The Kolkata Diaries... Ultadanga, Sanjha Chulha, South City's phuchkas & Kookie Jar, Mom's cooking

Caveat: A very long post. Indulge me. It is about a very long day

I am not a big fan of the show “Man Versus Food”. I see myself more as a ‘grunge eater’ than a ‘binge eater’. Excess grosses me out. Except when I am back at Kolkata, my home town.

Emigrants would know how trips back home are always packed beyond twenty four hours. Relatives to be met. Places to be visited. Or as in my case, and in the case of most Bengalis, food to be eaten. 

The first day of my recent short visit to Kolkata was  as packed as it gets. It had a touch of politics, whiff of a rural idyllic world,  the hopes and aspirations of folks including those of a reality show obsessed mother looking for a socio-economic escape route from for her very talented little daughter, mishti (sweet) shops photo shoots, rides down a highway, a visit to a dhaba, street food and warm conversations with absolute strangers, a modern mall and an excellent lemon tart, shopping for spice mixes, home cooked food... Kolkata has many faces after all.

Re-discovering Kolkata: Ultadanga

 My work took me to a place intriguingly named Ultadanga or the ‘opposite end’. As a South Kolkata boy my Kolkata had ended at College Street. This was new territory for me. Ultadanga was a schizophrenic locality with big city malls and high rises, tiny lanes with little houses and the odd pond thrown in in between the hustle and bustle of large buses and bright yellow taxis.

In the middle of all of this I bumped into a building called Gandhi Bhavan. I did not know that this even existed in Kolkata. Turned out to be the house where Mohandas Gandhi had camped during the post partition riots to calm the city. I was lucky enough to meet the trustees who were doing a splendid job to maintain a part of our history with the support of the government. And this is where I have a problem. Hardly anyone knows of the existence of Gandhi Bhavan locally and yet Obama talks of how Gandhi inspired him continents away. 

Now, I hold no truck for politics but what takes my goat is the lack of effort in our country to pitch ourselves from a tourism point of view. It pains me when I go to, say a KL, and visit their museum where the ‘history’ starts in the 1970s or a Singapore which sells Little India! Why isn’t Kolkata’s Chinatown, Tangra, flogged to tourists, for example? The answer possibly lies in the local airport with its long-winding queues and stinking loos. I think that we have missed the tourism bus as a country. And one can only live in hope.

The visit to Ultadanga was interesting. Politics runs in the veins of Kolkata and as in every part of Kolkata, it came alive here too. In terms of Gandhi Bhavan, a memorial which probably captured the state of the Indian National Congress Party here. Bengali freedom icon Subhas Chandra Bose whose name  was everywhere in the form of statues, airports, theatres, stadiums and yet had figuratively become ‘just another brick in the wall’. The political graffiti on the walls, no ugly politician’s mugs here unlike at Mumbai. The CPI(M) and their exhortations of ‘Brigade Cholo’ or lets assemble at the Brigade Grounds. And the symbol of the challenger, the Trinamul Congress ... the sapling. They say that green is the new red at Bengal these days.

The real Indian Icons: Mohandas Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose

 Gandhi camped here during the post partition riots. These are his belongings
The very well preserved Gandhi Bhavan
The trustees who worked hard to preserve our heritage including the venerable Mrs Uma Banerjee
The Communists who ruled Bengal for ever
Trinamul Congress...the challengers. Green is the new red apparentlt
A pond in the middle of the city...a more common sight earlier, a welcome quasi rural relief
A leader once, now another brick in the wall
Ironically I went without food till almost 5 pm that day, after breakfast at home, as I was out on work. But this didn’t stop me from brandishing my new Sony Nex 3 and try its ‘defocus ‘ function at a mishti or sweet shop at Ultadanga.
Jolbhora gurer shondesh
Norom paak gurer shondesh

Sanjha Chulha on EM Bypass

I took the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass once my work was through as I headed Southwards. An intra city highway with far more green and variety than the barren concrete wastelands of the Western and Eastern Express Highways of Mumbai.

I stopped at Sanjha Chulha. A ‘Dhaba’ or highway pit stop which was practically within the city. But then that’s us. Bengalis, as a race, are the armchair specialists of the world. Though I must admit that when it comes to travelling you are likely to find Bengalis at every corner of the world.

