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Kolkata

Next stop for me was the “City of Joy” Kolkata! Now I still wonder if the joy in the “City of Joy” is actually the joy (as being happy) or because of every fourth boy being named Joy. In fact I am very interested in knowing if the name Joy is a corruption of the name Jai or just Joy as it is.

Anyway, moving on, I was looking forward to this visit since my only other visit to the city had been when I was 3 years old. The chief attraction was food definitely, but there were also other items on the agenda that I would disclose subsequently.

So, what was supposed to have been a one week visit to Kolkata metamorphosed into a 6-week “yeah you’ll be able to leave this weekend” stay where I was able to have a lot of typical Kolkata experiences (food and otherwise).

The people of Kolkata have a very endearing philosophy – to never take life too seriously. Happy in their own environment and as long as they get tea, sutta and dim toast, they actually really couldn’t care less. And this was a culture shock to me coming from Mumbai where everything works around the clockwork that is the Suburban local train timetable. The first day I landed up in office at 9 sharp for the planned training but it was completely pointless because the trainer himself came in at 10.30 a.m. and immediately proceeded to have his breakfast. And it was obvious that when food is in question, I would be present. So I dutifully followed the trainer to the nearest tea shop that was in fact much more than a tea shop. The shop sold samosas (singaara in this part of the country), kachori (basically potato curry with pooris), the ubiquitous maggi, and the flag bearer of quintessential Kolkata breakfasts, the humble dim toast. Now since I have exposed you, the reader, to that term twice it is but natural that I explain what it means. Dim in Bengali means egg and the dish is essentially egg omelette (Indian style) and bread. The egg is whisked with chopped onions, chopped chillis, salt, red chilli powder and cooked in a skillet over a high flame. The bread that goes with this dish is like a tiny loaf of bread about 3 inches long and 2 inches square in cross-section. When the egg is half cooked, the bread is slit lengthwise and then cut into three slices and placed on the egg before flipping the whole thing over. The result, the bread soaks up some of the wet egg and sticks to it and makes the entire dish just that much tastier than you can imagine.

The other food scene I was introduced to by my colleagues was the evening food counters. These stalls pop up all over the city around 4pm to coincide with the end of an office day. Apart from the regular chaat, samosa, dim toast and Chinese stalls, in this city you will also find some unique ones. One of them is the very popular and likeable roll stall. Rolls have today become synonymous with the Kolkata street food scene and are available at almost every nook and corner that you may be traversing to reach home. The fillings can be either veg, paneer, egg, chicken, mutton, fish or combinations of two or more of these. The base of the fillings is chopped onion. The onions and the filling are stir fried and kept ready before the actual preparation. The wrap (of the roll) is a layered paratha made of maida. Again the paratha is partly cooked and kept ready in advance to reduce time for final preparation and still be able to serve hot food. When an order is placed, the cook deftly tosses on the required number of pre-part-cooked parathas into a pool of hot oil on a hot plate. If the filling in question comprised egg, a raw egg is directly broken over the cooking paratha and whisked with the spatula in hand. Once cooked, the precooked filling is arranged in the centre of the wrap with a healthy helping of chopped raw onions, a variety of sauces and a sprinkle of lemon juice. The entire setup is then rolled up and handed over to you. The total time from placing the order to burning your tongue on one of these beauties is about 2 minutes. And for the stuff, the prices are pretty cheap. Not to mention that this is the case almost everywhere in Kolkata.

Another stall that I was able to spy in Kolkata was selling something that looked like popcorn on first look. On closer inspection (read eating it), they were actually really tiny dumplings made of ground urad daal, chillies and salt and deep fried. One would wonder what kind of flavour there would be in this food but it actually is quite tasty not in the least because it is deep fried.

Momo stalls are also quite popular here and the steamed dumplings are usually served with a soup that is warm and rich and quite flavourful.

Street food pretty much out of the way, I had to also take care of more mainstream Bengali offerrings in the gastronomic department. My housemate, who is a Bengali hailing from Kolkata, had told me the places to go to in my search for food and as per his advice I religiously stepped into Bhojohori Manna. Now the foods that I describe to you next were tasted at different visits (obviously not in one visit!).

