Arrival, 27th December; morning.
Every visit to Calcutta exposes me to more and more of this fabulous city. Brimming with culture, tradition, history and attitude, I get to see different aspects of the city with every visit and each such aspect brings the city closer to my heart and the prospect of the next visit, more enticing. We were in Calcutta from the 27th to the 31st of December for Charis’ wedding and related functions, spaced a day apart on the 28th and the 30th of December. A scant moment after reaching our rooms around 11am, on the direction of the bellboy, we headed for Ganguram’s at the Golpark roundabout for a breakfast of Radhaballavi, crossing a petrol pump on the way, where we witnessed the thrashing of a chap by another couple of chaps. Interestingly, the gathered crowd didn’t appear to want to stop them as much as split the encounter into rounds and then score the performance. At Ganguram’s we were told that Radhaballvi’s were indeed available, “Puri Sabzi” piped up another chap at the counter, correctly recognising us to be cultureless charlatans from Delhi. We ate standing up at the counters lining the shop, Indu only half of hers with Cherie and I greedily finishing whatever she left, mopping up the remnnants with hands that really should have been washed prior. In the mood for some hot tea after a greasy, sweet and spicy meal, a drink Ganguram’s didn’t serve, we retraced our steps past the same petrol pump, where we observed a man on the phone, alternating between tears and rage – the trashed lamenting his lot and swearing revenge against the thrashers. Reaching the tea stall, we found adjoining it, another stall selling puris and a dal made of some type of gourd and dried peas. I asked for a plate. The man turned up the heat under the kadhai of oil, pulled out a slab of marble, placed a small bowl of oil in one corner, four small balls of dough at the top and then a rolling pin. He then dabbed a few fingers into the bowl of oil, smeared it in the centre of the slab, picked and placed a ball of dough on the smear, flattened it with his palm, rolled it flat and long with one motion of the rolling pin, peeled it off and laying it horizontally, rolled it again and then threw it into the oil, proceeding to do the same with the next ball of dough, but this time, turning over the puri in the kadhai just before rotating the puri on the slap for the second roll and did the same for the next two. We sat on grimy stones at the side of the road, ate hot puris with dal, sipped very sweet, very hot tea and savored our first glimpse of Calcutta. A young lady stood in a corner holding a cigarette between her fingers, bringing it to her lips with the exaggerated motions of someone who’s just started smoking; standing in a belligerent pose, almost daring comment, but nonetheless deliberately positioned behind sufficient debris that none saw her. We paid 12 rupees for two teas, 12 rupees for four puris and a portion of dal and continued to our rooms.
I was chatting with Somnath RoyChoudhury on Facebook a few minutes after reaching our rooms. A graphic designer, Somnath lives in suburban Calcutta and advised us to try Tero Parbon for lunch, a meal that was barely an hour and a half away. That’s the problem with travelling. There’s so much to eat and so little time to do so. Even if time problems were solved, there’s the question of capacity and warning wives. We walked to Tero Parbon, about 10 minutes away from our rooms, reaching around 1pm. An old fashioned restaurant with light beige walls and dark furniture, the three of us loved the menu and proceeded to order our first Bengali meal in Calcutta – Mochar chops (banana flower croquettes), Macher chops (spicy croquettes of shredded fish), Beguni (batter fried slices of aubergine), Aloo Posto (potatoes and poppy seeds), Kosha Mangsho (curried goat), Shukto (a melange of vegetables, usually a little bitter, traditionally part of the first course), lucchis and rice, followed by Nolen Gurer Kulfi topped with a dollop of honey. Not a single morsel of food returned from that table; not a smear of gravy and not a bite of potato – we wiped everything clean!
Having slept for barely 3 hours that morning, we returned to our rooms and were dead to the world until half past five that evening, when we awoke, ready to eat again. This time however we landed up at Charis’ parent’s house, where we dug into a catered dinner of tomato soup with a spoonful of cream, and crisp, brown croutons, sweet and sour vegetables, chicken in Bechamel accompanied by buttered dinner rolls and buttered garlic bread followed by caramel pudding for dessert. I believe interesting people attract interesting people and Charis’ home was no exception. We met teachers, principals, priests, doctors and all manner of folks most intellectual in their pursuits. Having said that, it is always so nice to meet folks who can talk of something other than what’s in the papers and what they do at work every day. Hobbyists, I find, are a dying breed.
