This post first appeared on The Chopping Board on TOI blogs
The Complex Carbs of Calcutta...My Kolkata Eats
Folks often ask me about places to eat at when they visit Kolkata.
Now I don’t really believe in the ‘Best Of …’ or ‘The Ultimate …’ sort of lists. I think they smack of hubris. Even assuming one has tried out all the options in a category, the belief that one has the right to decide on what is the best is rather egotistic to say the least. This is more so when it comes to food where one man’s sauce is often another man’s dish water.
You can, at the most, say what your own favourites are.
The problem gets accentuated when you are talking of a city like Kolkata which evokes such extreme culinary passions. The subject of whether or not to include a Mocambo, for example, would be the subject of many a letter to the editor.
When you go through my Kolkata restaurant list keep in mind that I don’t live in the city anymore. I left Kolkata a decade and a half back.
My choices are shaped by a mix of nostalgia on the one hand and influences of my current home, Mumbai, on the other. Not necessarily reflective of the new aspirations of Kolkata.
I am a South Kolkata boy and spent my college years in Central Kolkata. Don’t know much about the inner lanes of North Kolkata or even its sweet shops. Moreover I didn’t grow up in a very traditional Bengali home and wasn’t born in Kolkata. Far from a Kolkata thoroughbred.
What I can tell you about are things I don’t miss out on when I go back to Kolkata on short trips. Trips I try to squeeze the most out.
There, I have laid down the caveats. Read on if you still want to.
If it helps, I do go back to Kolkata fairly frequently and I have friends who keep me updated on what’s happening there.
Street food: rolls and phuchkas
The thing that I definitely try to get my fill of when I go to Kolkata is its street food. Especially rolls and phuchkas.
You do get rolls here at Mumbai these days but still the thrill of getting them at one fourth the price is something else. The taste of the Kolkata rolls is more luscious too.
So which are my favourite roll joints?
Well I like Badshah (New Market) for its mutton rolls. Kusum (Park Street) for its egg chicken rolls. Recently I had a pretty good egg chicken roll at the Shiraz at Ajayanagar in the suburbs. In my initial days out of Kolkata I used to try for Nizam and Hot Kati when I would go back but over the years my choices have changed.
Places like Lindsay Street and Park Street are places you tend to end up at while making trips to Kolkata. The fact that Badshah and Kusum are located there helps.
Phuchkas are still unique to Kolkata and the east. You don’t have a phuchka option at Mumbai to the best of my knowledge.
Phuchkas are the cousins of Delhi’s golgappas, Mumbai’s paani puris, Lucknow’s paani ke batashe and, as any Kolkatan will tell you, is way superior to the rest. You should not miss out on them.
Convenience dictates my choice when it comes to phuchkas too.
I must confess that I don’t have a favourite phuchkawallah.
I either eat phuchkas at the guys near New Empire Cinema with the uniquely green coriander infused tamarind water or at the guys outside South City Mall or at the couple outside Dakshinapan.
A few phuchka guys, especially the ones at New Market or the one outside Pantaloons Gariahat have now started keeping sweet chutney too.
It hurts me to see Kolkata phuchkawallahs keep sweet chutney. Is that what Netaji had fought for?
Dolly’s Tea Shop
Talking of Dakshinapan you could do well to stop at Dolly’s very tiny and very warm tea shop. You could have a very Brit Darj cuppa with ham sandwiches or, like us, go for the ice tea made by sari clad Bengali matrons with syrups from bottles with sticky labels and iced water poured from a plastic jog (jug) which results in some of the most refreshing and intricately nuanced ice teas that you could have. Perfect for a muggy day at Kolkata. And if shopping turns you on, you could try to convince some of the surly sales folks at the handloom shops at Dakshinapan to sell you their wares.
What about traditional Bengali food?
Well I have not been to Bhojohori or 6 Ballygunge Place or Oh Kolkata or any of the other myriad Bengali restaurants which opened after I left Kolkata. I get my fill of Bengali food at my mom’s, my grand mom’s or my aunt’s and don’t go out to Bengali restaurants when at Kolkata.
I went to Kewpies, near Forum opposite Netaji Bhavan, years back and had really liked it. Folks I have recommended it to since have liked it too. Ranjit who went there recently on my recommendation got very excited by the amish (non-veg) thaali. 700 Rs or 13 USD now says Ranjit who shared these photos with me. My own experience is from four years back though.
You could also try Suruchi in Central Cal run by a women’s organization. I had gone there a decade back.
A local Kolkata food blogger and friend, Kaniska, introduced me to Bohemian at Bondel Road recently. Bohemian is Chef Joy’s brain child where he does some interesting experiments by using the Bengali cooking ethos in Western culinary formats. One of the best examples of new age Indian cooking that I have come across and definitely worth a visit. I would recommend going to Bohemian after you have tried basic Bengali so that you could appreciate the contrast. Great food in a standalone context too.
Or you could go to Kosturi at Free School Street (I believe there is a branch at south Cal too) for food from Opar Bangla or the ‘other side’. A tiny restaurant that opened a few years back to cater to the needs of the relatives of Bangladeshis who would come to Kolkata for medical treatment. A really tiny place where you could get a preview to the cuisines of Bangladesh without stamping your passport.