My brother had treated us once at Sanjha Chulha. So I phoned him up at Gurgaon since the waiters here didn’t have a point of view on what was ‘special’. ‘ Tangdi kebab in dry and kalimiri chicken in gravy’ was junior’s recommendations and I went with it. Happy that I was being served lunch at 5 pm. My only company a gaggle of young girls discussing their Facebook profiles. The decor was Spartan... tables, chairs, air conditioning, functional restrooms, a view of the highway... a dhaba brought alive within city limits.

The garlic naans that I ordered were hot, well made, buttery and piquantly flavoured. Ideal for wiping away the grime of a long day. The chicken kali miri (black pepper chicken) was better than any chicken gravy dish that I have eaten at North Indian restaurants at Mumbai. The chicken was very tender. The gravy had a resounding heat of crushed pepper.  Ideal to liven up weary travellers. With enough oil in it to help us hold out if Libya goes completely bonkers. In fact, there was so much oil in the dish that the little kadhai or pan in which the dish was served slid across the table. 

Makes you cringe? Well you have greater chances of finding oil free steamed vegetable in the highways of India than fidelity in a house of vice.

garlic naans

chicken kali miri
Striking oil
The EM Bypass from Sanjha Chulha
Football, once the sole passion of the city, till there was Sourav Ganguly. Well, back to square one now?

The Phuchkawallahs of South City

I stopped at the  South City Mall on the way home. I had planned a coffee break here.

I suddenly thought of stepping out of the mall to go to the phuchka vendors stationed outside. Phuchkas have spoilt Kolkatans for the paani puris and the gol gappas of the world. Once you have had phuchkas you can never really give your heart to the street food of any other city.
Phuchkas are hollow balls of flour, stuffed with mashed potatoes and chillies and masala, dipped in tamarind water and popped into the mouth. A description which does as little justice to phuchkas as eating them in a sanitised environments does. For phuchkas are the stars of the streets of Kalkata. And unlike paani puri you don’t need vodka with phuchkas.

I had a ‘plate’ of phuchkas. A term which evoked howls of protests from Bengalis on twitter. ‘Phuchkas are not sold by plate’. Well pardon the Mumbaikar in me which made me interpret ‘ 6 for Rs 10’ as a ‘plate’. Quibbles apart, the phuchkas were so good, that I ate one more ‘plate’ despite being stuffed to my nostrils at Sanjha Chulha earlier.

The phuchka wallah saw me taking photographs and began suggesting camera angles to me. His name was Ravi. He was from Allahabad at Uttar Pradesh, Amitabh Bachchan’s birth place. Well the vendors of the street food at Kolkata, like their peers at Mumbai, belong to Uttar Pradesh in Northern India.

 Ravi and I discussed the merits of phuchkas versus pani puris of Mumbais and gol gappas of Delhi and something called Batashe at Bangalore, a term he introduced me to. He took great pride in the way phuchkas were displayed at Kolkata which, as he pointed out was unique. He also said that the charm of Kolkata’s phuchkas come from the fact that they are made with flour versus the more crusty semolina of the Mumbai’s paani puris. And, as I pointed out, they don’t overload phuchkas  here unlike their cousins in other cities.

A scene from ‘My Big Fat Greek Fat Wedding’ followed as Ravi introduced me to the other street food vendors outside South City. They were all from his home town, now settled in my home town while I had moved out... all of us in search of a better life. They were all his cousins. His brothers. His family in a foriegn land.

He pointed out Ram Kumar and Raj Kumar, two brothers who according to Ravi made better phuchkas than him. He made them make one for me. Ravi’s were good, these were even zestier. I made a phuchka for Raj Kumar. He took a bite and from his smile it was clear that I had a long way to go and he was just indulging me.

So I continued clicking. Momos, the Tibetan favourite, now cooked by UPites from the plains for Bengalis. Bhel Puri stalls. A Mumbai intrusion in the city of jhaal moori. Earthen bhaars or glasses in which sikanji or soda based drinks would be prepared. All laid out for me to photograph for you.

The street food hawkers of South City opened their wares for me even though I was too full to eat another morsel. Happy to share their simple treasures with the world. They came to the city with their dreams. Some like Ravi had been here for more than a decade. Running his own stall for four years as he proudly told me. Ravi was hungry for more. Wanted to know the feasibility of opening a phuchka stall at Mumbai. I told him about the hoards of us who would be happy if his dream came true but had to temper my tales with the reality of real estate prices.

