I am what you call in Bengali a “Probashi”, NRB (Non Resident Bong) if you will. Born and brought up outside the state but a Bengali. Calcutta or Kolkata is a photographers’ paradise, a city that still defies the standards and stereotypes of every other big city. People keep complaining about no development, no urbanization, being too laid back, while it has its pitfalls and perils, one cannot help but notice how comforting and soulful the city still is and how each one of us would want to get immersed in it from time to time. “Leisure is Pleasure” is perhaps the motto here and why not, if it leaves you with a smile at the end of the day, a warm fuzzy feeling inside, if it leaves you content, I’d say it is doing a pretty good job of being home to millions of residents.
People here are always so happy, a bengali’s happiness is directly proportional to food. Food was my connection with this city, coming from a probashi household, which is quite mixed up otherwise but when it comes to food, we stick to our roots.
Leaving the Peter Cats, Flurys, Mocambos, Trincas that will make you feel like you are stuck in a 70s Parveen Babi song sequence aside, there are some hidden treasures for local delicacies which are not the the Biryanis with potato, phuchka (pani puri) or sondesh.
There existed (a few still exist) small eating joints called “cabins” during the British Era and post independence where intellectuals often sat down to discuss or rather argue and unwind over cha (Tea) ,snacks and smoke. For example- The Mitra Cabin at Shyam Bazar, famous for its Kabiraji Cutlet (Fish/Chicken/Mutton coated and fried in a fluffy egg batter), Allen’s famous for its Prawn Cutlet fried in Ghee (Indian clarified butter) and if you’re there you can also head to Golbari (round-house) and devour some lip-smacking-finger- licking-mutton curry. You will on numerous occasions notice BMWs and other luxury sedans parked outside just to get a few parcels for home.
Calcutta is also home to the only China Town in India, Tengra. The Chinese community settled here in the 1780s. Now Chinese food to a Bengali is chowmein and chilli chicken, which is on the verge of becoming the “state dish”. You know how for a little bit the Chicken Tikka had replaced Fish and Chips in the UK, the chowmein-chilli chicken combo is the chicken tikka for Bengal (replacing the Maach Bhat/ Fish Rice). Needless to say every corner every hawker will definitely be ready to serve you their version of the aforesaid Chinese dish. While Calcutta has some absolutely amazing Chinese food restaurants, including the famous international food chains, nothing beats Tengra (China Town) Chinese. It is much reasonable, pocket-friendly and quite honestly much satiating.
And the biggest attraction is the morning breakfast market. It happens at Tengra and Tiretta Bazar, but it is only for the early risers as it starts from 6am. You will get a good selection of Chinese breakfast items like chicken/prawn/pork momos (dim sums), tai paos, shu meis, fried dough sticks, prawn wafers, rolls etc. The unique Chinese Kali temple is also around the corner, where the mantras are written in Mandarin and you get noodles for prasad. If you are in the city around Chinese New Year, it will be worth visiting China Town to watch the New Year celebrations.
Another very explored but not spoken about place is the High Court area. Hawkers and food stall owners come here every day from the border and return back after catering to a swarm of people. The best part about the food here is not only that it is freshly made but the variety. From regular veg/non veg meals, to Chinese to Mishti (sweet) stalls, south Indian food, samosas and poori sabji , and for when you have a bad stomach, there are options for light khichdi and curd rice too. You will see everyone from a high profiled lawyer to a pick-pocket to a client whose paying thousands of rupees to that lawyer, all eating there.
These are little things that hold this city together, and keep the spirit alive, something as common, routine and day to day, as food. These are places, and each one of them, that have stories and long history resting on their shoulders, apart from their daily struggles of sustenance and existence, before you mistake them with “just another food stall”. Although fancy concrete seems to be making desperate attempts to take their place, uprooting them will only hamper the cultural heritage of Calcutta, of what it stood for, of what it still does- ideologies of equality, brotherhood, fellow-feeling and spreading the joy among every single soul irrespective of any discrimination or biases, here through food.
With the disappearing of cabins, or cha and adda stalls in every para (locality), Calcutta might be losing its essence but then again the very fact that they managed to stay around and the locals have attachments with these places, here’s hoping they will a legacy for generations to come.
We all need that chicken soup, for the soul, after all.