From my TOI blog: Freeze Frame
A food trail through the serpentine alleys of old Calcutta, some forgotten restaurants, memories of delicacies, little known little shops that sell great food, the almost ritualistic visits to the ‘must-eat-at’ places, the ‘just-can’t-miss-it’ food, some delicacies that I get to eat only in my mother’s kitchen, some recipes that my aging grandmother wants to pass on as a legacy- these are a few things that I will freeze in my frame this time, as part of my Calcutta travel diary from this summer.
No stories about Calcutta can ever be complete without stories of food. Not mine, at least.
Khetra makes my morning before morning shows me my day:
None of my Calcutta mornings are ever complete without Khetra’s kochuri. The first turn around the park that stands before my father’s house leads into a by lane that meanders a while before opening out on to a broad intersection. Halt. Turn to your right, and the hole in the wall that you will peer into is Khetra’s unnamed shop that offers hinger kochuri/alur torkari, singara, jilipi andchhanar jilipi, that would melt in your mouth, to all and sundry, every morning for breakfast. And my breakfast, for the days that I spend lounging in my mother’s drawing room, is Khetra’s bill of fare. ‘Is it that no one can make hinger kochuri better than Khetra in Calcutta?’ – you might wonder. The Bee begs to differ with me. His favourite hinger kochuri is made by a shop in Chaltabagan, near Manicktala. Perhaps, there could be more treasure-troves, tucked away in other street corners, around other alleys, catering to another para of babus. But old habits die hard and my habit of feasting on hot hinger kochuri, wrapped in ‘shaal patar thonga‘, that comes with alur torkari in matir bhar is a habit that I cannot give up on, not at least till Khetra decides to shut shop.
And while I take you along with me to wander in my city’s alleys, smell the food on the way and take a picture or two, I will also tell you stories about a few favourite eateries that most people don’t know about or prefer not to talk about.
The little window in College Square:
One such place is the canteen that is housed within the compounds of the YMCA Swimming Club in College Square. In its heyday, while the members of the club were privileged to sit and eat within the club walls, a tiny window to the outside world used to serve the ‘mango people’ manna – piping hot mutton ghugni and soft, fluffy omelettes sprinkled with freshly crushed black-pepper. I graduated to their chicken stew when I reached college; and every Tuesday, and at times, on Wednesdays, I used to take a detour to have their stew with a friend who lived in the neighbourhood.
More back-alley fine dining and a chai-wallah of yore:
As you can understand, my salad days were well spent eating at small joints and more holes-in-the-wall in the southern half of the city. One such back-alley ‘fine diner’ was a favourite for its Tibetan Momos and Thukpas, and I am not talking about Orchid here, which used to seem ‘expensive’ in those days (for those who are familiar with the establishment). Walk in through a rundown doorway on Ashutosh Mukherjee Road and the narrow lane takes a couple of twists and turns before reaching the ‘restaurant’ door. The restaurant named ‘Tibetan Delight’ was, perhaps, an extension of the Tibetan family’s drawing room, had four tables and about twenty plastic chairs of various hues. But their Pork momos (they had chicken, mutton and vegetable momos on the menu too) served with steaming soup replete with freshly chopped shallots and fiery red chilli sauce on the side was something to die for. An early afternoon Momo binge, almost fifteen years later, at Tibetan Delight helped refresh those crazy, carefree days. R, quite the foodie, feasted on their Thukpa, as she giggled merrily to stories from my college days.
The chai-wallah, who sat on the pavement, across from my college gates, used to serve chai, in earthenware cups – ‘bhaar’ – best had standing huddled under an umbrella, on a rainy day. Found him with his family of battered tin mugs, old glass jars of biscuit, Horlicks bottles of tea and sugar, his busy brass stove – still serving piping hot tea in his earthen bhaar. I missed the rain but R returned happy with a burn on the tip of her tongue, having been initiated into tea.
French windows, new and old:
A surprise discovery on a Saturday morning, thanks to a dear friend, was Piccadilly Square, a new eatery on Sarat Bose Road, who open rather early, to serve breakfast, of the English kind. I would recommend their freshly made waffles, pancakes and crepes and ask you to finish the meal with a Blueberry cheesecake. Wash it all down with a cup of freshly brewed coffee, all while you watch the early morning traffic whizz past you from your table by their long French windows.
But it is hard to beat the hours that stretch longer and longer watching the busy road outside while you sip tea or coffee and nibble on a rum ball or Chicken Patties and Chicken Rissoles or an old fashioned English Tea Sandwich, by the French windows of Flury’s ‘tearoom’, on Park Street, a permanent name on my ‘must eat at’ list. As an annual ritual, it mostly follows the same pattern: retail therapy at Hogg Sahib’s Market, a walk down to Oxford Bookstore on Park Street, stroll down to Flury’s, call up a few friends and watch afternoon darken into evening from the old, favourite French window. If you have breakfast at Flury’s, which we did on a few occasions, must try their crispy bacon, the French style light and fluffy omelette, grilled tomatoes and hash brown along with some freshly baked bread. The foodie recommends Open Swiss sandwich with shredded chicken and ham or bacon and their Chicken Mustard Sandwiches. Wash it all down with some Viennese coffee or Darjeeling tea. Li’l R recommends the filled Croissants.
Mughlai, Mughlai and more Mughlai food:
My ‘must-eat-at’ list can go on and on, but the ‘must-eat’ list is quite short and reads ‘Mughlai and mostly Mughlai’. I have grown up in a house where eating out was not much in fashion so the mutton rezala and tandoori rotis used to come home from Sabir restaurant, mutton chaap from Royal and biriyani from Shiraz and Aminia. Though Nizam’s at New Market, Shiraz at Park Circus and Arasalan outlets across the city have ‘rezala’ on their menu, there is nothing that truly compares with Sabir’s signature rezala. So on a sultry, summer afternoon, we found ourselves in the heart of Calcutta’s Chandni Chowk, better known for its rows of shops selling electronic parts, computer hardware, car parts and electrical equipment, to mark another pilgrimage. ‘Dada and I used to come here when he was assembling his music system’, recalled the Bee. The rezala was still the same: thin, white, slightly sweetened yogurt gravy, lightly spiced with aromatic Kashmiri red chillies and before you knew it, the succulent pieces of mutton had already melted in your mouth. The tandoori roti was as soft as I remember from when I was younger than R. We were still hungry for more and the mutton chaap turned out to be just right to satiate the gluttonous souls. We also polished off the meal with small, earthen bowls of Phirni, for dessert.
More Mughlai, a drink detour and my mother’s best recipes are a few things to be explored in the next post…