It’s that time of the year again, when Bengalis will pour out in hordes onto the streets of Calcutta – no, let’s not call it Kolkata. They’ll be dressed to the hilt, sarees and salwar kameezes rubbing shoulders with the more modern, ‘hep’ jeans-clad youngsters. Five days of Durga Puja, where everyone will be rushing from the Jurassic Park-themed pandal to the one which looks like Lourdes. In between which, they’ll stop at each other’s homes to stuff themselves silly on cholar dal, luchi, ilich mach bhapa, copious amounts of mishti. Even the most traditional, will pay obeisance at Peter Cat and Mocambo and Tangra, because what is Durga Puja without Chelo Kebab, Deviled Crab and Roast Chili Pork? The truly devoted, will skip their afternoon nap in lieu of more food.
As every Bengali must have told you, Durga Puja is the best festival in India. Bengali food is the most nuanced cuisine to ever hit the world. Bengali culture is the most cultured. To be fair, Durga Puja is one of those rare religious festivals in India where everyone – cutting across class and caste – can take part equally, thronging to the pandals, inviting each other home, feeding each other. There is none of that rubbish of eating food only cooked by Brahmins or a Hindu, or not going to the pandal because the maids and drivers will be there. In fact, entire households travel and eat together at pandals and homes during the Pujas. If ever a festival brought people together, it is this one – especially at the food stalls which mushroom up on every street corner, colony pandal and building fête – now that we have condominiums in Calcutta.
Most expat, or probashi, Bengalis I know don’t really miss the food we cook at home during the Pujas. We’ve all become self-sufficient and resourceful and can cook up a mean Bengali meal, replete with kumro bhaja, alu posto, doi ilish, potoler dolma – and the wiser lot, simply order in from the Bengali restaurants and home chefs in their city.
What the heart craves though, is Kolkata street food. (Although if you eat too much Kolkata street food, you’ll just give yourself a heart attack.) No restaurant serves Kolkata street food—the shallow-fried square Mughlai Porotha stuffed with egg or mincemeat and egg, which is then cut up into four equal squares and served up with yesterday’s stale chopped onions and chillies. Which you eat while trying to ignore the many-days old oil it’s been fried in, and is dripping off it. Then there are the steamed pork momos of Tiretti Bazaar in China Town —which you can only taste if you manage to head over to the Chinese market which starts at 4:30-5 am and shuts by 6.30-7 am.
There’s Ghugni, chickpeas in a yellow gravy, topped with chopped onion and chili and sometimes has mincemeat in it. Ladled out of a steel baashon – utensil, resting on the back of a cycle. The alur dum you get in the little shops which pop up, or from the carts, is very different from the one we make at home. It’s spicier and more piquant. And can be – in fact, must be – eaten without luchi. It’s our version of a cocktail snack – stick a toothpick in it and eat it. Another favourite is the “feesh chop” or fish rissoles, which we claim to have learnt from the British, but it’s a dish the British never knew of. Crumb-fried fish, chicken cutlets and fish chop are staples in most Bengali homes. Then there’s the alur chop and piyaji, which are our versions of alu bondas and pyaaz pakoda – flattened and tastier, of course.
Now the thing with eating street food in Calcutta, especially during the Pujas is that you have to be made of really stern stuff. You have to brave the crowds, traverse roads which are chock-a-block with traffic, wipe away sweat and grime, and ignore the fact that all the fried food is dripping oil. When we were younger, our hearts stronger and our waists tinier, none of these mattered. But no longer.
Which is why, my heart skipped a beat when I was invited by Monkey Bar to try their street food snacks as part of their Calcutta street food festival for Durga Puja. I was a little hesitant, because I rarely if ever find restaurants able to serve up authentic tasting Bengali or Calcutta food.
But thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised. The menu has been put together by Calcutta-based home chef, Iti Misra. The menu follows the Metro station stops and includes street-food from each of these locations. There’s the Beadon Street Fish Roll which is served with a mustard mayonnaise. The Girish Park-er Shoitan Deem was a devilled egg or Deemer Devil with a shami kebab coating instead of the usual minced meat coating. The College Street Hing-er Kochuri is quite unique to Calcutta with a puri stuffed with a thin layer of dal and served with a potato and pumpkin curry. My favourite was the beautifully flavoured Chitpur Road Chicken Rezala, a dish I’ve only seen cooked in Calcutta, and served with the triangular teen kona porotha which distinguishes the Bengali porotha from other parathas.
There were the Tiretti Bazaar Prawn Dumpling and the Esplanade Mughlai Porota, Vardaan Market Moong Daal Pakodi Chaat and Elgin Road Pork Momos – which bring back many memories of romances conducted at Orchid and Hamro Momos. The Lake Market Chicken Kabiraji is a wonder to look at with its deep-fried beaten egg nest, and this version uses chicken mince instead of chicken breast which made sure the meat was softer as a result. And there’s the Vivekanand Park Ghooghni.
What appealed to me was that none of the fried food left oil on my fingers when I picked them up. And the menu does give you quite the smorgasbord of delicacies. I did miss the Calcutta roll, which no shop or restaurant has been able to duplicate outside Calcutta – other than the small Golden Spoon outlet I chanced upon in the bylanes of Gurgaon. The option of being able to eat these dishes outside Calcutta and in very hygienic and air-conditioned surroundings, is quite appealing – even though all us stingy Calcuttans will balk at paying a couple of hundred for food items which at most cost Rs 20 in Calcutta. But then you have to factor in the flight cost, and the price of many bottles of Digene and Carmozyme, if you were to sample these in Calcutta. Then you realise its worth the price.
The Next Stop Kolkata festival is on from October 4- October 21, 2018 at Monkey Bar restaurants in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi & Bangalore. If you don’t want to brave the crowds at CR Park Delhi and can’t fly to Calcutta for some pet puja, this is definitely the next best option.