A 'book street' that is home to a smorgasbord of legendary culinary institutions .... A food walk down Kolkata's Boi Para AKA College Street

The Indian Coffee House, the lower floor, July 2018

I could probably write a whole book, if given a chance, about the 5 years that I spent as a student in Kolkata's College Street between 1992 -97. I know that this post might seem almost as long as one, but I would urge you to read on for here I will tell you about my returning to College Street in May 2018 and how I ended up taking a friend on a memory soaked food walk there, my first Finely Chopped Food Walk in Kolkata. I will tell you about what happened when I went to places such as the Indian Coffee House, Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel, Tasty Restaurant, YMCA Canteen, Putiram Sweets, Paramount Sherbat and Dilkhusa Cabin where we stopped. I will also tell you about why I did not go to my college, Presidency College which is now a University, that afternoon. 

There was a song on my lips while we walked that afternoon and hence have decided to use lyrics and names of songs from rock ballads that I used to listen to back then as section headers in this post. Would be great to see how many you recognise or how many bring back memories for you.

15/07/18 Update: In the best traditions of mixed tapes from my college days, I have made a playlist at the end of the songs that feature here in this post.         

My hometown, Bruce Springsteen ... back to school in Kolkata. College to be precise.

College Square

My usual narrative, when I write about eating during my college days, is about how little money we had in our pockets then and how we would look for the cheapest options around to fill our perpetually hungry tummies.

Then something changed in the way I looked back at those times and this happened a few days back to be honest. This post is about that.

It all started when I went to Kolkata a few days back to speak at the Indo American Food Landscapes seminar organised by the Historical Society of the American Centre in Kolkata and gave a nostalgia soaked talk there on the impact of the American media in India’s restaurant landscape. 

I then stayed on in Kolkata for a few days for some personal engagements.

American centre, Indo American Food Landscapes
July, 2018
In the Kolkata Telegraph, 14th July 2018

I rather love this profile shot. Thanks for the feature Nandini Ganguly and Telegraph and for the pic of the paper Indrajit Lahiri and Mr Rashbehari Das for the photo

The day after the talk, I managed to do something that I had been planning to do for ages but hadn’t been able to do so far due to logistical issues. I could do it this time as I had checked into the Peerless Inn, a hotel in the city's centre, for a night before moving to a friend's house for the rest of the stay.  The location helped.

I am talking of returning to Kolkata’s College Street, also known as boi para (book street), to eat and which I managed this time. College Street is where I had spent five memorable years of my youth as a student from 1992 to 1997. 

Giving me company that afternoon was Debjani Banerji. She is someone whom I first connected with through food on social media and who since then has become a dear family friend of ours. She had not grown up in Kolkata though she lives here now. She told me that she had never been to College Street before and that she would like to join me. I quipped that this would make it my first Finely Chopped Food Walk in Kolkata, my hometown!

Jokes apart, I was glad that she gave me company that afternoon while I turned the clock back 25 years, and 25 kilos (I was much lighter when in college) too, that afternoon.

This picture was possibly taken during 1993. The 175 year celebrations of the
founding of the college was going and I am with my batch mates in this picture.
Remember I said I was 25 kilos lighter? I am the one who looks like he had just
been rescued from a POW camp!

Just another day in paradise, Phil Collins...The legend of College Street AKA Boi Para (Book Street)

Something struck me the moment I stepped into College Street that day.  

I realised that there are very few other precincts/ localities in India, if not none, which have such a collection of culinary institutions from the past. Interestingly these legends are still going strong, just the way College Street itself is. 

I found out that almost every second eatery here is hundred years old. If not more!

Most of these were once frequented by Nobel Laureates, Oscar, Cannes and Berlin film festival winners, legends from India’s freedom struggle, prominent politicians and the such. 

And my friends and me for whatever that's worth.

That is when it struck me for the first time that I was very, very privileged to have eaten at College Street at such an early age in my life. That it was time to change my 'oh were so broke' narrative

Perspective is everything after all.

This ‘enlightenment’ came to me, while I tried to decode College Street for Debjani. An analysis that took into account the life experiences that I have had since then. In this I could feel the influence of the lessons that I had learnt in college from the legendary ‘PR’, or Dr Prasanta Ray, who was the head of Sociology Department there when I was in Presidency College. Yes, I was lucky to have had him as a mentor back then. I got to meet him after ages last year and it was great to catch up where we had left.

