View from my room in Peerless Inn with a touch of Instagram. The pics in the post are a mix of iPhone pics that I took on a recent work trip to the city and Canon 550 eos pics that I took in a trip with K in 2012
The Hi Blitz magazine had recently referred to me as a ‘true blue Mumbai boy’ in their feature on India’s top food bloggers where they kindly featured me.
I would largely agree with that epithet except when it comes to matters of food when my stomach lies firmly in Kolkata. How else would you explain the amount of food that I ate within two hours of checking into the well located and very competent Peerless In Hotel before my first focus group started. Yes, I know that I was returning to Kolkata after more than a year and a half but still…
This time there was a Malayali colleague from Mumbai, S, who had come for the project too to Kolkata with me. I ended up giving her an introduction to the food of Bengal and then a quick walk down New Market soon after we landed in the city.
Here’s the story of my whirlwind trip to Kolkata last weekend.
We checked into Peerless Inn and then I suggested lunch at Aaheli, the Bengali restaurant at the Peerless Inn Hotel.
The restaurant had opened in 1993 and I remember reading about its Bengali thala way back when I was in college. This was one of the first specialised high end Bengali restaurants to open in Kolkata and I was quite excited to read about it then. More than two decades later I finally stepped into Aaheli for lunch.
As you walk into Aaheli you feel a sense of calm and some of it possibly because of the ‘aroma’ of ilish that hits you. In the corner there were some live performers singing Bengali songs. I always feel a bit sorry for such folks in a restaurant when people focus on food and not the rhythm around it. The brass plates and beautiful table arrangements give the place a posh feel as did the bill at the end which, even with a hotel guest’s discount, beat Oh Calcutta hollow when it comes to steepness.
There was an extensive a la carte menu but I chose the thala to give S a complete feel of Bengali cuisine. Here I must mention the excellence of service in Aaheli. Realising S is not Bengali, the dhoti clad wait staff explained to her the order of eating the dishes the Bengali way.
I didn’t want to steal his thunder by saying that I already had done that.
We went for the Raj thali which had mutton, prawns, a topshe fry and one bhapa bhetki in addition to the veggies. Unlimited luchi and rice with piping hot begun bhaja. Again the good service bit. The veggies of the day were cauliflower and jackfruit but at my request they substituted the cauliflower with an alu posto and a mochar ghonto.
So here are the high points of the thala. Lovely luchi begun bhaja, the alu posto was an out of the world with heavy mustard oil twang and a slight fried taste to the potato. The kosha mangsho was fairly robust and tasty and the in house mishti doi was lovely too. It was so good that I thought it was from a sweet shop. Oh and the aam porar shorbot that we ordered was pretty well flavoured too.
We also ordered a boneless smoked hilsa which was quite poetic and with it came a perfectly balanced mustard curry which wasn’t too pungent for non Bengalis.
Misses? The bhetki patoori was a tad dry and the prawn malai curry was as sweet as a ras malai. Though S and I agreed that the prawn was cooked very well.
All in all a lot of great food…and a proud glimpse into the culinary culture of Bengal.
Satiated we rolled out of our seats like two well fed walruses resolving to skip dinner. We had an hour before work begun and decided to step out of the hotel for a walk. The first thing I saw was a man selling my beloved phuchkas and the next thing I knew, S and I, with a little urging from me had a plate of 4 phuchkas each and I asked for the fao, or the free one, too. God, how I miss these in Mumbai.
We then walked down to work off our meals, passed Writer’s Building which, as I explained to S, was till recently the HQ of the Bengal government and was named after the ‘writers’ who worked there at the time of the British. A walk past Chaplin Cinema and we were at Nizam’s.
Nizam’s is where rolls were invented and Nizam’s is where I had my first taste of the symphonic rolls of the Muslim restaurants of Central Calcutta which were so different from the voluptuous sauce loaded rolls that I had grown up on in the Bengali manned stalls of Suburban South Kolkata.
Nizam’s is where I learnt that the paratha should be a delicate canvas to the kebabs inside and that chopped green chillies and a dash of lime make the flavours of the meat burst out much better than the red and yellow sauces that doused the rolls of the suburbs.
Nizam’s is where in the early 90’s I got tutored in the delights of food that ‘respected the produce’. Nizam’s is where I had become an epicure years back.
Nizam’s is where that Saturday we had our third food stop in two hours as I convinced S to share a mutton roll with me.
“No sauces” squealed the Frankie bred Mumbaikar in delight as she took her bite of a Kolkata roll.
Kolkata had scored once again.
We decided to walk a bit more before heading back for our focus group. We went into New Market where I showed S the century the century old Jewish bakery, Nahoum and then the stall at the centre of the market where in another life time I would stop for cold coffees. The cold coffees are still there but the black cannon which was beside the stall is gone now.
We stepped out of the market past the channa bhatoore stalls outside Lighthouse which is now a departmental store and not the theatre where we would watch movies after knocking off a rum in the bar. New Empire is still there thankfully. The theatre sported a KFC which made young S go, “why have a KFC in a city which has such great food?”
Down Shreeram Arcade and the juice stalls and past the restaurant where my grandparents had taken me for Mughlai Parathas after my first Metro Joy ride, we passed the phuchka guy, whom I visited once again in the evening, and then went back to work.
I made another trip to Nizam’s the next afternoon. The working lunch option was the buffet at Peerless Inn but given the choice between a posh hotel buffet and a local grunge legend I never have to think much.
If you are wiling to ignore the used tissues on the floors of Nizam’s and the chicken bones on the tables then you can get a bite of history at this legendary institution which was established in 1932 and traces its origins to a stall set up in the 1900s. The previous day I had my roll at the Nizam's Mughal Garden outlet which serves beef. The seating here is rather dingy so I hopped across to the other Nizam's a couple of shops away for lunch. The owners are same but the bigger outlet doesn’t serve beef. When K and I went there a couple of years back she steadfastly looked at the wall to avoid the grime while she enjoyed her roll. That time I even took a touristy shot of making rolls on their historic flat griddle.
This time I was alone and went in for a very fragrant mutton biryani with that bewitchingly baked potato and a chicken (leg piece on request) chaap where the chicken was tender, the flavours polite yet firm with just a tad bit of excess saltiness which marred an otherwise perfect picture…
Stuffed to the gills I went to the beef serving Nizam’s Mughal Garden to order a khiri roll. Nizam’s is where, with my friend Kaushik, I had first tasted the wondrous meat that khiri or cow’s udder is. The roll once again was ‘serene’ as someone on fb commented when I put up the picture though I must say that Haji Tikka at Bhendi Bazar does khiri kebabs better.
If you thought that the eating ended there then you are mistaken. This is Kolkata after all. The city that lives to eat.
So after our focus group I went with the two fellow Mumbaikars to Flurys where I of course had to have my favourite buttery classic strawberry cube and the heritage beans on toast.
Yes. I was ready to head back.
The Kolkata trip was not just about food and work. On the first night I met my friends from the ICSE 1990 batch of AGCS Tollygunge, folks I had grown up with. I was meeting them after almost a quarter of a century and our hugs couldn’t get any warmer, our smiles any wider as we reminisced about our teachers, sang Mithun songs and chatted like we had twenty five years of missed evenings to catch up on.
Next morning I made a quick trip to Didu’s before work.
My 86 year old grandmother made the best meal in a trip of great eats. A very Bengali breakfast of luchi, shada alur torkari and begun bhaaja. For a bit she had forgotten her aching knees her rheumy watering eyes, her failing digestion to cook for me. No wonder that of all the identities I hold, that of ‘eldest grandson’ is the one I cherish the most.
Seeing Didu sitting alone in the veranda of the huge bungalow, once full with people and now empty, waiting for me, broke my heart. I ran in like the three year old that I was when I first saw her in Delhi and gave her a big hug.
Yes, that’s Kolkata for me. A city that makes me smile. A city that makes me wistful. A city that I grew up in.
A city that is entrenched in the soul of this Mumbai boy.