Breakfast that morning was Radhaballabi – refined flour pooris with aloor dum (Bengali style potatoes) – big chunks of potatoes, quartered, not diced, accompanied by hot, strong and sweet tea. Later, we met up with Sudip Srivastava and his lovely wife Smriti , fellow members of Chef at Large, for lunch and headed over to Peter Cat, a legendary restaurant off Park Street. It was alas spilling at the seams and so we made for Mocambo closeby only to find the same situation. Mediocre bowls of soup and a mediocre portion of Chili Chicken (I wanted to see how its done in Kolkata) at Tung Fong later, we were joined by Somnath Roychoudhury who bolstered our resolve to go Bengali for lunch at 6, Ballygunge Place. Our buffet lunch was lovely – Steaming hot Begunis and Radhaballabis were served at the table alongside a bowl of sliced Gondhoraj and green chilies, while our plates were piled high with steamed rice, grilled fish, curried fish, curried chicken, curried mutton, dal, spicy cauliflower and more. In retrospect, I really should have noted the Bengali names of the dishes.
Cocktails were planned for that evening, which turned out to be a time of fun and frolic for all concerned. Charis’ family came up to perform for the couple and all manner of talent was demonstrated for the benefit of all – specially choreographed dance performances, songs and what have you. This was followed by the opening of the bar, buffet and dance floor. Two large measures of Haig, a whiskey I hadn’t tasted before and two rounds of the live food counters later, we called it a night. Having said that, I did witness an appreciation of butter in the people behind the counters that I can only attribute to the Bengali love of good food. At one end of the counter, dinner rolls were being sliced, buttered and grilled on a hot griddle. The only difference was, *both* sides of the dinner rolls were being smeared with prodigious amounts of butter before being tossed on to the sizzling iron and then steaming, bubbling on to the platters of diners awaiting service. Where non-vegetarians find representation in the form of a token dish or two at such counters in Delhi, here, it was a meat-eaters paradise with delicious but fewer options for vegetarians. My perambulation of this area saw me coming away with multiple helpings of butter-grilled dinner rolls, kathi rolls stuffed with spicy mutton seekh kebabs, batter fried paneer, little shami kebabs of minced meat and steaming hot, soft slices of grilled fish among many other dishes, all washed down with mouthfuls of Haig on ice with a bit of water.
Indu and I had one tattoo each, crafted by Raja Pyne in Kolkata in February of 2013 when we visited for Antara’s wedding. We decided to do one this time too, thus making both Antara’s and Charis’ weddings indelible marks on our arms. After a breakfast of lucchis and dal, we took an appointment from Raja for later that afternoon, and planned to visit Pao Chien, a Chinese restaurant recommended by Tirthankar Ray, Antara’s brother, friend and Kolkata based Sound Engineer. A tiny little place, Pao Chien had a nice menu, pork being given sufficient representation. We therefore split a Pork Noodle Soup, Pork Fried Rice and Fish in Hot Garlic Sauce. As expected, while there was nothing Chinese about the food, the preparations were tasty, the portions large as well as sufficient pork fat wherever desired.
Reaching our tattoo appointment just in time, Indu decided a Pentacle would go well with the round representation of Yin and Yang already on her forearm and I, a Triple Tau to accompany the existing Square & Compass. Poorna and Manjari were waiting for us at New Market by this time, both inveterate cooks and bloggers I had never met though Manjari and I had spoken a fair bit on the phone. Well acquainted with their posts on the Chef at Large Facebook Group, the picture that instantly pops to mind when I think of Manjari, is her Classic Victorian Sponge Cake. The first thing Poorna did, was to take us to Blue and Beyond, a restaurant in the Hotel Lindsay, with an unexciting menu, limp service and the most brilliant view of the city I had seen, which was why we were there. Ten minutes later, the entire landscape having been elegantly and exhaustively described by Poorna we headed for a trek through New Market where the most wondrous sights awaited us. With the indefatigable Poorna and Manjari leading, we witnessed all manner of goods being sold, stopping at a few select purveyors. The first was to pick up some Bandel cheese, a whey based, salted, unripened, soft cheese available in two varieties – normal and smoked, which Poorna suggested I pre-soak in water before using. The butchery started soon after where goat, duck, sheep, buffalo and chickens among other animals were brought to die for culinary causes. We bought garlic powder, tea, more cheese, Hungarian sausages, shoes and loads of stuff!
