The mysterious story of Kolkata's Moghlai Paratha

Moghlai paratha being prepared
in the Bandra Durga pujo stall in Mumbai
The egalitarian egg roll

I grew up on egg rolls from the parar roller dokan (street corner roll shop) in Kolkata’s suburb of Bansdroni.

My mother used to give me Rs 1.50 everyday which went up to Rs 2.50 and then Rs 3 in my high school years. I am talking of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Every evening I would come back from school and then go to the roll shop clutching the change my mother had given me for my evening snack while she would still be at work at the college she taught in in faraway Howrah.

The egg roll stall would open at 4.30 PM and I would literally watch the men, who ran the stall, set up shop in the evenings. The would get the flour dough ready while I waited impatiently. Knead out the paratha (flat bread) made with refined flour. This would be put on a largely flat griddle which sloped in the middle, and was laced with hot oil. They would then break an egg and drop the contents on the paratha. Once the egg would begin to harden, they would flip the paratha and egg over. Once the roll was done, they would roll it up into a cylinder-like shpae after placing some finely chopped onion, cucumber, green chillies in the middle along with a red and yellow sauce, allegedly tomato and chilli sauce. A thin butter paper would be used to wrap the lower part so that you could hold it like an Arabian shwarma or a Frankie from Mumbai.

I would hungrily clutch this, give the money to the roll-wala, and make my way out, munching on the hot roll as I would head to the play field for cricket or football or to just chat with my friends.

This ritual was repeated everyday till I started going to college.

Egg chicken roll at Kusum's, Kolkata
Chicken in rolls was a luxury in school days
The Majestic Moghlai Paratha

What was a lot more rare and comparatively more expensive those days was something called Moghlai Porotha (Bengali) or Mughlai Paratha (Hindi).

It consists of a rectangular refined flour dough based envelope, stuffed with spices and specks of minced meat (keema), coated with egg and deep fried in a wok of oil. The paratha once fried is taken out and put on a plate, cut into squares for easy of eating, and served with a spicy potato curry and sliced onion and cucumber.

The Moghlai paratha isn’t exactly a street food dish. You would not get it in the road--side roll shops. You would find it in small places called ‘kebeen’ i.e., cabin. Near our house in Bansdroni, there was a bare bones restaurant called Madhumita at the erstwhile Madhuban cinema and also Beendoosri Cabin in Garia for Moghlai Paratha, rolls and 'Chinese'. The most famous place for Moghlai paratha in Calcutta was, and probably still is, Anadir Cabin in central Calcutta. I am yet to eat at Anadir Cabin though but will someday. My friend and fellow food lover, Kaniska Chakraborty, tells me that the restaurant is quite a basic  and no-frills place, that the parathas are fairly standard but that one should check it out and tick it off one’s Kolkata eating list.

Most of my recent Moghlai paratha eats have been at the food stalls set up during the Durga Puja in Bandra in Mumbai where I now live.

Moghlai paratha at Mumbai's Bandra Durga Pujo stalls

The Dhaka trail

Kaniska, who is based in Dhaka right now and does food shows on radio and YouTube from there, tells me that Moghlai paratha is apparently a big part of the Dhaka street food culture. He says that the Dhaka Moghlai porotha (different from the flaky Dhakai porotha) is a lot more deep fried than the Kolkata ones.

Dubai based food blogger, Ishita Saha, tells me that she had heard from  'foodie' friend that the Moghlai paratha came to Kolkata from Dhaka. The logic being that Dhaka had seen a larger influence of Mughal (hence Moghlai) culture on its food than Kolkata had. Asma Khan, who presents Kolkata food in the UK under the Darjeeling Express (and in London fed me the best Kolkata biryani outside of Kolkata) banner says that she has learnt her Moghlai paratha recipe from her mother in law's cook in Dhaka.

I am quite intrigued by the journey that the Moghlai paratha took to Kolkata and couldn’t find any clear answers about how this happened unlike in the case of the Calcutta biryani (from Wajid Ali Shah’s kitchen), alu posto (experimentation by housewives when poppy was produced for the British Opium war), rolls (started at Nizam's to please the Brits and since then spread across the city)  or prawn malai curry (inspired by Malay curries and hence 'malai') whose antecedents are more well established.

Lucknow's Wajid Ali Shah again?

Izzat Husain, who belongs to the Lucknowi royal family, and is an Unani doctor who is trying to bring some of the regal Lucknowi dishes back to today's diners, feels that the Moghlai paratha came to Kolkata through the exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah given that Lucknow had a rich tradition of paratha making. Wajid Ali Shah's kitchens are reputed to have given Kolkata its biryani after all. Hussein says that the Mughlai paratha has come from a Lucknowi shammi kebab stuffed egg coated paratha. Ironically, these dishes are no longer available in Lucknow laments the good doctor.

