Soul Food, Calcutta Style!

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.

momoEnter 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 dawnpow 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! 😉

 

Advertisements

Help Yourself to Happiness

If you’ve been reading my blogs, you’ll know that lately, the thought of going home in a few weeks has consumed my every waking moment. I’m looking forward to so many things: to reunions, to catching up with friends, to lazing around the house all evening and waking up late each day, I’m looking forward to the monsoons and oh yes the food!

No blog post about Calcutta can ever be complete without stories of food. Not mine, at least. Over the last few years and from my travels abroad I’ve realized that whenever Calcuttans gather together, the conversation inevitably shifts towards food. In Calcutta, we are bound by a common love for exquisite tastes and delicate aromas. We love the process of cooking as much as we enjoy the eating. To us food is a phenomenon that unites and allows us to make personal connections. Lock us in a room and we’ll reminisce about Biriyani from Park Circus – with alu of course! Puchkas from Gol Park or Ballygunge, rolls from Park Street and a host of other culinary fare that we are so obsessed about. To us, food is so much more than a daily necessity.

For those of you who have not visited Calcutta let me say this: Calcutta food is the ultimate gastronomic adventure. People have been following Calcutta’s food trail through the serpentine alleys of this dilapidated city for centuries. The old eateries are juxtaposed with the new and line the roads and streets wherever you go. There are some forgotten or little –known restaurants dishing out delicacies that were made famous during the times of the British Raj, little known roadside shops that sell great street food that’s easy on the stomach as well as your pocket and people come from far-flung corners of the globe for almost ritualistic visits to the ‘must-eat-at’ places and the ‘just-can’t-miss-it’ delicacies that are only available here. Calcutta’s cuisine is as diverse as the number of people who call this marvelous city home.

But for me, some of the best delicacies that I’m looking forward to eating can only be found in my mother’s kitchen. The tastes, aromas and the textures of those dishes have been frozen in my mind and have become synonymous with home. Nothing brings me more delight than sharing a home-cooked meal with my family and friends and that’s what I’m most looking forward to. I want to be surrounded by the people I love, eating the food I love and just enjoying the feeling of being loved. In my home you’re free to help yourself to as much happiness as you want. There always enough to go around and enough for you to carry home as well. Basking in the joy of being home and relishing in the company of the people who make my life worthwhile is what makes my mom’s cooking the best cuisine that Calcutta city can offer!

My Nightly Dinner Dilemma

‘Arrghhh wth do I eat tonight?’

I find myself tearing my hair out each night simply because I can’t decide on what to eat. Choosing what to eat has become such a laborious task for me and it’s gradually getting out of control. As I child, I was fascinated by the cartoon show ‘The Jetsons’. They were a futuristic family living in a technological utopia fully replete with gadgets, gizmo’s and a wide range of whimsical inventions. But my favourite of all their fancy stuff was the ‘food pill’. I wonder why nobody has invented it yet. It would have certainly made life easier for me. I loathe having to ‘figure out’ my meals.

I realize that there are many people who enjoy this opportunity to be creative and tantalize their palates but I just want to get it done. Growing up, it was never an issue because my mum decided what would be on the menu each night. Hats off to her! Having to decide just for myself is so difficult; imagine having to juggle the gastronomic differences of an entire family?

Ahhh! Those were the days. (Long reflective pause) All I had to do was show up at the dinner table and there would be an array of culinary choices for me.

Now, every night it’s the same old drama. I  get home from work, prance around the house to Adele’s music for a while, randomly browse facebook, twitter and a host of other social networking sites, read a while, write for a bit and then suddenly I realize ‘Oh crap! I have to eat now’. This happens every night, again and again!!!! I start twitching and lunge for my ‘menu file’… I filp, I frown, I flip some more, I ponder, I gasp at the prices, flip some more and then finally order the exact same thing I have eaten for the last two or three days – a damn burger !!!!!! (Please see exhibit A) And yes, this happens every night.

Exhibit A

Well anyway I’ve vented enough for one day. Now I’m hungry again, sans a dinner plan but I’m just thankful that I never have to decide on breakfast or lunch. That my friends is a humongous blessing. So, while I’m still learning to deal with the nightly dinner debacle let me wish you all ‘bon appétit’. I just hope my mum doesn’t call now, because I swear, if I hear what they’re having for dinner back home ill probably curl up into a ball and cry!

La Delusiones Italiana

Dubai has a wide range of fine dining restaurants to choose from and my friends and I make it a point to try out a new place every weekend. Occasionally we re-visit places that deserve a second visit but generally and by unanimous agreement we try new places. The restaurants here are such a treat and the food is simply superb. Eating out in Dubai is like a gastronomic adventure!

However.

Lately, I have noticed that the few restaurants I have visited seem to be pulling wool over our eyes. No matter what cuisine they claim to serve, the chef and kitchen staff are from the Philippines or India. This afternoon I sampled some very exotic sounding fare at La Moda – an ‘Italian’ restaurant in Deira. The menu has Italian dishes but the flavour was anything but Italian.

I had two of my personal Italian favourites. A Pizza Margherita (picture above) and some fancy sounding dish which was basically Spaghetti in one of the tastiest sauces I’ve ever eaten, It was full of chilly, tomatoes and even had curry leaves!

Incredibly, they’d managed to make both dishes taste like a meal I would have eaten in Calcutta or Bombay…don’t ask me how to explain that….that’s just how it was.  The subtle tastes that Italian food is famous for such as the hint of wine, the sweetness of cherry tomatoes, the basil, the stringy cheese…I couldn’t taste any of those today!

What a shame, it would be a great place to take visitors but I really wouldn’t offer them food like that which promises to be authentic but really isn’t!

At the end of it all there was a surprise waiting for the six of us! When the bill arrived there was a 15% service fee! 15% ???? and a long questionnaire that the waiter insisted we fill out! ‘Was your experience a satisfactory one?’  Jeez! And oh, this one was better… ‘Will you recommend La Moda to your friends and family?’ Yeah right…. Next week we’re just going to have to order Chinese take away and watch old Friends re-runs.