While at Kosturi look for the tiny meat shop started by a Hungarian trapeze artist before WW 2 called Kalman’s and buy the smoked bacon, Hungarian sausages, meatloaf and pate. You might even bump into singer, actor, film maker Anjan Dutt while there.
Apart from the rolls and phuchkas, the one big part of eating out in Kolkata that one misses is its Muslim Mughlai food. Specifically the Awadh originated biryanis (once again, of course the ones at Kolkata are the best) and the chaaps and the rezalas. In my initial years away I would try to make it to Zeeshan or Nizams on trips back home. Never took to Arsalan though luckily for me the new Arsalan close to my home at Mumbai is better than the Kolkata one.
My clear favourite now is Shiraz at Park Street Mallick Bazar.
Much has been said about Kolkata and its Chinese food and we Kolkatans would say that it is the best in India. Frankly after discovering Ling’s at Mumbai and recent bad experiences at Kim Ling at Kolkata’s Chinatown, Tangra (really gross food), Bar B Q at Park Street (why was I once so excited by it?) and the Chinese breakfasts (the party’s over) at Kolkata, I am not too hung up on Chinese when I go home.
I recently returned to Jimmy’s Kitchen near Kolkata’s Park Circus and I think that is where I would head to if I wanted old school Kolkata Chinese. They have a pretty decent char siu pork which is listed as chasha pork and a typical Kolkata Hakka noodles which is fairly close to the sauce doused Hokkein Mees of the Malay Peninsula except the noodles here are thinner.
Continental & confectioneries
No Peter Cat or Mocambo on my list?
Well I was never much of a Peter Cat chelo kebab person and frankly I am a bit tired of the two dish Mocambo with its devilled crabs and the tartan sauce heavy fish a la Diana which the doddering waiters at Mocambo invariably break while serving. I would stick out my neck and say that Mocambo is not a must eat in my list when I return to Kolkata but do head there if you want to get a taste of Kolkata’s British past.
You could look at Oly Pub if cheap alcohol and greasy pub food works for you. I went there at an embarrassingly late age in life but it’s a good place to head to for some serious drinking and grunge eating.
What of the new age Continental and Chinese places at Kolkata?
Well if I have only 3 or 4 days in hand then it would not really make sense for me to go there would it? I get enough of those in Mumbai though I am sure Kolkata would have some interesting option given that it is a city of gourmands.
I do have my soft spots for a couple of continental dessert places. Kookie Jar and its lemon tarts which I must have at every trip back home and its chicken and mushroom envelope. I don’t manage to go to the main outlet near La Martinere and usually go to the Kookie Jar branch at the South City Mall.
The other is Flurys. I love its old school pastries. Strawberry cubes and rum balls from an era before chocolate mousse, truffles, cupcakes, muffins and macarons.
Over the years I have developed a taste for breakfast at Flurys too. The penchant for lazy, indulgent breakfasts is probably more of a Bandra influence as I never did this when I was at Kolkata. Sitting by the window at Flurys, people watching over a cup of coffee and baked beans and toast or rather dry sandwiches from the heritage menu and of course the creamy icing heavy strawberry cubes is one of the high points of my Kolkata trips these days.
And mishtir dokan or sweet shops?
Well I am too much of a South Kolkata boy to be strongly wedded to any sweet shop. Most Bengali sweet shop stalwarts were in the North after all. Chances are you won’t go wrong with a Ganguram or a Banchharam or a Boloram or Bheem Nag to start with.
The Finely Chopped Kolkata List
So here’s my list of where I would eat at Kolkata;
· Phuchkas – no sweet water please – New Market, Dakshinapan, South City mall and frankly any place where you see phuchka guys surrounded by many customers
· Rolls: Badshah at New Market for mutton. Kusum at Park Street for egg chicken. Always ask for fried onions and no sauce
· Moghlai…Shiraz, Mallick Bazar Park Street – Mutton Biryani, chicken chaap, rezala
· Bengali traditional: Kewpies. Not been there in a while myself
· Bengali Opar Bangla – Kasturi, Free School Street
· Bengali avant garde – Bohemian, Bondel Road
· Kolkata Chinese: Jimmy’s Kitchen - hakka noodles, char siu pork, pan fried noodles, chilli chicken
· Drinking plus pub food – Oly Pub
· Old School Kolkata Continental – Mocambo (devilled crabs, Betki a al Diana). Not been there in a while myself
· Confectioneries – Flurys rum balls and strawberry cubes, Kookie Jar – lemon tarts (best I have ever had)
· ‘Heritage’ British Raj breakfast – Flurys and then browse though Oxford Book Store
· Ice tea – Dolly’s Tea Shop, Dakshinapan
· Cold cuts at Kalman, Free School Street
· Not on my personal must have list, but if you are at Kolkata and want fairly authentic Thai then check out Benjarong at South City Mall. It’s
So that’s my list of where to eat at Kolkata.
Now be a good Kolkatan, rip this list apart, and make your own list.