Whenever I get a chance to travel to a new place, I always make it a point to explore its local culinary delights particularly street food. I love its vibrancy and raw appeal. It is inexpensive, readily available and a perfect place to socialize with the local population. The cacophony of the vendors, the buzzing of the crowds and the aroma of different food stuffs spread all over the place has a different charm of its own that can never be found in the dimly lit quaint restaurants or take-away counters of McDonalds or KFC.
Street food in every corner of the globe reflects the culture of the particular place. Sometimes it is an amalgamation of a new cuisine infused with exotic flavour or ingredient brought over through different settlements in the course of time. The street food of Kolkata too shares similar implications. Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal, is nicknamed as the city of joy. It is indeed a place to be joyous and delightful when it comes to the diverse and sumptuous spread of street food available across the city. From the mouth- watering Puchkas (Pani Puri/Gol gappas) to the lip smacking Kathi rolls, from the crispy Kachoris to the Ghugni chaats, the variety is almost boundless.
Mughlai influence- Biryani
The city still retains its old-world charm, the dilapidated lofty mansions built during the British East India period, the sight of the hand held rickshaws and the electric trams brings upon a nostalgic effect and rekindles the bygone past. There have been several significant influences upon the street food of Kolkata, for example, the arrival of the Mughals in Bengal brought the subtle delicacies like biryani, chaap, and kababs.
Kolkatans have a weakness for biriyani and almost every corner of Kolkata streets have biriyani stalls and restaurants that sell chicken, mutton, egg biryani with a generous serving of potato.
The addition of potato in biryani is considered as an Awadhi influence of the Nawabs, who brought the tradition in West Bengal.
Nawab Wajid Shah was exiled in Kolkata by the British from his native place, Lucknow, in 1856. He had a weakness for biryani but the finances were short and hence, the royal cooks came up with the idea of adding potatoes in order to reduce the extra addition of meat in biryani. However, few historians claim that since potato was an exotic vegetable during that period, it developed into a desirable ingredient in biryani. Restaurants like Shiraz’s, Nizam’s, Aminia and Arsalan serve some of the best biriyani in Kolkata.
Apart form the influence of the Mughal cuisine, a substantial European influence can be traced upon the iconic food items of Kolkata. Snacks like cutlets, chops, kathi rolls of British origin have found their way into the food plates of the Kolkata streets. Ask any office goer or student about their favourite evening quick bite and the reply will be invariably: Rolls. Kathi rolls originated during the early twentieth century in Kolkata and is considered to have been initiated by Nizam Restaurant.
There are several stories that suggest how kathi rolls were developed. It is said that since it was fast to prepare and easy to carry and consume, it became a hot favourite for the daily office goers while another story suggests that the Britishers were reluctant to try the kebab items with their hands, were given the rolled up version of kebabs roasted in skewers, rolled in a parantha bread and wrapped with paper. The idea immediately garnered mass popularity.
Different variety of rolls have come up since then, rolls stuffed with mutton/chicken keema or kabab, fried eggs or with fresh cheese (paneer). Predominantly non vegetarian, the juicy and tender meat infused with lemon juice, mustard sauce and chopped onions is irresistibly delicious. Rolls are loved by people of all ages and is one of the most sought after street food in Kolkata. Food counters like Bawarchi and Nizam’s serve best rolls in the city.
The introduction of cutlets by the colonial British led to a dramatic alteration and creation of different new food items with a local twist such as fish cutlet, prawn cutlet or chops similar to the cutlets. Cutlets are prepared from shredded mutton or chicken deep-fried in batter while chops are usually filled with crushed meat that are turned into round balls and wrapped with a coating of smashed potato and deep fried in oil. Mutton chops, chicken kabiraji cutlet and fish orly were also introduced during this period.
Allen’s Kitchen, a one hundred and thirty two years old restaurant in Kolkata still serves different types of cutlets and still retains its genuine recipes.
The most preffered past time of Kolkatans is the evening adda session i.e. sitting at tea stalls and socializing. However, sipping tea is not enough until it is complemented with a plate of telebhaja (deep-fried snack) made from vegetable stuffings like potato, eggplants, onion, eggs etc. and muri (puffed rice). Besan (cornflour) is battered upon the vegetables and deep fried till golden yellow colour emerges. Sinfully crispy, oily and appetizing, your trip to Kolkata is incomplete unless you savour a beguni (eggplant friiter) or daaler bora (pulse fritter). You will find dimly lit stalls, shacks and shops selling telebhaja in almost every corner of the city. Kalika Mukhorochak in Surya Sen Street and Lakshmi Narayan Shaw & Sons are some of the hot favourites. The variety is never ending and the price is dirt cheap!
Speaking of telebhaja reminds me of another personal favourite street snack of mine: jhalmuri, (hot/spicy puffed rice) a traditional snack of the region. Muri (puffed rice) is assorted with finely diced tomato, coconut, boiled potato, chilli, onion, coriander leaves, peanuts, spices, chanachur (chivda) and tossed with mustard oil. Someone who has never tried this snack before might be a little apprehensive as how come puffed rice which itself has no smell can literally turn into a spicy, saucy and tangy snack by just adding a few ingredients. But ask any person in Kolkata about this snack and they will give you a good explanation. The snack has a sentimental value upon Kolkatans, such is its nostalgic appeal that Jhumpa Lahiri in her novel ‘The Namesake’ uses jhalmuri to denote nostalgia in the character of Ashima that reads:
“..combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix.” (Chapter 1, The Namesake)
It is one of the lightest and healthy snack I have ever tasted and an ideal combo for the evening adda sessions with a cup of hot tea. Usually sold by wandering vendors who serve it in thongas (paper cones), however the tastiest jhalmuri according to my opinon is served in local trains of Kolkata and it’s suburbs. Grab a thonga of jhalmuri, place yourself in the window seat, munch and relish it while the train chugs along.
