Rolls are true blue Calcutta snack and we could nearly patent it. Wholesome and delicious they are fried (nowadays baked) Indian bread stuffed with succulent spicy pieces of chicken/mutton/beef/potatoes/paneer (cottage cheese) and flavoured with chopped onion, chilies, sauces, salt, pepper and lime. Rolls can be coated with/without egg and for a moderate eater, is a meal in itself. Every Calcutta lane has at least 1 such seller (usually called snacks/snacks center) who dish out these succulent wraps from huge steaming girdles. Nawab in Gariahat is one such shop which sells baked rolls instead of traditional fried ones and they are absolutely heavenly.
An evening establishment, the rolls of Nawab fly off the counter and get exhausted by nearly 0730 pm, after which they have no choice but to shut shop and go home. Most of the snack shops also sell other fried Calcutta evening staples like fish finger, chicken/mutton/fish cutlet, chops, vegetable/chicken pakoras, kabiraji, mughlai parota etc. The cutlets are crumb coated, deep fried minced chicken/fish/vegetable and I remember them being served with chopped onions and dashes of tomato and pungent Bengali mustard sauces called kasundi. Fern Hotel in Gariahat is a celebrated eatery which specializes in these fried snacks and their kabiraji and waiters are city fixtures.
Most of the cutlets, fingers, chops (nothing but chicken/vegetable especially carrots and beetroots stuffed crumb coated patties) are seemingly British (read Anglo Indian) snacks, but the kabiraji is actually more of a meal. It is popularly believed that Kabiraji Cutlet is actually the colloquial version of ‘Coverage or Cover Egg’ Cutlet introduced by the British. Kabiraji is a minced chicken/fish/mutton patty, encased in a fluffy frothy egg coating and served with onions and sauces. Mughlai parotas are also a Bengali staple served especially for breakfast and are egg stuffed, fried Indian bread complimented with spicy potato/ mutton curry.
While a walk down the Calcutta lanes brings alive the architectural ghosts of the British rule, the boundless ‘hole in the wall joints’ as well as elite city clubs (some of which until 2013 were strictly old school all male clubs) fiercely keep the British food influence pulsating. Most of them, if not all still serve food which originated during the British Colonial era and while some of these dishes try to emulate what used to be served to the English officers then, most are still consumed in their original forms. They were specifically developed to entertain the British genteel by the erstwhile Bengali nobility and for that purpose the Mog Cooks from Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) used to be in great demand.
These food wizards created many indigenous dishes, the famous (and now mostly lost) being the ‘Pantheras’ (batter-fried minced meat rectangles) which struck a delicious balance between Bengali and European cuisines. Hardly any of the Mog cooks remain today in the city’s culinary scene, with only exceptions being the Barua and Son of Shyambazar area. They are perhaps the last remaining Mog cook descendants in Calcutta, striving hard to retain this culinary gem. Many of Mog Cook’s best creations were however improvised or stolen from recipes which were tossed up by boatmen aboard steamers/ barges plying down the Brahmaputra or Padma river in undivided Bengal (including Bangladesh). 19th century saw a lot of river traffic in both Hooghly (Padma) and Brahmaputra rivers and people traveled throughout Undivided Bengal, Assam, Burma and beyond on those steamers. Most of these journeys used to last for more than a day and meals served on board used to rustic preparations cooked by the Muslim boatmen on board. Those dishes used to heartily simple using basic spices and usually a fowl or fish and have gone down Bengal’s culinary history as sheer legends.
The much in demand Mog Cooks during their journey to and fro to Calcutta from Chittagong, experienced those dishes on a regular basis and thus Goalondo Steamer Chicken, Smoked Hilsa/Bhekti fish, Country Captain etc got introduced to the city’s fine dining scene. Apart from the boatmen, the highly skilled Mog Cooks hijacked recipes of the British masters with equal expertise and zero guilt. Some British officers who were posted in different parts of the country loved cooking and improvised their favourite local dishes, making them uniquely Anglo Indian. Milder, flavourful and often a more tastier version of the original dish, it was no wonder that the Mog Cooks copied the sahibs’ dishes to perfection, thus thankfully making a few recipes still traceable. Captain Skinner’s chutney is one such dish which actually incorporates his food experiences through Dhaka, Sylhet, Chittagong, Burma and Calcutta and it is nothing short of history served on a plate.