Starters are usually fish based ranging from a variety of fish preparations including fried, steamed and smoked. Shorshe bhetki paturi is a delicacy prepared using the bhetki fish which is a largeish fish suitable for filleting. The fish meat is coated with mustard (shorshe) paste and then wrapped in a banana leaf (paturi) before being steamed. The result is a truly awe-inspiring medley of texture and flavour. The meat has a soft flaky texture while the pungent mustard offsets the relatively bland taste of the meat (compared to more flavourful fish meats like tuna, rohu or salmon). Illish bhaja (or sometimes also called shorsher illish bhaja if prepared with mustard seasoning) is a perennial Bengali favourite. Illish, or hilsa as it is more commonly known in the rest of the country, is a salt water fish that lives in the downstream portions of the rivers flowing in the region. I am told that connoisseurs can actually differentiate between the region where the fish was caught just by tasting it. The illish is a particularly oily fish with small bones. In the fried (bhaja) version, the fish is fried in mustard oil. The preparation also releases some of the fish’s own oil and the mixture of the two oils is often served with the fish as a kind of dipping sauce.

In the main course, there are a variety of dishes prepared using fish (obviously), chicken, prawns, crab and vegetables and eggs. Chingri malaikari is a gravy based prawn preparation. The prawns come in various sizes with the normal ones being about 4 inches long and the jumbo variety being almost a foot long. The prawns are deveined but usually served with the shell and head intact and the patrons shell the prawns before eating them. Jhals and jhols abound aplenty and are typically served with hot steaming rice. Crab curries are also quite popular and considered a delicacy. A chicken preparation Chicken Daakbangla is quite popular and consists of pieces of chicken cooked in a red spicy gravy and served with a boiled egg on top. Amongst red meats, I had heard of the dish Mangsho bhaat which is essentially mutton gravy and steamed rice. While the dish does sound simplistic, it is infact quite good in the way the mutton is prepared in a gravy that goes very well with the steamed rice.

While in Kolkata, I also had the opportunity to visit Arsalan, a restaurant near Park Circle, famous for its biryanis. The biryanis are in fact quite well made and the servings are quite generous. The dish worth a special mention is definitely their mutton chop. Mutton chop is basically pieces of mutton coated in an egg batter, breaded and deep fried. This specific item flies off the counter so quickly that one truly has to be lucky to be able to eat it and I had to go to Arsalan every weekend before I was able to get my hands on this delicacy once. The phirni served in Arsalan is also worthy of mention though it may not appeal to some since it is lightly sweetened. Just a word of caution, the restaurant is almost always full of patrons so you might want to budget some time for waiting to be shown to a table. And don’t be surprised if your table is shared by some other patron (or you share someone else’s table). For the less patient amongst us, Arsalan also provides take away services.

And now to move on to my next agenda for the Kolkata visit. As I have mentioned earlier, I had been to Kolkata earlier albeit as a toddler. One specific incident is recounted often by my family. This was during our visit to the Indian Museum. In the Natural History section, I was scared by the stuffed animals on display and promptly a fever came on post which I climbed into my mother’s arms and refused to let go. My mother had to carry me around on their entire trip to the museum. So it was with a desire to conquer an old memory that I returned to Indian Museum. Now, the Indian Museum is one of the oldest museums in the country and has a really huge collection to show for it. However, the truly remarkable one is their collection of Natural History exhibits. Most exhibits exist in multiple samples that are neatly labelled and stacked in shelves and cabinets behind the main exhibit. These shelves rise to almost a height of 10-12 feet from the floor and are chock full of exhibits. And what to say of the main exhibits. The museum truly houses a fantastic and truly unique collection of exhibits that you may not get to see anywhere in the country. Right from blue whale skeletons to extinct mastodon fossils, its all there. Other sections of the museum abound with sculptures and paintings from various periods of human history. I was lucky to have paid a visit to the museum when it was playing host to an Egyptian mummy that has been brought to the museum under an exchange program with the Egyptian government. The mummy is laid out in a special room with the sarcophagus lid removed and placed on the side. This allows one to actually see the intricate work on the outside and insides of the sarcophagus as well as the care taken by the ancient Egyptians in preserving the mortal remains of their dead. The museum is well spaced out and even has a garden with benches in the central courtyard. Prepare to spend at least 2-3 hours over here if you ever plan on visiting.

