There’s no food like home food and us, Bengalis celebrate festivities through our bellies. It is correctly said, that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and in Calcutta, this applies to both the genders. From street eats reflecting ‘propah’ English culinary influence to fragrant, rich, Mughlai dishes, Calcutta is a gourmand’s paradise. Bengali food is hailed as one of the mildest, yet complex cuisines of India and the locals are not only proud of their food, but they go about their epicurean habits with snobbish sophistication. Home to one of the most evolved culinary traditions in Asia, in Calcutta, is truly the pride of the Bengali food epicurean.
Learn the sweet rolling culinary vocabulary to enjoy Bengali food to the max
Now, before you rush to the nearest eatery and order a Bengali food platter, here is a sneak peek of what our cuisine is all about. Being snobbish epicureans, it goes without saying, that we take pride in every aspect of our food, and that comes to even pronounce the names of the dishes in a proper way. Bengalis are famous for their sweet, rolling tongue and discovering the Bengali cuisine gets more delightful once the local culinary vocabulary is mastered. So for starters, presenting an essential breakdown of some of Calcutta’s magnificent delicacies, most of which are quintessentially Kolkata.
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There is no kathi roll as good as the Calcutta kathi roll
Roll is a true blue Calcutta snack and the Bengali food lovers can nearly demand to patent it. Wholesome and delicious these 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 one such seller (usually called snacks/snacks center) who dishes 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.
Moghlai Parota, Kabiraji, and other gems of the Bengali food scene
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 in the city also sell various other fried Bengali food like the 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 sauce, 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.
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Bake it, fry it, and serve it for breakfast according to the proper British custom
While 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, 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 Bengali food staples served especially for breakfast and are egg stuffed, fried Indian bread complimented with spicy potato/ mutton curry.
Mog Cooks, the undisputed kings of Bengali food history
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 colonial food influence pulsating. Most of these places, if not all, still serve food which originated during the British Colonial era and these dishes emulate what used to be served to the English officers during that time. 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. Till today, the colonial influence can be strongly felt in Bengali food and Entally churns out one of the tastiest pork sausages in the country. Known as Entally sausage, these are in a league of their own.
The lost culinary heritage which is kept alive by only one family in the world
The Mog Cooks were real food wizards who created many indigenous dishes. They were experts in improvising and their most famous was the ‘Pantheras’ . Light, batter-fried minced meat rectangles, Pantheras struck a delicious balance between Bengali food and European tastes and at present, it is a nearly lost recipe. Hardly any of the Mog cooks remain active today in the city’s culinary scene, with the only exception 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.
Bengali food wizards or original recipe plagiarists?
Incidentally, many of the Mog Cook’s best creations had dubious origins and their recipes were either improvised or directly influenced by the dishes tossed up by the boatmen aboard steamers/ barges plying down the Brahmaputra or Padma river in undivided Bengal. This region at that time included Bangladesh and the 19th century saw a lot of river traffic in both Hooghly (Padma) and Brahmaputra rivers. People traveled a lot throughout Undivided Bengal, Assam, Burma and beyond on those steamers and most of these journeys lasted for a couple of days. The meals served on board these vessels were rustic preparations cooked by the Muslim boatmen on board and they were heartily simple dishes using basic spices. Cooked with usually a fowl or fish, the steamer curries have gone down Bengali food history as sheer legends.
Captain Skinner’s chutney and other timeless British influences on Bengali food
The much in demand Mog Cooks, during their journey to and fro between Calcutta and Chittagong, experienced those dishes on a regular basis and thus the 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 their British masters with equal expertise and some of the British officers who were posted in different parts of the country loved cooking as well. They often experimented with their favourite English dish using local ingredients, thus giving birth to the unique Anglo Indian Bengali food. Milder, flavourful, and often a 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 hasty begining of the very interesting Dak Bungalow Bengali food
The Dak bungalow cuisine, which is an important part of the Bengali food culture is another near forgotten and hardly documented colonial era culinary treasure. It has some very interesting dishes with equally enchanting names. Dak bungalows used to be the 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 cleverly mixed ingredients. Thus British delicacies such as scotched eggs, breaded cutlets, and puffy patties/pastries found their way to the Bengali food annals and they evolved, with time, 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 these dishes still remain intact and are being collated by the food stalwarts of the city.
For the humblest of the Bengali food, eat on the streets
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/eggplant/coriander fritters sold from wicker baskets on sidewalks. Thinly sliced these vegetables are coated in chickpea batter, deep fried, and served in newspaper pockets with a sprinkling of sea salt and rice puffs.
Bengali food is a salad, mixture, and snacks galore
Rice puffs or Muri are a popular Indian rice-based snack and they are incredibly healthy as well. In fact, telebhaja, muri, and ginger tea are monsoon specialties along with another humble city snack called ghati garam. These are very clever mixtures/salads sold only by mobile peddlers who roam the streets jingling their signature bells. They carry their makeshift paraphernalia on themselves, toss warm, toasty crunchy mix in front of you (as per your taste) and hand it out in newspaper cones. Topped with chopped onions, chilies, and green mango slivers, ghati garam or chana jor is one of the lesser known, but very delicious Bengali food gems.
Reminisce grandmother’s kitchen wonders through Taaler Bora
It is said that you can recognize a city’s taste through its displayed cornucopia of fresh produce. Some of my favourite Calcutta memories consist of glistening mounds of ruby red litchis, golden mangoes, blackberries, and slobbery slices of sweet-smelling jackfruits, being sold in pools of golden street lights. Late summer or early monsoon is called “Aam Kathal er shomoy” and it heralds the mangoes and jackfruit season in Bengal. Both these fruits along with Taal (Asian Palmyra) wreck sweet havoc in the state kitchens and Bengali food is incomplete without mentioning these orchard treasures. While mangoes (the ones from Malda being the most famous) and jackfruits are mostly consumed as fruits, Taal is used to make the super delicious, carb-loaded fritters, called Taaler Bora. Ask any Bengali and he will get misty-eyed remembering his/her grandmother’s monsoon special, “Taaler Bora”.
Seasonal fruits from its very fertile soil, mark the Bengali food list
Apart from these jewels, 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 bell fruits (jamrul) and transparent taal shash (palm hearts/ice apple) one Gariahat evening, that my eyes fell on both being sold discreetly 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 shopping bag. Calcutta streets are sometimes very provincial and at the most unexpected places, beautiful, lost mementos of childhood can be still be found. All this and the Durga Puja make the city’s childlike spirit unforgettable and they 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 and there is indeed no food, like the good old, Bengali food.
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