The Fading Chinese Whispers of Kolkata … Kim Ling Tangra, Tiretti Bazaar breakfast

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It was 5.45 AM in the morning. A time of the day I am not familiar with.

I stepped out of the hotel room. Unshaved. Unbathed. Unfed. Red eyed. I was half hoping for a text calling it all off.

But no. It was raining and it was grey but through that I could see the beaming face of Kaniska (this is his blog) and then his wife Manishita who was photographing Kolkata before the city woke up.

For long I had wanted to explore Kolkata’s Chinese eats and it was finally coming true in this trip. A couple of nights back I had gone to eat at Tangra, often referred to by locals as ‘Chinatown’. Accompanied by my classmate from college, Yajnaseni or Jaggo.

And now Kaniska and Manishita were enabling my long standing desire to check out Tiretti Bazaar, near the police headquarters of Lalbazar, and the famous Chinese breakfast stalls over there. The stumbling factor till date for me was that it was supposedly open only from 5 to 7 AM.

Why the Chinese of Kolkata had to tune their breakfast clocks to those of Peking beat me.

I finally made it that morning. And found out that the market was open till 8.30 am and beyond. The market starts showing some life post 7.30 AM actually.

Turns out that he fast dwindling Chinese community of Kolkata had gone native.

Dinner at Tangra

I had never been to Tangra while I was growing up at Kolkata. Which were probably the glory days of Tangra at  Dhapa, the stretch in Eastern Calcutta which housed tanneries owned by the local Chinese, and were home to a set of restaurants run by them.

Almost everyone warned me that Tangra today is no longer what it used to be when I shared my plans to visit it. Some said that a lot of the Tangra cooks had migrated to the US and Canada to open inns in the promised continent. As my friend @Rahulhosh said on twitter ‘there is nothing Chinese about Tangra now, just a place for cheap quarters (bottles of alcohol)’.

I finally played the college card and good old Jaggo agreed to take me there. She gave me the statutory warning first. ‘To start with you won’t get pork there’ she said as only a respectable Bengali lady would.

We drove into Tangra early into the night. Past the tall Great Walls of the tanneries. Past the gates of Sing Cheung, the ‘sauce factory’, whose Kasundi (spicy Bengali mustard sauce) is now available at Bandra. Past Beijing, the most famous restaurant here. To Kim Ling. The restaurant chosen by Jaggo which had its share of fans as we later found out.

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“It’s very basic in its appearance I must warn you” said Jaggo. “Try me’ I shot back.

We walked in through the ‘men’s room’, the drinking den, into the ‘family room’. There were a few couples and groups with sari clad women here. Alcohol the common theme across tables though the two of us did bring the average down a bit. The staff was all indigenous. I didn't see any Mongoloid features, forget Chinese amongst them.

We opened the menu card and the first item that shouted out at me was, oops, chicken pakoras. With which disappeared any visions that I had of finding ‘real’ Chinese.

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I won’t spend more than a couple paragraphs on the food. Any more would be a waste.

The house speciality of prawn chips were flavour neutral enough for even vegetarians to try them. The chilly garlic chicken was a good old juicy bird but in terms of taste it hit you with barrages of cheek sucking salt and ajino moto waves and nothing else.

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For our mains we chose lemon chili prawns after folks on twitter recommended lemon chili chicken. The sweet caramelised batter was so overwhelming that I was oblivious to the taste of prawns inside. And the Cantonese mixed rice… what do I say about rice drowned in rice starch, where even subtlety is not a good enough excuse for sterility. Even the most hardened CIA agent I am sure wouldn’t blame this abomination of a dish on Red China. And before you break into howls of protest on Cantonese being ‘non spicy’ let me tell you that ‘non-spicy by no means stands for devoid of taste.

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I was back in my hotel room from the deserted dark lanes of Calcutta’s Chinatown by 1015 pm. The food as disappointing as everyone warned me it would be.

The evening and the company as memorable as I knew they would be.