The Victoria Memorial was another one on my list of places to visit. Dating back to the British rule over India, the monument is one of the finest examples of British architecture in the country. The main building is surrounded by flower beds through which a small canal flows. The main building was intended as an assembly place but today it has been converted into a tiny museum exhibiting paintings and weapons from the British Raj. The true beauty of the building lies in the architecture on the interiors. The high domed ceilings are covered with intricate work that is truly breathtaking. Roaming the halls of this monument, one truly gets a feeling of what the assembly halls would have been like during the days when it was actually in use.

I decided to pay a visit to Alipore zoo chiefly because it is the oldest organised zoo in India. The zoo has a fine collection of animals in terms of variety but the overall health of animals and upkeep of the zoo is quite disappointing. The local public treats the zoo like a picnic spot and in the absence of designated picnic areas, deem it fit to settle down wherever they find space. This is troublesome on many different levels. It reduces space to walk around freely in the park and given the number of visitors this can be a major problem. Apart from this, sitting in such close proximity of the animal cages increases the likelihood that the food items would be contaminated leading to infections plus people somehow cannot understand the simple instructions “Please do not feed the animals”. Animals are treated to a variety of foods that I am sure are doing no favour to the health of the animal in question. A by product of the haphazard picnicing is that the park is absolutely filthy. Visitors are least concerned about dropping their litter into the dust bins and the result is copious amounts of paper plates, napkins, plastic cutlery, glasses and plastic bags strewn all over the place. Not only does it make the place dirty, most of these articles pose significant choking threats to the animals housed in the zoo. The Alipore zoo has a lot of potential but people need to realise it and make sure that their actions are not affecting the zoo and its residents in an adverse way.

Next stop was Birla Industrial Museum. A visit to this museum also allowed me to travel in the famous Kolkata trams. Just sitting in the tram pushes one back in time. The wooden seats that match the interiors of the tram have a very nice dated feeling to them and as the trams lumber along slowly on their tracks sunken into the roads, one wonders how life really would have been maybe 30 or 40 years ago. A very curious incident was when one of the electricity lines got disrupted causing the tram to stop. The driver and the conductor promptly alighted, coolly pulled out a smoke and sat contendedly at the head of the tram car to wait for the elctricity supply to resume. No hurry, no urgency, no worries. That kind of summarises the life of a typical Kolkata resident. Anyway, coming back to the museum, the idea of the museum is to illustrate the application of theoretical science in industrial application. One of the unique exhibits is the Coal Mine which is actually a subterranean vault modelled to resemble a coal mine on the inside. The exhibit is complete with internal structures, safety equipment, working machines and even a climate controlled chamber to give the actual feel of being deep inside a coal mine. The guides do have a tendency to slip into the comfort of the local language but readily switch back from Bengali to English/Hindi if requested to do so. The rest of the museum houses a mix of exhibits that explain various industrial applications ranging from IC engines to rockets and televisions to electricity and magnetism. This place would surely be a great way to spend time with kids on a weekend providing them with fun (interactive models galore) and education at the same time.

On my last weekend of the Kolkata trip, a few of my colleagues planned to visit Sunderbans and I happily tagged along. Sunderbans, by the way, is the largest single block of tidal mangrove forests in the world. Declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1997, the forest is depleting very quickly due to human activity even as the government and various bodies fight to save the forests that are spread over 10,000 sq.km. across India and Bangladesh. The Sunderbans are declared a National Park and part of Project Tiger by the Indian government and is home to the Royal Bengal tiger as well as a variety of reptiles including saltwater crocodiles and monitor lizards. We started out journey from Kolkata early in the morning by bus and reached the ferry point in about 3 hours. Hereon we would be travelling via ferry on the delta formed by the confluence of three major rivers. The boat ride to the resort was about 45 minutes and we hardly expected any action when our boat guide suddenly pointed into the distance and said the word “Mugger”. In spite of repeated instructions to all travellers to not move too quickly on the boat, everybody was leaning over the left side of the boat in a flash looking for the crocodile little knowing that they were pretty close to providing him with an early lunch! I did manage to pull off a shot of the crocodile but it wasn’t a good one. Its just about possible to make out the crocodile’s back scales in the leftmost third of the shot.

