Once upon a time, a young man came to Kolkata for a certification examination. He shared a flat with four other people in Behala, went for his classes, came back, and relaxation meant Tantra or South City Mall. This is how he passed about six months of his life, and then he met me. Christmas week was coming up, and a friend of his gave him my number so he could ask me where 5 men could go to celebrate Christmas or New Year.
I usually am very brisk on the phone. My side of the conversation went like this, "How long have you been here again? And you haven't had phuchka? What about Momos? No? Have you been to Arsalan? Have you been ANYWHERE on Park Street? Tantra? No, I meant food! Oh come on, you're wasting your time here. Meet me at Forum on Saturday." To give him due credit, he just turned up without further questions.
We took a look at each other. He looked nice enough to take around, so I offered him a Gourmet Tour of Kolkata over the next few days. We sat across each other drinking Coffee at the Forum Food Court, while I sort of rattled off the stories of must visit places, got impatient with all of it, and said, "Get up, let's start now."
First stop, AC Market. We crossed the road, and savoured what, to me, is Kolkata's best Phuchka. There are two reasons why Chhotu was at my wedding. One his phuchka quality, and two, that was the first "meal" we shared together. It's also funny that on our wedding day, after we got married, we broke our fast with his phuchka too!
Next stop, Orchid, beside Momo Plaza, on Harish Mukherjee Road. When we were in college, we'd come after a game of badminton, our group of 7, and eat, mostly at Humro Momo, but Orchid had the pan fried momos, spicier than the rest, and I thought a Kerala palate may need that! He settled for the "normal" ones, but Orchid somehow is better now than the rest.
A steaming bowl of thukpa and a plate of momos later, (along with a brief lecture on why Tangra is the next step to Nirvana) we were on our way to South City Mall for a movie. After the movie, we went to Zara, another of our favourite places, especially for the Ladies' Nights that they host. Also Chef Amit does ANY improvisation you need, he's from IHM Kolkata after all. And the service, is impeccable. My grandmother's favourite dish there was the Prawns in Aioli.. I love it too!
So we'd met for coffee in the morning, and it was already time to go home. I had one week before I started work, so we had to "see" as much as possible in that time.
I thought we'd had enough of slumming it, so the next dinner was at Oberoi Grand. When we were working at the Taj, Pink Elephant was the only discotheque in town. We'd go dancing, then stop for a coffee and a sandwich at The Brasserie (now it's La Terrasse). The food was to die for. It still is. Also because there isn't a nightclub in the Oberoi's anymore, the restaurant is quieter and less noisy than in other hotels, you can actually take a walk in the poolside after ordering your food if that's what you want to do. It's perfect for couples, and perfect for a large family who want to laugh and talk loudly. Our Christmas lunches are always there, my Grandmom wouldn't dream of Christmas without turkey. I told him stories of how Raibahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi had lived in one on the rooms, this was his favourite property. It was also the first Oberoi hotel, the only reason it has not been converted to a Trident yet.
Douglas and Steven were, once upon a time, the DJs of the Pink Elephant, and the moment I entered, they'd play Sexy Eyes by Whigfield. At that time, it was my favourite song. Doug moved to the Big Ben when Pink shut shop, so did we. Irfan from Taj was at the bar, he was in Junction (Bar) when I was at the Esplanade (Coffee Shop), so Big Ben was a really good place to hang out. At the same time, Tantra and Someplace Else also came up. While Someplace Else was great for beer and live music, we simply swooned over DJ Austin's mix of Night Train, Barsaat, and 9 pm. Tantra, however, was full of kissing teens everywhere, so we preferred the "classier" Big Ben. Now there are so many places to go dance in Kolkata, I have no clue where to go at all. Maybe I need a refresher course from a Kolkatan!
Lunch at Kafulok in Tangra was another "heritage" stop. Tangra was a tannery, with three or four houses serving food. Blue Diamond and Kim Ling were the first "restaurants" there, Kafulok was more the Wang family serving you. The food was lovely, you had to buy drinks by the bottle, and everything was dirt cheap! There was a general stink of rotting leather the moment you entered Tangra, but we accepted it as part of the "ambience". The Wang sisters have all settled elsewhere now, and for a brief while, Kafulok was closed. It's then when we discovered the joys of China Haus, the Schezwan Fried Crab especially. Now people tell me there's a new great one called Golden Joy, Beijing is good too, however, Kafulok is open again, and I, like a robot, go straight there, and order a Thai Soup, a Chilli Fish, and a Chilli Garlic Prawn. I see the expression on his face.. and I think, yes, you're getting it! He doesn't normally eat prawns, he finds them plasticky.. but the prawns in the Thai Soup, he savoured.
The other Chinese he had to try was at Bar-B-Q. Very important, that, to distinguish how very good Chinese differed from very good authentic Chinese. He impressed me with his views on the differences, even though we liked both, and I knew this was a foodie, so hanging out together wouldn't be difficult at all…
Can any heritage tour of Kolkata foods be complete without Peter Cat? When we went in for dinner one day, I told him that he had to order the Chelo Kebab. Every Calcuttan has had it, some time in his or her life, it's not a dish, it's an institution. The buttered rice with the fried egg on top, the two sticks of kebab on either side, it is one of these comforting things in life that never change. The grilled Chicken Sizzler was another favourite when we were younger, so he tried that, too! He was always (and still is) amazed by the amount we pay for good food in Kolkata, compared to other cities, it's pittance!
He told me upfront that he cannot handle fish bones, so how would I introduce him to Hilsa? 6 Ballygunge Place for lunch solved that problem, their boneless bhapa ilish made him a firm fan of Bengal's obsession. I told him that Bengali food in restaurants was a relatively new thing, even though Siliguri had the Kolpotorus and the Kalpanas, the "Classical Bengali Food" thing started, outside the Five Stars, with Kewpie's Kitchen. Then came Bhojohori Manna, then so many more. Our favourites are 6 Ballygunge Place and 16 Ana Bangali. 13 Parbon is good too. Avoid Bhojohori Manna if chipped plates and bad service turn you off. Avoid Aaheli at the Peerless Inn at all costs. If you want to try "fusion" Bengali food, try Joy's restaurant Bohemian in Ballygunge Place. He's good, but READ the menu before ordering, it will taste like what's in it. DON'T expect your mother's cooking, this is a creative chef's interpretation, NOT traditional recipes. The panchphoron flavoured chicken escalopes are really good, my friends tell me. He also took care of all the food at our wedding, and his Bengali food transformed for the Malayali palate was a HUGE hit.
I could only tell him stories of Sky Room and Blue Fox. The grilled sausages with mashed potato border, the plentiful Mixed Grill. The salted pistachios placed on the table for snacks. The Baked Alaska, icecream inside a flaming meringue. Blue Fox's steaks were the best in town, at least for us girls, who'd never been to Olypub! Then the change of chef at Blue Fox, UC coming in from Taj, and making a delectable Shorshey Maachh. A dry kebab. I had told him so many stories about UC's kebabs, that one day, sitting in namma Chennai at Sigree, I suddenly went dreamy eyed about a kakori kebab. I said this is EXACTLY what UC used to make. My husband, who sort of takes my taste buds very seriously, laughed and asked the waiter, "Is your Chef's name Umesh?", and the waiter called the Chef, and UC and I had a very happy reunion, right there, right then! I took him to Mocambo to make up for the lack of those two, and ordered the Chicken Tetrazini, but he could take it or leave it. Lesson, some things taste good ONLY because of the associations we have with them.
Masala Thums Up. The street food tour started with this at Shibuji's, at Vardaan Market. I have left Kolkata in 2000, and I maybe come home once a year. The guy just took a look at us, and told his assistant, "Ek Masala Thums Up, masala kam, no ice", and then asked M, "Aur aap kya lengey?". The magic of Kolkata, you're never gone, you're never forgotten. The bhelpuri wala in front of Lake Kalibari (the most awesome of them all) still asks me, "Didi, ar serial korben na?" I remember my first "on-screen boyfriend of three days", Jeetu Madnani, remember how much he had to struggle to make his presence felt, wonder what he is doing now, and someone tells me, he is now the new Bengali superstar. It feels good. He believed this is what he wanted to do, and he made it. In an industry that's political and unforgiving. I'm waiting to meet him and say, "Ki re Anil, jaliye dili to!" (Our names in Janani were Anil and Tina).