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Chinese Breakfast at Tireti Bazaar

I am an owl and yet Tangra failed to excite me. 

So imagine what chances our pre 6 AM trip to Tireti Bazaar had.

Well here are a couple of tips. You could get a couple of more stalls than the four or five on that we found on Wednesday if you go on a Sunday. Secondly on weekdays the market begins to wake up at 7.30 am and you could even get lucky at 8.30 AM. So you can spare yourself the Chinese torture of waking up early. Specially if you live far away like K & M do. Or, if like me, mornings are your greatest enemy.

We reached the lane at Chandni Chowk where Kaniska had last gone six years back. The Chinese breakfast ‘market’ was all of two stalls at this point.

If it was Indian pakoras that greeted me at Tangra, here it was Tibetan momos, steamed and fried, both options. The polemics of Tibetan dishes in a Chinese market were best analysed at a later hour.

(Update: The Bride, a reader, in her comments point out that momos could be Chinese too. Sharing this here though most Calcuttans would associate momos with the Tibetan shops of Bhowanipore till they hear otherwise)

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The street livened up with time. A few more stalls serving Chinese food opened up – more momos, then discoveries of sweet pork buns, tofu, ‘chow’, mutton ball soups, rice dumpling fries, sticky rice, shredded cucumber fritters, pork pies pork potato chops… all dubbed as ‘mystery meat’ by Kaniska.

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We tried it all. The advantage of eating with the intrepid. The pork pies worked for me the most followed by the momos – both steamed and  pan fried. Both fish and pork.

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The mutton ball soup didn’t do much for me and I have never been a fan of Oriental clear soups. Manishita tried to convince me that the this boiling water would assume some sort of taste once I added sauces but I gave it a miss.

The pork buns reminded me of those at Ling’s. Ranjit’s a fan of them. M and K liked them here but I am not too fond of sweet Chinese buns as a genre.

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The few Chinese stalls were soon outnumbered by stalls frying Indian puris and samosas. Chinese folks were slowly coming on to the streets but were far outnumbered by the indigenous Indians. The road reeked of filth and squalor, the rains making it muddier and murkier.

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The food thankfully was served piping hot, shrouded in steam, sanitised by extreme temperatures which left our constitutions unruffled.

You could say that waking up at the ungodly hour made me view the food with a jaundiced, no pun intended, eye but frankly the food didn’t impress me. I almost felt like an adolescent who after his first kiss went ‘this is it?’.

Yet, I must point out that there was a range of food that you would not see easily everywhere. And a slice of history. And some eager and happy patrons. Like the gentleman who stopped his cab to pack momos for Bangalore where he was headed. The couple who relished their meat ball soups. The group of young boys who were checking their friend’s texted requests as they filled their bags. Kaniska and Manishita were grinning away too. And remember they woke up well before I did.

Ironically almost all non Chinese. For the Chinese of Calcutta, I am given to understand, are migrating rapidly.

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There were a few Chinese folks around too. The gentlemen sitting on a stool in front of a Chinese restaurant that would open at 11. A lady who was buying corn. Another who picked up her breakfast from the tofu and ‘chow’ lady. The guy who grinned and puffed away. The token monk in his bright orange robe.

It took tight camera angles and carefully spotted Mongoloid faces for me to come up with a set of photos which helped photo shop the bleak surroundings.

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Then there was the adorable plump lady who bought her morning eats and headed to her shop. The Chinese medicine and provisions shop that was opened in 1934.

‘Photograph my shop if you want me to,’ said this astonishingly photogenic cherubic lady, “but not me. My hair got wet. I don’t feel like getting photographed.

Ah, feminine vanity spreads so seamlessly across cultures, races and eras.

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The road home

I had gone to Tiretti Bazaar and Tangra in search of stories. To look around and travel back in time. Eavesdropping in to my city's history. The story of those who had made a foreign land their own. And then moved out. Just as I had a few years back.

I got my stories and got to spend time with some wonderful people. Came back to my room and napped. Can't think of a better way to start a day.

The following pics are courtesy Kaniska:





I returned to Mumbai, the city of Ling’s Pavilion. The restaurant at Colaba that I will head to the next time I want to eat Chinese food in India. Possibly the last bastion of what was once a bustling immigrant population.
After all India and China are the flavour of the season right now.

Update: 23 July 2011 I had to end this post by pasting a comment from Jason, one of the Kolkata's Chinese, who has moved out since from what I understand but has been kind enough to share his memories with us:

"Nice writing here....
I guess your disappointment ,stems from your expectations.....The Street market is a pale ghost of its former self and so is Tangra.....I'm a Chinese from Kolkata,but now part of the herd that immigrated for greener pastures...I still make a trek back every other year....


Kim Ling was the first (or one of the first) Restaurant that opened in that area,it became really popular because of its location,the owner went on to open another Bigger restaurant in Tangra called "Beijing" (only in name,the food was still the Indian Style hakka) and another one in Park Street called "Tung Fong" (actually the crossing of Free School Street and Park Street)...Normally my family does takeout from a place called "Golden Joy"...The quality and standard of the food is still high....The rest of the places are more of a watering hole.....


With regards to the Street market,a small correction,the clear soup that you mention is not mutton,it is Fish Ball and Pork and Corn Starch....of course the ratio of which is heavily favoured towards corn starch....They also sell fish ball and pork intestines as well (if you ask)....The soup is Pork Bone stock (with a heavy dousing of ajino moto)....
Of course things are not the same...i remember as a kid 20 years back,the market would be bustling by 6 am....75% of the faces you would see were mongloid and known faces (everyone knew everyone back then)....and by 8:00-8:30 things would wrap up because that street was a parking space for the govt/municipal offices around...on Sundays things would stretch till 9 am....

Your blog bought back memories and nostalgia....Thank You.... "

 
Note: The red building is Lalbazar or the Police HQ at Kolkata. The white one I think is the new defunct Great Eastern Hotel. Don't miss the yellow ambassador taxis.

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Comments

Harman said…
nice..mothwatering dishes...amnd my my look at that menu..WOW..
kalyan have a good time ..cheers on this!
The Bride said…
If you are referring to the dumplings in the first pic in the Tireti Bazaar section as Tibetan momos, those are very much Chinese dumplings too. I guess there is a commonality among the Tibetan dumplings and the Chinese ones. I buy dumplings just like those in the supermarket here in HK and steam them. Some people prefer to pan-fry. However, good dumplings should have a delicate skin and by that standard those pictures are unacceptable.

The pork buns I suppose are supposed to what we call 'cha siu bao' here (bbq pork buns). The colour of the filling looks off though.
Sharmila said…
Couldn't help noticing the prices .. tumi paro o baba Kalyan ... oi brishti, kada r moddhe! Snapsgulo khub e tempting I must say though. :-)
Btw ... tomar B'lore er pagegulo khola roilo amar lt te ... they are going to help me. :-)
The knife said…
@Harman : i did :)

@The Bride: well growing up at Calcutta one has always associated momos with Tibet. So thanks for the spreading the momo knowledge. Updated the post with your input

@Sharmila: Ektu kaada na hole ball khelar moja kothai?
The yummiest photographs of food on this blog.. so far. Kolkata effect. You must live and write about the food there!
Robyn said…
I'm fascinated by Chinese food outside China. So thanks for posting this!

The pork bun meat is scary pink, no doubt a color achieved with dye. Many Hong Kong cha siu (BBQ) pork sellers often use color to achieve the reddish tint on the outside of their meat. A good seller doesn't, of course.

Be careful about referring to Tibetan momos as "Chinese food". Will no doubt be acceptable to most mainlanders, but certainly not to a Tibetan. ;-)

BTW I disagree that a good dumpling should have "delicate" skins. There are different types of dumplings, and they have different types of skins. Those you've pictured look like northern Chinese-style jiaozi (and could be momos, which look identical) -- a thick and chewy skin is proper here. A wonton, or a chaoshou, however should have skin that's thin and slippery.

And now I'm hungry.
I'm so glad you went tried the Chinese breakfast! For me it was a fun experience and I saw a Calcutta I didn't know existed.

I found some new stalls in your photos and I noticed the fresh pork sausage-wala is missing. Otherwise it looks the same, messy, untidy and still worth visiting.

I honestly think just a fraction of this breakfast market exists today and at one time it must have been a place buzzing with customers and many varieties of Chinese delicacies.

Tangra has hardly any Chinese flavour left. How sad...

But there is hope for us who live in Bombay! Ling's Kitchen, hallowed be thy name and long may you prosper!
The knife said…
@Gopal...thanks...great compliment from a man who has romanced the streets of Mumbai like very few have

@Robyn: Hey thanks so much for writing in. I knew this would interest you. I just love the Orient and really lap up everything you put up there. On of the main reasons why yours is my favourite food blog.


Good point about the momos. The poor Tibetans don't get any respite do they?
The knife said…
@Rhea: I had wanted to go here for a while and finally did. For folks who love food and its history, this would be of one of the best feasts possible... like you said thinking of what could have been is so intriguing

I think the pork sausage folks come to the market on Sundays now
kaniska said…
you, again, captured the mood beautifully. and thanks a million for mentioning my humble blog, which looks like a bare cupboard compared to yours and many others. needless to say, we had loads of fun not just horsing around the place but also waking up and waking you up. though i suspect manishita will have a different view on the waking up part... keep writing.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MaDe In Umami said…
absolutely brilliant post, evokes the sights and sounds of cal charm and squalor so beautifully. calcutta nostalgia is a double edged sword of comfort and pain when juxtaposed with the squalid reality, but then increasingly so is bbay. did you read the papers today that post blast all the khau gallies around zaveri bazar and fort are being evicted??
Bong Mom said…
Lovely, lovely article kalyan, brought to light a part of Cal unknown to me.

It is true that a lot of chefs from Tyangra migrated to US or maybe not. We have two Calcutta style Chinese restaurants in the vicinity, both chefs claim they are from Tyangra. Food was good there but they do use a lot of ajino moto which does not suit me these days.
manishita said…
hey, it's well written along with those nice mouthwatering food shots! i too doubt if the foods were really so delicious as they look!! And thanks for mentioning me here over and over again. i loved the experience--that's it!
Yajnaseni said…
You are forgiven for misspelling my name, after all these years, only because of the other good things you said :). Glad you made it to Tiretta Bazar. Just as an aside, that dinner gave me an upset stomach
Nice post- I just about remember the smell of sulphur from the tanneries in Tangra during visits to Cal! Are they still there? I guess any diaspora of people adapt their food to the 'host' community. Chinese (and indeed Indian) food in the UK is usually altered for the tastes of people here, so finding any 'authentic' cooking from these regions can be tricky. And it seems that might be the case the world over! I wonder if the Chinese community in Cal still cook their own traditional dishes at home though, or if they are sitting down to dal bhaat as well?
Jason said…
Nice writing here....



I guess your disappointment ,stems from your expectations.....The Street market is a pale ghost of its former self and so is Tangra.....I'm a Chinese from Kolkata,but now part of the herd that immigrated for greener pastures...I still make a trek back every other year....



Kim Ling was the first (or one of the first) Restaurant that opened in that area,it became really popular because of its location,the owner went on to open another Bigger restaurant in Tangra called "Beijing" (only in name,the food was still the Indian Style hakka) and another one in Park Street called "Tung Fong" (actually the crossing of Free School Street and Park Street)...Normally my family does takeout from a place called "Golden Joy"...The quality and standard of the food is still high....The rest of the places are more of a watering hole.....



