Beyond alu posto. Blue Poppy, Russel St, Kolkata

Alu posto is a Bengali dish made with posto or poppy seeds. As the Tibetan and Bhutanese delights of Blue Poppy show, there is more to the food of Kolkata than just Bengali food.

One monsoon evening in the early 90s, during my college days, I followed a group of my college friends down the alleys of Elgin Road.

We were a tracking a find which a few in the group had recently made. We opened the gate of a house and walked down a lane, into a drawing room and then to a verandah beyond it. We were at the setting of a new Kolkata phenomena then. That of Tibetan families opening small restaurants within the houses of Elgin Road, near Bhowanipore. Restaurants which were fitted into existing corners and nooks and could be anything from a 4 to  a 10 seater with a few odd unmatched tables shoved in. These restaurants served some Tibetan dishes such as momos, thupkas and the local version of Chinese. The biggest draw for our hungry young stomachs then were the low prices. For a very little sum you could fill your tummy with steamed pork momos. What made the experience unbeatable was the clear pork broth which came with this which would completely satiate you. At a time where one had to stretch one’s very meagre pocket money, this was manna.

I made frequent trips to the Elgin Road momo shops during my college and business school years. Then for some reason one just didn’t manage to go back to them once I began working. Nor did they feature in my trips back home after I moved to Mumbai. I must go back someday.

The Tibetan restaurants of Elgin road are still there I am told. However, over the last few years, the one name that comes up when momos and Tibetan food in Kolkata is discussed is that of Blue Poppy. Friends of mine such as Kaniska and Soumik, whose tastes in food I trust, swear by it. Here is Kaniska's post on the place.

I had not heard of Blue Poppy till recently. I found out that Blue Poppy is just about a decade old. Which means it opened almost 5 years after I left the city. This possibly explains why I hadn’t heard of it in the pre-social media era. At that time my awareness of the city was shaped entirely by my past experiences in the city. It’s only after I met new folks from Kolkata through the blog and social media that I became aware of places I hadn’t heard of earlier. Including some legends such as Kalman’s the meat shop.

I had been wanting to go to Blue Poppy ever since I heard Kaniska speak of it so lovingly but due to paucity of time and a big list to tick, I hadn’t managed to do so on my recent trips to Kolkata. We finally managed a trip to the elusive eatery this time.

It was fitting that Manishita, the wife of Kaniska who so loves Blue Poppy, took us there.

There are three Blue Poppies in Kolkata it seems. We went to the one on the first floor of Sikkim House at Russel Street near the Drive Inn restaurant.

We went pretty late. It was close to 9.30 pm. They take the last order at 10.30 pm apparently. It’s more of a snack place I have been told.

The streets around us were empty. Our friend Nathan, who has recently moved into Kolkata, had earlier pointed out to me how the streets in Kolkata suddenly empty once it turns dark unlike in Mumbai where the traffic is manic 24 X 7.

Manishita, K and I walked up the stairs to the first floor. Saw a row chairs kept in a hall. Manishita said that these were for people to sit on while waiting.

No such problem that night though as the restaurant was fairly empty barring 2 or 3 other tables.

The setting of Blue Poppy at Russel Street is that of a large dining hall. The tables and chairs pretty basic. Someone on twitter later asked me if it was smelly. It wasn’t. Seemed pretty clean. The place is much much larger than what I remembered of those mom and pop Elgin road Tibetan joints which used to be tucked into unused corners of houses.

Not fine dine, but then nor were the prices.

We placed our order. I had twitter tips to go by. Recos from Soumik and Kaniska. Plus Manishita of course who has often eaten here with Kaniska. 

We started with a prawn Thukpa, the Tibetan soup. Manishita said she wouldn’t have it. A few bites of the clear noodle soup and one realized why. It was devoid of taste. Was like sipping on boiled dish water. Reminded me of my feeling of being underwhelmed by the Vietnamese noodle soup, pho, in Australia. K concurred too and neither of us finished the soup which we were sharing. This was the only false note in the evening. Later, folks on twitter told me that Blue Poppy is not the place for thukpa. I had forgotten my golden rule of going by the recommendations of the person who had brought me to a restaurant, specially if it was their favourite. If Manishita said no thukpa, no thukpa it should have been.

Next were the pork momos. The minced pork filling was incredibly juicy and delicately yet enticingly flavoured. It was so full of taste that we didn’t need a dipping sauce with it. The coating was a bit tough though, specially at the edges. Manishita asked the folks at the counter if the momos were fresh. They had no qualms in saying that the momos were made in two batches, at 12 noon and 4 in the evening and then re-heated and served though the day. So now you know when to go if you want fresh momos. Still, one must tip one's hat to the pork filling. I just loved how understated and yet so full of zest this was.

We had also ordered another Tibetan pork dish called shapta which came well recommended on twitter. This turned out to be an incredibly tasty dish. Thinly sliced juicy pork cooked in a red chilly base and covered in a bed of finely fried red onion strips. A power packed dish if ever there was one. A great example of using spices to excite and yet not overwhelm. Though strongly spiced, the taste of the meat was not hidden and each succulent bite of pork was a heavenly delight. Thank god that compared to Mumbai you get pork more easily in restaurants of Kolkata and of such good quality stuff. The night before we had some pretty nice pork at Jimmy’s Kitchen.

After the tempest of the shapta was the sobering plate of greens which Manishita had called for us like a good mother. This is a dish of stir fried greens and they had used the locally available kolmi shaak. Tasted pretty nice and crunchy actually with the slight flavour of garlic complementing the taste of the greens. It’s a good contrast to have along with the more bold and very meaty shapta. In fact Baba Ling at Ling’s always tells us to order Chinese greens with our pork.

I never do. Maybe I should.

Suddenly Manishita remembered another favourite of Kaniska’s here. She must have been missing him. She quickly called for a Q Dasi. A Bhutanese dish. Like the shapta, this too was a first for us.

Q (pronounced kee) Dasi is a fondue like cheese based soup with slices of boiled potato in it. It’s dreamy and creamy. K’s fav dish of the evening I think and all three of us slurped our portions up from our plates. The cheese had a very alluring and enticing flavour. I asked the folks at the counter about the origins of the cheese expecting some exotic local Bhutanese cheese to be named. The guys at the counter with a deadpan expression said, ‘Amul’. No pretences here.

Now here’s the interesting thing. Though it was cool outside I began to perspire while I had the Q Dasi as I normally do when I have something too spicy or hot. Which is when I realized that the dish had a strong chilli kick hidden under the innocent looking cheese sauce. If you had any fondue-like illusions of Switzerland, the chilli kick strongly thumped in the Bhutanese subcontinental origins of the dish. Ema Dasi btw is the non chilli version of the same dish.

We were pretty full by now but our generous host wanted to order something else so I suggested a mixed fried rice to satiate my Bengali rice loving belly. The rice was from the Chinese part of the menu at Blue Poppy. The fried rice in Kokata Chinese places, including here, comes tossed in sauces and can be had by itself. In Mumbai, apart from in Ling’s, most Chinese fried rices are white and flavourless forcing you to order a side with it. What I loved about the fried rice in Blue Poppy were the pillowy bites of fatty pork in it.

It was time to leave after the sumptuous meal. It was close to 1030 pm and we were the only people left. Yet, the staff didn’t hurry us. The three of us then went to Au Bon Pain in Park Street for an adda and again the staff very sweetly kept the place open for us though it was after closing hours.

If I look back at our evening at Blue Poppy what comes to mind is a happy evening marked by lovely conversations, a warm and kind host and some pretty memorable food.

The mark of a happy place.


suvro said…
Thupka or Thukpa?
Seems underwhelming experience, overall!
Kolkata could use a good Din Tai Fung style XLB place!
suvro said…
Color me confused! The menu says thukpa - ka before pa!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
I did a google search and saw that is actually thukpa. changed it in the blog. thanks