Kolkata old and new. On board the Aaheli Express to Dacres Lane.

I was rather thrilled to wake up to a whatsapp from Tito, a dear school friend of mine, from Kolkata this morning. The magazine that Kolkata's hallowed Ananda Bazar Patrika newspaper had published on the occasion on the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Peerless Inn Hotel's Aaheli Restaurant, the first Bengali fine dining restaurant of Kolkata, had come out is seems. He had sent me pictures of that. 

I must say that I was chuffed to find myself in this Pujo Barshiki of sorts and since many of you have wanted to read an English version, I have put original article that I wrote in English below in this post. It was edited and translated into Bengali and then published. 

On losing my Dacres Lane virginity (not the headline I gave ABP 👻)

Lunch break at Dacres Lane

I left Kolkata for Mumbai twenty years back, after I had just completed my 'student life' so to speak and had joined the corporate world as a market researcher. My education on the marvels of Kolkata , culinary and otherwise, had remained incomplete though. As a south Kolkata boy, leading a typically sheltered bhalo chhele (good boy) existence, there was a lot of the city that I was yet to discover when I left it.

I eventually switched career paths and became a freelance food writer and you could say that I have had the opportunity to see a fair bit of the world of food since then. Yet, my hunger to learn more about Kolkata and its food remains insatiated. Which is why, each time I return to the city, I try to explore parts of its food heritage which I am yet to discover. During my latest trip to Kolkata, I went to check out an important part of its food-lore that I had not had a taste of till then. I am talking of the hallowed ‘Dacres Lane,' what is now officially known as James Hickey Sarani.

Dacres Lane is located in what is called office para, the original CBD of British Kolkata, and in the area between Esplanade east and Dalhousie. It is an eat street or what in Mumbai we call a khao gulley. Dacres Lane consists of a series of street food stalls set up to feed the office workers of the city. As I had never really worked in Kolkata, barring for a short stint in a market research agency, then located at Jhowtalla Road in the South, I had never really gone there during my time in Kolkata. I finally did so this time, twenty years after when I should have first gone there. 

We had a ceremonial bhaarer cha (tea served in an earthen cup) at the start of the lane that morning and then walked in, suitably fortified.

Addictions. Cha forever. Cell phones now.

Nothing that you might have read about Dacres Lane in magazines or blogs, or might have seen on television or on YouTube, prepares you for what is in store there. A bouquet of aromas and sights, some savoury and some not so savoury, assault you the moment you step in. 

It is rather different from the more sanitised khao kulleys of Fort and Nariman Point in Mumbai that I am used to I must say.

Dacres Lane sans Instagram filters

Thankfully, I had with me the company of my friend, Kaniska Chakraborty, who had eaten here in the early years of his working career in Kolkata, to help me navigate the lane. “When funds were weak and the constitution was stronger,” as he put it. 

This gentleman, I was told by a customer who has been coming
here for decades, is the oldest employee at Chitta Da's
Kaniska, who over the years has introduced me to many of the delights of Kolkata, took me to the 81-year-old Chitto Babur Dokan at Dacres lane this time. We feasted there on the legendary mutton stew of course and then on a lesser known treat that Kaniska told me to try, machher deemer bora. A most delectably moist and flavoursome and rather massive rohu fish roe pakora.

Lunch at Chitta Babur Dokan. Mutton stew. Toast butter.
Machher deemer bora.
The other dishes on offer in the lane are chow of course (noodles), bhaat dal maach, chhole bhatoore and mishti (sweets). 

The pound bread packets from local bakeries, displayed at Chitta Babur Dokan, reminded me of the deem pauruti wala outside Nizam Palace where my mother would occasionally take me for a snack on my way back from school. I was 8 then, had just moved into India, and this was a whole new world to me. Over the years, I became a fan of the deem pauruti inspired savoury 'French toast' that mom would make at home and I make it for myself in Mumbai now when I want some breakfast indulgence. (this was not there in the original piece: KK).

Bakery bread. Still remember the lovely aroma of bread that would waft out of
the local bakeries of Kolkata. And the tiffin cakes one grew up on. Ironically
someone of my flight back was having a tiffin cake

Chhole bhatoore. Mom would treat me to these at the shops outside the New Empire
during my childhood. Also at restaurants called Indra Mahal and Friends at New
Market and the now shut Rim Jhim at Minto Park, now called Shahid Bhagat Singh Udyan

Chow. Chowmein dowsed with tomato and chilli sauce and MSG entered
the repertoire of the roll shops of Kolkata when I was in high school
I would often have the veg chow. Cost Rs 5 in the early 90s

We then walked into the new Aaheli Express shop which is located at the entrance of Dacres Lane and at the ground floor of the Peerless Bhavan. The Peerless company owns the Peerless Hotels, which houses the Aaheli Restaurant. Ahaeli Express, is a QSR (quick service restaurant)from the same house.

I saw a stream of people walking in to the shop at lunch time. Their ages ranged from those in their early 20s to pensioners in their late 60s. I got chatting with some of them and learnt that they come here regularly for their lunch and evening snack too. 