With regards to the Street market,a small correction,the clear soup that you mention is not mutton,it is Fish Ball and Pork and Corn Starch....of course the ratio of which is heavily favoured towards corn starch....They also sell fish ball and pork intestines as well (if you ask)....The soup is Pork Bone stock (with a heavy dousing of ajino moto)....



Of course things are not the same...i remember as a kid 20 years back,the market would be bustling by 6 am....75% of the faces you would see were mongloid and known faces (everyone knew everyone back then)....and by 8:00-8:30 things would wrap up because that street was a parking space for the govt/municipal offices around...on Sundays things would stretch till 9 am....



Your blog bought back memories and nostalgia....Thank You....
The knife said…
@Kaniska & @Manisita... had a lot of fun that morning and thank you both for that...for me eating is not just about food but about the company, discoveries and experience...and that morning was right up there with the best

@MadeinUmami...thanks glad you liked it...as a college senior wrote about Calcutta in Bengali e shohor amar shob jaane(that city knows everything about me)

Read about Bombay it's sad and burnt my blood when the terrorists attacked khao gulley and murdered people there
The knife said…
@BobgMom thanks even I had heard about this place but had never been there specially because of the timings...had managed it thanks to manishita & kanishka

@Jaggo..editor sahiba...changed the typo...sad to hear about the tummy

@Thefastestindian yes the stench is still there...but that's a good point that you make. For example i never use mustard oil in my 'Bengali' cooking
The knife said…
Hey jason thanks so much for writing in with the treasure trove of information....I was not disappointed at all. I had been warned so I didn't go for the food. i went there to find out more about a lesser chapter of my city....my only chinese connection earlier was a classmate, Mike, who was at high school and the folks we would see hanging around New Empire...shoes at bentink street of course...was great to know more through your comment which I have pasted on to the original post now :)

I did go to Tung Fong...my mom and brother discovered it after I left > wrote about it http://finelychopped-k.blogspot.com/2010/09/last-empty-table-at-park-street-on.html

Another old family favourite was Jimmy's Kitchen http://finelychopped-k.blogspot.com/2010/10/mixed-hakka-memories-jimmys-kitchen.html
shooting star said…
interesting read...im not from kolkata, though am a bengali...and do go there once in a while....but my haunts are limited to park street new market and gariya haat....all assisted by my helpful cousins and aunts....this time maybe ill ask them to take me to tiretti bazar.
first time here and liking ur blog...

http://sushmita-smile.blogspot.com/
Jason said…
Thanks ,Kalyan....

Surprisingly,my family likes Tung Fong....gone there a couple of time for their lunch buffets....Can't remember the last time I went to Jimmy's Kitchen ,even though I have passed through that place like a million times...There is a takeout place behind Jimmy's Kitchen,called Sher-E-Punjab...decent tandoori and rolls place....My mom swears by their tandoori Chicken...

Anytime someone comes back after a visit to Kolkata......Our first questions are always..Did you have the chello kabab at Peter cat?.....Did you have the biryani at Shiraz.......Did you visit Tangra?.....Its always food....We have more than our share of Indian Hakka places here in Toronto,all run by Indian expats,yet nothing can replicate the taste ....There is Something about Kolkata....
The knife said…
@Shooting star well we all havour favs at Kolkata and can get quite vocal about it :)

Pleasure is mine. Mom and brother introduced me to Tung Fong buffet which they discovered after I left. High point was prawns on buffet. Astounded me as well as later my prawn loving wife from Mumbai

