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Kolkata Roll

The rocking roll of Kolkata: Anjan Chatterjee

The champion restaurateur on what makes the Kolkata roll one of the great classics of all cuisines anywhere

Anjan Chatterjee | Published 13.11.22, 01:50 PM

All of us do have a right to clarify our stands and this is how I explain mine as the puritan: Yes, I am a fanatic, at least when it comes to matters of taste. Sifting through hundreds of recipes that hover around a dish, all claiming to be authentic, you have to labour away parsing layers and layers of external influence until you are left with the bare original. What can be wrong with that? Do I turn up my nose at the tiniest tweak in flavour? Am I against the great globalisation of cuisines that give us tacos next to rolls and burritos beside begunis? So, call me the old fuddy-duddy holing up in my bunker with the humble roll from Nizam’s, taking delight in each crispy bite of paratha hugging char-grilled meat with lemon zest.

For a hungry young man in Kolkata with meagre college savings, there could be nothing better in the world than a chicken roll. Nothing, by god’s grace, has changed about the roll, or about me, since then. Make that double egg and double chicken for me, even today. Adding ketchup is sin. The kebab, onion, green chilli and lemon basics of the Kolkata roll are the elemental flavours that make it one of the great classics of all cuisines anywhere. When you have such sure flavours at the heart of a cuisine, you have fanatics too. With ingredients so balanced and so bare, what can you add or take away without causing some transgression of a serious order?

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Variants of the classic roll have evolved, just as sects grow within any faith. Some like it with chicken tikka, mutton or paneer. The debate of adding or avoiding ketchup and spices continues to smoulder and smoke around the roll, filling the smoky kitchen at the corner of Park Street.

The Kolkata roll has always been, and will remain, a cult

The simple brilliance of meat roasted on a slice of bamboo and sheathed in flour bread, was meant to be a meal on the go for the unstoppable spirit of Kolkata

The simple brilliance of meat roasted on a slice of bamboo and sheathed in flour bread, was meant to be a meal on the go for the unstoppable spirit of Kolkata

Suvendu Das

However, the Kolkata roll has always been, and will remain, a cult. So, though it has never resisted change, change has never made the slightest dent in its following. Even the McDonald’s and Pizza Huts of the world have had to eat humble pie and international chains have not got a toe-hold in the temple of taste.

After all, the simple brilliance of meat roasted on a slice of bamboo and sheathed in flour bread, was meant to be a meal on the go for the unstoppable spirit of Kolkata. It was way back in 1932. It was the time when Bengali swadeshi entrepreneurs were storming European industrial bastions with their pioneering products. One such brilliant man named Rajen Mookerjee was finishing the blueprint for Kolkata’s most iconic buildings. Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray was formulating various pharmaceutical preparations in his laboratory. Kiran Sankar Roy was lighting up the nation at the turn of the century with superior and affordable electric lamps. Surendra Mohan Bose created Duckback, freeing his countrymen from expensive imported waterproofs.

The roll is a monument that defines the city, its changeless nature

Raza Hasan Saheb’s new eatery Nizam’s in Hogg Market, and its simple but profound innovation of the roll came at a time when wholly Indian-born enterprises like Martin and Co., Bengal Chemicals, Bengal Lamps, Sen Raleigh, Bengal Waterproof and Bengal Immunity were scripting the story of Indian research and development. And there was nothing colonial about their soaring vision, only true and original swadeshi brilliance through and through.

How far the roll has travelled to where we stand today, ducking the winds of change and words of passion. How I wish I could say the same about the many revolutions that started here and died as quickly, next door on the Brigade grounds.

Raza Hasan Saheb’s 'new' eatery Nizam’s in Hogg Market came up with the simple but profound innovation of the roll

Raza Hasan Saheb’s 'new' eatery Nizam’s in Hogg Market came up with the simple but profound innovation of the roll

Suvendu Das

In the decades that followed, ideologies came and went; movements and manifestos fell to dust faster than you could finish a scrumptious chicken roll; the revolutionaries packed up and left long ago. And as Kolkata fell into this -ism and that, we lost the simple brilliance, the original spark shown by Raza Hasan Saheb of Nizam’s, or Rajen babu or the swadeshi entrepreneurs of their day. No one remembers the city they built from a few humble ingredients and with such minimal fuss. Kolkata rose from their free minds, and from the fire in their bellies, and no colonial master, no parade ground idealist ever ruled its heart, no sir.   

As a puritan, I search for the truth and separate the kernel from the chaff. You may still find the truth of Kolkata, lurking in a few pristine places, if you know where to find it. The brave strokes of throwing succulent meat into a crispy paratha with minimal cooking and finished with a dash of lemon, is what makes the Kolkata roll so brilliant, and pure-bred Kolkatan.

The brave strokes of throwing succulent meat into a crispy paratha with minimal cooking and finished with a dash of lemon, is what makes the Kolkata roll so brilliant

The brave strokes of throwing succulent meat into a crispy paratha with minimal cooking and finished with a dash of lemon, is what makes the Kolkata roll so brilliant

Suvendu Das

The roll is a monument that defines the city, its changeless nature amid changing norms. Whenever in time you may have happened to pick it up, whether it was after the first screening of Pather Panchali by a young, little-known director in 1955, or the Mohun Bagan vs Cosmos draw of 1977, the roll has always tasted the same. It sang the story of the diehard Kolkatan, then, and continues to sing so, even now.

 

Anjan Chatterjee is the chief of Speciality Restaurants, which owns Mainland China, Oh! Calcutta, Cafe Mezzuna, Sigree Global Grill, Hoppipola, Asia Kitchen and more. And yes, he is a foodie! He can be reached at acgenx@gmail.com

Whether it was after the first screening of ‘Pather Panchali’, or the Mohun Bagan vs Cosmos draw, the roll has always tasted the same

Whether it was after the first screening of ‘Pather Panchali’, or the Mohun Bagan vs Cosmos draw, the roll has always tasted the same

Last updated on 12.12.22, 01:39 PM
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