A Chef's Guide to Food in Calcutta

A journey through time in Calcutta

by Alfred Prasad 26 February 2016

Alfred Prasad travels to Calcutta to discover the local delicacies, history and rich culture of the sprawling Indian city, uncovering dishes from Anglo-Indian and Indo-Chinese communities, as well as street food favourites sold throughout Bengal.

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Alfred Prasad grew up in Chennai, his father and mother both influencing his future career in their individual ways. His travels have exposed him to the incredible breadth of Indian regional cuisine, something he explored further in his training and career.

Alfred Prasad is credited with elevating the reputation of British Indian food with his delicate treatment of fresh, seasonal produce. Becoming the youngest Indian chef to receive a Michelin star at the age of twenty-nine, he retained this accolade at Tamarind for twelve years. He is now pursuing his own restaurant empire, which he hopes will showcase the variety, as well as the quality, of Indian food.

Bengal (Calcutta in particular) has always fascinated me in an almost fabled sort of way. There are so many cultural influences that dot its history, be it the Muslims, Iranians, Armenians, Portuguese, French, British (and Anglo-Indian), Chinese, Biharis, or Marwaris. This confluence of cultures also influenced the brilliant minds that added to its eclectic, intellectual legacy – Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-white person to receive the Nobel prize for literature for his Gitanjali in 1913; the prolific guru Swami Vivekananda, who introduced yoga to the outside world; Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who pioneered a socio-religious reform movement and became more popularly known as the father of Indian renaissance and cinema maestro Satyajit Ray, who was awarded an Oscar for lifetime contribution. The list could go on and on and perhaps helps people understand my obsession with the wonderful city.

Ever since my journey into food began, I have always known about the incredible food in Calcutta and my recent visit only re-affirmed happily and emphatically that everything I had heard about the region’s many cuisines were all true!

A jewel in the British empire, Calcutta was the capital of British India until 1912. The importance it had is obvious when you see the stunning buildings within its borders; landmarks such as the Victoria memorial, the innumerable beautifully designed green spaces and various monuments have resulted in the nickname the City of Palaces. The goddess Kali, who possibly gave Calcutta its name, is the city’s patron deity, looming large over the city and her people. Calcutta sort of shuts down during the Durga Puja festival, which celebrates the victory of good over evil. The bhog is a traditional festive food, a sort of khichdi (vegetarian kedgeree) served alongside fried vegetables, usually aubergine or potato.

There are all sorts of different chaats sold on the streets of Calcutta
Sheera halwa
Sheera halwa is another popular sweet snack available in the city

Street smart

Bengali ingredients
Green chickpeas and physalis are just some of the more unusual ingredients found in Bengal

I had to start my food trail with the city’s famous street food and, like any culinary city crawl, the most important thing to remember is to pace yourself. There is a serious belief that the kati roll was born in Calcutta; the beautifully cooked layered breads, wrapped around succulent and delicious kebabs, were so good that I was convinced this had to be where they were first created. Chaat is also synonymous with Calcutta, so I made my way to a very popular chaat hub in Park Street and opted for the more local jhaal muri (a puffed rice snack), ghughni (dried peas in sauce), churmur and several helpings of puchkas (semolina pastries). There is something so pleasurable about eating out on the street amid organised chaos.

Next came a pit stop at Bancharam, one of the famous sweet shops, for a singara (their version of a samosa), gud ka sondesh (a milk-based sweet made with a very seasonal molasses, only available for two months each year), the best rosogollas (a syrupy dessert – my favourite) and mishti doi (sweet yoghurt). It also felt special having cha (tea) served in bhar, bio-degradable terracotta cups used for drinking tea, lassi or mishti doi, but a shame that they’re discarded after only one use. It’s a part of the Indian heritage that still thrives in Bengal.

The Anglo-Indian community in Kolkata has a very unique culture and spawned its own micro-cuisine; being half Anglo-Indian myself, it was special to walk around the places where the community had clustered, which is famed for Christmas festivities and food, particularly baked goods. It was a treat to exchange notes with some of the residents about our favourite dishes – ball (kofta) curry, railway lamb, oxtail stew or guava cheese.

Street vendor
Street vendors sell all manner of ingredients
Bhar are small disposable cups used for drinking tea, lassi or yoghurt

Chinese whispers

What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.

A common Bengali saying

I am quite vociferous and obvious about my love for another amazing cuisine that was born here – Indo-Chinese (In India it is simply referred to as Chinese). The early Hakka Chinese settlers came looking for work in the ports of Bengal and set up little hawker stalls for their community. The Bengalis (and later the rest of India) took to the cuisine in a huge way and it is now probably one of every Indian’s top five favourite cuisines.

An early morning walk through the Tirretta Bazaar in old Chinatown gives you a real peek into this world of food. The bustling market is full of fresh fruit and vegetables, with some vendors offering a Chinese breakfast of freshly steamed chicken and pork momo's, fish ball soup, pao buns and prawn shu mei. I also saw strings of freshly made sausages on sale, which is quite unusual at a fresh market in India. The bazaar starts to wrap up around 7.30am as it morphs into a busy business district, leaving no trace of the market behind. Tangra, the new Chinatown, is dotted with many restaurants serving cheap and cheerful fare.

Traipsing around north Calcutta, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a home-cooked Bengali feast in a friend’s traditional (and ancestral) home. Tucking into fresh luchi (puri), aloo dom (potato curry), mochar (banana flower), maach baaja (fried fish), paturi (fish marinated in mustard, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed), delicate chingri malai (prawns in coconut milk) and shorshe maach (fish curry in a mustard gravy) was fantastic. The use of mustard in its various forms gives Bengali cuisine its distinct flavour profile. Mustard oil is used to cook most curries and is even drizzled over jhaal muri, giving it a nice punch. The fantastic kashundi mustard paste is used as a rub or marinade and makes a fantastic dip. Black mustard seeds are of course an integral part of the Bengali five spice mix called paanch phoron, along with fennel, cumin, nigella and fenugreek seeds. This spice mix is also used for pickling, marinades, tempering lentils and vegetables (try roasted sweet potatoes), in curries and even to flavour bread dough.

Bengali home
Alfred was invited to a traditional Bengali home for a special family meal
Coffee house
Coffee houses are where locals gather to talk and debate topics close of their hearts
Gulab jamun
Baked gulab jamun are one of the many sweet delicacies found throughout Calcutta

Coffee culture

Bengalis are great thinkers and love a good debate. The many addas (a local word for informal conversations which last for hours) in coffee houses that mushroomed all over the city are the base of urban legends and institutions. I visited the Indian Coffee House, secretly tucked away off College Road (famous for its kilometre-long stretch of bookshops covering nearly every topic under the sun). Housed in the erstwhile Albert Hall, it became a coffee house in 1942 and since coffee was more expensive than tea, was only frequented by a certain socio-economic class and became a meeting place for poets, artists and the literati. Today, it seems to be the UK’s equivalent of a pub, a place you would hang out for a few drinks and chat after work before going home. Over a strong black coffee, I sat there soaking in the atmosphere, wishing the walls could talk.

There is so much more I want to write about my experience. The rich Nawabi cuisine, a product of exiled Nawabs who brought hundreds of cooks and custodians of their cuisine with them to Calcutta; the several modes of transport unique to the city; the Marwaris and their incredible vegetarian fare; the Jewish bakeries. But most of all, I could never tire of talking about the wonderfully affectionate, hospitable and grounded people.

I think of Calcutta with a sense of nostalgia, reminiscing about its many historical influences, marvelling that one city can be enriched by so many cultures. But I also experienced an odd sense of loss for its unrealised potential. It is unfortunate that books and movies have mostly focused on the city’s poverty and slums (which in a way sadly exists in all big cities), leaving us with poignant stereotypes in our minds. There is a richness, greatness and depth that is still going strong, especially compared to several other big Indian cities which are diluting in spirit.

Once Calcutta, now Kolkata; the semantics have not changed its quintessential spirit. I can’t wait to be back and if you want people and a city with soul, you should go too.

Rusks and biscuits of all kinds are piled high on the market stalls