Never made it to Sher E Punjab but always associate it with Kala Mandir...yes Jasonda...there is something about Calcutta
The Bride said…
@Robyn and The Knife: I stand corrected on the skins of dumplings. I guess I have acquired Cantonese prejudice on what constitutes a good dumpling. When I went to Beijing I wrinkled my nose at the dumpling skin :)
RD said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
panu said…
I am sort of shocked that Kimling failed to please you, but well, in my defense I can say I have NEVER tried the dishes you mentioned (probably you picked the ones which did not taste so good). However, the Thai Soup they make in Kimling is the best I have had in Kolkata (the name IS Thai Soup, and it is this thick soup flavored with chinese mushrooms and crabs and lemon). Also I adore their Fried rice with garlic and chillies (HOT HOT HOT) and the all-time favorite, Golden Fried Prawns.
The knife said…
Well Panu i went there looking for Chinese food so Thai soup or HOT HOT fried rice wasn't on my list to be honest
IshitaUnblogged said…
This is really unfair. When you left a comment Klayan you should have left this link to your experience at Tiretti Bazar. I wanted to search more on Tiretti Bazar - how did this 'Tamil' name crop up? Another blogger suggested this was a trading block etc etc and I hopped into yours.

Incredible post - fantastic. But you all had more option than we had - pork buns, tofu, ‘chow’, mutton ball soups, pork pies pork potato chops… plus your Chinese reader's comment added a lot of value to the post.

I went to Beijing - good food, spoke to the owner - wanted to talk to her - she said yeah and simply avoided - as if I was looking for a discount! very hurt:(
IshitaUnblogged said…
Kalyan - spelt your name incorrectly - I write as I speak - always in a hurry - apologies!
The knife said…
Thanks Ishita and am suitably rapped on my knuckles...yes we did have quite a spread...but for once the eggs benedict that i ordered later in the hotel was what wowed me...which, given my love for Asian food is very rare
winston chung said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
u should have gone to golden joy or kim fa , for the real indian hakka food. at kim fa n golden joy , most of the time the owners cook , if u go to golden joy u should ask the manager that u wan something which is not listed in the menu,
Anonymous said…
u could order beef tripe in rice wine paste, or hakka bbq noodles, or sui mai, these r da stuffs i dont think its on da menu.
Anonymous said…
most of the time u will only find hakka people in kim fa or golden joy . if u want good food , try kim fa
Ant said…
agree, agree and agree! Tiretti has become overrated and we see too many DSLRs and too little Chinese food these days :) Winters though are better, especially the provisions like Cantonese sausages etc increase. I usually feel content carrying back the pork sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and beef and fish meatballs with shiitake (amazing to drop into any boiling soup at home) from the provision ladies there and later in the day from the Pou Chong store. There is a tiny but surprisingly neat Chinese joint called D'leys next to Pou Chong. Am gonna head to Golden Joy or Kim Fa pretty soon, thanks to your readers who have recommended it here :)
Anonymous said…
Hi.. just stumbled onto this post. Dissapointed that a gourmand like yourself didn't have a nice experience at Kim Ling. It's one of my top restaurant choices in Calcutta, and many of my friends and relatives that I've taken there have commented on just how great the food is - even going so far as to say that it might be amongst their best ever meals.

As someone's already written, the dishes you ordered are not what a regular ever orders. Also, another point to be noted is that Tangra is not Chinatown. It was a garbage dumping area till the 60's or something when the Chinese reclaimed the land and setup their tanneries. In the early 90's, small eating houses were turned into Restaurants that which catered to the upper-middle classes. And so, the most popular dishes were always spicy, fried and complemented alcohol.

If you do visit Kim Ling again, try the Thai Soup and Chilli Garlic Prawns (Medium Sized - tastes best). A simple fried rice or a Cantonese chow is the best way to balance the heat. And the fish with spinach or the crab in black bean sauce are good orders if you just can't take the spiciness. On Park St. the most authentic 'Chinese' joint you have is Golden Dragon. A chinese family still runs it and you'll see them and the friends sitting and eating practically all times of the day. The Roast Chilli Pork (Dry) is a must there.
The knife said…
I do agree that knowing the right things to order makes a big difference. Though honestly, without being told I wouldn't have picked up a Thai soup while liking for Chinese food

Interesting perspective on Tanga not being a Chinatown. Unfortunately it is referred to as one these days because of the resraurants