souffles and lava sandesh, while the famed pastry shop Kookie Jar has added profiteroles and eclairs to its menu even as it retains its legendary lemon tart and chocolate pyramids.

Quality is a non-negotiable in Kolkata, says Swaminathan Ramani who was born in Secunderabad, grew up in Jamshedpur, studied in Madras and landed in Calcutta in 1995 as a banquet sales manager at Park Hotel. Today he is managing a Rs 100-crore hospitality company. He opened 6 Ballygunge Place, the first a la carte Bengali restaurant in Kolkata in 2003, when hardly anyone went to restaurants to eat Bengali food. “In the initial years, we weren’t making any money at 6 Ballygunge Place. Today several elaborate dishes made by mashis and pishis (aunts) like paturi and kosha mangsho are not being made at home and that’s where we come in. Also, fewer women have the time to cook now,” points out Ramani.

He is also confident that there is nobody who is as voracious and joyous an eater as a Bengali. “The way they eat and enjoy their food is something to be seen and experienced. I have been in the restaurant industry for 24 years but I can safely say that no one can match the zeal of a Bengali foodie,” says Ramani.

Not just locals, even expats vouch for the fact that the city’s food is ‘fatafati’ (awesome in local lingo). “Kolkata is one of the most exciting places to eat right now anywhere in the world. And the sweets are to die for,” says Nick Delauney, who is with the city’s consular corps.

If eating is the mission, Kolkata can take you on an endless run. Expect to pile on the kilos.

— With additional reporting by Sneha Bhura

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