Dinner was at Mocambo, a restaurant that displays an interesting menu, but considering the staid service and poor hygiene of which, I now rate it at rock bottom and will never visit again. I spent the new year surveying the facilities available at various toilets at different locations in Kolkata and Delhi, thanks to the negligent, ignorant idiots who run that particular establishment.
30th December 2014
Cherie had been told about the Indian Museum, which she insisted on visiting today. This tied in well with our proposed lunch with Keerti Gupta at Peter Cat, alongside Park Street, a few minutes from the museum. After a breakfast of buttered toast and omelettes and some packing, we headed to the museum. One of the things I quite liked about Kolkata was the taxi system – yellow Ambassadors with meters, the drivers of which, mostly don’t refuse any destination, are numerous and easily found and reasonably priced to boot. We traveled by taxi every single day, multiple times a day, and never once waited on the kerb for more than a 3 minutes and only once found one who overcharged. The auto rickshaws on the other hand overcharge and are unmetered; just as in Delhi.
I found the Indian museum to be exceedingly well filled with people from all walks of life roaming its broad, high corridors, passing enthusiastic remarks directed at Egyptian mummies and preserved mastodons alike, making the entire structure buzz with activity. Delhi should learn a lesson or two and begin to adopt the more cerebral aspects of modern culture, limited as we are to restaurant menus and auto brochures as our only sources of reading material none of which can still talk knowledgeably about. The museum has a Modeling Unit which we visited too and found a treasure trove of beautifully crafted replicas of ancient carvings available at stunningly low prices. These we purchased, even at the risk of being late for our meeting at Peter Cat with Keerti.
Reaching Peter Cat about 25 minutes late, we found ourselves at a restaurant arrogant enough to not allow patrons within, unless all of their party were present at the door. We later learnt this establishment to be owned by the same dummkopfs who own Mocambo. As suggested by many, I ordered the Chelo Kebab Platter, a lukewarm collective of cold rice, topped by two cubes of butter that never melted, barely warm seekh kebabs on one side, an almost hot poached/steamed egg and a cold chain of skewered chicken and vegetables on the other side. I don’t recall what Indu ordered, but it gave her a bad tummy later.
The owners of this establishment, have managed to discover one of the secrets of attracting people – deny them something and they want it more. Having done so, these morons have proceeded to build establishments based on this, dishing out utterly horrible food, equally awful service and free stomach infections to patrons, including me, every so often. Keerti and her husband Prasenjit on the other hand were delightful company who took time off from their respective offices to make that lunch.
Taking our leave from the engaging couple, we returned to our rooms, dressed and left for the wedding. Charis looked radiant, white plume and all, gracing us onlookers with a brilliant smile every now and then. A few hours later, the only real difference I found between a Christian (my first) wedding and a Hindu one, from a guest’s point of view, was the level of involvement. In a Hindu wedding, the tendency is to issue invitations to a pin code and here, to individuals. Subsequently, guests land up in droves and many leave without meeting the bride and groom – literally drive up, eat, drink and leave. At Charis and Denis’ nuptials, we were a part of the entire ceremony from beginning to end, actively participating in sections involving the singing of hymns and the like, and when concluded, we felt like a part of the whole, than mere bystanders, as has been the case in every other wedding I’ve attended.
Despite having filled up on food at the wedding, I stopped by this little restaurant called Grub Club on the way back and packed portions of roast pork with rice and chili fried pork, to be read with the latest Wilbur Smith; one of his Egyptian series.
The day Tirthankar and I had met, he invited all of us to his home for breakfast with his mother and father, a gracious couple we had had the pleasure of meeting, albeit in a wedding setting (so it wasn’t much time spent) in 2013 during Antara’s wedding. A delicious breakfast of freshly fried, crisp, soft and flaky koraishutir kachoris, potato curry and devilled eggs later we took our leave and returned to home base to the gargantuan task of packing – we were to leave Calcutta with considerably more than what we came with; indeed, we had to purchase a new suitcase to do so.
A light meal of Asparagus Chicken Corn soup and Chili Chicken at Grub Club later (the Bengalis don’t appear to add bell peppers to their Chili Chicken as we do in Delhi) we successfully completed our packing and left for the airport, where thanks to the generosity of the owners of Mocambo, I became intimately acquainted with the toilets both at the airport as well as the plane, running up a high fever by the next morning. We arrived at my brother’s home at 11:55pm, just in time to ring in the new year with them, thus concluding another very memorable visit to the City of Joy.