Ask any Kolkatan about his/her favourite street food and the answer would invariably be Momos or Chilli Chicken and Chowmein. There is a strong influence of Chinese and Tibetan cuisine upon street food of Kolkata. The Chinese people arrived in Kolkata during the end of the eighteenth century and later settled into the eastern part of the city, Tangra. Their culinary items were easily available to the public in areas like Esplanade and Dalhousie. They also set up restaurants that served authentic Chinese cuisine at different parts of the city.
In this way the popularity of Chinese street food grew strongly and Kolkatans soon developed an appetite for Chinese food. Although each and every street or alley now-a-days possesses countless take away counters of Chinese delicacies but the authenticity is lost and there is no resemblance with the genuine Chinese recipe. Local ingredients were concocted and cooked as per the locals demanded, according to their tastes.Thus, evolved the local version of Chinese food such as chilli chicken, Manchurian chicken, chicken, egg and vegetarian chowmein.
The noodles are usually stir fried and mixed with shredded chicken, scrambled eggs, chopped cucumber, onion and vegetables along with soya sauce and ketchup. Unlike authentic Chinese noodles, the local versions are spicy and hot. Sweet corn chicken soup is also hugely popular and loved by the food connoisseurs of Kolkata.
Here, Tiretta Bazar deserves a special mention as Kolkata is the only Indian city where you get such varied and authentic Chinese street food items for breakfast. The market sits at early six in the morning and breaks off by eight o’clock. It is located near Poddar Court close to the Lal Bazar Police Headquarters. The vendors are mostly Chinese and they sell food items such as Momos, Prawn wafers, chicken rolls, dough sticks, soup, sausages, prawn chips, tai pao etc. There are also a few Chinese eateries around the place that serve authentic Chinese cuisine.
The Classics- Puchka & others
Another favourite street snack of Kolkata is the Puchka (pani puri). Served on leaf bowls, the light pastry shell filled with squashed potato mixed with fried spices and dipped in tamarind water infuses a spicy blast in your mouth. The taste is sizzlingly crunchy and saucy and once the flavour hits, you keep asking for more. Every corner of the city has vendors selling puchkas and have their own distinctive way of serving puchkas.
Ghugni chat (Yellow/White Peas Curry) is also a much loved street snack. White or yellow dried peas are boiled and mixed with diced cilantro, tomatoes, chili, and coconut. It is filled with spices and garnished with tamarind water and served in a leaf bowl. The spicy, sour and hot taste of ghugni lingers in your mouth and teases the taste buds. The puchka sellers at Lake Kalibari, Esplanade and B.K. Paul Avenue are famed for serving tastiest puchkas.
Mornings in Kolkata are synonymous with Kachuri and and evenings with Singara, the mostly desired traditional snacks of Kolkata. Kachuri is a traditional snack made from flattened wheat flour battered and given a round shape, stuffed with pulses and deep fried until it turns fluffy. It is frequently served with Alur Dam (Potato curry) or Cholar Dal (a sweet pulse dish).
Singara (samosa) is a triangle shaped wheat envelope stuffed with dry potato curry and occasionally the stuffings may include caulifilower, peas, or even shredded and cooked chicken or lamb and deep fried. Singara is often served to guests in the evening with tea or consumed as a quick evening snack.
How can I end my article on Kolkata street food without the slightest mention of sweets? Some of the best sweets in the country are produced in the city. The people drool over sweets and are well known for their sweet tooth. The variety and availability of sweets is so diverse that you can go on tasting each one of them for months. Bengalis are attached to sweets like Rosogolla (spongy and syrupy sweet meat balls). It is served on almost every occasion.
Rosogollas in KC Das, Balaram Radharam Mallick and Ganguram’s are worth trying. Sandesh (sweetened and grounded fresh cottage cheese and garnished with nuts and almonds) is also a popular sweet and there are hundreds of varieties of Sandesh available in the market. It is said that the greatest weakness of Kolkatans are food and sweets.
They are big foodies and love to serve their guests graciously and hence a sumptuous meal is never complete unless you have Misti Doi (Sweetened yoghurt) served in an earthen pot. Its thick texture and the earthy aroma of the pot will sway your craving for sweet to another level. Sweet shops like Naba Krishna Guin in Bowbazar, Mithai in Park Circus and jadab Chandra Das in College Street sell some of the finest misti doi in Kolkata.
No wonder Bengal, is termed as the sweetest part of India!
Street food has become an indispensable part of everyday life across the world. As more and more people are moving to cities in search of work, the multiplicity of street food will further evolve to new dimensions in future. Kolkata is considered as one of the friendliest city in the country for the lovers of street food. Amidst the relentless honking of cars and maniacal yells of the roadside hawkers, if you are a genuine street food lover, a trip to Camac Street and Dacres Lane is a must while you are staying at the City of Joy, as George Bernard Shaw famously puts it, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food. “