Digesting C R Park… New Delhi’s Bengali Town

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Ghoogni made by Subroto’s mom…I went back for seconds

The genesis of C R Park

I finally lost my CR Park virginity over ghoognee, phuchka, cutlets, doi and dorbesh and boy did it feel good.

CR Park or Chittoranjan Park, or Chitto Park as it is often affectionately called, in New Delhi is possibly the only dedicated Bengali settlement outside of Bengal in the world. From what I gather, it was set up just after India’s independence when the Indian government had set aside a piece of land in the national capital from families displaced from what was then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh. Over the years C R Park has developed as a unique Bengali microcosm. Almost the equivalent of Chinatowns that you see across the world. Perhaps a bit like the Tamil settlements of Matunga or the Parsi Colonies of Mumbai. To the best of my knowledge there is no other Bengali colony like this outside of Bengal. CR Park developed a culture unique to itself as it tried to recreate a little Bengali island in the harsh North Indian city of Delhi.

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This gentleman’s been selling Bengali newspapers here for ages

CR Park has changed a bit over the years I am told. I met some of the residents there at the parar rock (place to meet and chat). My brother told me that the discussions there spawn from topics as diverse as the politics of Nicaragua (paraphrasing him) to the performance of the Argentine Club football Boca Juniors (that’s me completing the metaphor). I asked the gentlemen whether its true that C R Park now has a large proportion of ‘others’. They agreed and said that now at least 30 pc of C R Park residents are Punjabi. The reason for this, ironically for an immigrant colony, is emigration. Apparently the second and third generation C R Park Bongs have moved abroad to study or work. This leaves their elderly parents alone in independent bungalows which are difficult to maintain physically and monetarily. Hence they sell these and move on to more modern apartments. Which means that decades from now CR Park and its Bongs could be an urban legend….but that’s a long time away.

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At the parar rock

Delhi is the city where my mother grew up as my grandfather used to work there. However, from what I understand we were not Chittoranjan Park Bengalis as we used to live in other parts of Delhi. I am sure that our family had friends in C R Park though.

I had never been to C R Park in all my trips to Delhi. Not as a teenager when I visited my aunt. Not in the incessant work trips I made to Delhi as a grown up. I have no idea if I’d gone there when I first visited India as a kid. I had heard about C R Park’s tales from Bengali friends in Mumbai who had lived there for a bit. Tales of bachelors being sought out as eligible grooms. Guys staying by themselves, who would make full use of this search for grooms, to get hold of some good home cooked food. I had seen visuals of the big Durga Pujas that happen there on TV. In my recent trips I drove past C R Park a couple of times and was awestruck by shop banners and hoardings written in Bengali. But till this trip I remained a CR Park virgin.

First impressions

I finally went to CR Park last weekend. This was with my brother and sister in law after our afternoon at HKV where we had lunch at Yeti and then strolled around in the neighbouring gardens. We were wondering what to do for dinner before we headed back to Gurgaon. One of the options was the much recommended, Nagaland Kitchen but Yeti was from that region. Then there was Indian Accent which folks recommended to me for new age Indian. Wasn’t hungry enough for a high end meal. Which is when I suggested CR Park to my brother. He programmed his GPS and drove down to market no 1 there where he said there was a guy who sells great ghoognee. He wasn’t too sure if the guy would be there by the time we reached as it was 8 pm. Apparently the ghoogni lasted only as long as stocks did.

C R Park Market 1 & the scent of ghoognee

We landed at CR Park pretty soon and my brother managed to find a spot to park near market no 1. We got off and walked into the market complex. The first thing that struck me were the plethora of hoardings and signages in Bengali around me. Then the strong buzz of people speaking in Bengali. Then familiar facial features and loads of women wearing saris. Suddenly I was taken back to Bansdroni market close to our house in Kolkata.

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My eyes slowly began to focus and I spotted phuchkas. My eyes gleamed with excitement.

“Wait” said little brother with an air of confidence. “The phuchkas will remain. The ghoognee gets over. Let’s find that first”.

I meekly followed him down the alley and came across a sign which said ‘Ghoognee…and momos.’

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We were in luck. The ‘ghoogneewallah’ was still there. We ordered 2 mutton ghoognees and one vegetarian for the lady.

