Caveat: an introspective, meandering, self-indulgent post
Spots at cafes where I find the ‘inner peace’ that Poh, the Kung Fu Panda, searched for.
I twice had to struggle a bit to get this table at Flurys. The window tables there are much sought after. When I went there the third time, I saw my table. Empty. Waiting patiently for me.
What I eat at Flurys is immaterial. The ‘heritage’ baked beans, ‘heritage’ sandwiches with rather stiff bread, the acrid brewed coffee, the ‘heritage’ pastries – strawberry cubes…chocolate cubes…to me it’s all about the past at Flurys. Munching on a menu from Calcutta’s halcyon days at prices which are quite modern Mumbai.
Gazing out. People watching. Dreaming as folks march past me while I sat at my table by the window at Flurys where time stands still.
Well it would not be entirely correct to call Flurys a part of my past. I started frequenting Flurys only after it was refurbished. I had left Kolkata by then. Flurys became a part of stops home.
So I sat there on Monday morning languorously taking in Park Street. Sipping on coffee.
My mind wandered and yet sharply pointed out the incongruity of me eating my meal of nostalgia while grounded in the present. For the book I was reading was “Breathless in Bombay”.
Sitting at Kolkata.
As I read through the book’s lines on Mumbai’s familiar street names, names of train stations, its beaches jumped at me through the pages…reminding me of home.
One of those moments when you wonder where is home.
The city where you have lived for more than a decade? Or the city you have grown up in?
Simon Majumdar's words on Calcutta in his book ‘Eat My Globe’ came back to me.
“I always compare Kolkata to an ex lover, one who you know is bad for you, but about whom you cannot stop thinking”. (Kolkata: Land of my Fathers….Eat My Globe).
Breakfast done I strolled out following the trellis-like paths of self introspection and philosophising. I ambled out into the grey, misty, Darjeeling summer holiday like weather at Kolkata that morning.
Past workers grabbing an early bite…deem paruti, dosas, rolls…fresh off carts on the streets.
I walked on streets that were wet. Spurred by weather that was pleasant….inviting you to walk while people bumped you as they marched on…a bit of a Park Street tradition I figured out this time as people brushed me aside and walked by whenever I stepped on to the pavement.
The city seemed short of patience.
Park Street which looked so grey, grand and gorgeous the previous day, Sunday, was busy, frenetic and traffacked on Monday.
I walked across the inner lanes that went past Mocambo, past what once used to be Jamuna Cinema, on to Free School Street or Mirza Ghalib Street as it is now known, the lanes leading to New Market…I remembered a mission and was finally managed to locate a needle in the hay stack. A tiny meat shop called Kalman.
A shop that I got got to know embarrassingly late in life. But this post is not about the meat shop started by a Hungarian trapeze artist 70 years back and now run by the family of his Bengali manager to whom he bequeathed the shop after 40 yrs.
That is a story for another day.
For this is a story of connecting with my roots. Through food.
As I stepped out of Kalman’s with my stash of Hungarian sausages and smoked bacon, I saw an alley and then a signboard.
Kasturi Restaurant. Dhakai Bengali Cuisine.
I had zeroed in on Kasturi for a while after my last trip to Kolkata. Then they featured it on Rocky and Mayur’s Highway on My Plate too. I had to go there.
And there it was finally in front of me. Kasturi and its promises of meals from Dhaka. The capital of the country which didn’t exist when my parents were born there.
I hadn’t planned to eat lunch so early. I was heading back to the hotel for a shower. But the one thing I’ve learnt is not too be fussy when a food opp comes up. You never know when your next chance will come.
I stepped in. You had a Bengali sweet shop like food display in the front of the shop. Except that the shelves held various food dishes which you could see through the glass and chose. Not sweets.
The waiters at Kasturi are completely on the ball. They can expertly tell you what is in each dish, what goes into it and give recommendations too. In Bengali of course but still such a pleasant change from Mumbai where waiters in most restaurants have no clue about their menu.
