A few days ago our band, Hip Pocket, performed at Presidency College, followed by the Bangla rock band, Fossils. The place was packed to the rafters and the enthusiasm was unbridled. Thank heavens that, whether in English or in Bengali, rock is alive and kicking in Calcutta.
I never studied at Presidency, but it was always our centre for all our university examinations and College Street was a regular hang-out for book shopping and for adda at the Coffee House, so there was a good measure of nostalgia involved. Leaving the campus and headed for Park Circus, we — myself and guitar player Sumith Ramachandran, born and raised in Palakkad, Kerala, but now a confirmed Calcuttan — took a route through Mahatma Gandhi Road and via Sealdah.
“North Cal has a feel of its own, huh'” he said, his gut-radar perfectly in tune!
“Sure does,” I responded, instantly resolving to make a trip to some of my old haunts — eateries, that is.
So a couple of days later, on a Sunday afternoon, tiffin carrier in hand, I landed up at New Punjabi Hotel (at the Shyambazar five-point crossing) popularly known as Golbari, because it is housed in a building with a semicircular façade.
Golbari belongs to a specific category of old Calcutta eateries. It is more of a snackish place, selling fish fry, fish rolls, kabiraji cutlets, vegetable chops and such, but alongside these items there are a few dry curries to be had with chapatis or bread, to offer customers something more substantial. It is not like the old pice hotels that serve rice-based meals with fish curries, dal and chicken or mutton gravy items. The two kinds of eatery are distinct and stand apart.
So although basically a chop-cutlet place, Golbari is famous for its kosha mangsho and soft, pliable, thin chapatis, slightly ghee-smeared, the like of which you will get nowhere else. And that is precisely what I was gunning for.
Imagine the dismay when I found it closed. For the last three months, it seems. But all was not lost, because some of the staff had set up a temporary counter on the pavement just in front, and they said this was authentic Golbari fare. There was not that much variety, but there were four or five kinds of fresh, warm crumb-fried chop-cutlet items neatly and cleanly laid out, and the kosha mangsho and chapatis were also there.
Slightly sceptical, and not knowing whether this would be the last time I would get to eat this, I nevertheless asked for a double portion of kosha mangsho, some chapatis, and a fish fry. On the way home, I wondered how other such places — many of them institutions in their own right — just like Golbari, were doing. How was Dilkusha Cabin at the College Street-Harrison Road crossing faring, and, further north, Cha Cha’s Hotel' And Neelachal, in Baghbazar Street' Not an old institution, but an excellent place nonetheless.
The food was still hot when I got home and I dug in hungrily, though half-expecting to be disappointed. Yes, the fish fry a bit too salty and the fish stuffing inside the crumbed exterior not substantial enough, but the good old Golbari kosha mangsho at its prime-rich, a bit hot on the palate, and delicious, with a hint of caramelised sugar. The chapatis suffer a little if not eaten immediately, but there was no choice.
About nine years ago I got something of a recipe out of them. I am sure all the details weren’t given. But finely chopped onions and a paste of freshly ground red chillies, ginger, garlic and turmeric are fried in pure mustard oil. Whole garam masalas — cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaves — are added next and then the meat. No water is used; the cooking is prolonged and done on a slow fire till the meat is tender — it is goat meat. The sugar must come early on in the process, for the caramelised flavour is distinct and the colour of the dish — a rich, dark brown, also depends partly on this.
About the chapatis, they will not breathe a word. At Golbari they also used to do a dryish Liver Curry (chicken liver). This item used to be cooked in ghee, and in addition to the ingredients used for the kosha mangsho, coconut, tomatoes and peanuts (all in paste form) were also used.
In south Calcutta, there used to be a couple of old places like Golbari. One was Radha Babur Cha Dokan near Lake Market and another was Cafe Restaurant near the Hazra-S P Mukherji Road crossing, the latter being famous for roasts and stews. I must check if they still exist.
Sethis’s Hotel, near the same crossing, in my opinion, is south Calcutta’s answer to Golbari as far as kosha mangsho is concerned. This place has a dhaba like menu and does some Chinese as well, but the kosha is excellent, though quite different. Their secret I think lies in the meat itself — fresh, really young goat (kochi pantha). Sometimes even the bones of the rib pieces are soft.
Other age-old snackish fare Calcutta can boast of is the vegetarian fare of South India, Rajasthan and Gujarat. I visited a place some days back where what they do with simple besan (unroasted gram flour), is almost like alchemy. But that’s another story.