Ghoognee is a Bengali brunch dish. Often served with luchis as breakfast or with kachuris in roadside tea stalls or humble sweetshops. It’s a curry made with chickpeas which are called ‘motor’ in Bengali. These are round and smaller than the chickpeas of the Punjabi channa or Mediterranean hummus. The curry is made with onion, turmeric, garam masalas and chillies. Condiments are often added and at Subrata’s stall in CR Park each serving is topped with lime juice, chaat masala, chopped red onions.

I took a couple of bites and gave big smile. This was delicious. Beautiful, rough, pure flavours. Warmed the cockles of my Bengali heart. Reminded me of the ghoognee Pupai’s mom would make when Pupai, our neighbour in Kolkata, would give bhai fota to my brother and me. My mom would make Hakka noodles in return. Accepted gifts would be Chinese ink pens, hardy Boys, Nancy Drews and for my brother…crayons.

Snuggled within the ghoognee were delightfully chubby bites of luscious mutton.

At times minced meat or mutton keema is added in ghoognees in Kolkata. Subrata, the owner, explained that he added whole mutton pieces as customers need to see the meat to feel satisfied which might not work if its minced. He would ensure that customers got their 20 (!) Rs worth.

Marco Pierre White recently said in Masterchef Professionals ‘if you add truffles the customer needs to see it in the plate’. ‘Yes Marco’ as Subroto would agree I am sure.

‘The ghoognee is very good’ I said.

“I know. People who leave here and go to Kolkata say they will miss it. My mother makes the ghoognee” replied Subroto.

“Please tell her it’s very good”

“She knows” replies Subroto with quiet and well earned and deserved pride and self assurance.

Well, the ghoognee was so good, that I came for seconds. So were the phuchkas for that matter but the phuchkas shop closed before the ghoogni stall and I couldn’t manage seconds.

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Tripping on phuchka

The phuchka stall, my next stop, is called Raju’s phuchkas.

It was ‘manned’ by a tiny boy called Karan who said that he was 12 years old. Well the phuchkas that he served (4 for Rs 10) were at par with the best in Kolkata. Soft delicate maida phuchkas and not the hard rava puris of Mumbai. The flavours screaming of the streets of Kolkata. Phuchka Nazis would be happy to know there were no ‘motors’ or ‘chholas’ in the potato mix. There was a separate sweet water but I’ve seen folks in Kolkata keeping that too. I wouldn’t touch that though. For me it has to be tok (sour) water only when it comes to phuchkas.

I had two plates at Karan’s tanking myself up like a camel at an oasis before I headed back to the phuchka-less Mumbai.

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Karan the phuchka wizard. There is no elegant way to have phuchkas is there?

To market, to market, to buy a big fat fish

We then moved on to indulge in a favourite activity of Bengali men. Shopping. Specifically fish shopping.

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We walked into the covered fish market and I just gaped at the sight of the huge cut pieces of kaatla, gleaming eelishes and loads of fresh water prawns. One of those rare moments when I envy Delhi. The fresh water fish shops in Gurgaon too are quite bountiful. The fish market at CR Park’s market no 1 was almost like a Kolkata art installation in the middle of Delhi. It offered the sort of smells, sights, sounds which would charge up the heart of any red blooded Bengali.

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Look at the pieces of kaatla

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While I didn’t shop for fish I did do the touristy bit and bought some of the prized Gobindobhog rice. This is the special occasion rice for Bengalis and is used in pulao, payesh and khichudi. It is rarely available in Mumbai. We never use it at our place in Bandra. At the risk of losing Bengali readers I admit to being a Basmati rice fan. I also bought a spice called radhuni, which I believe is used in shukto, but was never really used in our house in our growing up days. My brother picked loads of muri (rice crisp) while sis in law conscientiously bought veggies.

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Next to the moodir dokan (grocery shop) was a mishtir dokan (sweet shop) rather precociously named as Aristocrat Sweets. The shop was a lot less glammed than Sweet Bengal of Mumbai and non air-conditioned. The sweets here meant for those for whom mishtis are a daily ritual and not an occasional indulgence. The folks here, as everywhere in the market, were quite helpful while I took pics.