The food on offer here seemed to be quite diverse but shola aana (very) Bengali. There was a young man slurping on a plate of piping hot khichuri with a begun bhaaja on the side, while a young lady in the opposite corner, who seemed to have a bad cold, was relishing a bowl of hot chicken stew with toast and butter. There was a middle-aged gentleman digging studiously into a plate of luchi and ghoogni, and a grandpa sitting by the counter impishly munching on a deemer devil (the Bengali Nargisi kofta/ Scotch egg) which he followed up with a mishti doi. He had come to collect his pension alone it seems and grandma was not around to give him a lecture on his (blood) sugar levels. 

Everyone around me looked happy and content. Lost in their food and all rather silent. This was not the time for adda (gossip/ chats) you see. 

This was the time to eat.

Kaniska and me at Aaheli Expres with the hearty chicken stew and an amazing
fish chop.

I tried some of the food at the Aaheli Express and was most impressed by the quality of the produce used there. The fish fry was packed with the juicy meat of bhetki fish. No basa or ‘Bombay bhetki’ here. Only khaati (pure) stuff will do for the chefs at Aaheli it seems. I tried some of the kosha mangsho with bhaat and was impressed by how easily the mutton pieces gave in to my fingers. The cheffing skill on offer was impressive too and the best example of this was how well the begun bhaaja served with the khichuri was cooked. Think it is easy? Well, if you are not a thakuma or didima (grandmom), backed by years of expertise and with a heart oozing with loads of love, chances are that your begun bhaaja would either be unevenly cooked or swimming in oil. No such problems at Aaheli though.

Chicken stew at Aaheli Express. Every portion comes with a leg piece.
The bread is baked in the Peerless Inn bakery

I quite appreciated the thought which had gone into the preparation of some of the other dishes that I sampled that day too. Take the fish roll for example. Minced fish, wrapped in a fish fillet and shaped like a roulade, covered with bread crumbs, and fried. Fish rolls are not new to Kolkata of course, but what distinguished the Aaheli fish roll, was the minimal use of garam masala in it. Moreover, it had none of the turmeric overdose that one finds in street side fish rolls. The aim here, clearly, was to showcase the great quality of bhetki used, rather than smother it with spices, chillies and mashed potatoes. As it was in the rather unique machher patishapta, where once again, the fish mince was delicately but not overpoweringly spiced. The fish was steamed in a rice flour casing and would work for those who have gluten allergy too. Simplicity and restraint was once again the mark of the chicken stew at Aaheli Express. Unlike in what I had at Dacres, this stew had no cornflour and the broth was clear and not cloudy, flavoured primarily by the stock of meat and a liberal dash of crushed black pepper. It was similar to the chicken stew my mother would make for us when we were kids or what we would get at the maidan tents or the College Square canteen by the swimming pool. It was similar to what I make at home in Mumbai now. A dish my wife, a Parsi from Mumbai, loves.

The portions of protein (meat/ fish) in the dishes were liberal at Aaheli compared to in street food places, as I saw once again in the evening when I went to the Aaheli Express outlet at the Axis Mall at Rajarhat. The kochi pathar roll was similar in construct to the Bengali parar dokaner roll that I had grown up on. It was stuffed with sliced onions, cucumber, chilli and tomato sauce and had kosha mangsho inside instead of the kathi kebabs of the Moghlai places of central Kolkata. The mutton in the roll was more than ample and was very tender and could be a lavish meal in itself. Another example of this principle was the gigantic prawn, encased in a minced prawn armour, that was at the  core of the chingri cutlet here.

Produce first, seemed to be the message the chefs seemed to be giving in the food. At the risk of giving the accounts department sleepless nights I reckon!

As I headed back to Mumbai, it struck me that as a tourist, I would want to tick off the Dacres Lanes stalls no doubt, and I was happy that I finally did so this time. I am not so sure though if I would want to eat there every day though had I stayed back to work in Kolkata. “Shorir ta toh rakhte,” as the  middle aged office babu in the MFD (Horlicks)  ad said during our childhood. Health first.

Aaheli Express, on the other hand, is the sort of place that I would got to for my meals if I worked in Dhormotola. Just as I used to go to the humble but ever dependable Irani Cafes and Mangalorean seafood lunch homes and Keralite saadya places there, when I worked in a market research agency in Fort in Mumbai, and to which I take people from across the world when on food walks.

This is because the food in such places is wholesome, satisfying and easy on the pocket. 

The sort of food you could bring home to meet your mother! 

I did this article in collaboration with the Peerless Inns Hotel. I want to thank Debasree Roy, President Corporate Development of  Peerless Hotels, and Pritha Sen who conceptualised and edited the magazine, for giving me the chance to play a small part to play in the magazine. 

 Glimpses from the shoot:

With Debasree Roy (in white) & Soumi Sarkar (blue) of Peerless
Hotels & Ashim da, the F&B director

With the Aaheli Express team

With Indraneil da, the photographer, and Kaniska

When Kaniska caught me proudly getting ready for my
'Pujo Barshiki' moment. Technically a supplement, yes I know

You might find these videos that I shot on the trip of interest. Please do subscribe to my YouTube channel, Finely Chopped TV by Kalyan Karmakar, and share these videos if you like them.

Chitto Babur Dokan:

Dinner at Aaheli Restaurant: