Paneer in rajma, egg in dal tadka. When Punjabi food is served with an Eastern accent. Kolkata Immigrant Food Love Songs, Part 2

The lights were not Instagram friendly for sure but the food was brilliant at Azad Hind Hotel, Kolkata

When the Bihari Babu said 'khamosh'

The hon finance minister of India, Ms Nirmala Sitharaman, presented her maiden Union Budget on Friday. Shortly after she did so, a tweet of mine created a bit of a ruckus on Twitter.

No, no. You know me. It had nothing to do with either the budget or politics. As with the case of most of my social media posts, it was about food.

I am on Twitter as @finelychopped

It was raining in Mumbai that afternoon, and I tweeted about calling in for some good old ‘Punjabi warmth’ in the form of rajma paneer and roti from Bandra’s 60 year old National Restaurant.

Rajma and paneer? Who adds paneer to Rajma? Not Punjabis for sure: was the gist of the Tweets that were shot back at me. It seemed as if Twitter had taken its eyes of the budget for a micro mini second and that madame Sitharaman managed to catch her breath too possibly thanks to my rajmapaneergate.

I did empathise with this angst though. A bit later I realised that veteran journalist, Kanchan Gupta, had taken his eyes off from the budget for a second too. Being Bengali, he was aghast it seemed at someone who had Tweeted about having khichuri, mangsho and ‘tok begun’ (something one has never heard about) for lunch. Kanchanda tagged me saying that this should be protested against, and I replied and said that it was a ‘bhyabachaka ensemble’ (WTF).

Cholbe na

Yes, we all hold our food and our food pairings close to our hearts. By tweeting about rajma which had paneer, and which I had with roti at that and not rice unlike the norm, I am sure that I would have puzzled and riled many an honest, hardworking and gentle Punjabi.

National Restaurant incidentally is run by a Punjabi family whose forefathers had come to Mumbai from Lahore at the time of the partition. They do have many ‘mix dishes’ in their restaurant which are rather novel I admit…rajma with kali dal, rajma with paneer, rajma sukhi dal, channa sukhi (dry udad) dal, channa kali dal, etc etc.

Harbinder Singh, second generation owner of the place, once told me that among the various stars of yesteryears such as Dharmendra, Rajendra Kumar and so on, who frequented the place while they were struggling actors, it was Shatrughan Sinha (AKA Biharia Babu) who suggested these combinations.

A piece of Bandra Bollywood trivia that does give me the liberty to read the ‘Khamosh act’ to the rajma paneer detractors on Twitter. (Khamosh means 'keep quiet' and the actor is associated with roaring out this phrase in his movies.)

Rajma paneer and roti called in from Bandra's National Restaurant

I had meant ‘Punjabi warmth’ in a metaphorical sense in my tweet and that is what the food offered.

The rajma (kidney beans) was wholesome and lightly flavoured, with no excess of ghee or cream. It met my brief. It had a slight smoky undertone as all their food is slow cooked on coal fires at national.

The paneer in it was very soft. I was excited to see that it had been lightly fried. This is how I remembered the paneer to be in dishes such as matar paneer that I have had at Punjabi restaurants of Kolkata in my childhood. The paneer used to be slightly fried and then put in curries.

Just as the ricotta cheese like chhana dumplings used to be fried first before being put into curries in Bengali houses for the chhanar dalna. I loved the added taste dimension that this gave to the flavours of this dish. I missed this when I moved to Mumbai and saw that they do not fry the paneer first here. As they do not in Punjab or Amritsar either now as my travels taught me later.

After my afternoon nap I moved on to Facebook and started a discussion on the technique of frying paneer first and asked whether this was unique to Kolkata. Facebook and Instagram of course is where you can still have conversations today unlike in Twitter!

A number of folks got back to me saying that the practise of frying paneer existed in the north as well, till a couple of decades back. As the quality of paneer improved and as people became more ‘health conscious’ (why one would order a paneer makhani then beats me), they stopped frying the paneer in the north it seems. The quality of the paneer in Kolkata when I was growing up was not as good as what one gets in the north or even in Mumbai so I can understand why the paneer was fried there.

Thank god for this imperfection though as I like fried paneer a lot more than the plain one to be honest.

Punjabi food served with a Bengali accent

With Kaniska Chakraborty at Azad Hind Hotel

The home-like nature of the rajma paneer at National Restaurant, and its unique food pairings, reminded me of my recent trip to Kolkata and of the time when I visited the original branch of the Azad Hind Hotel there. 

This heritage and rather Spartan eatery is located at Ballygunge Circular Road. It has many franchise outlets across the city. I am told that the place is around 70 years old. Young by Kolkata icon standards, though not so much in south Kolkata. It is run by Hindu Punjabis from what I gather and not by Sikhs, unlike Balbir Singh’s Dhaba (the oldest I am told) and Russel Dhaba which are also popular in Kolkata.

I have grown up eating at Punjabi restaurants in Kolkata. Especially at Dhaba at Ballygunge Phari, occasionally at the iconic Kwality at Park Street when treated by father and later my mesho, food ordered in on the job from Kwality at Ballygunge Phari on Saturdays at my first job and at a place called Jibon Dhaba at Jhowtalla Road where my first office was. I do not know if Jibon’s was Punjabi run as a Kolkata now has a number of places, including many street side stalls, selling tandoori ruti, deem torka, chicken bhorta. Punjabi dhaba dishes adopted by us Bengalis as our own. Just as the Punjabis of Kolkata adopted the city as their own and speak flawless Bengali. Cultural appropriation some would say.

I must confess that barring the odd parar dokan (street corner) takeway ruti torka shops, I have not frequented Punjabi restaurants there when I have gone back to Kolkata in recent years.

I have eaten Punjabi food at Punjab for heaven’s sake and in Delhi, in Punjabi homes in Mumbai as well as restaurants such as National, Moti Halwai, Lashkara, Crystal and Khane Khas here, where one gets some pretty soul satisfying Punjabi khaana.

Why would I spend my precious time in Kolkata eating Punjabi food?

This time was different was though. It was raining one evening and I was in the car with my dear friends and hosts in Kolkata, Kaniska Chakraborty and his wife Manishita. “It’s not so hot today. Should we go and eat some dhaaba food,” I asked. “I want to refresh my memories of the Punjabi food here. Go to some place such as Azad Hind or Balwant Singh’s or Russel St Dhaaba for example, which people tell me so much about on social media these days.”

Driven by his memories from the early days of his career in advertising, Kaniska suggested Azad Hind Hotel. ‘Balwant’s food is too oily,’ he said and added that the Russel Street one does not offer proper seating.

I once had a rather indifferent experience with the excessively oily Azad Hind food at their franchise near our home in south Kolkata, but I trusted Kaniska enough to go with his advice that evening.

I was so glad I did so.

We ordered some of the Kolkata dhaaba classics - egg torka, chicken bharta and kheema matar - and the food was lovely.

Seasoned perfectly, not spicy or oily, flavour packed and led to no heartburn or acidity.

What more could a Bengali want?

Egg torka

The egg torka was sublime. A slow cooked dal made with green moong and black udad dal. With an egg beaten into it in this case. Slow cooking it had added an extra depth to the dish at Azad Hind, which one does not find in the street side mashimar torka shops. This was special.

You can have torka without the egg or with bits of chicken or chicken liver too. I have not found this dish outside of Kolkata, Bengal or the east (I have had it in Assam). Food researcher, Pritha Sen, tells me that the dish was thought of by Punjabi dhaaba owners as a way to entice Bengalis who were looking for something different from the lighter, yellow dals made at home. Sounds logical to me. I do make a good tarka dal at home. This was a masterpiece compared to mine though.

Chicken bharta

The chicken bharta, shredded chicken cooked in a cashew based paste is another Kolkata dhaaba classic which former Kolkatans across the world miss when away from home. We had the version without egg. I have had bhartas with boiled egg in it too. The three of us marvelled at how regal and creamy the dish was that night at Azad Hind. It was not intimidating at all, unlike the toxic and fiery red coloured chicken bharta pretender that I had at the Kwality Restaurant in New Delhi (loved their channa bhatoora though) earlier this year. The bharta here was very mellow and had us in its spell.