I did have some questions that I wanted answers to when I visited College Street this time.

I wanted to know if the food legends of College Streets… nestled as they are among the many historical academic buildings there, endless rows of book stalls, offices of more than a century old publishing houses, the saris shops at one end and a red light district at another, the teeming millions walking down its packed lanes, making their way past hand pulled rickshaws and Ubers and Ola …  were living on past glory.

I wanted to know how the food there fared once it was stripped off the sauce of nostalgia. I wanted to know whether it was worth making the trip to Boi Para just to eat.

Finding the answer to these questions was the purpose of our walk that day and let me take you through what happened in chronological order of the walk.

When the music’s over, turn off the lights, The Doors ... on why I refused to step into Presidency

Revisiting Presidency College memories, July 2018

This was not the first time that I had returned to College Street since the time I had left. 

I had taken my wife, a Mumbai girl, there during one of our first visits to Kolkata after our marriage to show it to her. The Durga Puja Holidays had started and everything was shut then.

I returned to Presidency College again, alone this time, ten years back during a work trip. It was a Saturday and college was empty. The building seemed frozen in time. 

I had a Cinema Paradiso moment that afternoon while I walked by the empty corridors, accompanied by a rush of memories and whispers from the past. I was a tad teary eyed but we won’t talk about that.

Me at Promod Da's Canteen, 2008. I was a market researcher
then and my blog was a year old. I used a Blackberry then
and not an iPhone

I went to the canteen, where we spent so much of our time in college. The stretch had extended for me as I had done my my MBA at IISWBM next door and would often drop in to the Presidency Canteen still.

I met Promod da, the unassuming gentleman who ran the canteen which was known as Pramod Da'r Canteen, that afternoon in 2008. He recognised me by face, like he did recognise most of us when we returned to college after we had passed out. He treated me to a cha. I have put a link to the post that I wrote then at the end of this one.

Presi, as we called Presidency, is now a university though and is no longer a college. It has been spruced up and looks more like the Oberoi Grand now, perfect, pristine and a bit intimidating. Not the  beloved alma mater of our memories.

Most importantly, Pramod da’s canteen is gone. His license was not renewed I think and many of us alumni members are very upset about it. For us, it was more about emotions than rules I guess.

The pictures below are from when I met Promod da in 2008 and of a conversation that I had with a batch mate of mine from then about Promod Da's exit.

I refused to go into Presidency as a mark of protest this time around. The closest I have ever come to indulging student politics, albeit a quarter of a century too late!

From what I gather from my peers, I couldn’t have gone in in any case. The gates of Presidency are no longer kept open it seems and it is not easy to get in without a pass.

Hey teachers, leave them kids alone, Pink Floyd... The Indian Coffee House, an alternative universe. Aged 72 yrs (under this name)

“Don’t spend all your time at the Coffee House,” warned the father of one of our friends the day we got admission into college. The gentleman was a former student of Presidency himself.

Little did he know that by then the action for the Presidency College folks had shifted to Pramod da’s Canteen. The Presidencians of my time, unlike our predecessors, hardly went to the legendary Coffee House. Coffee House by then was frequented more by those who run the book stalls and sari shops of College Street, rather than young students dreaming of the Revolution as it was in the past. 

By Coffee House, I mean the Indian Coffee House run by the Coffee Board of course. Wikipedia tells me that the origins of the Coffee House can be traced back to the Albert Hall in 1876. The Coffee Board took over the space in 1942 and started a coffee shop and named it Coffee House in 1946 it seems. Which makes it a young un of 72 years, even though the building is older.

We did occasionally go to the Coffee House during our college days to be honest. 

One occasion that I remember was the last day of college, when a bunch of us from the sociology department went there feeling most maudlin. PR happened to be sitting at a table with AM, another prof we were fond of. PR spotted us and asked us to join them and even took our tab. It turned out to be an unofficial farewell party that we cherished forever.

From what I remembered, the first floor of Coffee House was where the ‘grown ups’ and working folks used to sit. The second floor, which was possibly once balcony of the Albert Hall, was where us students sat.

We reached the Coffee House close to 1 pm this time. The lower section was full but we managed to get a table in the upper section which was about to get full. Yes, the rapidly filling upper section still had only kids there. Debjani and I seemed to have tripled the average age of the section!

Here’s how it works at the Coffee House. You stand in a corner. Keep an eye on the tables. If you spot someone getting up, you rush and claim your place. A training that came of use to me years later at Candies in Bandra, especially on weekends when the crowds get pretty crazy there too! 

Things at the Coffee House seemed to be the same as before barring the menu, which showed signs of inflation, and the many selfies that the folks there were taking. The closest thing to a mobile phone that we knew of back in my student days were the communicators in Star Trek.

My standing joke during my college years was that if you placed your order at the Coffee House, then your grandchildren would get to eat it here, that’s how slow the service was

This is a cooperative run establishment after all and unlike in the Irani Cafes of Mumbai, one was expected to linger here and not finish and scoot.

“No talking”, “No lingering”, “No Combing your hair, or “No reading the newspaper while having tea,”… lines made famous by the Irani Cafes of yore in Mumbai were never uttered at Kolkata’s Coffee House. 

I must mention here that there is another outpost of the Coffee House at the Jadavpur University. We Presidencians didn’t include that in our scheme of reference. Such was the rivalry between us then, though this was nothing compared to the one we had with St Xavier'' at Park Street but then all they had was the India Hobby Centre whose burger we secretly lusted after.

Yes, there are more Coffee Houses across India too including in Delhi's CP. We Kolkatans don't worry ourselves with such things. For us, there is only one Coffee House!

The slothful service seemed to have changed a bit at the Coffee House. Our order this time took twenty minutes and not two hours to reach us!

I chose to order dishes that reminded me of the past. This trip was about nostalgia after all. I. looked for the Xerox shop on the first floor while leaving but could not find it. We used to go there when we were in our third year of college.

Infusion, hot coffee, mutton sandwich, chicken pakora, Indian Coffee House

We started with a plate of pakoras. We would order these back then when we came to Coffee House in a group. The logic was that each of us would get to have a pakora and make our Rupee stretch while we sat at our table chatting away. I ordered chicken pakoras this time though I am sure we would have gone for the cheaper veg ones back then. The batter of the pakoras that we were served was nice and crispy and well spiced. The chicken inside juicy. The seasoning was perfect and one didn’t really need the sachet of ketchup given on the side. At this stage our life though, one pakora each was what Debjani and I could manage. My eighteen year old self would have polished off the plate.

I ordered a plate of sandwiches too, just as one would if one was a couple on a date here back in the day. That was never a good idea though. Coming on a date I mean, as your classmates would jump in and join you as getting a table is so tough here.

The sandwich at Coffee House that afternoon was lovely. Soft white sliced bread, generously slathered with salted butter. We went for the mutton sandwiches which had slices of slightly chewy mutton (goat meat) inside and still which had Debjani and I jumping for the last piece. The sandwiches reminded me of my late father in law who loved similar sandwiches at Mumbai’s American Express Bakery and of our late Jamshed Uncle who fed us similar sandwiches at Mumbai’s RBYC. I am sure that seeing these from up there would make them smile too.

We skipped the popular cold coffee here. Debjani went for a cup of hot coffee. No cappuccinos here of course, just the occasional discussion on Fellini at the most.

How could I come to Coffee House and not have the ‘infusion’ (black coffee) though? It was the cheapest thing on the menu in my time and still is. It was our favourite order for this very reason.

It was priced as Rs 0.50 p then and Rs 20 now!

Indian Coffee House, prices, July 2018

Well, here’s the thing. The Infusion that I had the at the Coffee House in July 2018 was not bad at all. The coffee had nice kick to it indeed and made up for not being able to get hold of a cappuccino in the hotel that morning. 

We then finished at Coffee House, paid off and moved on and, perhaps I imagined it, but I think a heard a collective sigh of relief from the kids sitting there on our moving on.

Was so happy to be back

Born in the USA Bruce Springsteen... pice hotels for some Bengali love, Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel, aged 91 yrs

Pice Hotels are for grown ups

As I had mentioned in my talk at The American Centre the day before I went to College Street, we belonged to a generation when the Indian economy was still closed and when we dreamt of going on dates and sharing burgers and sundaes at Pop Tates. I was still in college when Coke came back to India and remembered going out in search of it back then. Our dreams were shaped by the west, something out predecessors in Presidency who lived through the turbulent days of the Naxalbari movement would be aghast to hear. 

I must clarify that I speak for a group of us who largely came from ‘English medium’ schools. Both sociology and qualitative market research had taught me to declare ones biases at the start of an analysis after all.

Yes, there were many who still dreamt of the Revolution at Presi back then. The beauty of the Presidency of our time was that there was a place for everyone and we all lived in peaceful coexistence. Even those from more well to do families who came to college in their cars would get off outside and walk in like regular folks. This was no Lorretto or Xavier's.

The point of my telling you this  was to explain why I had never gone to our next stop of that day, Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel, when I was in college. It is a restaurant serves Bengali food and the idea of eating Bengali food outside of home seemed weird to us back then.

I went there this time based on the recommendation of Kolkata based food blogger, Indrajit Lahiri’s recommendation. He was the one who had suggested that I go to this ‘Pice Hotel’ at College Street. That was when we met at Sabir’s for a Moghlai breakfast earlier in the day. Indrajit told me to ask for ‘Udiya Hotel’ and said that it lies in the lane beside Presidency and before the sari shop.

Debjani and I walked in to the restaurant at around 2 pm that Saturday. The moment I did so, I remembered having passed by this place one evening when I was in College during the College Fest  and when I was trying to find my friends. There were no mobile phones back then and I walked down the lanes till I found them.

All smiles at the Udiya Hotel

Swadhin Bharat is the sort of place where you share a table with strangers if alone. This is typical of all the eateries at College Street. The place is not air-conditioned and yet didn’t feel too hot. It was neat and clean and not smelly at all unlike what Bengali restaurants can be because of the fish dishes on offer. The front side of the restaurant was brighter and more Instagram friendly and that’s where we sat.

No worries about plastic waste at Swadhin Bharat. The food is served on banana leaves and the water in bhaars (earthen glasses), both of which are charged for separately. This is the way once used to eat in Bengal decades back. The food and water both taste special on this is what we all believe.

The way it works in a pice hotel, and this was my first experience of one, is that you take a serving a rice and call for whatever side dish is available that day. You are charged separately for each dish that you order unlike in a thali. The servings are small enough for one person to eat without wasting food.

Lunch at Swadhin Bharat

I will go out on a limb here and say that the food at Swadhin Bharat was possibly the most home-like and lip-smacking Bengali food that I have eaten in a restaurant

The highlights of our lunch were the sublime aam mushoor daal (dal with sliced unripe mango) and dhayareshor chorchori (slow cooked mixed vegetable and ladies fingers) which hid inside the much coveted rui maachher mudo (fish head). We skipped the meat and prawns on offer and went for two types of machher jhol (fish curry), rui and pabda, both fresh water fish. The curries looked the same and yet tasted slightly different. Both were quite light on the tummy and yet flavour packed. The rui (rohu) curry was distinguished by the slight sweetness of onions used in it. I admired the plating of the pabda which was served with the strips of potato put on top. The potatoes in the rohu were left cubed. We finished the meal with an aamer (unripe mango) chutney where you eat the skin too and toasted, not fried, papad on the side.

The Swadhin Bharat Hotel was opened in 1927 by a family from Odisha which still runs it and is hence called Udia Hotel by locals. The cooks are from Midnapore in Bengal though said the friendly manager there.

I found this rather funny as usually the cooks in most Bengali restaurants hail from Odisha. The extensive meal cost us all of Rs 480 including water and one more side dish, oler dalna.

A lovestruck Romeo sings the streets a serenade, Dire Straits...Tasty Times

We then headed to Putiram, the sweet shop, and I suddenly began humming a song as I walked down the crowded lanes past the Coffee House. The song was ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire Straits. One of the many songs I was fond of when in college and still am.

We passed by the Tasty Restaurant and I stepped in to to check the menu. Yes, the veg hakka noodles, which my classmates in sociology and I would often come for, was still there. It costs Rs 50 now but was around Rs 8 or 12 in the mid 90s. They used to give a fork to eat the noodles with which was pretty posh for College Street then. Tasty is 29 years old now as I found out from the gentleman sitting at the counter. That would have made it a new and happening place when I was in college!

We then reached College Square and  I dragged in poor Debjani, who looked a bit worse for the wear by then after walking in the sun. I seemed to be on a different gear from her though. I used to spend a lot of time walking down the lanes of College Street during the five years I spent there you see and I felt 18 again that afternoon!

The Bowbazar Bayam Samiti (wrestling association) canteen AKA YMCA canteen

I wanted to show Debjani something that was literally a hole in the wall beside the swimming pool. My friend from my high school, college and B School days, Bunty, had told me about this one day when we were in the third year of college. He called it the YMCA canteen I realised this time that it probably belonged to Bowbazar Bayam Samiti when I spotted a signboard saying so this time.

Have a stew and then walk past College Square
The boys of our batch in college would come here to have the stew with thick slices of bread. We would go for the veg which was cheaper than chicken and would fill our tummies for Rs 3.50. Somehow the girls of our batch never frequented this place. 

This time I was here on a Saturday and the stew was not available though I still make it at home.

Talking of inexpensive, it was funny how us boys were more cash starved than the girls and we didn’t even smoke or anything then. They got a more generous pocket money allowance than us I think. We would often request them to treat us when we were broke and they did. Boys were in a minority you see and we were pampered by the girls I must admit.

For some reason, Debjani insisted on paying for all the food that afternoon, thereby unknowingly keeping a college tradition alive. 

I also patiently waited while she checked out the bindis in the stalls by College Square just as I would once while the girls in my class would check out trinkets in the Chamba Lama store at the New Market during movie outings which reinforced the sense of nostalgia for me.

Riders on the storm... into this house we are born, Doors... Xerox evenings at Putiram, 160 yrs old

Radha Bollobi, chholar dal, shingara, dorbesh, doi, Putiram

We reached Putiram just as it had begun to drizzle that afternoon and took refuge inside. It was meant to be our next stop in any case.

Putiram is a self-service place. We stood at the cash counter and took a plate of radha bollobis(refined flour puris stuffed with a mashed lentils filling) with which was served a subtly flavoured and runny chholar dal and sat at the tables inside. A staff member would intermittently come out from the kitchen with a basket full of freshly made puffed up radha bollobis. I ordered the mishti doi too and tried a dorbesh (soft and sweet Bengali laddoo). The mishti doi at Putiram is uniquely white in colour compared to the more pink ones elsewhere in Kolkata and is not too sweet or thick either.

Mishti doi, radha bollobi and dal were our standard orders here when we would come to 'Xerox' (photocopy) books from the library at Rs 40 p a page. Someone later wrote to me on Instagram saying that she used to come to the cyber café next door when in college. She obviously belonged to a generation after mine.

Putiram is about 160 years old and has seen many generations of students coming here for sure, many of whom came back with their children and then grandchildren. The sweet shop opens at 6 am and in the morning sell kochuris which are denser in texture than the airy radha bollobi I reckon but then in the morning you are supposed to eat like a king say the dietitians.

I tried the shingara (Bengali for samosa) at Putiram for the first time that evening. It evoked unadulterated love in my heart. The maida casing of the shingara was thin, airy and crispy, the potato filling inside had a confluence of the sweetness of the starch of potatoes and heat of chillies and they had fried cheene badam (peanuts) too which made the rhapsody complete.

I packed a bunch of shingaras for my friend Kaniska’s mother as she too is a fellow shingara fan. Her eyes lit up when she saw them. Turned out that she was an old College Street hand and was well versed with the magic of Putiram.

The summer of ‘69, Bryan Adams... Paramount, a century old fountain of youth

Our next stop was Paramount Cold Drinks and Syrups which I had ‘discovered’ towards the final years of my college days, after reading about it in the newspapers. It was rather ironic that our gang had not done so earlier for Paramount is no Johnny Come Lately.  

In fact it has just completed 100 years earlier this year and was founded in the ‘falgun mash’ (Bengali calendar) in 1917.

I learnt this from Ms Vaishali Sen, whose grandfather, Nihar Ranjan Majumdar, had founded this place. Paramount is still run by the founder’s family, as are most of the other places that I went to that afternoon at College Street barring the Coffee House of course. 

