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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.