The Dakbunglow cuisine, which is an important part of Calcutta food culture is another near forgotten and hardly documented colonial era culinary treasure and has some very interesting dishes with equally enchanting names. Dakbungalows used to be pit stops where the British officials rested for the night/nights and their chowkidars/caretakers were taught to rustle up dinner with whatever available ingredients they had with them. As most of these stops were unpredictable, the Dakbungalow cuisine evolved with mostly minced, wholesome, fried dishes using a hodgepodge of many tasty ingredients cleverly mixed. Thus British delicacies such as scotched eggs, breaded cutlets and puffy patties/pastries found their way to the Bengali kitchen (and his heart) and evolved into the very popular ‘Dim er Devil/Deviled Egg’, ‘BreastCutlet’ and Patties. While most of Dakbungalow meal recipes, along with the fading of the Mog Cook legacy, are lost forever a handful of dishes still remain intact and are being collated by food stalwarts of the city.
The telebhajas (vegetarian oil fritters) are the more humble, country cousin version of the Anglo Indian fried snacks and while they feature on a tad lower food rung, they are as popular as their British counterparts. Every evening, Calcutta streets see crowds gathering around telebhaja ladies (and sometimes their husbands) for freshly fried, piping hot onion/potato/egg plant/coriander fritters sold from wicker baskets on side walks. Thinly sliced/chopped these vegetables are coated in chick pea batter, deep fried and served in newspaper pockets with a sprinkling of sea salt and rice puffs.
Rice puffs or Muri are a popular Indian rice based snack and are healthy too. In fact, telebhaja, muri and ginger tea are monsoon specialties and nearly every evening I ended my Gariahat walk with them. Sometimes late Calcutta call for another humble city snack called ghati garam. These are very clever mixtures sold only by mobile peddlers who roam the streets jingling their signature bells. They too carry the paraphernalia on themselves, toss warm, toasty crunchy mix in front of you (as per your taste) and hand it out in newspaper cones. Light, with chopped onions, chilies and green mango slivers, ghati garam/ chana jor (it is bengal gram flakes mix) one of the most less mentioned Calcutta snack.
Street lights blazed, traffic, people and dogs played dangerously as I ambled daily between glistening mounds of rub red litchis, golden mangoes, blackberries and slobbery slices of sweet smelling jack fruits. Late summer or early monsoon is called “Aam Kathal er shomoy” meaning mangoes and jack fruit season in Bengal and both these fruits along with Taal (Asian Palmyra) wreck sweet havoc in the state kitchens. While mangoes (the ones from Malda are most famous) and jack fruits are consumed as fruits, Taal is used to make super delicious, carb loaded fritters, a very special monsoon favourite.
Apart from them, a host of other fruits also make appearances in Calcutta markets during monsoon and some of my childhood favourites, like gaab (Velvet apple Mabolo) and golapjaams (Rose apple) are strangely no longer available. It was while shopping for juicy bellfruits (jamrul) and transparent taal shash (palm hearts/ice apple) one Gariahat evening, that my eyes fell on both being sold dicreetly from a wicker basket by a friendly gardener who grows them at home. He usually sells plants, bulbs and seeds from a basket and that evening I got more than I had bargained for as I tucked a coral jasmine (shiuli) sapling, dewy fresh fish heads and wild mushrooms in my bag. Calcutta streets are sometimes very provincial and at most unexpected places, beautiful , lost mementos of childhood can be still be found. All this and Durga Puja make the city’s childlike spirit and create a magical time warped aura for the grand dame of British Raj. Intimidating, unforgettable and very very endearing, Calcutta is all about my memories of a place called home.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING – BECAUSE I CARE