Every city is defined by its culinary aspirations, more contextually, its street food. What the common man eats during a hard day’s work, what the local woman snacks on during a break, what school going children can afford after their tiffin money is over. Every city has a famous type made popular by tourists. Delhi has its kebabs and chaats, Indore has chirwa while for Bombaywalas, their vada pav is a heavenly concoction.
I recently went home to Calcutta (or now known as Kolkata). It’s difficult to put a finger on what exactly makes Calcutta street food stand out so. I think it’s because of the vast range good solid cheap street food that the city offers. Yes, you have the world famous Flurys and Nizams, but ultimately it’s the quality and range of street food which defines a city. Every visitor reads up on what to eat and what to do, but having lived in the city for a sufficient number of years, after walking in almost every by-lane and eating almost everything the gorgeous city has to offer, Calcutta food makes me nostalgic. You can try eating at a Bengali restaurant and you can go to the ‘Bengali area’ in your city, but for the food which offers its heart and soul in every bite, you have to visit Calcutta. Divine, delectable and heavenly on your taste buds, from puchkas to kati rolls, chops and cutlets to shingara-kachori and mughlai parathas to Chinese breakfasts, Calcutta food leaves you wanting, no, craving for more.
Whenever I visit Calcutta, there are a few places I make a beeline for. Although this time home was a short visit and I couldn’t eat everything, I managed to squeeze in time for what I call ‘my food’.
If you find yourself in the New Market area, take a quick detour towards Lindsey Street and stop by NV Stores. It’s a small sandwich shop which offers you a vast range of fillings and sauces, grilled or loaf creations all under 100 rupees ($1.50). My favourite is the vegetable loaf sandwich for 30 rupees ($0.50). They cut open a fresh load of bread, slather butter and mustard and add vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, onions, cucumbers, carrots and even fresh coriander. It’s heated for about 30 seconds till nice and warm. Wash it down with a glass of mango lassi. You won’t be hungry before dinner, trust me. I couldn’t visit the ‘office para’ or Dalhousie area during this trip but there’s a small sandwich cart behind Gillanders office building which makes one of the meanest cheese sandwiches I’ve had. It will give any proper establishment a run for its money.
Puchkas, need I say more!
You can try golgappes in Delhi and panipuri in Mumbai and even batashes in Lucknow, but they all pale in comparison to Calcutta puchkas. After years of research I’ve come to decide that the best puchkas the city offers is NOT found in VP or Vivekananda Park but opposite Max Mueller Bhavan on Rowland Road. Second comes the ones found at the Elgin Road-Woodburn Park crossing. The tangy tamarind water which accompanies deep fried flour balls with mashed potato stuffing that has been seasoned by a whole lot of spices, oh my mouth waters as I write this. It takes some time getting used to if you’ve never had it before but you’ll be addicted I tell you. There have been great debates on the different versions found in different cities but the one thing Calcuttans are passionate about is food. They make sure their puchka voice is heard!
Deep fried goodness – the telebhaja
Every state has a version of fried fritters accompaniments during tea, but Calcutta’s version of telebhaja is hard to beat. Calcuttans love deep fried food and they love to deep fry anything. Evening tea is never complete without onion, potato, brinjal, cauliflower or chilly fritters. Vegetables finely cut and coated with a besan (gram flour) mixture, then deep fried till golden, ah the crunchy delight to be able to bite into one. Telebhaja vendors are found in every street but my favourite place is near the Chandni Chowk metro station.
Secrets of a kati roll
Every city has a version of the kati roll. But no one makes it better than the Calcuttans. You can have a vegetable roll with potatoes and beetroot or a chicken one with spices and onions, you won’t regret it. Rolls are a staple in Calcutta so they are not overpriced as the ones found in Bombay or Delhi. You will get any roll under 100 rupees ($1.50). My favourite is the chicken egg roll found in a small kiosk in front of Anita Medicine house in Northern Park. They make the parathas just right, not too crispy or too thin. The egg is cooked with the paratha and the chicken mixture added later. With a squeeze of lime and salt, this divine creation must be a must-have. Also, if you’re in the mood for spicy beef rolls, head to the Park Circus crossing or near Statesman House.
The jhal in muri
Jhal literally translates in English to hot while muri is puffed rice. So the jhal muri concoction hits the right note when you’re eager for a snack. Popularly called masala muri, the vendor adds onions, tomatoes, potatoes, lime, tamarind, salt, spices, oil, peanuts, chillies, coconut and/or a sweet sauce to the muri. Finally topped off with coriander leafs and bhujia, it comes to you at about rupees 30-40. ($.60)
PS: I add this because they are found in every nook and corner of Calcutta, and extremely tasty at that!
Well the rise in popularity of momos – steamed or fried dumplings stuffed with chicken, pork or vegetables from North Eastern India – have been massive in recent years. Suddenly every street has a momo-seller. They serve you the delights straight from the steamer along with a piping hot bowl of clear soup and a red hot fiery sauce made from tomatoes, chillies and garlic. Extremely filling and easy on the pockets (about 20-30 rupees or less than $0.50 for a plate), there’s nothing like a plate of momos during the evenings.