Saltwater Crocodile, Sunderbans

Saltwater Crocodile, Sunderbans

Without further incident we reached the resort and after lunch, set off to a viewing platform that was built outside the sanctuary. We were able to spot a few animals including the river monitor lizard, an animal I had always wished to see.

River Monitor, Sunderbans

River Monitor, Sunderbans

After a cruise of about 2 hours we returned to the resort before nightfall to attend a cultural dance program before retiring for the day since the next morning would be an early one. The ferry was to leave at 6 a.m. to try and spot a tiger. However, as expected, the other tourists took their own time and we were able to leave only by 7 a.m. from the resort. I had seen a tiger in the wild earlier in Kanha National Park and if I had learnt anything during that visit it was that one must respect the jungle at all times to have even a chance of seeing the elusive predator. However, people were treating the ferry like any other joy ride. Most tourists were wearing garish colours (a strict no-no for any wildlife spotting exercise; only dull greens and browns are permitted so as not to put off the shy animals). Coupled with singing, loud chatting and laughing and clapping to go with it, I was pretty certain we would not see a single animal let alone the tiger. My colleagues kept their hopes up while I busied myself trying to get shots of another Sunderbans special, the kingfisher.

Kingfisher, Sunderbans

Kingfisher, Sunderbans

We were in the ferry for close to 4 hours but partly due to the tourists on board and partly due to the noise created by the diesel engines of the ferry, we were not able to spot a tiger. The closest sign we saw of a tiger was a fresh pug mark that showed where a tiger had leapt of the bank into the water to cross to the other side. Tigers in the Sunderbans swim regularly to move from one place to the other and many locals often report seeing tigers in the water swimming across. The sanctuary also contains a major population of man eating tigers. While most locals attribute this to the surrounding tidal saline water and hence higher salt content in the tigers, most biologists disagree on this factor attributing it instead to sparcity of prey as well as human beings regularly entering the core areas of the national park. For the record, more people are killed in Sunderbans by snakes and crocodiles than they are by tigers.

In conclusion, my Kolkata trip provided me an invaluable opportunity to meet people from a culture that truly lives life to the fullest. In my opinion, our Bengali cousins have their priorities very well sorted out. Personal and family life takes precedence over everything else and a job is just that – a job. However, this attitude also often makes them lazy and in general apathetic to their surroundings. By surroundings, I specifically point towards public property that is in a state of neglect since neither the administration nor the people themselves are concerned in the upkeep and maintenance. The city and the state have a lot of potential for development but unfortunately petty politics at the low levels and lack of enthusiasm for the same means the Kolkata has fallen from its glory days under the East India Company and is today the laggard amongst the metros.

I would request any and all of my Bengali readers to please put up comments/corrections on this post since I am sure I must have missed or misrepresented something. I would be more than happy to incorporate your comments and suggestions, with due credit of course.

P.S. All the photos featured in the post were taken by me. You may view more photos at my flickr stream

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Categories: Travel & Food
  1. 17 November 2011 at 12:25 IST

    Gosh your post makes me hungry already! I totally miss the chai in bhaad and so much more! I am soon planning a trip to Sunderbans!

    • 17 November 2011 at 14:37 IST

      LOL. Thanks for the comment Nikki. I hope you have fun at Sunderbans but I would advise you not to get your hopes too high for a spotting. Its rarer than one would imagine and you have to be truly lucky to see one. Best to hope for the best and enjoy the birds around the place. If you’re lucky you might even see a croc ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. 18 November 2011 at 16:38 IST

    Have you thought about becoming a food blogger? Your dim toast recipe is better than some of the best food blogs I visit. just as I was thinking that all you were going to describe was food and more food, I finally came to the sights. Loved your description of the museum and other sights with your comments of course. How come you have not written about any sweets? Being in Kolkata and not eating sweets?

