24 June 2013

Post Facto - Gastro-gallivanting: Culinary capers in Calcutta

My Sunday Guardian column this fortnight:

Dacres lane, Calcutta
n Calcutta in June, you invariably sleep to the sound of rain. Having thumped and clattered its way through the night, it arrives at a civilised pitter-patter by morning. But by then it has already succeeded in waking you up.
The fitfulness of such a morning can be compensated for — as can most things in Calcutta — by food. In this case, by an early expedition to Bentinck Street for the traditional Chinese breakfast, which members of the city's longstanding Chinese community produce and sell by a street corner, at the mouth of a lane called Chhata Gulley. At 7am, the wide stretch of the street around Poddar Court is occupied by a series of fish and vegetable sellers. Displayed on plastic sheets on the ground are the many varieties of summer gourds that grow in Bengal — potol, dhondhol, lau, jhinge, chichinge, uchhe, korola — and the even greater varieties of leafy vegetables — kolmi shag, notay shag, lal shag, palon shag. Amid this proliferation of raw stuffs, we nearly miss the breakfast stalls. Their number has diminished to about five, of which only one makes what to me seemed the highlight: large vats of soup, one with meatballs that seem substantially made of pork, and one with fishballs. A thirty-something woman, with features that are an appealing mixture of Bengali and Chinese, sits on a low seat on the pavement, her skirt hiked up to her knees so she can sit comfortably, spooning out the soup. Two generous-sized meat or fish balls are spooned into each bowl of soup. A sprinkling of chopped spring onions and your 30 rupee breakfast is ready. The fishballs are firm and springy (and thankfully not too fishy), while the meatballs are a little fattier but very tasty. The soup itself is mild, yet flavourful and full-bodied in the way that only good stock can make it: not quite as thin as broth, but neither subjected to the ignominy of thickening with cornflour. Refills of the soupy liquid are free, but we decide to get another meatball each. There are also fish and prawn shuimai, which are not too bad in terms of the thinness of their wrappers, but aren't prettily finished: they make for rather dumpy dumplings.
They ought to have been supplemented by what I have hitherto eaten in Chinese restaurants in both Delhi and New York as 'bao', but what everyone in Calcutta seems to know as 'pao' — large, soft steamed buns stuffed with a sweet and spicy pork or chicken filling. But there were none that morning. There was one (Indian) woman with a small board that advertised them among her wares, but she didn't have any. Instead she offered us chicken momos, which we didn't venture to try — not even to figure out whether they were actually shuimai being sold as momos, which would be an odd reversal of a practice frequent in mid-range Delhi restaurants.
eanwhile in Lake Gardens, the middle class South Calcutta neighbourhood in which my mother's family has lived for years, the superb hot shingaras made by a one-man-show called Swapan da now vie in the local popularity charts with a highly-regarded new momo-stall. "There are a whole lot of northeastern students who have moved into our neighbourhood," said my aunt by way of explanation.
The city has always been a place of mixture and substitution, and food is its most active laboratory.
Another afternoon we found ourselves on Dacres Lane, in the office district of Esplanade, where lunchtime sees a flood of low- and mid-level office workers arrive for a piping hot meal. On offer is the now quintessential list of sinful Calcutta snacks whose origins lie in the fusion of British food with the Bengali love of deep frying — fish chop, fish fry, mutton and chicken cutlet. But what Dacres Lane is really famous for is a hot plateful of stew — chicken or mutton in mild gravy, with a couple of carrots and a big piece of potato, served with two hunks of bread to sop it all up. There is something quite remarkable about the fact that something as recognisably European in origin is a street food in Calcutta, available for fifty rupees. "Our food has pepper, not red chilli powder," said the friendly Bubai, frontman at the popular Chitto'r Dokaan. And yet their chops and cutlets are always served with a very Indian accompaniment — slices of raw onion and a fiery chutney of some sort, or else the super-pungent Bengali mustard sauce known as kashundi.
The city has always been a place of mixture and substitution, and food is its most active laboratory. As we stood around our small table on Bentinck Street, eating hot spoonfuls of soup, our companions were a group of Manipuri students and two little local Chinese children. The little boy downed his soup somewhat angrily and then wandered around with his head butting out, like a bull looking for something to knock down. The little girl, his elder sister, had rejected the boring Chinese items on offer in favour of a large plate of kochuri and aloor-dom.