Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata are deeply sensorial experiences. The city reverberates with the rhythmic beatings of the dhak mingled with the sound of chants. The air is redolent with the fragrance of incense and fresh blooms. But the most delectable sound of all is of alur chop or Mughlai porota sizzling on a tawa on the street, ready to be eaten while pandal-hopping.
It is during this time that the rich tapestry of Kolkata’s street food becomes visible in all its glory. As one unearths its layers, stories and legends peep out — of bygone rulers and communities that have made the city its home.
In Kolkata, the evolution of a street-side snack is inextricably tied with the development of a particular neighbourhood, so much so that the locality becomes synonymous with a particular dish: the Vivekananda Park ghoogni, the Tiretti Bazaar dumplings, the Beadon Street fish roll, the College Street hinger kochuri, the Esplanade Mughlai porota, and more.
“These can be bunched under three different hubs: one is the classic Dacres Lane with its government offices. People go there for lunch or late breakfast. Second is the trading area around Burrabazar, where you get a variety of vegetarian items,” says Indrajit Lahiri, Kolkata-based blogger and food writer.
The third, according to him, is around Dalhousie and Carmac Street, where the office crowd goes for breakfast, lunch or a snack. A unique place, in this scenario, is New Town, where roadside vendors have been brought under an organised street food zone. To understand the evolution of these hubs, it’s important to look at the history of Calcutta. In 1690, the East India Company began to develop Calcutta as a trading post, after being granted a trading licence from the nawab of Bengal. Soon, the Company abolished the nizamat and took control of the area; thereafter Calcutta became the capital of the British Raj, and stayed so till 1911. Around this time, the Portuguese and the French also started trading relations with the city.
“When Kolkata was born, the scenario was the same as today. Migrant labour came in as a new workforce was needed to service the city’s needs. Street food corners emerged wherever hubs of trade were established,” says Pritha Sen, chef of the French-Bengali eatery Mustard in Goa and Mumbai. So, workers from the Allahabad-Banaras belt brought in ghoogni, kachoris and chaats. The radhaballavi was first introduced by Ganguram Chaurasia from Banaras.
The Bihari populace introduced the puchka, kathi kebab, and the alu dum. Areas with a sizeable Sikh population also became famous for “tonduri chicken” and “dal torka”. However, according to Sen, the tipping point for street food, came with the city’s role in the allied military operations during World War II.
There were soldiers and babus to be fed, in addition to labourers pouring in. The role of the street food vendor became critical. Years of thrift and rationing led to many novel developments as well. “During the war years, tomato ketchup made its debut with a splash on most things edible, and was really responsible for a change in food flavourings. The city bade farewell to the ‘propah’ style of entertaining,” according to The Calcutta Cook Book: A Treasury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace by Minakshie Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha. Even today, the tomato ketchup is an inextricable part of Kolkata’s street side fare. The years also saw the rise of “cabins”, which helped the development of street food.
“Separated from the general dining area in certain restaurants by curtains and wooden planks, these first came up during the 1900s in north Calcutta: here Indian families would have dishes such as cutlets, custard and chops that were considered aspirational even then. This format also made it easy for women to dine out,” says Kalyan Karmakar, who grew up in the city and is now based in Mumbai, where he blogs on Finely Chopped.
One of the most famous was Dilkhusha Cabin on College Street, now over 100 years old, where writers and intellectuals would gather for an afternoon cutlet. Soon, cabins lost their charm, and owners took the food to the streets to make it more accessible.
That’s how Portuguese and British delicacies such as cutlets became part of roadside culinary repertoire. Today, these flavours are a matter of research for chefs and food historians. For the past several months, Kolkata-based home chef Iti Misra and Dheeraj Varma, head chef, Monkey Bar, have been scouring the lanes and alleys of the city to find stories behind some of the iconic dishes. As a result, delicacies such as Girish Park-er Shoitan deem, College Street hing-er kochuri, Esplanade Mughlai porota, Elgin Road pork momos, Vardaan Market moong dal pakodi chaat and Lake Market chicken kabiraji have become part of a special capsule menu at all Monkey Bar outlets during Puja.
Of these, the kabiraji — a crumb-fried cutlet, made either with chicken or fish — is a muchloved snack. As soon as it’s put in oil, an egg is dropped on top to create a covering. “These days, you see an egg nest being made on shows such as MasterChef. It’s the same thing that these street-side vendors do, not with as much finesse, but it’s amazing,” says Rajyasree Sen, who runs a catering outfit in Delhi and is a columnist. You can see this being made at small stalls dotting Chowringhee and Park Circus. The fish fry at Café, near Bhowanipore Metro Station, is another favourite.
Many believe that the name is a spin on the word “coverage”, referring to the act of covering the cutlet with egg. However, Kolkatabased blogger Poorna Banerjee says this might not be true. Also, she believes the origin of the kabiraji might be more Portuguese than British. “The Portuguese would hire Burmese cooks who would incorporate local flavours in Portuguese dishes. They would take the ceviche, fry it and then pour egg to create a lacy cover,” she says.
Then, there are Awadhi influences, as evident in the Mughlai porota, brought in by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, when he was exiled to Kolkata. “People back then were fascinated by Awadhi culture; even today it holds a special place in their hearts. Eventually, Shah ran out of money, died and got buried in Burma.
His entire kitchen staff was rendered jobless and started eateries in Chitpur,” says Misra. The porota, believed to be a version of the baida roti, was made with mince, flour and eggs — folded together and deep fried. According to Misra, one of the famous purveyors of this square-shaped, deep-fried goodness is Anadi Cabin. It is known for its hasher deem, or duck egg porota, which is served with potato curry, salad and ketchup. Besides the porota, the Awadhi influence can also be seen in the rezala, a delicate dish made with chicken or mutton in creamy white gravy. Another interesting sub-genre in Kolkata’s street food is the one introduced by the vibrant Chinese community. “The Tiretti Bazaar is famous for its dumplings and a proper Chinese breakfast. You need to be there by 4.30 am, as the food gets over in two hours or so,” says Rajyasree Sen.