    • 18 November 2011 at 17:00 IST

      Thanks ZM you are very kind… but I think that is hardly any recipe. Its more just what I observed them doing.
      As for the sweets, embarassingly I never got around to tasting any of the sweets there… except for the phirni at Arsalan. But in my defence, sweets are vegetarian (or at least most are) ๐Ÿ˜‰
      As for my comments, I was very angry with my fellow tourists at that time… not because they were the reason I didn’t see a tiger but because of their nonchalant attitude towards nature and the wild. They seriously need to start respecting nature because if nature returns the favour it would be really nasty. I am sure these are the kind of people who get attacked by wild animals in safaris in the wild.

  3. Pratibha Singh
    18 November 2011 at 17:20 IST

    What a detailed post!
    I really admire your memory. Next time when you come home, let’s have a demo of ‘dim toast’.
    Even I am surprised, as to why you missed out on sweets. During my annual trip to Kolkata, I eat more variety of sweets than any other food. And let me tell you that there is more to Bengali sweets than Sandesh and Rossogullas.

    • 18 November 2011 at 17:23 IST

      Haha I know there’s more than Sandesh and Rossogollas to Bengali sweets but somehow never got the chance. Moreover, what was I supposed to do? Walk into a sweetshop and ask for one piece? And I didn’t have a fridge to store any quantity of sweets.
      And this trip was in January this year, hardly any time to not remember these things…

      • Pratibha Singh
        18 November 2011 at 17:33 IST

        Oh Yes! You can actually tell him to give you one piece of the sweet you fancy or one each from different varieties.
        What do you think I do! Have half a dozen in one go!
        And actually, you can, as the sweets there are bite size.

  4. PRS
    19 November 2011 at 10:13 IST

    Interesting and detailed post. Revived some old memories specially the sights … Victoria Memorial, the Museums, etc.

    We hope the next post will be on your Bangalore experience.

    • 21 November 2011 at 12:03 IST

      Yes the next post in this series would definitely be on Bangalore though, unfortunately, I did not eat too many local delicacies. But lets see what I can make of it. Expect a shorter post next time ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. 21 November 2011 at 19:53 IST

    HEy lovely post siddharth.Keep up the good work.Although some people stated,This post really makes a thin lady like me too hungry…
    The way you described everything is just simply ecstatic and amazing.Although i am not a bengali,i feel you have covered everything.
    Did i miss or did you miss mentioning about the rosogulla…
    All the best

    • 21 November 2011 at 20:34 IST

      Read the other comments Nisha and my replies to them. I did not eat rossogollas there so didn’t write about it. I only write about food I have eaten on the trip.
      Thanks for the feedback though. My ultimate aim is to help the readers see and feel what I did albeit through my eyes and words ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. 29 June 2012 at 19:15 IST

    I had written a piece on the city of joy too.I couldn’t stop raving about the yummy sweets and types of rosogullas, the kind you don’t get elsewhere!. I had visited the Natural history museum too, but I don’t share your appreciative views. Maybe I expected too much, but the whole museum reminded me of my chemical engineering lab in my govt. college complete with the furniture, slow dilapidation and langour. Much of the stuff was kept so carelessly that I almost thought it was fake. I hardly believed the mummy was real even though there was a huge crowd around it!

    • 29 June 2012 at 19:30 IST

      Thanks for the comment, Richa. Museums, I feel, are a very niche interest. Dad took us to a whole bunch of them everywhere we went and so probably I began liking them. But now I truly enjoy going to museum. There’s something about human history (and natural history) that is very intriguing. Of course, as I just said, its a very niche thing. Please note, however, that the Museum is supposed to house the single largest collection of exhibits in the country. Its practically our version of the Smithsonian.
      Hope you had a peek at the other posts too. Would love to hear your thoughts on them

  7. 3 August 2012 at 00:00 IST

    Beautiful post Sid. Conjured up so many memories of Kolkata. Victoria Museum, Park Street and street food. Oh, I miss Kolkata already !

    You should write more often Sid, more about travel and food ๐Ÿ™‚

    • 3 August 2012 at 00:27 IST

      Thanks for the comment Hima. I take inspiration from your attempt to keep your blog alive and myself attempt to keep putting up something but then you know how our jobs are, hardly get any time to write. But I shall surely try harder ๐Ÿ™‚
      And I do hope you try some of the other posts here. You could skip the ones marked for soccer if you want though ๐Ÿ˜‰

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