The bharta at Azad Hind tasted the way one would expect a dish from a royal kitchen to taste. The ambiance of the place did not match up to it though. The outer non AC section meant for stags was a bit smelly to put it politely. Kaniska reassured me and said that it was always like this and added that closing part of the restaurant to air-condition it had made it worse. What made this ironic was that they had a painting drawn after here a meal by the late MF Hussein, displayed in this section. That would be worth quite a packet I am sure and deserved a neater resting place. Luckily the aircon section of Azad Hind smelt just of raw onion and curry. Smells typical to old school Punjabi restaurants.

Coincidentally, this was the second eatery that I had been to with a Hussein on display in a month. The other was the equally humble but non-smelly, Noor Mohammadi Hotel in Mumbai.

Welcomed by the Gaja Gamini by Hussein. My shirt from
Sri Lanka had an elephant motif too

The place was rather empty when we walked in at 9 pm and that worried me as did the strange odours. I am suspicious of the quality of the food in places that are empty. Kaniska, and many on twitter when I tweeted this, told me that the place actually livens up well after midnight when queues form to get in.

Azad Hind Hotel is everyone's 2 am friend in Kolkata from what I gathered!

Kheema matar

The other dish that we ordered that evening, the kheema matar, assured me as had the rest of the food that I need not worry about the quality being suspect here. The meat had a sort of natural sweetness which came from both the flavours of exquisite goat meat and fried onions. The dish was not smelly at all as I have a found a few kheema masalas in Mumbai to unfortunately be. The green peas in the kheema matar seemed so fresh. They had managed to retain the natural sweetness of peas. Even though this is not the season for peas!

There was a very home kitchen-like feel to this and I preferred it to the kheema I had at the Royal Indian Restaurant a day before as that was more spicy.

We had tandoori and rumali roti which were rather white as they are in Kolkata. Something to do with the maida/ flour content? I have had better rotis in life, though these were not bad.

We stepped out after our meal at Azad hind at 1030 pm and I saw that the place had begun to fill up. We were beaming as the food had made us very happy. I had great company in Manishita and Kaniska.

From a story hunting point of view, I was glad that I made it to the Azad Hind Hotel as I was on a quest to try out some of the older restaurants run by immigrant communities who had set up home in Kolkata and who had left their impact on the city’s culinary heritage.

What more could a prodigal son want?

Immigrant love songs

Like me, it was Manishita's first visit to Azad Hind too. She enjoyed the
food and most kindly shot a video on my phone while KC & I chatted

The thing about the food at the National Restaurant in Bandra and the Azad Hind Hotel in Ballygunge, is that they were both a bit different from what one gets in Punjabi restaurants and dhaabas in the north in my opinion and limited experience.

I am not just talking of the unique combinations of rajma paneer or egg tarka dal here. The food seemed more light and easy on the tummy here than what I have found it to be in the north.

I guess spending well over half a decade in their new homes made the Punjabi restaurateurs of Kolkata and Mumbai modify their food to take in the flavour preferences of their new neighbours. That is how food evolves. How fresh magic is created. Grounded on the wisdom and memories of the past.

There is no denying the fact that when it comes to Kolkata, and many other cities in India starting with Mumbai, the Punjabis immigrants have played a starring role in setting up the local restaurant industry, and for that we do owe them a lot.


1. Here's a video that we shot at Azad Hind that night

2. Kaniska shared his memories of Azad Hind Dhaba on his Instagram page after our visit that night and I thought that I MUST share it here:

3. Earlier posts of interest:

Torka dal of Kolkata
National Restaurant, Bandra
Kolkata's immigrant cuisine 1: Royal restaurant
Delhi's Kwality and the bharta from the red planet there

4. My video shot at Bandra's National Restaurant with the Shatrughan Sinha story

5. Some of the Twitter banter on seeing the rajma paneer

6. Facebook wisdom on fried paneer in the north

7. And finally the deemer jhol, Bengali for egg curry, that our cook Banu made last night where she had not friend the boiled eggs after slitting them and before putting them in the curry. This despite my helping her revise the recipe. So I took out the eggs at night, shallow fried them, then added the potatoes and then the curry before we sat to eat. Goes to prove that I too can be a stickler for tradition at times!

PS: I kept the onions and tomatoes whole and not as a paste to recreate the Kolkata office para street side ruti and deemer jhols

Deemer jhol. Recipe