Ms Vaishali Sen of House Paramount

The place was packed with people compared to what I remember from my college days when it would be rather empty at round about the same time, viz, 4 pm. There was a bench to sit on and wait by the door till a table got empty. Ms Sen sat at the cash counter warmly greeted everyone and managed the queue efficiently

When we finally got a table then I called for the refreshing daab sherbet (tender coconut) and the grape sherbet. I was kicked to see a grape in the bottom of the glass as it used to be back then. I remember that it used to give me a mild kick and the gentleman serving it said that three or four glasses could have that effect.

We also tried a couple of flavours such as tamarind and khus which I hadn’t before. Each drink offered something ‘extra’ in terms of taste beyond what the name of the flavour suggested and was made with a mixture of syrups and concentrates that they make in house. Some of which are bottled and sold too.

Ms Vaishali told us that they had retained some of the flavours such as the daab from the early days of Paramount, dropped some such as the lassis which were on offer and have added some flavours over the years.

The packed tables at the restaurant showed that their efforts had born fruits. Paramount is shut for a week or two in December so that the family can take a break.

With my new friend, raising a toast to old ones at College Street

Incidentally, there were a couple of students from St Xavier's sitting opposite us and I was glad to say that I didn't smirk at them. It's called growing up!

When our new friends from St Xaviers' said bye and moved on

You can check out anytime…but you can never leave, Eagles...the cabins of Kolkata, Dilkhusa Cabin, 116 yrs old

When I had written a post on my College Street memories for the Indian Food Network sometime back, Kolkata based blogger and food enthusiast, Poorna Banerjee had commented in protest at my leaving out Dilkhusa Cabin. 

“You cannot leave a place of such historical significance out,” she wrote. When I said I did so as we hardly used to go there, she replied “I have gone there often with my friends from Presidency.”

So I went to Dilkhusa Cabin this time at the end of the walk by which time poor Debjani had almost dissolved in the heat. When I posted about going there later on Instagram, my friend, college senior and now neighbour in Bandra, Shaswati Saradar, wrote saying, “you went to Basanta Cabin too I hope?”

There’s no winning with Bengali women as they say!

Jokes apart, I do not remember frequenting either cabin restaurant when I was in college. I think I had only gone to one of them and that too only once when the college elections were being held and when the gates were kept closed post the elections and we had to hang around outside.

I had once had a chat with Sunanada Sarkar, a Presidency College senior and who is currently the editor of the Times of India in Kolkata, about why he hadn't been to the cabins of College Street. 

Sunanda, AKA Bobby, said this could be because most of us never went to the cabins when we were in college as they would work out to be too expensive compared to spending time at Promod da’s. However, he added, many Presidency alumni who later hung around at College Street to catch up with friends would spend time at the cabin. Most were working and were no longer students or were doing their masters by then. 

As my friend Kaniska Chakraborty, whom I go to for answers to questions on all things Kolkatan, summed it up, “cabin’ e toh boro ra jai.” (Cabin restaurants are for the grown ups and not students).

Yes, as there wasn't at Swadhin Bharat, there were no youngsters visible at Dilkhusa that evening too apart from a couple of grown up boys who had come there with their mother.

Egg devil, fish kobiraji, cha at Dilkhusa Cabin

I ordered some typical cabin fare of at Dilkhusa for us. 

One was the fish kobiraji made with bhola bhetki fish fillet covered and deep fried in a crisp and thick lacy egg batter and for which you need to be a lot hungrier to finish than we were by then. We packed most of it and took it home. Despite the gigantic egg coating, one did get a taste of the fish too and the fish was not over-cooked which was good. The Kobiraji is a bit of a gargantuan dish for someone in his mid 40s though. The egg batter is thicker and crunchier and oilier in the average kobiraji than in the Parsi lacy cutles of Mumbai.

We also tried the deemer devil, a Bengali version of the Nargisi kofta and a cousin of the Scotch egg of the west. It’s a croquette with a bread crumb coating, which has inside an intense garam masala, garlic and chill spiced mince meat and potato mash. This mix was the highlight of the devil at Dilkhusa. Inside the mash is half a boiled egg.

I did meet Poorna in person finally for the first time the next day over coffee and we chatted about the world of food and life for a couple of hours. On hearing about my visit to Dilkhusa and my order there, she said that her problem with the devil at Dilkhusa is that there’s an excess of the pur (stuffing) which makes the boiled egg seem redundant. When I thought back to what I had eaten, her words did make sense. The balance could have been better.

She recommends the kosha mangsho at Dilkhusa instead. While I have not eaten it, I did enjoy the one I had at Anadi Cabin last year.

“Yes, but they are inconsistent,” replied with Poorna with a smile. As I figured out during our meeting, Poorna seems to really have her fingers into the food scene of Kolkata and has a point of view on each place here and on each item on their menu! You just have to mention the name of a place and sit back while she dissects it and at the end of which you feel enlightened and say, like Jay did in Sholay, “tumhara naam kya hain Basanti.”

Poorna’s passion for food is typical of Kolkatans and this obsession with food, and ones digestion, is what actually makes Kolkata thefood capital of India’ in my books.

It is another matter that no Bengali looks outside for affirmation. We would be too busy eating well to bother about labels. In our heads and in our hearts and in our bellies for sure, we know that Kolkata is indeed the Food Capital of India. Whether this is universally accepted or not does not keep us awake.

Ms Vaishakhi Basu, who has married into House Dilkhusa

Incidentally, there is indeed quite a bit of history at Dilkhusa as I found out from the husband and wife duo, Utpal and Vaishakhi Basu, who run the place and who were sitting at the counter warmly welcoming all customers and keeping on the eye on the kitchen too.

They told me that Dilkhusa is 116 years old and that it was started by Mr Utpal’s ‘pishi’s dadu’, paternal aunt’s grandfather.

Go figure!

Glory Days, Bruce Springsteen... the legend of College Street lives on

My return to College Street, twenty odd years after I left it, told me that its glory days were anything but gone.

The culinary scene at College Street, which was the focus of my visit, is clearly a piece of living history and is thriving and growing even as the world changes at rapid pace around it.

I realised that the ‘Coffee House’er adda (fun times at the Coffee House), as the song goes,  was far from over.

As I said at the start of this post, I realised for the first time that day that there is possibly no other place in India that has such a big collection of heritage restaurants, and which are still running, in one locality.

Moreover, do keep in mind that it was not just Basanta Cabin that I missed going to this time, but there were so many treasures of College Street that we couldn’t make it to too. Kalika, for example, where we would buy tele bhaaja (pakoras) after college and of which, the chingrir chop with one whole prawn in it was as precious as the World Cup. We didn’t know that the shop, set in a wall, had a name back then. Then there are the many chai wallahs, lassi wallas, alu kabli and phuchka wallas strewn across the by lanes of College Street, and at the Bowbazar end, the hallowed Bheem Nag sweet shop of mishtir doi fame, which we didn’t go to either this time. 

Yes, there is indeed a lot more that College Street has to bring to the table and I will back for sure.

Why has Kolkata’s College Street not been declared yet as India’s most remarkable Culinary Heritage District is something I have no answer to. 

However, just as I was about to metaphorically rush to the Brigade Parade grounds to protest about this, I realised that the busy streets of Boi para possibly do not have the place to accommodate even a single person more there.

But don’t worry, if you do go to College Street to eat, you will definitely be made to feel most welcome there and will be sent back fully stuffed.

And when you do, please have do have a cup of tea for me.

Cha-allah in the Swadhin Bharat lane. The tea was not too sweet
and offered a two Rupee burst of energy

  1. College Street is easily accessible from the Central Metro station. Cab it otherwise or take a car with a chauffeur. Parking is a nightmare
  2. There are hardly places around with decent toilets
  3. Most eateries accept only cash
  4. It is best to go here on weekday and on Saturdays and during working hours. It is not really a nocturnal place
  5. While I have written about food, College Street is a treasure trove for book lovers too

Here's a video that we shot of our walk where you can see us at all the places that I mentioned here:

Some posts of interest:

  1. When I went to Presidency and to Promod da's in 2008
  2. The cabin restaurants of Kolkata: NDTV Food
My college playlist from the post:

  1. My hometown
  2. Just another day in paradise
  3. When the music's over
  4. Another brick in the wall
  5. Born in the USA
  6. Romeo and Juliet
  7. Riders on the storm
  8. The summer of 69
  9. Hotel California
  10. Glory days 

More pics from the outing:

Indian Coffee House

With Debjani Banerji

Mutton sandwich

Swadhin Bharat

Rui machher jhol

Pabda machher jhol

'YMCA' Canteen

If you insist