Adding to the Lucknow lore is Anaggh Desai from Twitter. He tells me that when he lived in Kolkata  in the late 1980s he had friends who were in the mutton shop business who had told him that their Lucknowi cousins preferred Mughlai parathas to rotis and that's how the habit spread here

Mughal blue blood

In his article in The Hindu, Sumit Paul (which Animesh forwarded me on Twitter) refers to Barbara Mansfield’s History of Mughal India and Its Cuisine, and gives the story of a cook named Usman from Burdwan in Bengal as the one who apparently invented the Moghlai paratha by adding egg when the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, was bored of a regular qeema (keema) paratha. Usman's son apparently took the recipe with him to Burdwan and his descendants took it to Kolkata. An entertaining read even if a tad apocryphal. Is this the truth? I would like to know more.

A case of smart branding

I asked Pritha Sen if she had any idea on the history of Kolkata's Moghlai paratha. Pritha often writes about the origins of various Bengali food dishes and had recently written a much shared story on alu posto in The Indian Express site. Pritha confessed that she didn’t know much about the origins of the Moghlai Paratha and even said that she doubted if it actually had a ‘Mughal' connection! Pritha pointed out that in the olden days in Kolkata, anything exotic would be called 'Chine' (cheen-ay) after the Chinese, for example, chini (sugar), cheene badam (groundnuts) and anything rich and lavish would be called Moghlai (from the Mughals). She feels that calling the parathas ‘Moghlai Paratha’ was more a branding exercise to lure customers than anything else. As Pritha points out, and as I remember too, the Moghlai paratha in Kolkata is not offered in traditional Muslim run restaurants such as Nizam, Aminia and Shiraz which are known for their ‘Moghlai’ food – the Awadhi influenced biryani, rezala, chaaps and qormas - these days. At the most they offer rolls and not Mughlai parathas.

Mumbai's baida rotis, first cousins?

Pritha's hunch, and she clarifies it’s a hypotheses, is that Moghlai parathas probably came to Kolkata from the Dawoodi Bohras of who had come into Kolkata from Gujarat or the Lashkaras from Malaysia.

Actually I had spotted something which looked like a Moghlai paratha at the Bade Miya stall in Colaba in my early days in Mumbai. On asking, I was told they are ‘baida rotis’ (literally - egg breads). I ordered one at Bade Miya that night out of homesickness. Found it to be lot less crisp than the Kolkata Moghlai paratha and more packed with meat.

Watch: Bade Miya and my Colaba memories



I later came across baida roti again at Mumbai's Bohri Mohalla (Mumbai has a more prominent Bohri hub thank Kolkata) in the India Hotel. Neither Bade Miya nor India Hotel is Bohri run. I recently had a baida roti ordered by a friend at a party from a newly launched Bohri caterer called Big Spread and found their baida rotis to be the tastiest of the three even though we didn’t eat it fresh off the wok.

Burma roti or Baida roti
India Hotel, Bohri Mohalla, Mumbai

The Burmese connection

The elderly owner of the India Hotel refers to the baida rotis as ‘Burma rotis’. I asked my former colleague, Viraj Juthani, who had worked in Yangon for a bit as a market researcher, whether he had seen anything like baida rotis  when he was in Burma. He replied in the affirmative and said they are quite wide spread and are called palatas (with an l). I did a Google image search for Burmese palata and found some which looked like Moghlai parathas and some like the Malabar parathas of Kerala.


Burmese palata
Pic source:
http://www.hsaba.com/blog/food-and-travel/burmese-paratha


So is there a link between palata and Moghlai Paratha or baida roti? Frankly I don’t have an answer though there are many Bengalis who still closely hold on to their grandmother’s khow suey recipes from Burma. These are people whose forefathers who worked in Burma during the British rule of India. Could the Mughlai paratha have come to Bengal the way the khow suey did?

Malaysian cousins

Pritha guesses that Moghlai parathas could have come to Kolkata through Bohri Muslims who came to India from Malaysia as it is similar to be a dish called the martabak which is a part of the Malay Muslim culture. I have eaten martabak for breakfast at a popular local restaurant called Line Clear (I recently read it might be shut down) in Penang. You get versions with and without egg. I had had the former with fish curry and The Tarik, pulled tea, on the side.

Martabak with fish curry and dal
Line Clear Penang

Veteran journalist, Kanchan Gupta, told me on Twitter that he had read that Moghlai paratha had came to Kolkata thanks to the Lashkars of Malaysia just as the prawn malai curry had. He doesn’t remember the source of the story though. 

The search continues

So, if you have read on till here then I am afraid to say that I am sorry but I can’t give a definitive answer about the history of Kolkata’s Mughlai paratha. Just a lot of intrigue and mystery.

The Kolkata Moghlai paratha's lineage seems to be as much a mystery as that of Netaji’s disappearance!

If you do have a theory or a source on how Moghlai parathas came to Kolkata that you feel strongly about then please the share the same with me.

It will help me sleep better at night.





10