Food · Uncategorized

Priceless Pice Hotels of Kolkata

When it is about food, often I am accused of clinging onto my past and getting involved in evoking my childhood associations. It must be so and I am quite happy about it; rather re-igniting those memories while penning them down, in an attempt to relate to current experiences, is probably what excited me into blogging. But, from there on, writing about experiences not related to my early days, also took off.

Pice hotels (or as they are called locally in Bengal Bhaat er hotel) are places which has no association with my earlier days. Rather, they were well outside the radar of any possible culinary exploration or experience that I had even ever thought of in those days. Those weren’t the places where I would have cherished a meal as I felt then. Those were apparently run-down eateries which will be having their own clientele with their own compulsions – that was a thought that came up even till recent years. And why will I sweat out in a dingy corner for food that I have anyway at home.

It was early 70s when urbanization in India started happening at a faster pace. Men left their traditional livelihoods of agrarian economy and took up jobs in cities in factories. The seeds of nuclear families were getting sown. With grandmothers around, and in some cases their culinary practices passed onto the next generation, traditional Bengali delicacies were a regular affair at home, though starting to fade off slowly. Hence to have the same food in apparently unhygienic set up (that’s what the perception was then), never crossed the mind. And I am sure it never crosses the mind of most of our children today. But it does cross our thoughts at times that I miss that classical basanti pulao of my grand-mother or a simple Aloor dum of hers which could negate need for any additional attraction on the plate.

And that’s the reason probably in the last couple of decades, Bengali Restaurants and some fine dining options therein, have come up and are quite successful in their ventures, especially the ones who have kept a consistent standard or the ones, who have brought in a neo-classical style on top of that. They may give the palate a satisfaction, but still the soul craves for that home-style food in an environment that the subconscious is used to.

At home, elders never asked, “want one more plate of rice?” The question was “some more rice?” Just that bit of rice is left and mother or aunt used to help with a spoonful of gravy. But in these fine dining places, you hold yourself back since there won’t be a spoon of gravy; one needs to order one more plate of curry. Familiar food with unfamiliar experience. Hence, often, as I walked out from such places after a meal, the feeling of stomach being full didn’t align with fulfillment of soul.

Did we sprinkle salt on the gravy from a salt dispenser at home? Or was it that forefinger reached out to the salt, kept at the corner of the plate? We used to press the finger on the small mound of salt at the corner and then gently weave the fingers to uniformly mix the salt. Your taste bud would tell your forefinger, how much salt needs to be pressed in and brought back to be mixed with the rice & gravy. But, there aren’t any such connection as yet, between your taste bud and a dispenser.

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Bengali food is a wonderful musical medley of rice and various forms of gravies. In places of fine dining one mixes them with fork and spoon. However adept one maybe at that, the weaving of fingers to mix the rice with that fish/ mutton curry or with dal, can never be replicated by a fork and spoon. Neither can a spoon, touching your lips with that rice mixed with gravy, give you the same warmth as that of your fingers touching the lips; an experience that is intricately embedded in you from your childhood. Moreover, this practice is also linked to the belief that one should feel the texture of the food one is having with their fingers before directing it to the tongue. Also, with various types of mashed preparations and ones with fish bones, fingers are probably the most dependable mechanism to ensure safe and proper food enter the mouth.

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Not that all these above thoughts surfaced as blatantly while cherishing tastefully done dishes in air-conditioned environment in fine dining (as some say) restaurants. But the differences became stark when I forced myself into one of those pice hotels, when I was at Gariahat Crossing a couple of years back during lunch hour, and was before time by almost 30 minutes for an appointment.

With Adarsha Hindu Hotel board temptingly hanging in front of a hungry soul, I ventured into it, completely unaware on what my mannerisms will be once I am inside.

Pretending to be confident, I occupy a table (in pice hotels, a table isn’t dedicated to you; it is only the chair which is dedicated to you) and confidently ask “Ki ache” (what is there today). It took hardly 30 secs for that layer of confidence to shatter when the smiling person rattled off at least 5 plus vegetable options, close to 5 fried items options, and about 6-8 variants of fish/meat dishes. My ordering was simple – first item of each category that he rattled off.

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You can read about my experience at Adarsha Hindu Hotel by clicking on the link below.

Adarsha Hindu Hotel

Being the administrative headquarters during colonial era, Calcutta, attracted people from not only neighbouring zones, but from across the country. People used to come over here even for commercial objectives, to set up business or get into trading. And often the male member used to come alone, leaving the family in the native places. They used to stay in hostels for men (popularly called mess-bari) and needed pocket-friendly homely food to sustain themselves. That is believed to be the reason for the emergence of what became Pice Hotels. Simple food, the way it is prepared at home, bereft of any additional ornamentation to keep costs down, these were the places that fueled the people working in the metropolis away from home. And hence, such Pice hotels came up in the central and north Calcutta (as per current map) since those were the hub of administrative, commercial and educational activities.

Many such Pice Hotels have perished over time – some lost their clients who moved on; for some, the man behind the hotel passed away and succeeding generations either failed to run it efficiently or didn’t find enough reason to sustain them; and yet there are some, who stood the onslaught of time and changed social-economic-cultural-historical landscape in these 100 years and still continue to delight their clientele. As I list some such famed places which still holds fort, do remember, before you venture out, the essence of such places is not for relaxation or taking a break – these are places where the buzzword is necessity.

Since I started off from Gariahat (Adarsha Hindu Hotel), my obvious next stop is Lake Market area. I found it unusual that the oldest surviving Pice Hotel of the city is neither in Central, nor in North Kolkata but it is here in Lake Market.

Tarun Niketan:

As you walk along the left-side pavement towards Rashbehari crossing from Lake Mall, keep an eye for a board “Tarun Niketan” just before Raja Basanta Roy Road crossing. Surviving for more than 100 years, the only thing that has changed here is that it now has tables and chairs and people no longer sit on the floor to have their meals. Don’t miss the blackboard as you enter the place to take a glance at the items of the day. Everything here is separately priced excluding the standard steel plate and glass, and salt. Even the banana leaf and earthen water glass (in case you choose to have the food in banana leaf instead of regular utensil) are priced separately. The blackboard at the entrance will also highlight the fact that items cooked here are without onion and garlic (except egg curry, fish kalia and meat items).

Onion has been associated with tamasic food and garlic, because of its heating properties has always been considered as rajasic food. So, ones, who want to restrict themselves to satvic food, may feel quite at home at Tarun Niketan. The dishes with shrimps namely Kochu Chingri or Kochu pata chingri are great way to flag off the meal.

If egg curry is a weakness for you, try one here. Their egg curry is strictly with duck eggs. Everyday 9 types of fish are cooked here. The prawn malaicurry won my heart with its subtlety, guess it purged off the onion pulp and just retained the juice, beautifully blended with mild coconut milk. While the Ilish Shorshe was mediocre, don’t leave the place without having the bowlful mutton curry poured into a mound of steamed rice. It is heavenly.

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Green Café Hotel:

Close to Tarun Niketan is another lesser known and smaller place which has not got prominence as much as many of the more famous Pice Hotels of Kolkata. The name indicates the fact that it started off as a café in the 1950s. Somewhere early 1970s, it chose to convert itself into a Rice (Pice) hotel. And that’s when Green café became Green café hotel.

This small place accommodates only 18 people and even today food is cooked in coal oven. The curry prepared with fish bones and the light yet enticing rui curry left lasting impression in me. I wondered how, this small place feeds more than 200 hungry souls for lunch everyday

Parbati Hotel:

While North and Central Calcutta has a long history of heritage and culture, the same can be said of the Bhawanipur-Hazra-Kalighat zone in today’s South Kolkata. And hence, an old Pice Hotel here is natural. Started by Jaidev Kundu few months before independence, this eatery, tucked inside a small lane few metres north of the famed Girish Ch Dey Sweet shop is difficult to locate.

The usual combo of rice, dal, and aloo bhaja is default. You are asked what subzi (vegetable preparation) you will take. They generally make two and you can choose one. Mind it, even a fish head curry, in some of these places, come under subzi category. I was given a choice of Dhokar Dalna and Mulo r (raddish) ghonto. Opted for the later. What came to my table was a semi dry fish head curry. Gosh! what they meant as “Muro” (fish head). i heard “mulo”.

Yet again, freak on various fish options here. The quality of fish is amazing and so is the cooking – especially the shorshe bata and the gravy of Katla Kalia. I haven’t had a more fresh and tasty Boyal for a long time, and the Koi jhal was hypnotizing.

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For the first time i opted for a chicken curry in a Pice Hotel. Don’t know how they make that soulfully attractive color of the gravy. i had to order for repeat serving of rice.

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Young Bengal Hotel:

The thought of Khidderpore evokes yearning for choicest Mughlai dishes. But tucked in a lane called Monilal Banerjee Road just beside Fancy Market is a place which makes Bengali dishes with very little oil and spices. The cleanly kept courtyard with a few plants will present cool environs to you just like their food does to its consumers.

The Rui curry with ginger paste and a flowing consistency is what pulls a large part of their 200-300 customers everyday. It not only helps satisfy your hunger during hot and humid days, but also helps avoid the body heat up during the hot and humid summer days. The Tangra curry (tel jhol as they say) is another key attraction here. Fried lumps of grounded pulses (namely Dhoka, Motor Dal er Bora) are known to be soulful here. The light mango chutney in the summer heat is a welcome way to bid adieu to this cool pice hotel which will soon be 100 years old in another 6 years.

Siddeswari Ashram:

Moving on from Southern part of the city to the Central zone, Siddeswari Ashram is located right at the heart of Calcutta in those days. Located on Rani Rashmoni road in Dharmotolla, the Sen Family has been running this for close to seven decades. Apart from being in a busy location, the quality of their food and consistency therein will offer you with a sight that isn’t very usual – people queuing up for their lunch. It’s the range of options that this place offers, which makes so many queue up as well.

While Malai-curry is popular across most Pice hotels with prawns, this place also makes an onion & red chilly based gravy of prawn (Chingri r jhal). The options of shrimps with potatoes or various other vegetables, Bhetki and its variety and Ilish during season with multiple curries are options not many places offers. Fish head used to a delicacy in Bengali household, reserved for the head of the family or growing children. You can order one here too.

And to top it all their Kabiraji jhol of Rui with a piece each of papaya, raw banana and bottle gourd, each of which are known for their nutritive qualities, is a dish that gets over quite early. Price of fish items vary depending on the size of the fish that day.

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And for those, who can’t gulp or digest food unless the temperature is conditioned and hence could never visit a pice hotel, Siddehswari Ashram may be a solution – it has A/c section as well.

Jagannath Bhojonalaya:

This maybe a lesser shining star to many than its illustrious neighbor Siddeshwari Ashram, but unfortunately, during lunchtime, this small place, which accommodates about 24 people, may need you to queue up for food.

Shaak Bhaja (fried greens) is an omnipresent item here along with the usual fare of daal and vegetables of the day and fried options like in any other pice hotel. And same is the case with fish, a plethora of options. The ilish I had there was the best in this season so far, moderately rich in it s fat, soft in its feel. The Shorshe Bata was a bigger hit – can’t say anything could have been better. Right consistency, it had that feeble kick that will just about tickle your nose yet won’t overpower to hide the taste of the mustard – both paste & oil.

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And in terms of quality of fish, the bhetki too deserves as much accolades as ilish. Not only was the freshness and taste of the fish praiseworthy, but the fact that it was from a large sized one.

Pice hotel and serving fish kebab or Moghlai is unusual. And that tempted me to come over another day for the same (they don’t make it everyday). Ordered daal with fries since I have ordered fish kebab. And then came a bowl with a curry. A bemused me was lost. “kebab dao” (Give me kebab). “dilam toh” (gave you) was smiling reply. He reiterated this is kebab. Clueless as to why, I tasted it. Aroma of garam masala and taste of poppy seeds in a gravy tighter than usual curries was what the kebab was. My conclusion is that since it is prepared with more than usual garam masalas, poppy seeds and charmagaz, it is called kebab, something similar to ways some Mughlai dishes are made.

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But before I could conclude as above, I did ask the foolish question if they make fish Moghlai by using a stuffing of fish in Moghlai paratha. The person would have surely dropped all the bowls in the tray had the tray not been empty. Yet again, the naming convention followed that of Kebab. The gravy is made with Cholar Dal (Bengal Gram), egg with spices which weren’t disclosed.

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Atithi:

Pice Hotels, generally aren’t branded for any specific dish. Each one do have certain types of preparations that are more popular. But this place is one rare Pice Hotel, which had developed a branding for one specific dish – Posto Rui. As I walked into the place (few hundred metres north of Rajabazaar crossing on the left hand pathway) around 12-30 pm, my confident self ordered for a Posto Rui thali even before I have settled down.

“Not available sir” was a polite reply from the smiling waiter. “Why, don’t you make it everyday?” “We have Rui Jhol, Rui Shorshe, steamed Rui”. “What happened to Posto Rui”. “Stopped it sir, some years back. We weren’t able to sustain it. People used to keep asking for the gravy. How much of that gravy we can provide at a fixed price of Rui plate”.

What he was saying was such a harsh reality. They were famous for a dish which they were famous for, yet they discontinued it for excessive demand, constrained by the need to maintain a certain price point.

This reality has the seeds to grow into a wholesome marketing theory in IIMs.

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I asked him, now that I am here, what can minimize by disappointment of not getting Posto Rui. He suggested Steamed Rui and truly it was one of the most delicious Rui preparation I have ever had. Dominated by Posto (Poppy seeds and onion paste), the gravy was rich and subtle in its taste with a large fresh piece of Rui dominating my plate. Kochu Chingri was thoroughly delectable and the I must say that the dal here was thicker than most of the other Pice Hotels.

“Sir: Want to taste the gravy that we make in place of Rui Posto nowadays?” He got the gravy in a bowl. I said to myself, steamed Rui was surely a far delicious option.

Jagatmata Bhojonalaya:

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Fish is the fruit of water and hence always an intrinsic part of Bengali cuisine including that of Brahmins (while in many other parts of the country, Brahmins were mostly vegetarian). Sacrificing goat used to be a ritual in Kali Puja and the meat, cooked without onion and garlic, was considered to be a prasad. Hence mutton became an integral part of Bengali cuisine across castes. While nature helped erode the boundary between fish and vegetarian diet supposedly to be followed by so called upper castes and Brahmins, religion helped retain the lust for meat, but only mutton. Chicken was a wonderful savior and was avoided by Brahmins and upper castes, as those are meat options for the less privileged who have to hunt for food rather than have the resources to buy the food. Birds are easy preys and hence, they allege, less privileged will survive on meat of birds, and rabbits and so on.

While all that demarcation has dissolved over time (for good), and chicken has emerged as the most common form of meat, ordering chicken or egg in Jagatmata Bhojonalya will remind you of those days of severe demarcation. The Brahmin waiter will almost avoid hearing you, though he will retain the smile and tell you “only mutton”. Don’t be disappointed. The cook from Orissa (and since the beginning the cook here is from Orissa, and known for their culinary abilities), delivers a mutton curry, that will not only satiate your tongue, but will leave a lasting impression in your soul. Just the curry will entice you to consume loads of rice, mixed with the curry. And hence it is known as “kochi pathar dildaria jhol” (Apologies for my inability to translate this). But in your zest for this curry, don’t overlook some of the small fish chochhori options like their Mourola with potato dry curry. Freak out on the other fish options available.

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Noone can specifically state when it started, but this is one place which still retains a zone for people, who sit on the floor and have their meals. But for those, who have never known the art of sitting on floor and having a meal, this eatery in Kailash Bose Street also has the zone for dining the way we are used to.

New Kamala Hotel:

When Nalini Ranjan Das and Dhirendra Chandra Nandi thought of starting thought of opening an eatery of regular Bengali food more than 70 years back at BK Pal crossing primarily for the artisans of Kumortuli on one side and the actors and workers of the famed Jatra groups on another side, little did they envisage that someday the subsequent generations will struggle to run it. Probably they also didn’t know that they will have such committed and passionate workers who will take over the reins and run it from a place just adjacent to where they existed for more than six decades.

The bouquet of items is similar to many other similar places but what left a lasting impression in my mind are two things – their Rui kobiraji jhol and the recitation by the waiter of items that a consumer had while preparing the bill. It is said that every other person comes here and inquires about their Kabiraji jhol, and once you have this, you will know why it is so. It is a light whitish stew of the fish with one piece of raw banana and a piece of potato. The heavenly taste of the curry is also partly due the fantastic quality of the fish they serve. Fresh and cut from a large sized rui, the fish piece itself not only will take care of part of your hunger but also will make you realize why Rui was such a coveted fish at one time, in Bengali households. I am sure, the same person, who revolts at home for such a simple fish curry will ask for a repeat of the same out here. For someone like me, who is satiated with a decent piece of fish in a curry for a meal, I was tempted to order yet one more plate of Rui, though this one was Posto Rui. Pankaj Roy, the famous Indian cricketer, who lives a couple of lanes down, used to frequent this place for this item. Maybe this stew energized him for the next Test match.

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Once you finish your meal, be back near the waiter to listen to pure recital of whatever you had, in an accent, where you can hardly make out a few words. Once he is through with his recitation, the person at the Cash-Counter will tell how much you need to pay. This place still uses all spices which are grounded in their kitchen, and do inquire about their dish of the day with fish egg in it. I missed the pumpkin curry with fish egg just by a whisker though managed to grab a piece of fried fish egg.

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Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel:

Many of these pice hotels has a rich legacy of historical events or presence of famed personalities from various walks of life. This particular place, as the name suggest, had some glorious connections to India’s freedom struggle. The stories this pace has been a witness to adds memorable aroma to the lasting taste of the food they prepare. You may want to read about this place in my bloglink below.

Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel

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Mahal Restaurant & Hotel

As you get down the Sealdah Flyover towards MG Road, you need to keep moving ahead till you chance upon Presidency Boarding House. For aficionados of Bengali detective stories, this name is familiar. It is where Byomkesh Bakshi was born. And author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay chose this as birthplace of Byomkesh Bakshi since he himself used to stay here when he was staying alone in Calcutta. But he never dined at Mahal, which is on the other side of the same building since Mahal became operational only in 1991 according to its owner Sandeep Dutta.

