It is difficult to garner and pen down my thoughts about Calcutta. Too many memories, familiarity, and intimacy always jumble up my mind, so I decided to randomly mention the things I love most about my city. Calcutta street food is legendary for its taste and the city is a shopper’s paradise. A walk down any of its lanes is an explosion of aroma, flavours, and textures. The city’s homogeneous population and incredibly talented artisans (who flock here since it has a cheap living cost) make it one of the best places to buy really good handcrafted textiles, leather ware, and jewelry. Every nook and cranny of the city has at least one shop, boutique or street vendor selling beautiful hand embroidered garments or furnishings, painted ceramic products, hand beaded filigree jewelry etc.
You can shop till you drop and eat till you burst in Calcutta
The city’s street food, like shopping, is myriad and being blessed with an abundance of fish, vegetables, fruits, and tea, Calcutta street eats use all of them generously. Its British colonial history is also reflected in the street food and many interesting versions of proper English dishes can be found tossed up by the vendors busily. Chicken and lamb are consumed heartily along with generous amounts of beef and pork. Proximity to North Eastern states and Nepal brings along a plethora of steamed, braised hilly delights, and momos (steamed dumplings) are one of Calcutta’s favourite finger food.
Calcutta offers great vegetarian specialties
A huge vegetarian non-Bengali community gives rise to many mouth-watering vegetarian snacks, dishes and really awesome lassis (creamy yogurt drink). Come monsoon, and mangoes or the king of fruits appear like golden orbs and the much awaited silvery Hilsa (a highly flavourful indigenous Hooghly fish) thunder the markets creating ripples of excitement in Bengali households. The Vardaan Market (near Camac Street) kulfi vendors dish out creamy, deliciously cold, flavoured kulfis in fruit shells (orange flavour in orange hollows, mango in mango skin cups etc) by hundreds and the Hilsa fish festivals take the city by storm.
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Dakshinapan is a Calcutta shopping and social institution
My house lies in the south, near the very upper crust old shopping center called Dakshinapan and every fashionable South Calcutta girl or expat, worth her salt, swears by its exclusiveness. A seemingly boring (and a bit ugly) spaciously laid-out market, it houses some of India’s best heritage emporiums selling expensive Indian textiles, handicrafts, jewelry, and furnishings. This is where every young Calcutta social butterfly learns how to differentiate between real dream soft Dhaka muslin from cheap artificial ones, know her silver tassel jamdani from gold threaded Benarasi and understands the telltale identifying clues of good rosewood or teak furniture.
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A tea-shop which often becomes the nerve center of politics
It also has the quaint Dolly’s Tea Shop, the most popular haunt of the city’s tea connoisseurs, Since we celebrate the Darjeeling tea like champagne, Dolly’s Tea Shop sees some of the biggest names in state politics, arts, actors, wannabes, and socialites jostling around its rattan tables. Owned and run by Ms. Dolly Basu, teak panels, tea crates, rattan furniture complete the charming interiors and it always buzzes with an eclectic clientele. The staff includes only women and they specialize in tea, especially fruit infused iced teas, sandwiches and apple pies. I am one of Dolly’s regulars, whenever in town and we never forget to catch up on each other’s growing collection of natural pearls. After biding her goodbye, I usually head towards Gariahat, the 2nd largest retail market in Calcutta (after New Market) just to soak in its busy chaotic “Oh so Calcutta” scenes.
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People watching to window shopping in Gariahat
A massive sprawling open-air market, Gariahat radiates in four different directions for at least a few kilometers and each branch is dedicated to one particular item. For example, jewelers jostle only in one direction, while another branch specializes in garments. Although this trend is changing rapidly, this mammoth of a market’s biggest draw is its street vendors who have illegally set shops/stores along the pavements. They sell durable good quality products, provide great bargains and more than often have chains of loyal customers (who patronize them through generations).
Calcutta is a city on the move, but in chaotic waves
Once a much-hyped attempt of organized urbanization threatened removal of the squatters and created such a huge outrage among shopper’s, that even the then prevalent iron clad Communist government had to step back quietly. I love Gariahat and walk around it nearly every day of my Calcutta visit, just to watch the typical chaos unfold. Shoppers (mostly window dressing admirers) loiter about in the most aimless way, vendors gossip, play cards, occasionally hawk, traffic police group under a shade to stare into nothingness and daredevil jay walkers weave in and out of harassed traffic, either singularly like a scampering goat or in wave-like hordes.
In Calcutta, pour your tea on a saucer and slurp it up with Marie biscuits
While the afternoons are relatively less dramatic, every evening makes the Gariahat market explode with life. Tea and butter slathered toasts of tea shops found at every 2nd step waft heavenly odours and small earthen pots (called bhaars) of tea are consumed by gallons. Better sometimes a penny more expensive establishments serve evening tea in proper cups and saucers and slurping the sugarry liquid from the saucer is deemed to be a Bengali tea tradition. Although more than one tea stall dots every city lane, both my favourites happen to be in the Lake Area called Southern Avenue. It is a pleasant tree-shaded avenue which has a long artificial water body, a lovely green park, several clusters of aquatic sports clubs, schools, rich apartments, and an old-fashioned much loved Menoka Cinema.
Tea, ghooghni, omelette, and evening adda or conversations
A number of colleges in that area have given rise to plenty of cheap eateries around the iconic Ramakrishna Mission, Golpark (same area) and my favourite tea vendor sells her wares from a desk set against a graffiti-etched wall. I visit her regularly (a pit stop of my evening walk), chat with her as I sip spiced lemon tea and watch the mad Calcutta traffic bustle by. It is a sidewalk cafe at its earthiest form. Young college crowd gathers around her for tea, gossip, dating, and smoking and she entertains them all while serving endless cups of tea, thin omelettes, and platters of spicy chickpea curry called ghoogni.
Add some butter toast, telebhaja, and you have a perfect Calcutta evening
Ghoogni is a popular Calcutta evening snack, served with a sprinkling of onion, chilies, and dash of tamarind juice. Every evening sees Calcutta office goers patiently scoop out dollops of knobbly yellow gravy from sal leaf platters as they nonchalantly weave between oncoming traffic. A couple of years back a friend introduced me to awesome Darjeeling tea sold from earthen cups along with thick crusty toasts. Butter smothered and sugar/pepper (according to taste) topped, the crunchy toasts perfectly complimented the delicate Darjeeling tea as we chatted about Sarod (musical instruments), Persian history, and ancient Salt route trek in Nepal.
Bakul, shiuli, chatim, and old school romance of Calcutta
Rain dripped from eucalyptus leaves, bakul flowers lay scattered like specks of fragrant gold, and illuminated naked bulbs became moth magnets. That is a typical Calcutta evening for you; A city of beauty, charm, feelings, and an intoxicating old school romance. We rubbed shoulders with judges, lawyers, corporate honchos, musicians, traders, and shady wheeler-dealers and all of us sipped tea by the road and discussed various world affairs. This shop lies at the extreme end of Southern Avenue (near Sarat Bose Road) and the owner sells his famous tea from a basement corner of a room in a squat old building. Although now he is rich enough to buy at least a few cafes, he refuses to move since his tea shop is more of a city institution.
In Calcutta, befriend your local phuchka seller
Heading back towards Gariahat from there offers one of the rare really pleasant walks in the city. The occasional rain showers, a huge cacophony of homecoming birds, and chugging of the local trains on the distant tracks against a mild city twilight are really enchanting. Calcutta is also intensely green, much to first-time visitors surprise and the Lake Area is definitely the lung of the southern part of the city. Fragrant bakul, periwinkle, gardenias, Arabian jasmine, starry rangan, and kadamb flower bristles carpet the muddy monsoon sidewalks and girls excitedly line up at Vivekananda Park’s iconic phuchka vendors. Nothing pleases a Bengali girl/woman’s heart more than a book and phuchka (not necessarily in that order) and the Vivekananda Park phuchka sellers are like local food heroes.
And there are the dainty rickety trams
Phuchkas or Gol gappas (as known in rest of India), are crunchy hollow dough balls filled with spicy potato, chickpea mix and served in sal leaf cups with a generous helping of tarty tamarind water. It is guaranteed to stun your senses, pucker your lips, and make your eyes water. Although nowadays, phuchkas are often served boringly tempered down or with curd, sweet water etc as per taste, a Bengali will any day swear by the original version. Vivekananda Park vendors are extremely popular and feature among the best phuchka sellers in the city. Such kind of adulation from a food-loving city is indeed a hard-earned reputation.
Calcutta is a way of life
In olden times, a Calcutta phuchka seller traditionally could be spotted from a distance because of the blazing red cloth covered mound like storage, in which he hoarded the phuchkas. He used to carry the mound on a big wooden/steel platter, which he placed on a makeshift table or a portable rattan tripod whenever business happened. He would walk around neighbourhoods, bearing his paraphernalia on his shoulders and head, calling out his wares. His sharp cries would magically sweeten pugnacious moods and bring out Bengali ladies in hordes. Nowadays, they are more organized, have unions (its a city of unions) and sell from mechanized carts or shops. There is a saying that the less hygienic habits, a phuchka seller possesses, the better his phuchka tastes. While this is not quite literally true, Calcutta street food is an adventure in itself and definitely not for the fainthearted or weak stomached.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE