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Meals 730, each one of its kind

Calcutta has always been a gourmet’s paradise. I know this may sound outrageously biased, but I’m not talking about the city having a glut of Michelin star restaurants. I’m saying that even before the boom in the food industry, which started about 10 years ago, the city has had, for decades, a very wonderful and varied culinary profile and personality. True, some of the places where the most delicious fare is available are not exactly inviting as far as location and ambience are concerned, but then all you need to have handy is that excellent invention called the tiffin carrier.

In fact, I am willing to wager that if I had to show a guest around the city, I could make sure that he or she got 730 different meals in a year (at the rate of two meals per day). Obviously not from different cuisine styles, but in terms of different items appearing on the table each time. The only conditions would be that he or she would have to be omnivorous, with no taboos or allergies, and adventurous enough. Another condition would be that we would not even eat in peoples’ homes. We would only visit existing eateries.

North & south mix

Where would I begin' Most simply. With the vegetarian riches that our brethren from the South, Rajasthan and Gujarat have brought to the city. At least three weeks would whizz by sampling the different dosas, vadas, bondas, idlis and uttapams in different places. There would also be upma, avial and pongal, not to mention thali meals, which would be a different experience at each new stop. A menu I have lists 22 different kinds of dosas! Including one which would give the purists a fright — Moglai Dosa.

Then off to Zakarai Street in the north, where, just down the road from Nakhoda Mosque, is Rajasthan Guest House. You get simple, homely and mouth-watering Rajasthani food here with no fancy trimmings at the friendliest prices. Rajasthani style Dahi Vada (made not with urad dal but with moong and with no sweet add-ons in the yoghurt) and Dal ka Chilla (a thin pancake made from moong dal paste), with a tomato-onion stuffing, in concept like a dosa but entirely different to eat. The chilla can be had plain, without stuffing, with garlic chutney and mint-coriander chutney. Missi Roti and Bedmi Puri, and Keriya, Sangar, Gatta and Gawarfalli for dry or gravied, spicy, main course dishes. And of course Dal Bati Choorma and Panchmella Saag. Gokul, a small restaurant at the corner of Lord Sinha Road and AJC Bose Road, also serves Rajasthani food, as does Teej, on Russel Street, but this is a new addition.

Back in south Calcutta for Gujarati food in Bhawanipur (where else'). A small place called Vandana, 5B Ashton Road. A special attraction about this cuisine is their farsan, or snacks, which quite easily blend in as items of a meal as well. Khandvi, Dhokla, Pattar Velia, Mattar Patties, Mattar Puffs, as well as great thali meals. Many of their vegetable preparations have the same names as in other parts of the country, but when cooked Gujarati style are quite unique — such as Alu Dum, Chhola Masala or Alu Mattar. Sev Tomato Sabzi and Alu Mattar Tomato, however, are Gujarati specialities, not to mention Kadhi and Srikhand.

Chinese check

Then, in total contrast, Calcutta’s Chinese cuisine. The oldest places go back to the 1920s and ’30s, and were all Cantonese-style places. Sadly, Nan King and the old Waldorf Park Street closed down, but Eau Chew on Ganesh Chandra Avenue, Chung Wah just blocks away and New Cathay on Chowringhee Road are still there. Tangra establishments opened in the late 1970s. To do justice to Calcutta’s Chinese food would take months, if not years.

To combine every kind of soup, dim sum, main course items in fish, duck, pork, chicken, mutton (some old joints in Calcutta 16 like Jhonsons and Overseas also did beef, as does the Dalhousie Institute club kitchen) and vegetables would throw up hundreds of different meals, with absolutely no repeats except for staples.

Menu One: Fried Wanton, Chimney Soup, Mandarin Fish, Rice. Menu Two: Vegetable Spring Roll, Vegetable Sweet Corn Soup, Tofu in Garlic Sauce, Noodles. Menu Three: Sui Mai, Chicken Clear Soup, Sweet and Sour Pork, Rice…one could go on and on.

Thai cuisine has a strong presence in Calcutta, but is not traditional, though Tibetan food has been around since the 1960s and you still get good Thukpa on Suburban Hospital Road.

Continental craze

Calcutta Continental' Sadly again, Skyroom on Park Street closed, but Mocambo just around the corner, other Park Street establishments and many of the clubs in the city kept the flag flying and even to exhaust all the possibilities under a single roof — Mocambo, for example, is a daunting task. Permutations and Combinations was never one of my favourite math topics, but just two staples, three starters, four vegetarian main course dishes and five non-vegetarian ones can be mixed and matched in 120 ways!

And some more...

And there is our great Mughlai and Punjabi cuisine. Both are distinct in themselves, though many items are common. You will get biryani at Amber and Kwality’s, but it will be different from Royal or Aminia, and just to sample the different biryanis would take at least a week. And all the different Punjabi style parathas, the Mughlai naans and rotis, rezalas, chaanps, pasindas and kormas, the myriad kebabs done in both styles…again, one can go on and on.

And we still haven’t stepped into an Anglo-Indian, Goan, Nepali or Bohra Muslim home. Or contacted a Parsi caterer. Or hit the streets for phuchka and chaat. Or touched a Mughlai Paratha, Kabiraji Cutlet or Fish Roll. Or even had a Bengali meal!

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