A small place which can accommodate about 16 people, it has a menu like most other similar places. While the multi-course meal should start off with a bitter item, neem-begun or shukto is a always prepared. Unlike some places, it has a choice of Dal (pulses), moong or masoor, and with that you can choose your favorite fried item. Posto r bora (Can loosely be called poppy seed cutlet) is always irresistible. Gave the fish roe bora a miss and moved onto Topshe (a type of fish) fry.

Dhokar dalna or phulkopi was the choice in vegetables. Never expected a soulful gravy without onions or garlic in summer made of cauliflower. As in most such pice hotels, next comes the most confusing part, which fish and what variety of its curry to choose from. Generally rohu, katla, prawns (though not a fish) and in season ilish has more than one gravy options. But one thing one shouldn’t miss ordering here is the Rosha preparation of whichever fish is available. I had options for Tyangra and prawn. I went for tyangra rosha. It is something I haven’t had in any of the other pice hotels. Slightly tangy, the wonderful medley of red chili, cumin and ginger will make it delightfully different with stripes of potato to be broken and mixed with the rice and gravy everytime you take a mouthful.

Chingri (prawn) malaicurry was as smooth as it can be, a flowing gravy, not rich in taste yet so subtly invigorating. And like most other similar pice hotels, the mutton curry they make, is so temptingly light in its taste yet leaves a lasting taste in your tongue.

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Often I avoid spoiling such finale with chutney but here they make awesome khejur-aamsotto r (Khejur is date and aamsotto is made from mango pulp) chutney. Nice square pieces of aamsotto dipped in that sugary syrup is a delight with occasional interference of khejur. They temptingly kept a bowl with papad beside it.

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Belgian Bonhomie

My limited foray into cuisines across the globe keeps me away from engaging with chefs or experts from different nations, lest the ignorance gets revealed. And if lesser known celebrities are around, it is unlikely I will come to know about that since there isn’t as much craze around to highlight such arrival or images in social media to make aware the commoners like me to get to know about such arrivals.

Hence, when a friend of mine, who mistakenly assumes my abilities around food, updated me about the presence of someone from Belgium, who is an architect by profession and cook by passion, I gathered enough courage to confirm my presence for the same.

Let us explore the food first.

The set meal had a simple flow and was attractively priced too if one goes for the full course

Starter: Belgian Mixed Meat Roll

Main Dish: Vol Au Vent

Dessert: Belgian Waffle Burger

One had an option to choose one or two items as well but pricing was such that the set meal made sense.

 

Belgian Mixed Meal Roll reminded me about the crunchy and flaky just made patties that we often have. However, it was roll shaped here and to retain that flaky outer layer in a cylinder shape was even more intriguing. Inside the thin crust was soft filling of minced pork and beef (one had an option of pork & chicken as well). With egg as the only binding agent, the taste of pork and beef mince stayed unadulterated. The meat retained its granular texture to make you feel the meat perfectly, yet was neatly packed. Subtle smell of Indian spices did emanate but not strong enough to subdue the taste of cayenne pepper that was so beautifully blended. The sweet chili garlic sauce remained a silent spectator as I avoided diluting the sheer taste and feel of the mince.

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With very limited knowledge, I vaguely remembered Vol Au Vent to be an appetizer in French cuisine. Hence was intrigued to find it as main dish here. Later I came to know from the cook about the same as shared later down below. While in Belgium, this dish comprises of a whole lot of fried potatoes and a puff pastry filled with semi-viscous white sauce having chicken, meatballs and mushrooms, here, there was a portion of parsley rice and also the gravy served separately as well alongside the puff pastry and reduced portion of fries, keeping in mind our love for rice. The pastry is made hollow and the chicken, meatballs and mushroom gravy is poured into it. I must appreciate that the pastry crust retained its crunchiness even after the filling was poured into it. Its soft light consistency connects back to its name – vol au vent means “windblown” in French. I was awed when I came to know that she had made the puffs as well after arriving here.

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For someone who is not really a dessert person, the Belgian Waffle Burger turned out to be the man of the Match. It was simply too good, something I haven’t had before. The crunchiness of the waffle  (and it tasted amazingly delicious) greatly complimented the crunchiness of the chocolate bar in between the two waffles and mingled so well with the cream and chocolate sauce that oozed out with every bite. Was there something different about the waffle?

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Conversation with Adeline – the lady behind the food

Me: How is the experience of doing this kind of an event for a day here in Kolkata

Adeline: I am loving it. Belgian food is not widely known and such occasions help spread the cuisine of my place. More interesting is to slightly modify it for places where, they maynot like exactly the way we have it.

Me: Have you done some such modifications in this food?

Adeline: Some bit of it. I have added a touch of Indian spices to the meat balls since Indians love the meat with some spices. Also the rice – I am told Indians love rice. But in Belgium, there is no rice in the main dish. It has whole of fries and the puff pastry.

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Me: Belgium has significant influence of French and German cuisines. What’s unique about Belgian cuisine?

Adeline: True, it has influence of French, German & Holland cuisines but there are certain unique ones like Flemish Stew, which is made of beer, and some other dishes where we use beer – sour white beer, brown beer. Flemish stew is with brown beer but we have some nice chicken stews with sour white beer.

Me: Beer you use is all local Belgian beer?

Adeline: Yes, Belgium is famous for beer and we use beer made there only in local breweries.

Me: I loved beer when I was in Germany but not been to Belgium.

Adeline: (laughs)- very politely she says – Belgian beer is something else. I wouldn’t say Germany has very good beer. We have outstanding brown beer. You know Trappist Beer? This is a famous brown beer brewed in our monasteries.

Me: In Monasteries?

Adeline: Yes – the monks brew the beer but not for profits. Whatever money they get, goes back to the upkeep of the monastery. It is an old practice where most monasteries had breweries to sustain the monks from the money obtained by selling them.

Adeline: Also some dishes are anyway available here (Tintin & the Brussels Club) like Beef Stew and they make it quite well. And this is what I love about this city – openness to explore cuisines from various places.

Me: True – it went through so many invasions and mingling of cultures.

Adeline: Yes – but I also noticed the differences between other cities in India (couple of other metros I have been to) and Calcutta

Me: What are those?

Adeline: I find the place far more comfortable. It is slightly more relaxed, in line with how we live, fun loving, people here truly love food. There isn’t a mad rush like the two other cities I have been to. Difficult to really express;  maybe the openness towards this kind of cuisine, towards me. I never felt as welcome or comfortable in the other two cities.

Me: Did you get all your ingredients in this city?

Adeline: yes. Except that I carried Cayenne pepper and waffle. Rest all ingredients I could get here. For some, I modified a bit like the cream, which is much fuller here. I had to tone it down.  I wasn’t too sure about Cayenne Pepper and hence carried it. And waffle I wanted to carry from there. We have two kinds of waffles there – Brussels Waffles and Liege Waffles.

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Me: You have chosen these three dishes – why?

Adeline: I wanted to prepare whatever is most authentic there. Vol Au Vent is one of the most popular main dishes in Belgium. You will get it almost everywhere. Flemish Stew is another such dish but since it is available here in the regular menu, I avoided that.

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The starter – I don’t know what it is exactly called in English, but in Belgium we have a culture frequenting eateries that serves fries, fried meats – the sausage roll came from that but I tried adapting it a bit to suit the taste here. Generally sausage roll is very popular there. Some have that as breakfast also. For the dessert I thought of doing the waffle burger since Belgium is famous for waffles. Since these are for dessert, I have chosen the Liege waffles since they have pieces of sugar and is sweet. You will get them in streets of Belgium – people add chocolate and sauce and have it. I felt that people in Kolkata like sweets. And hence chose that. Brussels waffle is bigger & lighter, and not sweet. It is like a square / rectangle and is mostly served in restaurants.

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And on that sweet note the conversation ended at Tintin & The Brussels Club

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Radhubabu Rendezvous

Somehow this Rashbehari – Ballygunge stretch, being associated with most exciting phase of my life, transforms the mind whenever am there. Post a quick work at the bank, was heading to a logical point for calling Uber. Melancholic soul was saying it is 3-50 pm. Past 20 mins since Radhu Babu has opened. Should I?

The person, whom I walked into, while debating this, was none other than one of my closest college friends and been the most frequent company of mine during those days to Radhu Babu.

Realized it is Almighty who often helps you decide in moments of serious double thoughts. Now I didn’t need to walk also. He has his car with him.

There are some places which deserves certain actions. Alighting from a car in front of Radhu Babu is not an action I could carry out. It is a place where one walks in leisurely, for a cup of tea with whatever you want as accompaniment depending on time of the day and cash in your wallet. It is a place which is not a destination just to arrive, have a quick and classy meal and move on.

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As we walked into Janak Road from Lake mall, time rushed back by a quarter of a century. Post those apparently complex engineering lessons together at my friend’s place, a cup of Radhu Babu’s tea used to be such a welcome break, not just for the tea, but for the entire mood and bonhomie of the area. If those used to be at the beginning of the month, a kabiraji used to accompany the tea. Towards the middle of the month it scaled down to a fish chop. We avoided all such places post 25th of the month, but if those evening study sessions got rigorous, Radhu Babu was unavoidable. Toast was the only possibility then – with or without butter varied based on monthly savings of money earned through tutions.

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The kormas and the stews at Radhu Babu were amongst those few targets in life then, for which a decent job was a must. And that’s what ensured a more focused study post the tea at Radhu Babu.

The gap from then till now has been too long – clueless about how much that coveted plate of korma or stew will cost. The chicken roast must be costlier since the piece, as I vaguely remember , was larger. With all these complex calculations, I did arrive at Radhu Babu some months back around 7 pm. Excitement was overflowing – finally that coveted korma or maybe stew. Or should I straightway jump into the roast.

“Ki Debo?” (What should I serve you) Was the question that pulled me out from this self debate. Roast being the last thought, somehow I uttered that automatically.

“Onekhon Sesh” (over quite a while back) was the instant response. I felt relaxed – God wants me to scale up gradually.

“Thik ache, stew dao” (ok, give me stew).

“Stew Sesh” (stew is over) was the response. Almighty was doing magic for me and wants me to have the korma here.

“Korma i dao – chicken kintu” (give me korma, chicken one).

“Oi ke last plate ta Chilo – uni khachhen”.

Not often has my gratitude for the Almighty, that was building up in the last few minutes, got shattered so fast. It was even more devastating to watch someone intensely finishing off that last plate of Korma.

My expression probably was too visible – “fish chop ache, Debo?”

A mindless me nodded to his query.

Not sure if the quality has gone down or my gratitude but it didn’t taste as it used to be decades back.

Thanks to the seamless standard of tea, the greatest charm here, I could recover a bit as I went out to pay for my misadventure.

Radhakishore Dutta was a freedom fighter before he came down to Calcutta. Once he moved in to the city, he started this little shop to earn his living. The shop was started by him somewhere in the 1930s. Some old timers say deer meat was a tempting item here then.

I glanced at my watch. It is 3-55 pm as we stepped in. Just about 25 mins the shop has opened.

Only a lone customer inside. Outside is crowded as always with people having tea. Both of us settle down. My friend, being from the locality, seems to know them all.

“Roast khabi toh?” (You will have roast?). He does remember our childhood aspirations.

Before even I could nod, from behind the shelf, a voice floated in

“Roast aaj nei” (Roast not there today). Neither did I allow any sort of emotion to settle in, nor did I want to lose a minute communicating via friend – stew, korma? I asked in one breath.

“Stew du plate ache, aar korma ache” (2 plates of stew is there and korma available).

“Diye dao” (give)
“Ki” (what)
“Dutoi” (both)
“Kota kore” ( how many each)
“Duto kore ” (2 plates each)

Crisis leads to people unnecessarily blocking more. However civilized we are, at times, the bare basics come out.

I have not seen a famine in my life, but seeing me others might have experienced what it is like to come out of a famine and have the first meal.

The onion-garlic-ginger-cardamom smell will awake your senses.. The distant aroma of combo acting as a wonderful far flung blow of sax in oily gravy acting which is like the key tune of the song. If I failed describing it properly, just switch on “phule gandho nei” composed by Pancham. The onion garlic aroma was like Manohari Singh’s sax and the mustard oil based gravy was the voice of Asha ji.

The spoon is given for you not have have the gravy initially. The gravy is to be had by dipping the typical bread of Kolkata in the gravy so that the bread is soaked in the gravy which makes it so very kolkatan way of having a snacks. You can use the spoon to scoop the balance gravy up, if some is left.

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It was a mistake to have pounced on the Korma first. That made the stew mellow down after the rich state of korma. Here the papaya, carrot or potato is not served with the stew. A gravy which is thicker in consistency than the ones popular in Dalhousie and hence a more intense colour.

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Being Thursday, both were chicken variants. The succulent wholesome piece of chicken is well infused with the gravy to have the gravy linger in your taste buds long after it is over.

25 years later, even after 2 successive visits , Radhu babu still leaves a reason for me to be back.

Of course, not only I need to ensure I am just behind the person unlocking the shop at 3-30 pm but also I need to ensure it is any day of the week but a Thursday.

As we walked out from the shop, my friend’s murmuring “mutton stew here is a class” reinforced my resolve.

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Mesmerizing Multitude of Mangalore

My urgency was unexplained to my family. Neither did I share as to why I avoided a lunch halt en-route. With a couple of small halts to ensure that the soul is fed with the beauty of the landscape, I was holding back my more mortal hunger since I had a belief that if one wants something intensely, it happens. Google Map has rarely been so critical. As the cityscape gradually started appearing, it was 3 pm and it still showed 15 minutes to Jyothi Talkies, Bunts Hostel Rd. The chauffer also must be hungry and my restlessness probably irritated him further. The car didn’t even come to a halt, and off I went out and instead of even searching for the elevator climbed the steps up to reach there.

Inside, I told the supervisor, I need to order. A slightly indignant face of his made me take a glance at my watch – past 3:20. “Sir, you need to order right away, entire order”.  “Can you give me 2 mins? My family is on their way.” He didn’t. Quite naturally, since they close at 3:30pm. “Never mind – take my order.”

  • Chicken Ghee Roast – 2 plates
  • Pepper Chicken Roast – 2 plates
  • Mangalorean Prawn Curry
  • Neer Dosa
  • Steamed Rice

I realized that when at gun-point, one generally tends to deliver the best, albeit in areas around his/ her passion.

Rarely had I sensed such a feeling of relief and intense satisfaction. Order accepted, presumably they will be delivered. But then the wait was a restless one. When the hunger of the body adds up to the hunger of soul, it is terribly tough. So tough that when the entire order arrived, I almost jumped into the star attraction for which I am at Maharaja Restaurant, presumably an iconic place for the legendary Ghee Roast. As a habit, I keep my most yearned-for item last, but here, the stress of being on time and the hunger pranks were too overwhelming to align me to my practice.

The fiery red chicken pieces with ghee oozing out would have been a delight for the eyes, but my eagerness to taste it, marginally spoiled the visual delight and converged all my delight to my tongue and of course to my soul. Ghee, to a Bengali like me, has always been associated with dishes of more moderate taste like steamed rice, or Khichdi or light stew of lentil. But the overwhelming presence of it in the fiery masala gravy of chicken was a taste I can hardly elaborate through the keyboard. Maybe my abilities with the keyboard aren’t as robust yet.

The aroma of the dish floated me back by a decade to the first and so far the best Ghee Roast I have had ever at Coast-to-Coast in Bangalore. I am indeed lucky to have had some of the most delectable foodies as my supervisors at work. But little did I know then that my maiden tryst with Ghee Roast is at a place, whose parents created the famed Ghee Roast decades back in Kundapur, a coastal town near Mangalore. While KFC took the name of the place where it was originated, Kundapur didn’t get that fame because the dish was never named as Kundapur Ghee Roast (or KGR). Poverty forced his parents to get into the eatery business in the late 50s in Kundapur, but theirs was the first place in Mangalore in early 70s (Anupama) which witnessed people queuing up to have their meal.

 “The dish originated in the Mangalorean Bunt community yes, but that community is a dynamic one that sees an overlap of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian cultures. Therefore, one naturally adapts from the other, and almost every community of the area has its version of the Chicken Ghee Roast. My recipe for instance is a mix of each of these cultures, and an experimentation of variations over time. In fact, only recently I began to include a squeeze of lemon juice, along with the curd and turmeric in the marinade. The result has been great,” writes Jane M D’Souza in Jane’s Cook Book.

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The Pepper Chicken would have been a memorable dish had it not been overwhelmed by the excitement that was built around Ghee Roast. But the Coastal Prawn curry’s smoothness with the intermingling of the heat from spices and the cool flavour of coconut made me gobble up a more-than-usual quantity of rice that I otherwise would have.

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A sense of conquest was surely evident in me as I walked out of Maharaja. When you are just there for 2 days in Mangalore, missing out a meal in the city was something I couldn’t come to terms with. Hence that unusual stress and rush for making it to Maharaja in time.

Mangalore can be a culinary destination only. It is a melting pot of cultures and traditions not only from various geographies but also from various points in the tide of time. While, to most, it is that generic South Indian food, but dug deeper, there exists distinct evidences of multiples cultures and their cuisines. It has its own share of delights for both vegetarians’ non-vegetarians’ as well. Tuluva cuisine is the collective cuisine of the Tulu speaking communities of Tulu Nadu in coastal Karnataka. Being a coastal zone, predominance of fish is obvious.  Staying at Gateway Hotel, the live seafood counter at Port Café was irresistible. The ensemble of kingfish, silver fish, pomfret, squid and a larger variety of Indian Carplet was a delight when served straight from frying pan.

 

And so were their continental dishes. Grilled fish creates an image of a nice slab of bhetki served with mashed potatoes and boiled veggies. But to get fresh seer fish instead of bhetki was not only a surprise but a delight which percolated into the taste bud making me a fan of grilled seer fish. Because of the location and nature of the fish, the marination was probably different here with sparing use of spices like pepper.

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But to cherish the absolutely local and authentic fish preparation, a meal at Giri Manjas is a must. There is nothing special about the place. You won’t even pay any heed to many such places in any city. This is a humble restaurant on Car Street (very little space to park cars).

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When it was founded in 1984 by Giri Pai, it didn’t have a name. It was only around 2007 that Manjunath Pai, Giri’s son, gave the unnamed place its name and also introduced the ever popular Tawa Fry. And you get the same Tawa fry for whatever fish you want. It is probably the most common and favourite preparation of fish that is made in households of this city. It catapulted the eatery into a different height. It still retains its capacity of 40 people and serves more than 200 plates of fish dishes everyday.

The standard thali comes with rice (one can choose the local thicker reddish variant or the more fine and white variety), daal, one veggie of the day, a standard curry made with fish portions and pickle. One can now choose the fish and/ or chicken dish to accompany. Anjal Tawa Fry and Bangude Tawa Fry was my pick of the day. I realized why people are okay parking their cars many hundred metres away and still walking over to this place. The taste of the Tawa Fry gravy and the freshness of the fish will linger with you for a long time. What’s so special about this place and their cooking? The answer to that was they always cook with love. No wonder, BBC covered this place as part of a program on tiny eateries in India. The restaurant’s name is a combination of ‘Manjunath’ and ‘Giri’. Both of them are now no more now. Yet their legacy and love has kept the food same over the years.

It is Tuluva cuisine to which many subsequent cuisines owes its origin to. And one of them is of course the famed Udupi cuisine. It is said that Masala Dosa owes its origin to Tuluva cuisine and hence one can connect as to why the vegetarian part of Tuluva cuisine evolved as Udupi. And heralding from Kolkata, the meal that Udupi cuisine associates with the most, is breakfast. Hence a breakfast at The New Taj Mahal Café, Panchmahal Building on KS Rao Road is a destination one wouldn’t want to miss.

Order their ghee soaked tuppa dosa without any preconceived mind-set of how a dosa will look like. Else you will end up charging the waiter for having served the wrong order to you. Slightly crunchy, yet juicy, the ghee laden Dosa will arouse you from the lethargy of early morning sleepiness. Unlike the slightly stronger taste of sambar that you encounter in Bangalore, here the sambar was more light, indicating its lineage to Udupi cuisine. Same can be said about the coconut chutney. But what left lasting impression in me is the taste and balance of the green chutney which was a mix of green chilli, coriander leaves and ginger.  That was the only thing I had to ask for a refill. Mangalore Buns is another key attraction here. Most of the local residents, who are in a hurry, drop in here for a bun accompanied with filter kappi (coffee as uttered in Mangalore).  Now, I am sure, you are not expecting a traditional bun that you have known so far. While this has a swollen look like a bun, but it is closer to a poori with a crunchy outer layer enveloping a soft inner layer. You will get a distinct taste of banana which made me feel banana is part of the ingredients making the dough. By the way, forget you herald from the land of tea gardens in Bengal. You just shouldn’t leave the place without its filter kappi.

Beyond the traditional Udupi food, vegetarian Tuluva cuisine consists of various steamed delicacies like Sannas, Kottige, Dosas like Neer Dose, dry items like Sukka/Ajadina and Upkari, also gravies called Gassi (Tulu word meaning curry)/ Rasa /Pulimunchi . Upkari of Yam and a mix veg gassi was a nice way to taste the vegetarian Tuluva cuisine. It was more by force that I chose to add mutton to this platter, just to taste how they make my most favourite meat dish. And they make it great with the elaborate use of spices nicely overshadowing the dominance of garlic, and the colour of the gravy made irresistible by use of jaggery as the sweetener.

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Limited time in Mangalore meant I need to try out a mid-morning brunch as well. While not strictly a coastal Karnataka dish, Pesarattu, a dish which owes it origin probably to coastal Andhra was great temptation. Made with whole moong dal called as pesalu in Telegu, it is similar to Dosa, but absence of urad dal is what differentiates it from a Dosa. In Andhra, this pessarattu is served with ginger or tamarind chutneys and also with upma and is known as MLA pesarattu as it is probably the most common breakfast platter in restaurant in MLA quarters in Hyderabad. But I did settle for some pongal instead of upma – can’t help my weakness for pongal.

There is so much more to explore still.  Well, there is a distinct culinary trend in Mangalore which has evolved in the last three centuries. Europeans called Mangalore ‘the Rome of the East’ two centuries ago because Mangalorean Catholics are Roman Catholics from the former South Canara district on the south-western coast of India. Their ancestors were Goan Catholics, who had migrated to South Canara from Goa between 1560 and 1763 during the Goa Inquisition and the Portuguese-Maratha wars. The culture of Mangalorean Catholics is a blend of Mangalorean and Goan cultures. Hence their curry uses a lot of coconut and curry leaves while ginger, garlic and chilli are also used. Mangalorean Catholic cuisine has distinct Portuguese influence. Mangalorean Catholics mix pork blood and other parts in most of their pork delicacies as can be seen from Pork Bafat, Cabidela and Kalleze un Kiti. And when it comes to Bafat, what better place than Pereira’s to explore not only Pork Bafat but some of these famous Catholic dishes.

Started by Ignatius Pereira, this place will be 100 years in a couple of years’ time. While it is best paired with sannas (soft spongy idlis made with rice & urad dal), I couldn’t resist my temptation to pair pork bafat with my ever-favourite neer dosa. While it may seem similar to a Goan sorpotel, but use of Shindaap (chopped onions, garlic, ginger, green chillies and bay leaf) along with bafat powder creates a unique and yearning taste for this dish. Even the chicken (Kunkda Maas) liver, infused with that extra pepper on top of  The gravy that accompanies the neer dosa is an orchestra of spices mixed and executed by deft hands.

The fish curry especially their Fish Roe Curry made by Catholic Christians here, is known for its taste in the whole of coastal India while fried fish in their style is well known Pereira’s is a simple joint (possibly with accommodation facilities as well), but the warmth of the waiters and the taste of food will make you regret not to have stayed in Mangalore for some more time.

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What excited me about Mangalore is its flexibility and adaptive approach to creating combination in a meal. A pure crispy dosa with chutney in the morning, but the sambar get replaced with egg curry prepared in a Mangalorean way. It was a super start to a day when you have to hold your emotion back that it is time for you to leave this culinary heaven.

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Parsi Platter

Food has always had a strong co-relation to the culture, origin, evolution and geographical location of a community. While the ingredients in a cuisine has a strong co-relation to the geographical origin of the cuisine, the way food is prepared can be co-related to the culture, beliefs and traditions of the community.

One such cuisine, which is a medley of flavours and a skillful interweaving of various tastes, is now disappearing – not because people aren’t fond of it, but maybe because the custodians of this rich cuisine are slowly dwindling in number.

Time and again Persia has been invaded from the times of Alexander, maybe because of the strategic location and the extent of the geography till which Persian influence existed. Threat of intrusion and fear of conversion led to many moving mostly eastwards and ending up in the western coast of India. What we know of the famed Parsi cuisine is more of what they prepared after adapting to this country and ingredients available locally. While the predominance of stew, meats, nuts and raisins are from their traditions in Persia, inclusion of fish (sea-fish) probably can be linked to adapting to ingredients popular in India. Predominantly being in west coast of the country, the types of fish has mostly centered on sea-fish. The British era also significantly influenced their food culture through the inclusions of snacks and desserts.

They say that Parsi wedding food is incomplete without Lagan-nu custard. In fact the name is derived from the word wedding – Lagan. Its appearance and taste will make you correlate it with the more popular caramel custard. The addition of charoli (almond-flavoured seeds), cashews, nutmeg and cardamom adds to the richness of the dish. It isn’t too sweet and the texture is something I prefer over its more popular cousin caramel custard. Crusty top, partly burnt is an attraction difficult for me to resist.

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But what was a welcome discovery for me was Ravo, during my recent adda session with elderly Parsi acquaintances at their home. Loved understanding how particular they are about every step in making their food. Semolina and sugar is cooked in ghee for about 10 mins. Then they switched off the oven, added half of the milk, beat the egg for a while with some milk added and poured the same in the semolina and switched on the oven and kept stirring till the first boil as remaining milk was added. Garnished with raisins and thinly sliced almonds, the dish was heavenly.

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Ask someone the name of a Parsi dish and most often Dhanshak is the reply. It is a dish which is consumed on the 4th day of mourning (after a bereavement in family) indicating mourning is over since Parsis have vegetarian food only during the first three days. Hence, Dhanshak is not prepared on auspicious days. But it is often a must on Sundays. And for some, a heavy lunch with Dhanshak after some beer on a Sunday afternoon is the best way to invite a satisfying afternoon siesta. But it is time-consuming to prepare Dhanshak. It is a meal which takes care of most essential ingredients that one needs. Traditionally, seven types of lentil and seven types of vegetables along with mutton goes into prepare the shak. Little did I know (till my interactions with Parsi families in Kolkata) that the rice (Dhan) needs to be brownish in colour and that is done by the fine art of caramelization of onion and sugar (or maybe jaggery) and is spiced up by use of garam masala. Water is added in such a quantity that it is not required to be drained. And the taste multiplies manifold when you squeeze the lemon. Don’t leave any bit of it in your plate. Using the lemon rind, sweep off any remaining gravy sticking to your plate. Apart from Dhanshak, lentils find its use in Khichdi as well.

 

Can Dhanshak be cherished without kachumber? Onions, cucumber, tomato and at times radish is chopped into fine pieces and mixed with vinegar (probably sugarcane vinegar which gives a sweet & sour taste) to create a salad, which needs to be poured on the dhanshak on your plate and to be eaten together.

Apart from their intense love for egg and meat, potato is something that is deeply loved by the Parsis and it is apparent in so many dishes. Else why will a dish like chicken curry have thinly striped potato wedges mixed with it to form salli boti. Name itself denotes the contents – salli meaning sticks and here it is fried potato sticks with boti (meat chunks).

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Vindaloo is a dish which strongly associates with Goa and connects back to the Portuguese influence therein. As the Parsis settled in west coast, it is likely that the Portuguese influence will surface in their local culinary culture. Not sure if it is universally true, but the ones I tasted at Parsi homes had an aroma of Coriander leaves which differentiated it from the Goan Vindaloo. Came to know that hot toor dal Khichdi gets nicely paired with this Vindaloo. One may often wonder if the flaming red colour of Vindaloo is by adding colorants. While the luckier ones use bedgi chillies, those who doesn’t get them create that magical red colour through use of Kashmiri red chilies. Homemade tomato puree helps in the cause as well. The small pork pieces, infused with this delectable gravy, is a memory which will last long. Guess the balancing of vinegar, jaggery and chilies is what brings out the charisma of the cook.

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A dish that I had not known earlier and which completely bowled me over was Prawn patio. Quite close to Vindaloo in terms of the balancing act amongst sweet, sour and spicy tastes, the aroma of garlic was like the subdued violin in a tune dominated by the rhythm section comprising of jaggery, chilies and tomatoes. Soaked in the pao (bread) and with the bread absorbing the gravy, it weakened me considerably. But it also makes a wonderful combo with Dhundar (Dhun – wealth and Dar = Dal), which is steamed rice (cooked with some ghee and whole spices likes cardamom & cinnamon) and Toovar Dal cooked with onions and garlic. The sour and spicy patio is a killer combo with Dhundar. As they say “Dundar patio, bese bese chatio”.

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Pathuri and Patrani machi has so much in common in the name. And that extended to the way they are done. But what differentiates them is the ingredients used. Patrani machi, in its current form having its origins in west coast, is based on primarily seafish like pomfret and the chutney is made with coriander & mint leaves mixed with grated coconut and green chillies. In contrary, pathuri is predominantly of Hilsa or Bhetki fish coated with mustard and green chilli paste and topped with mustard oil.

As I move in reverse chronology, the Parsi Stew was a great surprise for me. While it was there on the table, I asked the hosts where the stew is. Stew, to most of us, will have a flowing consistency. But here nothing is flowing. A tight consistency of medley of veggies was what was in the bowl. Came to know, they have two varieties and the one is the fried variety where vegetables are deep fried to make this stew. Call it stew or a dry vegetable curry, it was not only something different from whatever I have had, but was delicious too. Had to repeat a spoonful after I was through with Dhanshak.

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My first tryst with Akuri was in the form of breakfast in a Jet Airways flight almost 2 decades back. While I wasn’t aware of its origin, I loved it. But, in recent times, I realized how different such an Akuri can be from what is made in a Parsi home. While the ingredients may be same, the sogginess of the Akuri in a Parsi home made it so much more tasty than what is often served in many other places. While Akuri maybe a lot more popular, within the community -per-eeda is a phrase that is extremely common i.e. dishes with egg in it. Starting off with tomato-per eeda, papeta-per-eeda, Bhida-per-eeda, Turia-per-eeda, tarkari–per-eeda is a long line of dishes with eggs augmenting the taste.

Talking about breakfast, the roasted fowl sandwich was another delight where the meat is roasted with certain ingredients that leaves its teasing taste behind as the contents make its way into your stomach.

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As shared earlier, starters or snacks in Parsi cuisine have a visible influence of the colonial era in India. Cutlis Pao is nothing but a cutlet served inside a pao. So is the other vegetarian delicacy Chutney Patties. It is potato with green chutney, so very common in Mumbai made in the form of a chop, again, an influence of British era. The cutlets can be had even without the paos, and especially when the tomato gravy is poured over it. The snacks in this cuisine can keep going on, but am lucky (or maybe unlucky) to have tasted just a few of them.

As a Bengali, how I can’t restrain myself from samosas (or shingara as we call in Bengali). But unlike the ones here, the Parsi ones are flat in shape and the feel of mutton keema, after overcoming the crisp outer layer, is such a welcome deviation to the potato-peas combo of shingara. The subtle aroma of coriander and mint leaves lend a memorable touch to the same.

However, it was Mutton Soti Boti, which ranks at the top amongst some of the snacks that I have devoured. Marinated mutton cubes are cooked till it is done (also cooked in a way so that the meat is dry), is skewered with boiled potatoes. The skewers are placed across a frying pan and the meat & potato are fried till they are nicely browned. Then the same is again fried after rolling the skewers in bread crumbs and egg dip.

It is impossible to capture a rich and diverse cuisine like the Parsi cuisine at one go. There are so many vegetarian delicacies like Patrel or Mawa Cake or Dar Ni Pori which are also great starters or snacks. Paris Butter or Paris cheese makes some of their homemade cookies so unique in their smoothness. The homemade sauces, condiments and marmalade are sheer delight because of the honesty of their tastes.

They say that the speciality of Parsi cuisine is that it tastes sweet as it touches the lips; then as you chew the food, it tastes sour and then as you gulp the food, it leaves a spicy feel. In a very similar way, when you enter a Parsi home, you first feel their warmth; as you settle down, you feel the hospitality and as you get ready to leave their house, it is their generosity which touches you. Capturing the joy of being with them on here is impossible.

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Coorg Cuisine

Too strong an association of a place with one specific thing has its consistent disadvantage. Being a Kolkata-an, the word Rosogolla is something I have heard the most from people who belong to other parts of the country. And I always hated this excessive association of Rossogolla with Kolkata, since it shrouded so much more of the culinary landscape of this place.

What Rossogolla is to Kolkata is probably what Coffee is to Coorg. The over emphasis on Coffee and its plantations created blinders in me as I approached the place. No doubt the filter coffee there is distinct, has all the merits to be highlighted and so are some of the unique variants that are available there. But what I never expected that amidst those plantations, there is extensive paddy cultivation as well, especially in zones which are not as sloping, like till about Suntikoppa or certain other zones.

The abundance of paddy cultivation has led to consumption of rice in various forms. While in Bengal Ghee Bhaat (Rice) used to be the default cereal in major meals of the rich and the affluent, Nye Kool (Ghee Rice) is somewhat similar in Coorg. Hence every place that I explored asked me if the accompaniments should be served with ghee rice. So many hundreds kilometers away, yet it reminded me of our very own Basmati Pulao, primary difference being this one is more whitish in colour and I found it slightly more sweeter than Basmati Pulao. The use of Cashew, raisins (and any other fried nuts that the cook may want to use) were more opulent.

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Personally not a great lover of Pulao, it was Kadambuttu (rice-flour balls) that attracted me. They were round shaped balls made with rice flour, juicy and soft, yet not crumbling as you hold it or bite it. It doesn’t have a taste of its own and I loved the lack of fermentation therein (compared to idlis) – but it surely has a unique feel and helps retain the authentic taste of the dish it is accompanying.

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But it was Akki Otti (plain & crisp rice roti) which led to all my confusion. I loved it equally as much as I loved Kadambuttu and had to navigate between it and Kadambuttu for every bite with the dish accompanying them. Mostly made of leftover rice mixed with rice flour, almost no water is added while making the dough to avoid the rotis getting hard. Whiter in colour that usual Tawa rotis made of wheat, I loved the hot rotis, slightly crispy at some zones, dig the pandi curry and navigate into my mouth.

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Coorgi Cuisine without Pandi Curry is incomplete. But I was more curious to understand as to why this singular focus and excitement around Pork (Pandi) though none of the surrounding regions like Mangalore, Konkan, Kerala has as much singular focus on Pork.

A common characteristics of most men in Coorg are their tall and stout physique. My assumption is that because they were mostly warriors generations back, the same is reflected in their features. In those days, as they moved in jungles, wild boar became a very common food on which they had to survive. And thus the strong attachment to pork even today amongst people from the place. Moreover, in the wild, getting cooking oil wasn’t easy. Pork, as a meat, can be cooked in its own fat and hence even today, minimal oil is used in cooking the same. Having said that, there is a distinctive kick in the authentic Pandi Curry that you taste in Coorg. To preserve the meat, natural preservatives were used I guess. And that is probably the genesis behind Kachampuli, their own version of a Balsamic vinegar that is extracted from the ripe fruits of the Kodambuli fruit (the ripe fruits of the garcinia gummi gutta tree). And it is this taste, mixed with the ones of green chilies and peppercorns (abundantly available), that lends its tangy hot unique taste to Pandi curry. I can do with one plate of pandi, but I can’t resist my craving for another plate of the curry.

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Being land-locked and not easily accessible for a long time, culinary traits from surrounding locales could never get infused within their cuisine in the past.

Maybe, with accessibility being no longer an issue, some bit of infusion has happened and that’s why I was lucky enough to try out something that weakens me considerably – neer dosa. And it combined graciously Koli Nallamolu Barthadh (chicken-pepper fry). The soft moist dosas allowed me to perfectly grab the gravy clinging to chicken pieces, spiced up with an aroma of pepper. And with so much of fresh pepper being grown all around, I guess it is difficult to replicate the taste of gravy of Barthadh elsewhere. Just like Pandi curry is a religion in Coorgi Cuisine, so is Pandi Barthad. I guess it is all the more difficult to replicate barthadh elsewhere and hence its suppressed fame.

 

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Ghee rice with a curry made of poppy seed? No – I am not in Bengal. I continue to be in Coorg and I was amazed at the finesse of the poppy seed & cashew based mutton curry which was a killer combo with ghee rice. The smell of coconut and the kick of aromas from cloves, cinnamon and cardamom were such a welcome deviation. I thanked Mr Swarup of Coorg Cuisine for suggesting me Ghee Rice with this Kori Yerchi Curry. Btw, you shouldn’t miss a meal at Coorg Cuisine in Madikeri, if you want an absolute authentic place to try Coorgi Food. It is not luxurious in ambience; but its food is grand and so is the warmth of the owners.

 

And if you are in Coorg Cuisine, do order coffee with jaggery and lemonade with honey, as you settle down to take a sumptuous look at their menu.

All the above made me convince about people from this place being inherently warriors and having moved through forest lands, fundamentally relied on natural ingredients and not on processed ones.

And that practice extends to their vegetarian cuisine as well. Bamboo shoot, jungle mangoes, jackfruit, kembh leaves (edible colocasia) and mushroom are popular in their cuisine. Kummu curry gave me a perspective of the vegetarian food of Kodavas. Historically, this used to be prepared using fresh mushrooms that appear soon after a night of thunder and lightning. I had to satisfy myself with the ones that must have appeared after waiting for the thunder for months.

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The way puffed rice and bhel dominates the chaat space in many parts of the country, it is fruit chaats that is dominant in Coorg. Yet again, the same reinforces their affiliation to ingredients naturally natural. Raw mango is a part of most chaat prepared (used in a way I have seen ourselves use potato) with a medley of fruits, pineapple having a predominance during the season I was there.

 

Oooppss! I am in Southern part of the country and not mentioned anything about “South Indian” food! For many, “South Indian” food is stereotyped as Dosa, Idli, Sambar, Chutney. The netted set-Dosa with thin strips of carrot weren’t anything Coorgi to the best of my knowledge. The strong taste and dark colour of sambar is typically what is unique to Karnataka and I do love that. Pohas here are usual to what you will get in Bangalore and Mysore.

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Exploring homemade wines and chocolates can be a blog by itself. They say that if a woman is presented with rose in Coorg, she will quickly take the petals off to make wine from it. The variety is indeed mind blogging. Sugar and the fruit of choice are added to boiled water and stirred at regular intervals for a period of five days. Then it is kept for 25 days (varies depending on the key ingredient) , after which the fruit and sugar mixture is filtered into a bottle without any traces of the pulp being mixed. In order to separate the pulp from the liquid, Muslin cloth is used in the filtration process. They don’t use any preservatives and alcohol and yeast are also not used. Through natural process of fermentation, the wine acquires alcohol content.

 

While I cherished the taste of the chili wine that I bought, my thirst for unearthing more about it is surely going to bring me back to this land of wine… or coffee as they say.

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Beef Breakfasts in Kolkata

I was back around 7-30 am. My wife opened the door

Wife: walked extra today? Came in late?

Me: No, I didn’t take the morning walk today. Told you last night that I will be leaving early to be at Sufia.

Wife: but that was a joke I guess

Me: I told you while leaving at 4-30am today also

Wife: Oh!!! I thought I was imagining in my sleep basis what you told me last evening. Did you seriously go?

That’s the gap which happens even after living for a couple of decades together when one is a person who lives to eat and other eats to live.

Waking up at crazy early morning hours for breakfast must be weird as apparent above. Many would wonder that it is not quite a normal behaviour to get up at 4 am and board an Uber at 4-30 am just for some breakfast. And more so for the items not generally imagined as a breakfast in wildest dreams. Well…divine stuff needs those extra efforts. And I was on my way in the dark winter morning at 4-30 am towards Zakaria street. Even after entering Chitpur Road it was all silent and deserted and I was wondering if I am wee bit early in my worry not to miss it. Crossed Nakhoda Masjid and as the cab crossed the lane on right….well here I am. Ought to be the place bustling with activity and people. Is there a queue? Yes for those who are in groups of 3 or 4, but I was alone. Placed myself comfortably in a chair. No – One doesn’t need to order for it. It is given. At such unearthly hours, if you are at “Sufia“, waiters know why you are there. You just need to mention whether poori or roti. I went for the roti. And I surely don’t recollect a better tandoori roti that I have had. White, perfectly baked, not a single corner burnt, crispy outer layer, moist inner layer. Wow!!! Here it comes with the star attraction accompanying it. Read about it, known about it but never heard about any acquaintance’s own experience. Squeeze the lemon over it. And then with your finger gently tear the roti, dip it into the gravy and tuck it onto your tongue. Purely divine. I looked at my watch. 5 am. Divinity at 5 am.

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Nihari, the dish cooked overnight for around 8 hours and served once it is ready the following day. I haven’t tasted beef as succulent as this…nowhere in places I have been to inside and outside country. And the gravy… well it can’t be described… it can only be felt and internalized.

 

While discussing with the owner of one of the most respected and oldest Mughlai eatery in Kolkata, I came to know that the origin of the dish is linked to the Mughal emperors in the late 18th century. The workers, who stayed in the site where they were constructing buildings needed to start their work early. So that they can focus on their work and not stay hungry, it was ordered that their food be ready early morning before they get to their work. The cooks used the portions of meat which weren’t attractive for other stately preparations and with limited spices, put it on fire the previous night so that it can slowly cook and by early morning will be ready. The taste of this dish soon attained fame, and from being merely a food for the workers in the morning, it soon entered Royal kitchen. The term Nihari owns its origin to Nihar Mu. The word Nihar in Urdu is derived from the Arabic word Nahar. Nahar means day and Nihar is associated with dawn. Mu is mouth or face and Nihar Mu was used to indicate empty stomach or when nothing has been consumed in the morning. So this meat with gravy was served Nihar Mu for the workers with Roti. This meat with broth got synonymous with Nihar Mu and slowly came to be known as Nihari, not sure if the last part of Roti led to Nihari ending with i.

Hence, most places serve it early morning, after cooking it overnight. While mutton and chicken variants are available, nihari is more popular with beef shanks since mutton or chicken tends to melt when cooked for 6-8 hours.

There will be some who will still crave for Nihari, yet struggle to wake up so early and reach the place  before 6 am from distant southern or northern part of the city.  Nafeel in Park Circus offers a slightly more convenient option for people from Southern part of the city. And the Nihari is generally available till abut 8-30 / 9 am. And I can tell you, it is extremely good. For those who find a tandoori roti to be too heavy with an already tough-to-digest Nihari, and Poori’s to be too oily, Nafeel has the options of hot tawa rotis as well.

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Khiri is an item i love as Kebabs. The gravy here at Nafeel tempted me to try the Khiri as well. But ideally i should have taken it before the Nihari. For non-beef eaters, Nafeel offers a nice mutton paya, though that is served only in the evening.

 

And for them, who find even 8-30 am too early on a weekend morning, UP –Bihar Hotel in New Market Area is the option as they start around 7-30 and presumably the Nihari is available till late morning, though I have never risked going late.

There are some more eateries which make Beef Nihari but I have only tried ones in the above.

For those, who avoid beef as a meat, mutton paya is an option in many of these places and you can also refer to my other blog which will list down some of the cherished non-beef Mughlai breakfasts of the city.

Mughlai Mornings

Breakfast story and that too with beef remains incomplete without one of the most coveted destinations for beef-lovers of the city. Right – I am referring to Beeru’s Restaurant. Unless someone has told you about this place, you will comfortably give this place a miss, since the ambience is nothing to allure you. Located in Ripon Street, yet again try to be there by 8-30 am in case Beef Nihari is in your mind. There is also one more key attraction here which tends to get over early. Will come to that appropriately.

 

Tandoori roti, Tawa Roti, Paratha and of course Daal Poori are the options you have. I tried both the tawa roti and the Daal Poori. While Tawa roti is like any other place, I strongly suggest not to miss the Daal Poori here. Crispy and dry on the surface with absolutely no oil clinging to it, the soft inside with filling distinct in its taste, it can be had even without any accompaniment. But when paired with beef chaap, it is a combo very few combinations can beat. The meat was almost in a semi solid state, so well blended it was with hours of slow cooking and a gravy that was intricately weaving its magic through its presence amidst the pores in the meat. A beef dish I experienced where toothless people will also not have any problem having it. While two of us ordered just one plate of it, this is one dish where you will hate to share it with anyone. What was demoralizing was the unavailability of Beef Keema at Beeru’s. Didn’t know that during winter, they don’t make it in the morning since they make Nihari. Everything that happens, happens for good. Once winter is over, I will have a strong reason to be back here.

 

Coming all the way to Beeru’s early in the morning, it is a grave offence not to explore beyond one dish. The passing bowl of Ishtew for some other table made me order one for us. This one is light yellowish in color, dominated with the taste of poppy seeds & cashew nut paste, which is added after simmering the meat with the other ingredients for a long time. While the meat pieces could have been slightly softer, the gravy was a delight. Soft tawa rotis went perfectly well with it, with minimal interference to the shahi flavours of the Ishtew. Even if you are full, force yourelf to order the halwa and just one more Poori with it. The restrained sweetness and the smooth texture of the halwa will unfold in its glorious taste when it wraps itself up in the cozy folds of the hot poori in a cold winter morning and enters your mouth.

 

While you are delighted, guess you are too full now. Wash it all with their strong tea which will be as much memorable as each of the other items.

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Netaji r Telebhaja

“Netaji r telebhaja” – the term Netaji, while being misused often nowadays, is mostly associated with one person in India and beyond. And the fact that he had a telebhaja shop is something that will amuse most. Yet it is known as Netaji r telebhaja. And people from all walks of life has sometime or the other come over here to cherish Netaji r telebhaja.

When Kshetu Shaw came in from Gaya and set up this shop exactly 100 years ago in 1918, he wanted to earn his living by feeding Telebhaja to a city which slowly transitioning into strife and unrest. Telebhaja is no specific item. It is anything which is deep fried in oil and is mostly associated with the street-side shops creating a coating of besan (gram flour) in which is the stuffing can vary as widely from mashed potato, brinjal to paneer or can be simply some onions and green chilli. The closest term in English can be fritters. Little did he know, that apart from many fans for his telebhaja, he will be able to make the emerging man of Indian Freedom struggle one of the most hardened loyalists of his telebhaja.

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Subhas Ch Bose used to drop in to this place to pick up their telebhaja (often fuluri) to go along with muri (puffed rice). He continued this practice even when he was a mayor or Congress President. It is said, the same fuluri used to be delivered to the venue of his meetings, as eating something is sacrosanct with meetings. Allegedly, even for secret meetings, fuluri used to get delivered but those deliveries were carried out only by Kshetu Shaw himself.

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He named the shop after his son Laxmi Narayan. He himself was an ardent follower of Netaji, having met him during the days netaji was in college, well before he became a loyalist of their shop. All his life he collected as much documents, memoirs of Netaji as he could, and preserved them as mark of intense respect for Bose.

Earlier everything was handmade. With time, and with emerging mechanization, they have moved some part of their work onto machines, like grinding of masalas or beating of gram flour paste.

It was January 1941, Bose escaped from under British surveillance from his Elgin Road house in Calcutta. This historic event and his disappearance might be the reason Kshetu Shaw decided to celebrate Bose’s birthday from 1942 onwards by distributing free fuluris on 23rd January, an item, Bose was so fond of. It is said that between 1918 to 1941, Bose celebrated two of his birthdays at this place. However, till independence, this distribution of telebhaja on 23rd January used to be secretive in fear of police atrocities on people known to be close to or followers of Subhas Bose.

This practice continues even today carried out by the grandson of Kshetu Shaw, Kesto Gupta (they have changed their surname). The haves and have-nots, all queue up for this. For some, it is an occasion where they will get some food to satisfy their hunger. For some, it is celebrating their idol or hero by tasting the same fritter that their idol loved so much. Some would still be clueless and queue up just because many has queued up. Maybe unknowingly they are following Netaji’s saying:

“We cannot sit still because we cannot, or do not , know the Absolute Truth.”

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Cut-off forever – Kalman’s Cold Cuts

The era of the Raj was over, but the hangover of the same in the lifestyle of the citizen was amply present. It was a time when the past held onto its practices while the present was undergoing a transformation to build an independent India. It was a time when a new order was evolving from the foundation of independence, the misery of partition and the haunting memories of famine and then poverty.

Chowringhee, Park Street and New Market, the erstwhile white town retained its charm as the happening place of Kolkata. A 5-course set meal at Firpo’s starting off with a Consommé and ending with Gateau and Coffee was a desire many wanted to fulfill. The Soft and White pluffy bread of the place was a desire deeply resident in many citizens. If Firpo’s Italian spread was much sought-after, so was the Swiss delicacies at Flurys whose tea room was a comfort and luxury that still has their supporters amongst many. Shopping at the Great Eastern Stores after a Turtle soup in Grand Hotel was an ideal way to spend a Saturday evening. Nahoum’s Jewish Bakery, which still survives and  M X D’ gama, the famed Goan Bakery (which closed a few years back) were famous as patisseries. Christmas and New Year had a different fervor at home, if cakes were from these places.

Polos were hot in cold wintry days, while Circus was an entertainment that kept many waiting for the winter. Little did Kalman Kohary know that he will find himself stuck in this city and not be able to return back ever when he came down as a trapeze artist with a Russian circus troop. With the iron doors slid in Hungry, he had to stay back in Kolkata. Kolkata, being a melting pot of people from various nations, an Hungarian married a Burmese to start off not only their family life but an establishment, which outlasted him by so many decades. From a small place in Elliot Road, he started selling smoked hams, Hungarian sausages, liver pate, liver sausages and bacon. In a city, where the taste buds are tickled by the likes of places mentioned above, Kalman’s cold cuts became popular quickly as people wanted to replicate at home, what they cherished savoring at the famed places.

Bishnupada Dhar mastered the art of cutting the slices and also got himself immersed into the process of curing and reading the portions under Kalman’s guidance. When Kalman passed away in 1969 and his family left for Burma the following year, it was left onto Dhar to carry forward Kalman’s heritage.

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As they moved into their new premises, the list of items grew – cooked hams ready for slicing or smoked ones that you can cook back at home; collared meat plain and spiced salami, spiced beef, tender roast pork, roast duck and so on. If ordered 24 hours ahead, turkey and goose were also available.

With dwindling expertise around creating such cold cuts in-house, restaurants and eateries started sourcing their raw materials from Kalman’s. With all its popularity, Dhar still remained a patient gentle-tempered person, open to suggestions and explaining to his clients whatever queries they had. Soon, the fame of the place spread beyond the city and he had orders from other cities as well.

After Dhar passed away, this place was being run by his descendants till finally it decided to down its shutters recently. Kalman’s closing down is not about another long-cherished place in the city downing its shutters. It is part of changing scenario where lack of skilled people in traditional work is leading to many such handcrafted products slowly shutting their shops. The people, who were curing and spicing and cutting all these meat are probably past the age where they can continue putting in efforts the way they did decades back. Nor are the subsequent generations excited about being in the profession of their ancestors. In an era, where such products are dished out at a far higher pace than what manual efforts can yield, such places maynot be the hot spots anymore for clients of subsequent generations, for whom automated offerings may have as much value as such skilled, finely crafted man-made products.

There are some of these, which were great places to spend time and which left lasting impression amongst his clients. But then there are some, which goes beyond to become an establishment – places which just didn’t serve great products but which also became an intrinsic part of the culture and theme of the city. Kalman came in at a time when the city was wriggling out of its colonial past and social, cultural and food practices were transforming. It not only helped resuscitate what could have been a slowly disappearing food habit, but also acted as a place where people from various faiths and beliefs converged not only to buy their needs but also to exchange words and thoughts in an otherwise drifting populace.

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A Place of Paramount Importance

Sharbat never used to be a force alone which could draw us to a particular place. And during college days, with stress of studies and excitement of everything around, it was unlikely that some old shop, tucked away amongst many, on the other side of college square would draw us away from more interesting things.

But yes, once there, the sharbat was a refreshing drink. But so was a soft drink, from the shop adjacent to college.

And once, you are out of that place and deep into life’s race, some years later, your inner self yearns to be back there – to soak into the charm of those places that has not been part of the path one has been rushing on, in last few years. While your companions of those years are long lost, you realize, somewhere unknowingly, certain places have silently yet  deeply got entrenched in your soul. They were there in your sub-conscious; it only took a while for you to realize.

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And that’s when, from extreme southern part of the city, overlooking hundreds of roadside stalls selling soft drinks, or state-of-the-art cafes selling complex refreshing drinks, you take the trouble to reach this place in Bankim Chatterjee Street, not to refresh yourself with a drink after travelling that far, but to refresh your soul, which is tired in all these years. And that’s when you realize that this city has an amazing chemistry of ensuring the co-existence of the old to refresh your soul and the new to refresh your body.

Their Sharbat evoked feeling for the motherland – and hence probably it was here that many of our freedom fighters used to gather to plan their secret moves. Be it Netaji Subhas or Bagha Jatin or so many other freedom fighters, they all frequented this place.

Their Sharbat evoked poetry and no wonder Kazi Nazrul and many other famous literary personalities would ponder over their next creation, over a glass of sharbat here.

Their Sharbat tickles the inner intellect in people. And be it Prof Satyen Bose or Acharya Prafulla Ch Roy, a glass of their Sharbat probably was the interlude between their long hours at study and labs.

Their Sharbat was music for many and musical Pundits like Sachin Dev Burman or Gauriprasanna Mazumder would probably have stitched a few notes over a glass of Sharbat here.

100 years is a journey to cherish – more so if the passengers in such a vehicle are the likes of the ones mentioned above and also the commoners who not only quenched their thirst here, but also carried a lasting memory of this place.

It is the same family across multiple generations, who run this place. It started as Paradise in 1918, but then had to close down for a while when the ruling British officials smelled that this is a place where plans of liberation movements were being drawn.  They reopened a few years later as Paramount and it is the same setup that runs today.

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What Sharbat to drink here? I will leave that to one’s own choice of flavour. The flavour of the place anyway will far outweigh the flavour that you look for a in a drink. If not averse to coconut, do attempt their Daab Sharbat. It is said that the same was introduced at the insistence of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy. With large part of their clientele being students, Acharya felt, coconut based drink will not only be refreshing, but will also act as a stimulant for the brain.