I admit that the I got to know about Kalman, the seventy year old meat shop or charcuterie at Kolkata, embarrassingly late in life.
Even my Bengali friends at Mumbai, ex Kolkatans too, were unaware of Kalman. We first got to know about the shop when Bonnie got a potato, peas and chopped sausage stir fry to one of our addas. The sausages had a bewitching taste. Sharp, with the rough granulated texture of good minced meat and a good scrunchy bite. Bonnie explained that these were Hungarian sausages from a shop called Kalman at Kolkata. She said that it is a hole in the wall just ahead of Princess and Kathleens at Kolkata’s Free School Street. It was started by a Hungarian circus guy years back.
A few days later Bonnie got me a stash of those sausages when she came to a dinner at our place. Breakfast the next day and I knew that I had to go to Kalman during my next trip to Kolkata.
That trip thankfully happened soon.
I set off one morning on an aimless walk after my breakfast at Park Street’s Flurys. I walked down the misty roads on a wintry Kolkata Monday morning when I suddenly realised that I had almost reached the New Market. I decided that II might as well look for Kalman as I was almost there.
Well Kalman did turn out to be a hole in the wall. Literally.
I walked up and down the pavement four times. Past old LP shops, second hand book shops and shops selling Christmas decorations. Each time shopkeepers pointed out Kalman to me. Yet I could not spot it. Once I even stood in front of Kalman and then moved on.
And then the sky cleared, the sun came out, birds began chirping…I realised I saw the board that said ‘Kaman Cold Storage’.
I walked in through the narrow door of the very humble shop. The shop more like a long passage than a room. Very basic.
The shop was pretty full and there were two gentlemen slicing meat. The shop begun to get crowded. A portly gentleman came in and picked some ham. A leg of ham from which his portions were sliced. He left looking happy.
There were a couple of Anglo Indian ladies from Guwahati in the shop. They had dropped in to pick meat loaf before they took the afternoon flight back. We started to chat. The were in quite a jovial mood. As was I. We were in Aladdin's cave of meaty treasures after all.
I spoke to the the owners, Sujoy and Ananda, as I placed my order of Hungarian sausages. I was assured that these travelled well even if kept out for a while.
I tasted a bit of the sausages. These were ready to eat Sujoy told me. Again that divine scrunch with a taste of garlic and pepper which conjured up visions of the romance of the Magyars.
Sujoy told me that they spice and pack the sausages and smoke them overnight at their workshop at Beleghata. Their pork is apparently sourced from farms at Krishnanagore and Allahabad. A doctor checks the meat for quality.
I asked Sujoy if there were any other meats that I could carry back with me. Sujoy said that the smoked bacon would be good. The ham unfortunately had to be frozen and wouldn’t work. I had a bite of the bacon and was convinced. The flavour was compelling…fatty, seductive…the smoked flavour just right. This too was left to cure overnight I was told after being injected with spices dissolved in water.
Sujoy began to slice the bacon for me. Seeing this the Anglo ladies, my new friends, added the bacon to their list too
My order, a kilo each of Hungarian sausages and the smoked bacon. 500 Rs (10 USD).
Sujoy told me that the shop was started by a “Hungarian shaheb’ in 1940. He passed away after about 40 years of running the shop. His family moved to Australia. The Hungarian had apparently said that after his death his Bengali manager B P Dhar should get the shop. He would look after it well.
Mr Dhar ran the shop for about thirty more years before he passed away recently. Sujoy is his brother in law. When I asked if Ananda was related to him, Sujoy said “we are all related”.
I pieced the shops story further from writes ups on Kalman in local newspapers put up on the shop’s walls. Arundhati Ray wrote that Kalman Kohary was apparently a Hungarian trapeze artist who came with a circus to Kolkata in 1940. When the war ended he realised that Hungary had become a communist country. He decided to stay back at Kolkata.
The rest, as they say, is great meat.
While I chatted and photographed everyone and everything in sight I saw a rather familiar looking gentleman waiting patiently in the queue. Ananda looked at us and said “aapanara keo Bangla gaan shonen?” (Do any of you listen to Bengali songs).
Turned out that the gentleman was Bengali singer and film director Anjan Dutta. Mr Dutta happily agreed to pose for the camera and insisted that I give the camera and join in too. Turns out that he lives close by and he told me that he is a Kalman regular.
Kalman evidently is not that big a secret for Kolkatans.
I headed out with my stash of bacon and sausages ready to head back to Mumbai. Wondering what discovery awaited me when I next visited Kolkata.
A seventy year old charcuterie started by a Hungarian, a bakery started by a Swiss family five generations back…at a time when Mumbai gets all excited about expat chefs coming to work here these days…I can only think of the old adage “what Bengal things today…”