Breakfast, tea and supper with the Mughals of Kolkata


With Indrajit Lahiri and Mr Nayeem for a Mughlai breakfast at Sabir's Hotel, Kolkata
This post is about my going to the Moghlai restaurants of central Kolkata such as Nizam's, Aminia, Sabir's Hotel and Zeeshan, during my recent trip to the city. I went in search of rolls and biryani and rezala and chaap no doubt, but came back with some observations about the role such eateries played in stitching the cultural fabric of modern Kolkata.

Mission Kolkata


I must confess that I rarely do much research on where to eat or what to do when I visit a place. I just land there, reach out to people on social media and locals that I come across with questions on where to eat, and then go with the flow. I’ve usually scored some pretty good food this way. 

My Kolkata trips are different. Every meal has to count when I return to the city that I grew up in.



With the organisers of the Indo American Food Landscapes meet which was hosted by the Historical Society, American Centre, Kolkata.
To my left is Prof Ranjini Guha who had invited me


I had a plan on arrival for my latest trip to the city too. Land at the airport. Take a cab to my hotel for the night, The Peerless Inn. Check in, shower and then go to Nizam’s next door. Have a mutton roll, head back to the hotel, shower again, dress up (throw a summer jacket over my linen shirt and jeans) and head to the American Centre at Park Street, where I had come to give a talk at the Indo American Food Landscape meet organised by their Historical Society.


View of the top of the Roxy Cinema from my room
at the Peerless Inn. I had seen the movie Maachis here

The traffic to reach Esplanade from the airport in the afternoon was rather maddening though and I ended up with an aching back by the time I reached the hotel.

I checked in and then given the paucity of time, headed out straight to Nizam’s. 

Nizam's Restaurant (estd 1932), Hogg Street/ New Market (the rear end)


Nizam's Restaurant Kolkata, Rolls were invented here


I must admit that I am an unabashed Nizam’s fan, even though some people feel that its glory days are over. 

Some readers said that I should have gone to Badhsah instead. That the rolls are better at Badshah. Well, I have had Badhsah rolls in the past and they are indeed very good. It is just that I did not have the time go down two lanes more to Lindsay Street. Nizam was almost literally next door to the hotel. The other  place  recommended for rolls by readers was the Bihar Restaurant located next to Nizam's. I have never been there.

Stepping into Nizam’s always makes me happy. There is something about the cheerful smiles on the faces of the staff…waiters and cooks who have been here for decades… which seems to tell you, “where have you been for so long. Come let’s make you a roll. Do you want a biryani too? With an extra alu?”

It is not that they recognise me given that I come here probably once a year or less, but the warmth of the welcome is constant. This is the restaurant which claims to have invented the Kolkata roll. What outsiders call the 'kathi roll' but what to us it is just 'roll'.

Nizam's is where, sometime in the early 1990s, that I had a roll which made every roll that I had eaten in my life till then seem like a lie. That evening is when I was introduced to the sophistication that the rolls of the restaurants of central Calcutta (as it was called then) offered over the comparatively raw and rustic, sauce packed subaltern ones with chubby parathas, that one used to get in the parar roller dokan (street stalls) in south Kolkata. 

Update: Pritha Sen, whom we talk about later, tells me that kathi rolls were the terminology of her time. That the use of the word ‘roll’ in its place emerged in the 80s. So I guess that the egg roll was the bridge which connected central Kolkata with the residential parts of suburban Kolkata.

Coincidentally, while writing this price I wondered if the kathi kebab became just ‘roll’ as it spread to the suburbs where egg rolls reigned supreme. The mutton roils here were made with a sort of kosha mangsho. No kaathis kaathis featured here. Pritha’s observation seems to hint at that too.

During my first time at Nizam’s, I observed with awe, that paratha was thin and crisp and a work of art in itself. The kebabs inside were full bodied in taste and texture. Livened up with sliced onions, finely chopped green chillies, a dry spice mix, a dash of lime juice and NO sauce. This was the Ghalib of rolls. I was smitten for life.