From what I gathered later, Kasturi was set up about 12, 13 years back. It is owned by a gentleman known as “Babu’. He is from Bangladesh.
The seating at Kasturi is very functional. There is one section downstairs and two tiny sections upstairs. Possibly a total of 8 or so very basic tables and chairs. It is one of those eat, burp (oh I heard too many of those that afternoon) and move on sort of places.
The way the system works at Kasturi is interesting. The waiter shows you a tray with an assortment of bowls of vegetables and side dishes – alu sheddo, korola bhaaja, lau, laita maccher bhorta, chingri maachher bhorta, alu bhaaj and so on. You choose what you want. Then you look at the glass display case and choose your meats or fish.
You are charged by the dishes you choose. There is no menu card. A bit like a Malay Mamak restaurant except that the food is served fresh out the pots here and are not left to stand in open counters.
The waiter then gets a plate of rice. And, if you look out of place with a camera, jeans, collared tee, scruffy hair and with a jacket and not pullover, then he gets you a bottle of packaged water.
My order that day: Kochu paata diye chingree that two waiters told me were a speciality here. I also chose a loita maachher bhorta. Loita is what we know as Bombay Duck in Mumbai. I wanted to taste the Bengali preparation of it. Neither of these dishes looked familiar to me. For the mains I took the safe option…shorshe ilish. It had been a while since I had a good ilish and this one looked quite big.
Sweets? There are no mishtis at Kosturi. Kosturi serves Bangal, East Bengali or Bangladeshi food. This is pungent, hot and never sweet unlike the food of the Ghotis from West Bengal. Kosturi with its Bangal food is unique as the menus of most Bengali restaurants are Ghoti dominated.
The kochu pata chingri was indeed the star of the afternoon. The sharp sting of mustard oil blending with finely chopped kochu leaves galvanised you. Tiny yet plump juicy shrimps the perfect counter- foil for the inherent heat of the dish. The kochu pata chingri made me pant and sweat on a rather cool Calcutta wintry afternoon. You knew that the dish was special.
Frankly it would be tough for anything to match the energy of the kuchu paata and the loita maachher bhorta had a tough act to follow. The dish seemed liked a version of smoked and then mashed (bhorta) Bombay duck. The texture and taste that of the fillings of the fish chops of Kolkata. The loita maach was seasoned with garam masala which was a spoiler if you ask me. Bombay duck is a very delicate fish and garam masala is too strong a seasoning for it.
The ilish shorshe was quite competent. The fish quite fresh and steamed just right. It gave in beautifully to each anxious and impatient bite. The ilish wasn’t over cooked at all. The creamy shorshe or mustard curry was comparatively docile after the kochu shaak. Not fiery or pungent.
The folks around me who were unable to take the heat and spiciness of the kosha mangsho that they ordered would have been more at home with the shorshe bhaapa ilish. They kept perspiring and groaning thought meal as they spoke of acidity, allergies and Benadryl. Usual Bengali table talk.
Some of the other mains on offer were golda chingri malai curry, curries of small fresh water fish such as Bele or Parshe, chitol maachher muthiya…rui kaalia.
The lunch I had that afternoon was truly satisfying. In its familiar tastes and yet, in some cases, unfamiliar forms I found just what I needed to end a morning of cartographic angst.
Kasturi was packed with content and happy diners spanning across ages and gender. All speaking in various degrees and intensity of Bangal…the Bengali patois of Bangladesh. Different from the Bengali spoken in West Bengal just as the English of the US and the UK differ.
A strain of Bengali that would have perhaps been my own had geo-political realities and urban migration patterns not made my ancestors move out of Bangladeshi.
So this was my story of an afternoon centred around food which is mine and yet not entirely so. Around a language which is mine and yet not entirely so.
An afternoon where I blended in…and yet stood out on the perimeter … photographing away like a tourist.