Winter in Calcutta is a time of pure happiness — for two or three months, the city’s people turn into children let loose on a fair ground. They must make the most of this wondrous thing called “the cold” before it slips away and the sweltering heat returns to plague them for the rest of the year. There is rarely a greater outpouring of collective joy in the city than when it feels that first nip in the air. Few other cities take greater pleasure in bringing their warm clothes out of moth-balled cold storage. Social networking sites abound with peals of “Winter is here!” joy. And Calcuttans begin to find it increasingly difficult to wake up willingly on winter mornings — mornings that require them to emerge from under the delicious, toasty warmth of their covers.
The experience of coming out of the blanket-cocoon and braving the morning’s first biting chill on unprepared skin is the only thing you would grumble about. But then, you rush to get dressed, step out sleepily into the foggy dampness of 6 am, and make your way with friends to either a little hole in the wall opposite Nakhoda Masjid, or a ramshackle roadside food stall on Bright Street. The former, called Sufiya Hotel, is filled with men hungry after their morning prayers; the latter has a huge cauldron on the roadside, the contents of which are stirred vigorously by a thin, knobbly-kneed man. But in the invigorating cold, these little details go unnoticed. All you detect are the delicious smells of freshly-cooked nihari. Sufiya’s nihari is tender and comes off the bone easily; the Bright Street version bursts with flavour. It doesn’t matter which you choose; before long, you have a plate of it in front of you, and having had to brave the morning cold seems like a small price to pay. Especially since there will be no more of this when winter is over.
Every year when the cold sets in, the city indulges in a brief, intense fling with food. It is true that Calcuttans love their food anyway, but winter changes something in them. It unleashes in them an appetite for different sorts of food. It is especially evident in a sudden, seasonal interest in the meat dishes available in various corners of the city. And unlike at other times in the year, when most fastidious Calcuttans are reluctant to explore the city’s innumerable soul food options and would rather settle for a time-tested restaurant, winter brings to the city an enthusiasm for trying new things. This is in stark contrast to summers in the city — a time when the heat makes even the idea of a hearty meal off-putting, and most people are loath to even step out of their houses, let alone travel long distances to some obscure roadside eatery where the kebabs are the stuff of legends. Even during the monsoons, the romance surrounding the rains lasts only as long as one does not have to step out in the slush and brave floods caused by faulty sewer systems. But winter... ah, winter is a different time. It is a time when the prospect of rising early and making a day trip to Baruipur in order to eat the famous beef chaap served at Asma — a tiny eatery at the railway station where napkins and cutlery are unheard of — seems delightful. It is a time when your body clock recalibrates itself to give you a full appetite at 5 am in the morning just so that you may eat your fill of the Chinese breakfast at Tiretta Bazar, or go haleem or nihari hunting at UP Bihar (that is the name of the restaurant). It is a period of intense joy when a well-made rum toddy and some soupy, meaty thukpa warm you up and invigorate you in a way that would be hard to imagine in summer (or at any other time in the year, since Calcutta is always hot if it’s not winter). It is a time when all worries with regard to cholesterol fly out of the window, and steamed pork kothay — a preparation that looks like a momo but tastes even better — and roast chilli pork at cosy Sikkimese and Tibetan food joints are consumed with relish.
It is difficult to imagine a city’s character without looking very closely at its relationship with — and love for — food. Over the years, Calcutta’s stolid, unwavering food preferences have visibly evolved. And it is towards the end of each year that the shift in its food habits becomes most apparent. Winter changes the city, because it changes its food.