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They sweetly took out the bhaars of mishti doi to shoot at Aristocrat Sweets

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My shopping was still not done and I headed to the couple selling muri, ghee, kasundi and other condiments at the centre of the market courtyard and bought some Mukhorochak jhaal papdi chyanachur which I am addicted to. The cheerful couple was evidently popular and their shop was surrounded by folks. The shoppers were chatting quite a bit among themselves and I am sure some ‘bhalo patro aache’ (I know of a good groom) sort of match making was going on.

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Annapurna Sweets at Market No 2

We then drove off to market no 2 in search of the Dadu’s cutlets which are a bit of urban legend in CR Park. Unfortunately like all urban legends it remained an enigma to me. It was past 10 pm and Dadu (literally translated as grandpa) had probably gone off to sleep and shut the shop.

I did got to Annapurna Sweets next door. I remembered the name as sweets for my aunt’s wedding in Delhi in the early 90s had come from there. I had a fantastic mishti doi and a lovely dorbesh and packed sweets for college friends I was visiting the next day. Once again, a lot more de-glammed and cheaper in comparison to Sweet Bengal here. This is everyday food here.

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Market no 2 has a fish market too but this as an open one. This market is smaller than market no 1. Interestingly I found two shops beside each other selling the polar opposites of Hyderabadi and Calcutta biryani. Ours is much better of course as any Bengali will tell you with no bias at all and a very straight face.

Cutlet time at Ravi’s Snacks in Market no 1

With Dadu nixing our plans to end dinner with his cutlets we headed back to CR Park Market 1. It was about 10.30 PM.

I managed another ghoogni at Subroto’s. Phuchkas were sold out though much to my disappointment.

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Cutlets ready for frying

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Egg rolls getting made

I had noticed a shop with cutlets ready to be fried earlier and we headed there. The shop is called Ravi’s Snacks and is run by Ravi Babu and his wife. This charming and earnest couple, I learnt, earlier ran a food shop in market 3 and have have recently moved to market no 1.

Lil brother and sis in law chose egg rolls while I went for egg devil and fish cutlet. Two Calcutta street food stars which proudly trace their origins to the British.empire. After I placed my order the hardworking chefs at Ravi Snacks switched on the burner and then slid in the chop and the cutlet into bubbling hot oil. Five minutes and our dinner was ready.

The egg devil was heart warming with bits of chicken mashed into potatoes which covered a boiled egg and was deep fried in an egg crumb coating hitting pressing the right buttons. The sort of stuff which the ham croquette loving Spaniards too would approve of I am sure.

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My favourite was the fish cutlet though. A 2 inch thick fillet of fish. Only bhetki in accordance with Bengali tastes here as I am told. Coated in a spicy marinade and deep fried in a bread crumb cutlet. Quite British in appearance and yet very very Indian in its masalafied soul. This was a seriously good fish cutlet, one of the best I’ve had and straight off the kodai (wok) is as primordial as it gets.

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That wasn’t the end though. Ravi Babu called me to the side and made a special, fully loaded, mitha paan for me.

“Bhaalo loker jonno bhaalo jinish dite hoi” (One should give something nice to someone nice) he told me as I felt humbled and honoured by the warmth with which we were welcomed here. His wife meanwhile had her dinner, bought a Cornetto ice cream bar and headed home while munching on it.

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Chewing on the heady mix that’s C R Park

The night came to an end and we headed back to Gurgaon.

Three hours of being surrounded by Bengalis. Three hours of speaking Bengali. Three hours of listening to Bengali. Three hours of shopping things Bengali. Three hours of eating Bengali food.

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So is C R Park a slice of Kolkata? Well, to me there were flashes of Kolkata in it but at the same time one knew that this was different, this was unique. CR Park is an entity in itself, it has the soul of Kolkata to an extent but is an independent Bengali settlement in its own right.

Kolkata is also the city where my little brother was just that when we lived there…a little brother…this Saturday when two of us and his wife, the newest member of the family, roamed around Delhi…we were three grown ups hanging around in a city which is perhaps more our mother’s than ours…and we had a jolly good time though I am quite sure he was tired after driving us around all day

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This is the link to my mother, Rekha Karmakar’s, post on her memories of growing up in Delhi

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