So excited about our upcoming Kolkata Market by Karen Anand at a new and much larger splendid venue – Hyatt Regency Kolkata. With Durga Puja just over, I reminisce about what I consider one of the greatest Indian regional cuisines – Bengali. Executed with much care to detail, served course wise and compared with French sophistication. My search for the perfect Bengali meal on my last visit took a new twist. I hired a guide (how odd to be a tourist in one’s own country but there you have it) from a company called Calcutta walks (www.calcuttawalks.com) and off we go to explore the by-lanes and bystanders of north Kolkata. We start off in Manektala fish market, opposite the Bengali babus, Latu and Chatu’s house, awakened by the freshness of the day’s catch – rui maach, shiny silvery hilsa, bhekti, live crab, soft shell crab and mounds of other smaller fish in an environment that smells of the sea and lakes and not stale fish. Other fish markets like Gariahat give you a similar experience but Manektala in the heart of the traditional north, is where we begin our journey. Placed on mounds of crushed ice like bejeweled deities or laid out neatly on bright green banana leaves, fish is worshipped. I re-discover the gondhoraj lebu, the most fragrant lemon India has to offer which adds a new dimension to any fish dish. This fantastic green lemon (as opposed to lime or nimboo) fills the air with a heady lemony fragrance and can be compared to the Thai magrut from which we also get the aromatic kaffir lime leaf. I see small, ugly bottles of kashundi, a tart delicious mustard paste once only available in these re- used rum bottles and bags of the famous Bengali five spice, panch phoran, which adds life to many vegetarian dishes. Bengalis love their veggies almost as much as fish and we see mounds of maroon coloured banana flowers, baby brinjals, bitter gourd, wax gourd, baby cauliflower and various green leaves. The rains are just coming to an end and so we see carts of fresh water chestnuts too.
We stop at Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Dey mithai shop near Beadon St. Their reputation is huge. Marwari families send their drivers all the way to these rather shabby shops, from fashionable addresses in south of the city, just for a box or two of their fresh sondesh. The squalor and simplicity is overwhelming. Once I get past the pot bellied babu at the entrance, I discover why all the fuss. Sondesh is considered the healthier of Indian sweets since they are made with chhena, a curd cheese like paneer as opposed to mawa, khoya or ghee. We sample many. Nolen gud (date palm syrup which rivals maple syrup), another Bengali wonder ingredient used to make certain sondesh in winter months has just surfaced. It is pure nectar. Next stop, the rossogola at Nobin Chandra Das (77, Jatindra Mohan Avenue, Bag Bazar). True to its reputation, it melts in the mouth and the syrup is light and not that sweet. We also try madhuparka, a dense flavoured yoghurt. If you’re not upto venturing to north Kolkata which can be a trek, a very convenient address for all traditional Bengali sweets is Mithai near Park Circus (48-B, Syed Amir Ali Avenue, Beck Bagan). They also happily pack everything for you to take on a flight, including a very authentic mishti doi (yoghurt made in a terracotta pot and sweetened with date molasses or jaggery).
At dinner that evening, I meet the very affable and charming Gaurav Jalan, who has many businesses including tea estates. He introduces me to some new teas…the light and fragrant Jungpana and Lingia estates from Darjeeling and Doomni from Assam. In January, Doomni is going to start selling a very special White Tea – highly prized because less than 60 kgs is produced in Assam a year. It is very high on anti-oxidants, and the epitome of Assam. I have fallen in love with a market regular – Rujani tea. Tea is a very acceptable topic of discussion in Kolkata’s smart social circles so I am clearly on the right track.