But Ravi is hungry. Something tells me that the footpath in front of South City is not big enough for him.

Bhel Puris of Mumbai.
Chopped coconut a Kolkata touch
The world outside South City Mall
On 'plate' number 2
Ram Kumar and Raj Kumar. brothers who make even better phuchkas than himself according to young Ravi
My attempts to be phuchka wallah
Another day in India...special parking available for very important people

A lil Kookie Jar Lemon Tart by my side

Well, I wasn’t hungry but I couldn’t go without saying hello to the lemon tart at Kookie Jar. I went up to the Kookie Jar store beside the food court at South City. Picked up my lemon tart. Was happy the see the thin gentleman at the counter with curly hair and glasses smile at me in recognition. 

I picked up a very robust cappuccino from CCD and sat down at a table. I played around with the macro function of the camera as my coffee cooled. The tart, for once, disappointed. The lemon butter curd was slightly clingy and sticky and didn’t have its usual bouncy freshness.

But then there are good days and there are bad days when you are in love. And my heart lies firmly with Kookie Jar’s lemon tart.

Man Versus Food: Mommie chapter

I reached home stuffed and then there was my mom ready with her prawn curry that both K and I love. A dish I tried to replicate at Mumbai.

The fragrant smell of Basmati, the short grained Bengali special occasion rice, shrouded the house. Reminding me how she must have planned and cooked for the few meals I would eat at home. Miraculously the day’s food snuggled in my tummy making space for the dinner my mom had cooked. A few more meals of daal with fish head, fish curry, fish fry, fired potatoes, chicken... eating even when my body wanted to give in... and it was time to go.

As my Mom, said sometimes these short visits were more painful than just being away. I guess this is the ‘hoozoon’ or sense of melancholy that Orhan Pamuk spoke of when he spoke of his Istanbul.

Mom's prawn curry
Prawn curry with Gobindobhog rice
Potato fried in batter
Crisp rohu fry
Last meal before I left
Fish curry
And now she gets down to write her England diaries for you.


oil or no oil Sanjha chulha is my ffav and I make it a point to atleast treat myself with some soul food from there. sinful but yum. Now that am relocating to the city I probably is going to put on more weight with al those jalbharas and prawn curries.
Anonymous said…
Beautiful stuff - I can feel a phuchka tasting trip coming on...

Wonderful pics too!
Anonymous said…
Beautiful stuff - I can feel a phuchka tasting trip coming on...

Wonderful pics too!

Sudeshna said…
It Seemed to me the best post I have ever read on Kolkata. Feeling nostalgic :)
Anonymous said…
Your post is super, a visual diary of kolkata, very well portrayed, just return from kolkata, bought nolen gur from garihat, been to south city malls too, PA shah road has changed a lot !
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Sayantani: good times ahead then :)

@Xanthe: you must come on a phuchka tasting will love it

@Sudeshna, thanks for that...

@Sukanya, thanks, Anwar Shah Road has changed indeed and South City is an Oasis for us when we go home
Soma said…
6 yrs pore Kolkata jachchi. This was a good post ... kind of prepares me for the change and the things never change.. looking forward to a lot of things.
swagata said…

Am an avid reader of your blog. Am a Bengali and a foodie as well!! (goes together :))

Next time you visit Sanjha Chulha - you MUST have the lahori keema and chicken malai tikka masala (gravy). I studied in Kolkata for 5 years and this was one of your favourite haunts.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
have a good trip Soma and thanks for writing

@Swagatha true :) and thanks for the recos
Anonymous said…
I find your blog very interesting. I did the major part of my education in Bombay and I maybe go to Calcutta for 15 days and that is about it. My dad is a doctor too and he just doesn't let me eat outside food. I did try it a number of times and my stomach got royally screwed. But the temtation is always there when i come to India.
Anonymous said…
Your mum's pic remind's me of my didu. I was very close to her. I use to go scurrying off to her if my mum threatened to beat me.My didu always saved me from spankings.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Anon...thanks for writing in. Enjoyed reading your comments yesterday and great to see that you connected with the blog. Hopefully you will get a chance to experience phuchka someday
Android said…
Came across your blog post today and I am hooked....keep writing