Ask any Calcuttan living abroad what they miss most about the city and ‘food’ will be an almost instinctive response. While I’ve often waxed eloquent and sometimes romanticized my city, (I guess that’s allowed when you’re feeling nostalgic) I have never written about the average Calcuttan’s love of food. You’ll probably say that food is a part of our cultural identity and people across the world love their food, and while all of that is true, in Calcutta, food is more than just a passion and that’s putting it mildly.
Growing up in the city, I was lucky to have a wide-range of gastronomical experiences. With a large number of communities calling it home, the city is a melting-pot of cultures and traditions and this has without a doubt led to it becoming a virtual Mecca for Indian food lovers.
One of my fondest childhood memories is waking up at the crack of dawn on winter mornings, along with the rest of the family for a special breakfast treat that visitors to the city might not know of. Let me explain.
You see, Calcutta is not an early waking city. Take an early morning stroll around town and you’ll probably discover a taxi driver or two washing their cars or a number of tea stalls firing up their kerosene oil stoves, but food is difficult to find as the city is gradually coming back to life. That is unless you go to Terreti Bazar, a fascinating street that’s Chinese yet Indian.
Enter the little street near the India Exchange Place and you’ll find vendors selling all sorts of Chinese street food. Soup noodles, steamed buns, dumplings in both steamed and deep fried variations and fish ball soup are everyday breakfast options here. Early morning enthusiasts, joggers, call center executives and a host of Chinese breakfast fanatics flock here every morning to get their dose of Chinese goodness. The thoroughfare is lined with little makeshift stalls selling everything from Chinese sausages to prawn wafers and is without a doubt, a foodie’s paradise. This is probably what they mean by soul food. Food that warms your heart.
As a child I would watch in rapt amazement as old Chinese men and women lining the streets would pull out the most delectable of treats from their steaming woks and pans. The older generation would usually sit on the sidelines reading the Chinese newspaper and sipping tea from earthen cups as they yelled instructions to younger companions or workers who had accompanied them. The air was always deliciously smoky and the experience was a treat for the senses.
Breakfast in Terreti Bazaar is definitely not a fine dining experience. The timings are odd as the breakfast literally starts at the crack of dawn and ends before the first tram trudges out of the terminal. Everything is served out of make shift stalls and eaten on the pavements and people overly concerned about hygiene should keep away. But in spite of all odds the Chinese Breakfast of Old Chinatown remains one of my favourite things to do whenever I’m back in the city and judging by the satisfied smiles on the faces of all the people downing their dumplings, I am not alone.
But the truth is that like many other Calcuttan’s, my knowledge of the city’s Chinese population was pretty much limited to Indianized Chinese food and the boisterous New Year dragon dances that terrified me. I had several Chinese schoolmates in the city, none of whom are around any longer having migrated to the West years ago. Most people still remain ignorant about the community’s troubles and the dwindling number of Chinese in Calcutta. Today, the issues that threaten this vibrant community are manifold and have led to an exodus of the Calcutta Chinese.
This Sunday we saw four Chinese people in the bazaar. Just four.
I hope the state Government will realize the importance of the Chinese community’s contribution to our economy. Chinese tanneries, restaurants, schools and businesses used to flourish at one point in the city. A walk through China Town today won’t give you that impression anymore.
Thankfully, there are still some Chinese people left in Calcutta and if you want to get a feel of how they live and the scrumptious food they dish out, make a trip down to China Town, eat at one of the city’s many authentic Chinese restaurants or shop for your Chinese condiments at Stella Chen’s Hap Hing and Co. If you do happen to visit that last shop be slightly weary of the woman behind the counter. While she calculates costs on her wooden abacus or shows you the pickled plums and bottles of green chili sauce that line her crowded counter top, she might just convince you that weed is good too and have you leaving her Diagon Alley like store with a little stash of the treats that she keeps hidden away under the counter! ;)