The next day, we drive through “colonial Kolkata”, a whole stratosphere away from the by-lanes and cycle rickshaw pullers of the north. I am reminded that the city was the capital of the British Indian Empire until 1911. The regal Governor’s mansion, St Paul’s, St John’s, Victoria Memorial, Dalhousie, the vast expanse of gardens and parks to Chowringee, is all testament to that. Our first stop down the magnificent Chowringee is New Market. Today, like many buildings in the city, it is today a shadow of its past glory. I always visit J Johnson’s, an otherwise non-descript store selling mainly imported items, for a small smoky crumbly local cheese called Bandel. Bandel is a town on the banks of the river Hooghly and cheese-making began there with the Portuguese. An old friend, Chef Shaun Kenworthy who has lived and worked in Kolkata for many years and who regards this city as his home, introduced me to this cheese some years back. However, my favourite is still the Kalimpong cheese which is difficult to get even at Johnson’s. I always pay a visit to Nahoum, the old cake shop in the centre of the market started by Nahoum Israel Mordecai, a Baghdadi Jew, in 1902. It started off selling fish pantras (fish stuffed pancakes), cheese samosas and walnut brownies but today does a brisk business in macaroons and fruit cake. We drive by the ‘oh’ so lovely Oberoi Grand Hotel onto Park Street and stop for tea at Flury’s (www.flurysindia.com). It is still considered an icon and rightly so. The Viennese coffee and collection of teas are excellent and the rum ball and asparagus sandwiches, memorable. “it still evokes nostalgia among Brits, Bongs and the old Kolkata schoolboys’ club”, says a friend who takes us there.
Now to my dose of paturi and posto. Over the years, I have visited several exceedingly good restaurants serving Bengali food in this city: fine dining at Sonar Tori (about 1½ hour’s drive from the city on the Ganges in the stunning Ganga Kutir resort); Bhojohari Manna which has several branches in the city and is as near to home style food as you can find; Aaheli, in Peerless hotel on Chowringhee which serves up consistently good traditional food
Oh! Calcutta is now a successful chain all over the country. It’s where everyone takes you when you first visit Kolkata. I must say, Anjan Chatterjee, the founder and driving force behind many fine dining restaurants in the country, has done a fabulous job of this menu which is I suspect, where his heart lies. He has also published an Oh Calcutta cook book which is definitely worth buying. I opt to start with steamed dishes ; kakra chingri bhapa, crab in a mild mustard paste, steamed in banana leaves; lonka bhapa murg, chicken strips mixed with pickled chilli and mustard and steamed and the classic bhapa ilish, a full fillet of hilsa in mustard and green chilli, steamed again. I have to have the smoked hilsa, luchhi (maida puris) and cholar dal and the railway mutton curry. I try the home-style rui maachher dom jhol, a delightfully simple home style fish broth flavoured with turmeric and cumin with chunks of the much under rated succulent fish, rui or river carp. It’s all wonderfully tasty and surprisingly light for a restaurant experience.
It is difficult to find the level of authenticity you often find in small stand alone restaurants, in a five star hotel. So I was quite stunned when a simple terracotta thali is placed in front of me at Guchhi at the Hyatt Regency. There is no menu as such. You just get whatever is in season. How refreshing! More smoked hilsa. I don’t complain. This is served with utterly crispy fine juliennes of aloo bhaja. A really sophisticated touch. I’ve rarely had anything more divine. We also have a Dhaka style fish curry with bronzed onions and yoghurt as a base, a sublime aloo posto with ridge gourd mixed in with potatoes, a simple yellow home-style masoor dal with just a tempering of cumin ( what bliss to have a light dal in a restaurant), lovely fragrant gobindobhog rice and perfect mishti doi to end (kolkata.regency.hyatt.com)
A quick lunch at Bomti Iyenger’s on my way to the airport, re-affirms my statement about Bengali food being the finest regional food in the country. Art collector and dealer, Bomti lives in his ancestral property in the Metropoiltan Building, a colonial structure with a golden dome on Chowringhee. How can you top that? He conducts heritage tours, gastronomic walks and also organises home style cookery demos in his enchanting abode. It is almost too good to be true and a “must do” if you are in the city.
Kolkata maybe distressed in many ways but the food is still top of my pops in this country.