What I miss in other cities is not so much variety as variation
Whenever I return to Kolkata after a gap of a few months, I come back with food cravings that only my hometown can meet. I usually land back as winter is starting and this is one of the best times to be in the city — my list of grub I’ve been missing is much longer in November than it would be if, say, I was coming back in April.
Winter is when the deltaic region yields its full bounty — vegetables that you hardly see anywhere in the northern subcontinent; fruit of all sorts; the magnificent fresh, nolen gur/ notun gur/ liquid jaggery and all the seasonal products made from it; weather in which you can justifiably quaff all sorts of red meat; not to mention the full cornucopia of fish and fishy creatures (for those millions who, unlike me, love to eat stuff that has lived in water). Even if you’re not a carnivore, or prefer a vegetarian diet, this is the period when you can indulge in some deep-fried foodings without feeling too heavy or ill. Add to this the fact that this is the one season when you can eat puchka (the local version of pani-puri/ golgappa) and jhaalmuri from select street vendors with minimal risk to your life and liver.
One of the great things about the city is that it is surrounded by one of the most fecund hinterlands in the world and most of the plant-based food comes into the city daily, recently plucked or harvested, carried in by small vans and trucks, small batches of mind-boggling varieties of shaak (greens) and veggies often brought in on the shoulder by the small farmers who grow them, with none of the days-long cold-storage truculence that you find in vegetables in a city like Delhi. Even if my fridge is full, I sometimes find myself visiting the markets in the morning, just to look, just to watch people’s faces as they contemplate cascades of multicoloured produce, greed and indecision making their brains whirr almost audibly.
Obsessed with food
It’s an old and tired joke that Kolkata has more pharmacies per block than it has sweet shops but only just. The fact is, there’s a reason for the proliferation of medicine-sellers and it doesn’t just have to do with the often unsalubrious air of the city: people here are obsessed with food — another clichéd barb goes that there is often very little else to get Kolkatans out of bed, to challenge them creatively or philosophically — and they are willing to take some risks to score some particular taste or other. An alternative explanation for the gastrocentricity and its fallout might be that every city is obsessed with food, each in its own particular ways, and Kolkata is no different except that Bengalis like to complain about the ill-effects a tad more than other people.
Another aspect of food in Kolkata is that under the usual gastro-radar, the place has developed quite a cosmopolitan cuisine; for quite some time the city has offered far more than just the usually mentioned Bangla, Behala-Awadhi and Chinese food. Leaving aside the horrors of the proliferating multi-cuisine joints and the nafees, trying-too-hard-to-be-trendy ‘restos’, the town now has many small, unpretentious eateries where you can get really good Northeastern, Burmese and Southeast Asian food. At the same time, there are at least one or two places where adventurous chefs are building serious menus based on Bangla food but without being imprisoned by the great tradition.
None of these, however, are on my crave-list when I return. What I’m missing and looking for is something one could call ‘homestreet-taste’. Besides the aforementioned jhaalmuri, etc. particular to the city, I find myself hungry for the local variations on things that are widely available elsewhere: puchka, puri-alu/ alu-kochuri/ luchi-alu/ luchi-alurdom and samosas. The puchkas in Kolkata are quite different from the pani puri/ golgappa iterations elsewhere, with no trace of any sweet chutney, the crusts super-thin and the pani light and pungent with jeera and green chilli, the potatoes in the masala boiled and very lightly spiced.
The alu-puri varieties, just in the one square kilometre around my house, are startling. There is the classic, soft Bengali luchi and alurdom, the alu dum nothing like the dish you get in North India; there are the Marwari style kachoris made either with a paste inside of hing or, in this season, of green peas, served with potatoes cut small in a slightly thin but taste-packing gravy; there is the vendor I call ‘Elgin 1’, because his stall is at the start of Elgin Road, and he serves the most complexly delicious, dark brown alu gravy, spicy, everything thrown into it, onions, tomatoes, ginger, a massive amount of green chillis as well as peanuts, his maida puris puffed up and crispy; and then there is one of the most popular shops, a little further down Sarat Bose Road, two blocks south of Rashbehari Avenue, which is always crowded with ravenous customers, this potato concoction being altogether lighter (no onions and tomatoes, I suspect), but highly punchy in terms of spice, the puris perfect, accompanied by a hot pickle and green chilli, to be followed by his equally famous gulab-jamun.
Similarly, there is a surprising variety of samosas you can get in the small area around Minto Park/ Elgin Road. There are the full-spectrum, heavy Marwari halwai samosas, mostly mashed alu and possibly fried in ghee; there is the Gujarati version from the local farsaan shop, the crusts thicker than the others, the masala a bit sweeter; there is the variation from Ray Street, really superb, made with potatoes, peas and peanuts, encased in a perfectly rendered crust that’s neither too thick nor too thin. Finally, there is my favourite kind — the classic Bengali shengara, smaller and lighter than its colleagues, the potatoes less mashed up so that you get a textured bite, the taste spectrum minimised beautifully while sculpting a precise, two-bite object.
In this ‘cold’ weather, these shengaras are also available with a filling of cauliflower and occasionally other veggies, but the year-round default is the potato version. In my mind, I think of these as ‘rehearsal shengaras’ or ‘backstage shengaras’ because, as anyone who has ever done amateur theatre in Kolkata will tell you, these little pyramids of joy have for decades been the standard fuel for actors and stage crew, accompanied by the clay bhaands of tea.
It’s when I think about the alu-puri and the samosas that it comes home to me that what I miss in many other cities is not so much variety as variation. Obviously, both assortment and mutation in food exist in other places: think of New York with its international diversity and its variations of pizza, pastrami sandwiches and hamburgers; think of London, capital of world cuisine, with its fish and chip shops; or even the somewhat provincial Paris and far more limited Berlin, the former with its great French food variations, the latter with its Turkish joints and flammkuchen places — but what I love coming back to is the small scale of Kolkata, of the even smaller scale of South Kolkata to be specific, where the tastes take me back to the time when this sector of this city was the entire world, a world full of surprises that constantly ambushed the taste buds.