I  ordered a mutton roll this time, they have stopped serving beef or khiri (udder), and waited impatiently. The restaurant was empty at about four in the evening but there was a flurry of activity after I placed my order. I requested the ustaad (cook) to fry the onions as this is the way I prefer them to be in rolls. 

The gentle maester (sic) making the roll smiled at me and said (in Hindi), “I will do so my son but the true taste of the kebab comes out only when accompanied by the sharpness of raw onions.”

The roll kitchen at Nizam's


The venerable members of the kitchen staff of Nizam's, who were floating around him, nodded solemnly in agreement and looked on a bit concerned while he fried the onions, along with the kebabs, on the decades old tava on which the rolls are made. Adding fried onions to rolls is a trick that I had picked up  when in school from a 'Hindustani' (UPite) roll maker who had been trained in Kolkata and who had come to work in Bansdroni where we lived. I fell in love with the sweetness of caramelized onions since then. I held my council at Nizam's and didn’t tell them about this though. That would have been the kaathi (seekh) that broke the Nizam's back.

He's been making rolls for thirty odd years at Nizam’s and made mine this time

   
I eagerly grabbed the roll once it was ready, scalding fingers be damned. I photographed it from every possibly angle with my iPhone and then took my first bite. 

It was a mouthful of disappointment I am afraid. From the work of art that I remembered it to be, the roll had become more like an art film of the 80s and reeked of sadness.  

The kebabs were rather tough ... and let’s leave it at that.

I later heard that the ownership of Nizam’s has changed and that it has had a few service issues since then. There was also some talk about the original cooks having left after there was a strike here but I cannot comment with surety on any of that. 

I am an optimist at heart. I would like to believe that the merry men of Nizam’s, and their love to feed people, will ensure that the place will rise from the ashes one day and that their rolls will regain their glory. 

I know that I will be back regardless of what happens. You don't ask questions in love do you?





Aminia (estd 1928)... S.N Banerjee Road, Dharmatalla (beside Elite Cinema)... mutton biryani





After my talk at the American Centre, I requested my friend Kaniska Chakraborty, to join me for a more ‘local’ dinner after we had munched on some nice treats put together by the students of the IIHM at the event.

I suggested that we go to Aminia, another place that I frequented during my college days in Kolkata. Aminia is located next to the Elite cinema. That is where I had first seen Maina Pyar Kya when I was school (I’d seen it a few more times subsequently). This was after our ICSE exams got stretched because of a paper leak at La Martinere that year. My classmates and I went there to catch the movie to take a break from the stress that had suddenly engulfed us.

I remember that day for two things. That was the day that I developed a crush on the actress Bhagyashree and shifted loyalties from Juhi Chawla on whom I earlier had a schoolboy crush since QSQT. 

The other was the lovely biryani that we had for lunch at Aminia before catching the matinee show. Though, to be honest, any biryani that we got to have then was a ‘lovely biryani!’ 

It was a rather rare treat.

Mohammed Rafi Fan Club


Kaniska and I walked into Aminia, twenty eight years after the afternoon when I had gone there with with my classmates. This time it was at around 10 pm. We crossed a pan shop run apparently by a fan of the legendary singer, the late Mohammad Rafi. He happily blared our Rafi songs from his PA in what is otherwise Kishore city. 

The restaurant was fairly full despite the late hour. The crowd consisted of a mix of men and some family groups too. The ambience was very bare bones but the place was clean. 

Cabin. Or should we say 'kay-bin'?


We went to the air-conditioned section which, contrary to my apprehensions, was not smelly or musty. I was most tickled when Kaniska and I were seated in one of the cabins or ‘family rooms.’ Sought after by courting couples during my college days, these cabins that night housed those they were mean to once…families... and two friends who were connected with food and now consider each other as brothers from another mother. 

Update: Such cabins have a fair bit of historical significance too. It is said that restaurant owners in Kolkata and even Mumbai had set these up at the turn of the previous venture so that women would feel encouraged and emboldened to join the men in their families and come out to eat in what was once an exclusive domain of men. A significant challenge to the purdah system that was prevalent then which kept women indoors.




