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 and 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 hand crafted textiles, leather ware and jewelry. Every nook and cranny of the city has at least some shop, boutique or street vendor selling beautiful hand embroidered garments or furnishings, painted ceramic products, hand beaded filigree jewelry etc.
The city’s street food, like shopping is myriad and being blessed with abundance of fish, vegetables, fruits and tea, Calcutta street cuisine uses all of them generously. Its British colonial history is also reflected in its street food and many interesting versions of proper English dishes can be found tossed up by street vendors busily. Chicken and lamb is consumed heartily along with generous amounts of beef and pork. Proximity to North Eastern states and Nepal brings with it a plethora of steamed, braised hilly delights and momos (steamed dumplings) are one of Calcutta’s favourite finger food.
A huge vegetarian non Bengali community gives rise to many mouth watering vegetarian snacks, dishes and really awesome lassis (creamy yogurt drink). Come monsoon the king of fruits, mangoes 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 become busy tossing up creamy, deliciously cold, flavoured kulfis in fruit shells (orange flavour in orange hollows, mango in mango skin cups etc) by hundreds every day and hilsa fish festivals take the city by storm.
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 tassle jamdani from gold threaded Benarasi and understands the tell tale identifying clues of good rosewood or teak furniture.
It also has the quaint Dolly’s Tea Shop, the most popular haunt of the city’s tea connoisseurs ( we celebrate our pride, Darjeeling tea like champagne), biggest names in state politics, arts, actors, wannabes and socialites. Owned and run by Ms Dolly Basu, teak panels, tea crates, rattan furniture complete its 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 good bye, 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.
A massive sprawling open air market, Gariahat radiates in 4 different directions for at least a few kilometers and each branch is dedicated to one particular item. For example, jewelers jostle only in 1 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 its pavements. They sell endurable good quality products, provide great bargains and more than often have chains of loyal customers (who patronize them through generations).
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 stepped back quietly. I love Gariahat and walk around it nearly everyday, just to watch its typical Calcutta 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.
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 1 tea stall dot every city lane, both of my favourite ones 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 rowing, swimming and other sports clubs, various schools, rich apartments and an old fashioned much loved Menoka Cinema.
Number of colleges in that area has 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 side walk cafe at its most earthiest form. Young college crowd gather 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.
Ghoogni is a popular Calcutta evening snack, served with 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 incoming traffic. A couple of days 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 in Nepal.
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, beauty, more beauty 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 about 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.
Heading back towards Gariahat from there offers one of the rare really pleasant walks in the city and occasional rain showers, 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 side walks 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 necessary in that order) and the Vivekananda Park phuchka sellers are like local food heroes.
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 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.
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 paraphanelia 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