While at Vardaan, we sample the dal pakori, ask them for chilli pakoris for M, have some chana chepti (called chana jor garam outside Kolkata), and also have some phuchka. This is followed by a treatise on different kinds of phuchka and water, and he gets to sample the different types over the next few days. "Normal" phuchka from Pandit in Dakshinapan, Bablu in Deshapriya Park, (these two have amazing Alu Dums too) the Gariahat guy in front of the Wine Shop, New Empire Firpo's.. and the "Different" phuchka's from the guy in front of Treasure Island, Riddhi Siddhi, Chhotu.. the difference being the addition of pudina, and the availability of kanji vada type things in the churmur. While we were in front of Treasure Island, we also sampled the Raj Kachori, that too was a childhood thing, shopping and no time to eat? Stop, eat, go! Swallow it down with a Masala Thums Up or a Soda Shikanji from the big paan shop opposite. He too, remembers each of my preferences. He offered me a Lotte Cinnamon Chewing Gum, while gently scolding me for visiting after a four year gap, which amused M immensely.
Breakfast at Flury's was another tick mark we had to put. Ticked. It's no longer that. Whatever it used to be. But it's a good place to sit and talk, and their hot chocolate is still yummy. Be warned though, you'll hear dialogues like "Sorry we don't serve coffee at lunchtime" if you enter a bit late. We prefer desserts at Mama Mia now, on Ballygunge Circular Road. We also love their icecream cakes. Cream and Fudge also seems very popular with it's Cold Stone icecreams, though for me the Coffee World Filter Coffee at the same place is a blessing when I'm too sleepy!
Bedouin's Mutton Roll, Badsha's Mutton Roll, Kusum's Mutton Roll, Nizam's Mutton Roll, Karco's Mutton Roll.. he thoughtfully declared he'd have to try all those another time before declaring a winner, so we left it at that. Aponjon on Sadananda Road gave him his first taste of Fish Orly and Kobiraji, and the Butter Fry. Lake Club brought him Bijoligriller Machher Chop, we ate 18 between the two of us, accompanied by lots and lots of ice cream soda!
After some time, of course, we were hungry again, so my best friend and I wanted to go to a Dhaba. A very serious decision to be made, that! The daal was amazing at all these places, but Ballygunge Dhaba with it's amazing Liver Kasha? Jai Hind Dhaba with it's Butter Chicken? Bachchan Dhaba on rashbehari More? Azad Hind for Tandoori Chicken? Or my personal childhood favourite (I lived opposite the Gurdwara, my bedroom is now a Frank Ross Pharmacy!), Balwant Singh's Eating House, with its yummy lassi, milk and chai? I made sure he got a taste of these places over the next few months, but Balwant Singh's Tarka daal was and always will be number 1 to me!
Taj Bengal. My first ever workplace. The chicken patties at the Pastry Shop are absolutely the best in the world. Taj constantly reinvents itself so I have no clue what outlets it has now. Must go and see it sometime. Next time. Did pick up a few chicken patties and cheese ones (for me) when I went there for the reunion last year, people tell me they taste just the same. With Chef Sujon in charge, I'm not surprised. He's just SO much of a perfectionist, I'm sure all Taj Bengal restaurants churn out amazing food now.
The Rajasthani thali at Teej. The Rajdhani thali at Mani Square Mall. Kebabs at Zaranj and Amber. The thali at Vandana, in the lane beside Samilton. Dosa at Rana, at Jadavpur P.S. More. The cheese dosa at Dakshinapan. Amra ( a green sour fruit eaten raw with salt) in front of Modern High School. Jhalmuri at Jodhpur Park and Victoria Memorial. Small kul in front of any random school. By the time I left Kolkata for Chennai, M knew the stories, and could distinguish a Southern Aminia biryani from an Arsalan one just by smelling it. He also knew the fundamental differences between Maharanir kochuri, Dakshineshwar kochuri and Kalighat kochuri. He not just knew all of it, he'd started loving all of it, and would introduce all his friends from out of town to these joys of life that only an experienced guide can take you through.
As he says, he fell in love with Kolkata. As did his family, who flew down all the way from Trivandrum for the wedding. They sampled sweets from K.C. Das, vs Banchharam vs. Suresh (Dhakuria) vs. Kalpana (Lord's More) vs. Makhanlal and packed some for home. The bhajas, shorshes and postos were all new flavours, as was the brewed tea. Malayalis make tea with half milk half water, and boil it with tea. It's a very different taste, and very popular in South India.
But that is another story. To this story, there WILL be a sequel. When we come back next year to experience a Kolkata pujo, right from Barisha to Bagbazar.