We had a rather elderly waiter serving us here. Despite the late hour, he was full of beans and sported a big and benevolent smile. Most importantly, he got us an extra alu (potato) in the biryani on our request and thus ensured that Kaniska and I didn’t go to war over it, and that our friendship remained unsullied, touch wood.

The flavours of the rice in the biryani were subtle and sophisticated. Each grain was separate from the other. The potatoes had soaked in the masalas and seemed to whisper melodious words of love into one's ears. 

The mutton (goat meat) was so astonishingly tender. The biryani smacked of the close to a century of experience that had gone into perfecting it.

Row 1: Ruti, salad, chicken chaap
Row 2: Rezala, mutton biryani
Aminia Hotel


In our college days we would eat either a biryani, or a side dish and ruti (tandoori roti), when we came to such restaurants. The idea then was to make every rupee count. Now that one has grown up, and one is a visitor to the city which was once my own, I felt indulgent and ordered both. My twenty eight year old younger self looked on in surprise.

The sauce of the mutton rezala was cloudy and it tasted more like a mutton stew at Aminia. The chicken chaap seemed more like a chicken qasa with the taste of caramelized onions  being the dominant one rather than that of the khus khus (poppy seeds) and crushed nuts that usually form the base of the chaaps of Kolkata and the similar tasting chicken fry masala of Lucknow’s Tulsi Gulley.

In a hat tip to my school and college day I ordered a ‘green salad’ at Aminia that night. Sliced onions, tomatoes and cucumbers. I forgot middle age worries of having uncooked vegetables outside and munched on them happily.

How did the story of my salad 'bravado' end? 

I am happy to report that I slept well that night and that The Travelling Belly was fighting fit when I woke up the next morning.


Me and my biryani
Clicked by Kaniska Chakraborty, Aminia


Sabir's Hotel (estd 1948), Princep Street...dal gosht, mutton tikkia paratha

Breakfast at Sabir's Hotel, Kolkata


Being a south Kolkata boy who led a reasonably sheltered life, I was not really aware of the breakfast culture that exists in the Muslim run restaurants of central Kolkata till very recently. I finally got to know about it thanks to the social media feeds of city based food bloggers and Facebook food group members.

I got one of them, Indrajit Lahiri, to accompany me for this breakfast. He runs the blog Moha Mushkil and co-hosts the YouTube show where he is ‘in and as’ Foodka with popular comedian, Mir. Indrajit was a fellow speaker at the American Centre meet and I couldn't have asked for better company for this outing.



After much debate and discussion at the meet the night before with other food bloggers such as Debjani Alam, we decided on Sabir's Hotel for breakfast. This is a place that I had not been to before. I had once made an unsuccessful attempt but had reached there after closing hours then. The considered opinion in the room was that the breakfast at Shiraz, one of my favourite biryani spots, is the best around for breakfast too. Indrajit  said that Sabir's was worth a dekko too and promised me an offal feast. I didn’t need much convincing after that. The breakfast starts at 6 am I was told but I managed to negotiate an 8.30 am call time with Indrajit.

I was in two minds about waking up early but did so finally. It wasn't every day that I would be so close to Sabir's as I was this time thanks to being in an Esplanade hotel. Add to that the fact that I had good company. This was not an opportunity to be missed.



I must confess that I broke into a smile the moment I stepped into Sabir’s and saw good old Indrajit settled comfortably at a table by one of the windows. The restaurant looked bright and warm in the natural light. The feel inside was rather languorous and 'centred'. A few tables were occupied and that waiting staff walked around purposefully. The place is not air-conditioned but is clean and did not feel hot. They have a family section upstairs but that is not open in the morning.


Sabir's Hotel is located at Chandni Chowk near the ABP and Statesman office. It was started 70 years back by a gentleman named Sabir Ali who had come to Kolkata from UP. His family still runs the place. All of which I got to know from Mr Nayeem who has been working here from 1988 and who served our table with utmost warmth that morning and made us feel completely at home. The pride that he felt in working at Sabir's was palpable. 

Both he and the gentleman at Aminia from the previous night, got all the food together when I explained that I needed it to be so as I wanted to take a photo that way. Neither was nonplussed by my Instagram flat lay needs!

Row 1: Dal gosht, ruti
Row 2: Kaleji, mutton rezala
Sabir's Hotel


In terms of the breakfast fare at Sabir's, my favourite was the dal gosht which we mopped up with freshly made tandoori roti. Mutton (goat meat) slow cooked with channa dal. I liked the textural contrast that the grainy bites of the channa dal gave to the tender meat. The gravy was pretty dark in colour and the dish was both hearty as well as comforting. Heavy fuel indeed. 

Dal gosht, Sabir's Hotel


We ordered a plate of kaleji (liver). What we got was gurda (kidney) instead according to Mr Nayeem who said that the liver was over. However, I have a feeling that what we ate was actually kapoora (testicles). The meat used here is goat and not beef. The organs are cooked together a la aleti paleti (mixed organs curry) of the Parsis. 

To be honest, I found the organ meat a bit to strong in aroma for my tastes and I cannot handle such heavy spices in the morning and hence didn’t venture much into the dish. It is a dish for soldiers I guess and I am far from one.

1/8/18 update: My friend, reader and fellow Jacobean, Asad Rashid, pointed out on Facebook that Kolkata has a culture of preferring meat of khaashi (castrated) goats and hence kapoora is rarely served here unlike in the north or west of India. Given that, my guess is that this was kaleji but kept whole and not sliced. The cut which I am used to in places like Mumbai..

Kaleji/ Gurda/ Kapoora at Sabir's Hotel


Then Mr Nayeem cheerfully popped up with two mutton tikkias and some maida (refined flour) tava fried lachha parathas. This brought back memories of the very cheap beef tikkias which were sold outside the Jamuna Cinema during my college days which one felt a bit wary of as we were not as adventurous with our palates back then. They seemed to be too cheap to be true. Jamuna is no more and is a wedding hall now. Which is rather ironic, as the theatre was a favourite dating joint during my time!

What are tikkias? These are soft kababs, shallow fried on a flat tava. It is made with minced meats, chorbi (fat) and gristle and is shaped like a much larger alu tikkia. Tikkia rolls would always be cheaper than say a mutton roll because of the cheaper cuts of meat used. They taste pretty good in general and they certainly they did so at Sabir's that morning.

Mutton tikkia & porotha at Sabir's


The dish that Sabir's Hotel is really famous for is its rezala, the yogurt and khus khus based soupy meat gravy. Along with the chaap, the rezala is the most ordered gravy dish in a biryani joint. Many say that Sabir's does the best rezala in Kolkata. They don’t serve rezala for breakfast but Indrajit tried his luck and asked if we could get a plate. Mr Nayeem told us that the first batch of the day had just been made and yes, I did get lucky. Or maybe not.

Mr Nayeem pretties up the rezala at Sabir's for our click


Best rezala in Kolkata? Well, I need to try them together to decide but this was certainly the real deal unlike the one at Aminia. A bit too sweet for my tastes though and with a strong dairy hit  as well which startled me. So let us leave the rezala verdict at a 'taste is subjective' stage for now.





We did have a couple of cups of cha and a couple of desserts that did not impress me much .. malai or the skin of boiled milk with sugar sprinkled on top…and then the shahi tukda.

What there was no doubt about though, was that my day couldn’t have got off to a sweeter start than with the breakfast at Sabir's Hotel. So thank you for that, Mr Sabir Ali!



Breakfast Aminia
Clicked by Indrajit Lahiri


Zeeshan, Desho Priya Park Branch


Zeeshan's Roll, Deshapriya Park

The food gods of Kolkata decided to send me off with a most wonderful roll the evening before I left,  an unplanned one at that.

I was in a cab that evening and approaching Deshopriya Park when I requested the driver to stop so that I could buy a bottle of water. I got off the car and was suddenly mesmerised by the amazing aromas of food coming from somewhere. I looked to my right and spotted a roll shop. Unlike Nizam’s, which was empty when I had gone there a couple of evenings back, this shop was thronged by hungry customers. Always a good sign! 

I looked up to the signboard and saw that it belonged to Zeeshan’s, a restaurant located at Syed Amir Ali Avenue between Ballygunge Phari and Park Circus. My first job in Kolkata after I passed out of B school was at IMRB which was then located at Jhowtalla Road. We would often go to Zeeshan’s for biryani then. I have returned to Zeeshan on trips back to the city and have been always satisfied with my experiences. The rather bare bones website of Zeeshan says that the restaurant is two decades old and had started first as a roll shop. I have a feeling that it is older as I have seen it for ages. 

It was apt that I had gone there in the evening this time as rolls were the teatime snack that I had grown up on in Kolkata. You can't have a roll for lunch or dinner can you?


Egg mutton rolls getting prepared at Zeeshan's


I was caught in a spell and followed the heavenly aromas and walked up to the shop and asked for a roll. I usually prefer just mutton or egg, but this time went for the fully loaded one, egg mutton. I didn’t even ask them to fry the onions.

They aim for perfection here


The service at Zeeshan's was very prompt and courteous, and this was despite the rush. The manager noticed me shooting videos on the phone and even added a few slices of green capsicum to my roll to pretty it up. No sauces here too thankfully.

I clutched my roll with lots of hope, paid (it was cheaper than Nizam's) and then got into the cab with a bottle of water in the hand.

“Sorry, but I had to pick a roll,” I explained to the cabbie.

He smiled and continued his phone call using his headphones and drove on. In Kolkata food comes first and everyone knows that.

And the roll? Oh my god! It was so perfect. Be it in terms of the flakiness of the paratha, the tenderness of the meat, the bold flavours of the egg, the sharpness of the raw onions interspersed with the tanginess of lime juice and the odd heaty bites of the finely chopped green chillies, everything was just right this time. 

Every element in the roll had come together as if with just one purpose in life. To make me happy.

I knew I was home!




Meet the 'Mughals' of Kolkata


Esplanade


Restaurants such as Nizam’s, Shiraz, Zeeshan, Aminia and Sabir's Hotel offer what one refers to as Moghlai/ Moghlai khabar in Kolkata. Mughlai khaana in the rest of the country. 

The food of the Mughals.

Funnily enough, there is possibly no direct connection with the great Mughal empire of Delhi and these restaurants of Kolkata from what I gather. The eateries are said to have spawned from the time when Nawab Wajid Ali Shah came to Calcutta. He was the Nawab of Oudh or Lucknow. Not a Mughal Emperor of course. The story goes that he created a little Lucknow at Garden Reach by the river Hooghly after he had to move into Kolkata. This is because he missed both Lucknow and his old life. After his death, people from the tableaux that he had built moved out and settled in the city (pl refer to the article at the end for more on this).


The blue sky that I could see while waiting for the lift at the Peerless Inn that
 morning. You can see the Oberoi Grand where I went with a friend for nightcap and
 the next day with another for a cappuccino. Another hotel with a great location and
which offers a rather royal and luxurious experience. Different price pointS of course!


So why ‘Mughlai’ I once asked Pritha Sen, who is a food historian among other things and who likes to be referred to as a ‘food researcher’. This is while I was writing a blog post on Moghlai parathas of Kolkata sometime back.

According to Pritha, adding epitaphs such as ‘Moghlai,’ ‘Badshahi’, 'Shahi', etc helped add a veneer or pomp and royalty to the food served in these rather humble eateries and thereby making them more appealing.

“A bit like artisanal and organic today,” I quipped wryly in response. 

The restaurant which is said to have brought the biryani from the kitchens of the nawab to the streets of Kolkata is called “Royal Indian Hotel.” And you thought that only David Ogilvy or David Aaker understood the value of brand building?




There are two primary areas in Kolkata where these Mughali restaurants originally came up, though some like Shiraz, Aminia, Rahmania, Zeeshan and even Royal have today opened branches across the city making their food more locationally accessible.


One is central Kolkata, which I had referred to earlier. The other, the Kidderpore area which is close to where the Nawab had settled originally. Both were areas which had a concentration of Muslim workers who were not very well off from what I understand. 

Ironically, these restaurants which professed to dish out food of the royals in reality turned out to be a life saver for the common man. My friend Kaniska's mother, Mrs Krishna Chakraborty, told me that the Moghlai restaurants of Central Kolkata had come up to serve the needs of the Muslim workers settled there who were not too well off. I feel that this possibly explains why the biryani in Kolkata, which is the main attraction in these restaurants, is seen more as the food of commoners when compared to in a Hyderabad or Lucknow where it is seen as a dish of the royals. The latter were the capitals of the nawabs and chieftains after all. Kolkata, in contrast, was a British run city where the nawabs and sultans came after they had lost their privileges. The sahebs were the ‘my baaps’ here. Not the nawabs.

I find Kolkata’s Moghlai food obsession, which seems to grow with time, a very interesting example of how an immigrant food culture can become an enduring and evergreen part of a city’s culinary and cultural fabric.

The prices of the food at the Moghlai Restaurants of Kolkata have always been very affordable, the portions hearty and generous. For the college students of my time, these eateries were the first restaurants one could afford to go to. Sit down places, where a waiter would come and take your order and serve you food. The other options were the cabins and pice hotels  and then the dosa and chhole bhatoore joints of New Market but honestly those didn’t seem as grand as the biryani, chaap and rezala restaurants.

Esplanade


To use journalist and food enthusiast, Shoaib Daniyal’s term the Moghlai joints of Chandni Chowk, Park Circus and Mullick Bazar, underwent a sort of 'gentrification' over the years. Some like Shiraz, as well as Arsalan and Zeeshan which came up later, shed the grime associated with some of the older restaurants and offered a comparatively more spruced up setting. Most stopped serving beef to make themselves accessible to a larger audience just as a Karim’s in old Delhi and the Delhi Darbars and Lucky Restaurants of Mumbai did. The Kidderpore places still do as well as a few smaller places in central Kolkata.

The reason for this I feel is that central Kolkata is a trading hub. It is close to boi para (the university area) and office para (the CBD) too. Moreover, the Jamunas and Lighthouses and Globes and Tigers and New Empires, the theatres of Lindsay Street which once showed ‘English films’ and which attracted us south Kolkata boys were located here (most have closed down). Therefore these restaurants began attracting an audience which was different from its core audience.

There is an interesting trend happening now in Kolkata with the emergence of what I call indulgence eating. Going out to eat for the experience or for the 'story'. A fall out of rising affluence levels in the city and changing spending patterns.

This is distinct from what I have termed existential eating, where the only reason to go to an eatery to eat was to fill ones tummy and at the best value available.

For the indulgence eaters, there is an entire new canvas opening up across India and in Kolkata too. There are the Awadhi festivals happening in the city's five star hotels, standalone restaurants such as Oudh, have emerged to offer the experience of the world of the nawabs. Then there is Manzilat Fatima who is a direct descendant of Wajid Ali Shah and who, through pop ups and catering initiatives, offers people a chance to the taste of the culinary heritage of her ancestors. Hope you don’t call me sexist for saying this but I am pretty sure that the food cooked by a woman entrepreneur would have a certain sense of refinement, care and sensitivity that one might not get in the more commercial eateries. 

The final frontier


For reasons ranging from both socio-cultural ones as well as simple public transport connectivity issues, the parts ranging from Kidderpore to Garden Reach in Kolkata was not an area that most of us from the south ventured into during my school and college days. Those were the dock areas of the city and  places which apparently saw gang wars during my growing up years. Not the playing ground territory for a middle class Bengali bhalo chhele (good boy) back in my day. 

I am afraid that I am still not very conversant with the food scene of Kidderpore or even places such as Zakaria Street in Kolkata which I gather are equivalents of Mohammed Ali Road in Mumbai from what one gathers.

I will work on changing that and one day bring you stories from there. Biryani promise.



That's Kaniska and me in 'our' cabin at Aminia



A phone video of Indrajit and me at Sabir's Hotel:



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