Kolkata – A City of Joy – Street Food Series No. 1

An intrepid traveller once said to me, “The truly great cities of the world are so because of the availability of fresh water and pocket friendly food”. I think that’s why Kolkata already is and can be made even more attractive to the budget tourist. Probably no other city in the country can offer such a delightful kaleidoscope of tastes, flavours and textures on it’s streets & by lanes. There is a distinct heritage here, where street food shops can go back almost a hundred years and to the present day, provide the same quality, and miracle of miracles, at almost the same price.

Kolkata being the seat of the Cultural Revolution in India, and the Bengali being the most widely acknowledged pernickety foodie; the variety of Kolkata’s street food fare is unthinkable. From the very basic tea & toast to elaborate five course meals, from rustic fare to Continental delicacies, from simple potato ‘telebhaja’ to Kolkata’s very own version of ‘Chop’, ‘Cutlet’, ‘Moglai’, to the Englishman’s version of fish & chips to the city’s spin ‘ Kabiraji’, Kalkata streets can conjure up victuals to suit any palate, any nationality and any pocket. This is, of course, before we begin with the sweets.

A simple ritual of our everyday life ‘tea’ takes on the significance of a lifestyle along with ‘adda’ even for the very average Kolkatan. Tea is something the Bengalis are extra fastidious about and that is evident in the sheer variety available, be it ‘lebu cha’, ‘kora cha’, other than the usual ‘masala tea’ available in other Indian metros. Be it a RADU BABU in Lake Market, MAHARAJA on Sarat Bose Road, VIEN on Theatre Road or the various tea sellers on Camac Street, for as little as 6 rupees, they have to provide an elixir that is perfect viz. the right colour, the right strength, the right balance of the bitter and the sweet, the right temperature, the list just goes on and the great thing is, they do deliver every day, every year, every decade, every century. It’s such a wonder, living in Kolkata becomes worth it just for this little pleasure.

Kolkata – A City of Joy – Street Food Series No. 2

MANY NAMES: ONE AND ONLY PHUCHKA

There is probably no better way in the world to counter a blue funk than to roam about the streets of Kolkata and indulge in a titbit here and a titbit there, of the various flavours and tastes of Kolkata’s street food. But, as has been said time and again, there is no greater comfort food for any Indian than the omnipotent ‘phuchka’, seen in a variety of forms and names throughout the country.

Out of all these creations, the Kolkata phuchka is truly unique, with it’s absolutely wafer-thin crisp fried hollow pastry; the mashed masala potato filling [seasoned with spice, chilli, herbs & lemon juice] and of course, the super piquant water, with a predominance of tamarind flavour. There are hundreds of various of course, on this theme in the lanes and by-lanes of Kolkata. Some use chickpeas and puy lentils to bolster the taste buds and making the snack more substantial. The proportion of the sweet & sour jaggery tamarind chutney assumes the importance of chemical analysis in Kolkata, with a population that has a predominantly sweet tooth. The chilli element cannot be ignored too, as the addition of fresh green chillies or dried red chillies dramatically twists the flavours. There is true alchemy in the creation of the ‘jol’, where every vendor has his own unique take on the composition of various spices, mint and tamarind.

Babu, the Vardaan Market vendor, uses strong combination of sour, hot & sweet, venture a little further to Chandan Gupta of New Market, who has a more milder take on the water, but seasons his potato filling with a lot of spices. The Guptas of Dokshinapan use a stronger flavour of jeera, hing and kali mirch while Dileep Da of Vivekananda Park has a completely unique blend to tickle the taste buds. He also has his creation of jaggery water (gurer joler phuchka), which can be enjoyed in the end a spicy bingeing, as ‘mishti phuchka’. There is also Naresh Kumar Saw at the Ballygunge Petrol pump, with a light flavourful water and a very thick, hot & sweet chutney, making for a decadent combination.

The list of permutations on this particular snack are endless, from the famous Lucknowi ‘dahi batasa’ to the slightly thicker pastry of the Mumbaiyya ‘paani-puri’ or the Semolina pastry of the Delhi ‘golgappa’, but one thing is indisputable, there is probably nothing else on Kolkata’s streets that is so uniquely India and so gastronomically Kolkata, as the ‘phuchka’.

Bon appetit !!!

Kolkata – A City of Joy – Street Food Series No. 3

Jhaalmuri

What is it about the crunch and pop of puffed rice that is irresistible across cultures? Be it the west or the east, puffed rice shows itself in a myriad variety of culinary avatars ranging from confectionary to savoury items. In the Indian diaspora, puffed rice is a major ingredient in chanachurs, bhels, chaats and sweet chikkis. Puffed rice or ‘Muri’ is an integral part of our culture, the lovingly called ‘Jhaalmuri’, one of the most ubiquitous all day snacks available on the streets of Kolkata. The combination of puffed rice, aromatic mustard oil and spices along with fresh veggies is savoury, healthy and relished by people of all ages.

There are thousands of ‘Jhaalmuri’ vendors across the city, each with their unique take on the type of ‘muri ’used, the blend of spices used, and the combination of shredded onions, green chilli, tomatoes, coriander and curry leaves , etc. Some vendors also have some special touches like Parimal Das of Vivekananda Park, who adds shredded raw mangoes for a more piquant taste. Nitai Sarkar in front of Tollygunge Metro adds a special spicy bhujia whereas Jagdeo Prasad on Lord Sinha road makes sure the mustard oil is extra pungent, so as to ‘tear the eyes’. Victoria Memorial has a number of vendors selling a variety of on-the-go comfort foods, but some of them stand out such as Acchhelal Singh uses his own special blend of garam masala and cornflakes based bhujia for his ‘Jhaalmuri’. Ramachandra Sahani outside the Indian Museum is special for his hot roasted peanuts and extra crunchy large grains of ‘muri’, whereas some will add a dash of shredded cucumber for that punch of freshness.

Vendors like the ones near the Southern Avenue Kali bari make wonderful variations of the Bombay bhel puri using a hot and sweet tamarind chutney. Pradip Shaw of BF Block Salt Lake also switches well between the dry Jhaalmuri and the saucy bhelpuri. In this essentially male dominated profession, one gutsy lady stands out for her exquisite quality stuff in front of Menoka Cinema, she dishes packet after packet of her hot spicy mix with a smile and a wave.

Whatever the recipe might be, the special Kolkata muri made from parboiled rice and unique to this part of the country is truly king. Muri shops in lake market see the demand, particularly from non-Kolkatans rise year by year. They agree that Jhaalmuri made from this stuff is something else. Well, Kolkatans are blessed with an evolved palate with a capacity to discern delicacy of taste. Thus, simple, fresh ingredients come together to form gastronomic magic in its lanes and by-lanes.