An Ode to Kolkata

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#1 Apr 30th, 2009, 14:43
It's all Greek to me, but Benglish will do
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#1
"The first cut is the deepest" goes the song. And my love affair with Kolkata shows no sign of abating. Visiting the city for the fourth time, one year after the first visit and at exactly the same season, when the Gulmohas (flame-of-the-forest) and the Krishnachuras are in full bloom, I was equally entranced.

This time we purchased a street map (another one for the collection!) and yet another guide to walking in the city without missing the best bits ("A Jaywalker's Guide to Calcutta" by Soumitra DAS, a truly brilliant book). Did this mean we didn't get lost? Hardly. On one very hot and humid April day we searched at length for a school for slum children along the length and breadth of Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Sarani, not far from Sudder Street where the backpackers hang out and equidistant from Park Street, home to the "bhadraloks" and the "babus" and the cell-phone clutching, jeans-clad youth of the city on their way to sip expresso at Cafe Coffee Day on Middleton Row. But Rafi Ahmed Kidwai is an altogether different kettle of fish. Or goat. Or chicken. It is a largely Muslim area. We entered (on a different day) an ancient Islamic bookstore staffed by bearded Mullahs. "Khoda Hafez!" Smiles and gestures at the dusty bookshelves. Out on the street again, crows danced and chattered in the Ficus trees as yellow Ambassador cabs jostled gaily amidst the trams. Here and there hand-drawn rickshaw wallahs sprinted in time-honoured fashion, zig-zagging through the chaotic cacophony of Calcutta streets.

The enormous contrasts of the strata of life in the city were well illustrated the day we visited the Indian Council of Cultural Relations on Ho Chi Minh Sarani, formerly Harrington Street, in the leafy part of the Elgin Street area where enormous guarded mansions (of which the American Embassy) juxtapose street dogs napping in any available shade cast by the Frangipani flowers.

At the Satyajit RAY auditorium we were fortunate indeed to attend, for free, and in select company, the screening of the 1951 film by Jean Renoir, "The River". There was also the chance to watch "The Making Of" this film and hear the most interesting discussion afterwards in the presence of the assistant cinematographer. Fascinating. On this occasion, organized by the Alliance Francaise, there was a photo exhibition of pictures taken by the famous French photographer, Alain Danielou, including thrilling scenes of a young Ravi Shankar as well as his (Danielou's) famous Varanasi pics. The cafeteria next to the cinematheque was a welcome place to hole up, people watch, and drink cup after cup of excellent masala tea. They also have a very interesting menu. This is the place, corect me if I'm wrong, where they have tried out recipes from Rabindranath Tagore's family cuisine. But it was far too hot to eat such food.

On the perennial subject of food - never far from ones mind when in Kolkata - in the ten days we spent altogether in the city we sampled fantastic Bengali cooking at

. BHOJOHARI MANNA (Ekdalia Road, Gariahat)
where the walls are decorated by sketches of Sukumar RAY, Satyajit Ray's famous father, including those from Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La. (More of that later.)

. KEWPIES (Elgin Lane, off the Elgin Street, next to Netaji Bhawan)
where we tried practically everything on the menu in the company of friends

. 6 BALLYGUNGE PLACE - also a terrific restaurant

So, here is a list of mouth-watering Bengali delicacies:

* Elish Jhal (the famous dish of Bengali cuisine) - Correction! ILISH JHOL (thanks RPG)
* Bhekti Paturi (fish cooked inside a banana leaf with mustard)
* Chital Machher Muitha (fish dumplings)
* Fish Kabiraji (brings tears to the eyes it is so good!)
* Posto Narkel Bora (indescribably yummy)
* Echoreer Dalna (jackfruit dish)
* Mocchar Ghonto (Mr. Theyyam's favourite - a banana flower dish, delicately enhanced with coconut and cumin)
* Chingrir (prawns - have to be seen to be believed)
* Telebhaja (fried items)
* Baby aubergines
* Kasha Mangsho (mutton curry)
* Pulao rice
* Mishti doi (the famous sweet)
* Sondesh
* Other sweets with Chhana

Now, having made myself ravenous, I'd like to describe some of our jaunts during our stay:

. The day-trip to DAKSHINESWAR and to BELUR MATH
. The walkabout in SHOVA BAZAAR and KUMARTULI
. Visit to RABINDRA SAROVAR and to BALLYGUNGE
. The Bookshops of Kolkata

But, first of all, I need to eat something! This travellogue will continue as soon as possible while everything is still fresh in my mind, the taste of Kolkata is still in my nostrils and on my palate, in my eyes and disturbing my dreams.
Last edited by theyyamdancer; May 2nd, 2009 at 01:31..
#2 Apr 30th, 2009, 16:52
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#2
Korecho ki? Tumio dekhi amer moton petuk !!! Sob ee to shantiyecho charoni kicchu.
What have you done? You seem to be as much a foodie as I am !!!
You have managed to gobble all leaving nothing.

When Kucho Chingri(tiny shrimps) are added to that Mocher Ghonto it takes on another dimension.
These days many have to go to restaurants to eat Mocher Ghonto as busy working ladies of the house refuse to cook this because of two things. It is a very time consuming act picking out the florets and in the process your fingers get stained. Smearing the fingers with oil helps.
I think I wrote some where about the origin of Kaviraji cutlet. A restaurant named Dilkhosh situated near college street was once up on a time a very popular joint. It was patronised by all sections of people including writers, poets, doctors and other professional crowd. An Ayurvedic doctor(Kaviraj in Bengali) was a regular patron. He had this idea of coating the cutlets with crispy & flaky fried egg whites. Thus Kaviraji cutlet was born.

Looking forward to your post on Sovabazar & Kumartuli where I grew up.
Chaliye jao... pray continue.
#3 Apr 30th, 2009, 17:12
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#3
Now you can very well be called Non-Resident Bengali, Tdancer.

For your next visits :

There is one joint near Lake Market that sells excellent Kabiraji Cutlets. Then there is Campari near Gariahat. And the cafe with its old world charm at Hazra that serves wonderful evening snacks.
#4 Apr 30th, 2009, 17:25
It's all Greek to me, but Benglish will do
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#4
amar anondo hocche
motamuti pagol pagol
ami kolkatae thaki
abol tabol aache


[translation of my doggerel, as per IM rules:
I am happy
More or less half crazy
I am living in Kolkata
All mixed up it's fine]
Last edited by theyyamdancer; Apr 30th, 2009 at 18:02.. Reason: to add approximate translation of my poem
#5 May 1st, 2009, 15:11
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#5
A new business idea comes to my mind.... only I need around another few hundred Bengali food lovers like theyyamdancer around the world. 'Mochar ghonto' and 'sorshe ilish' would be shipped around the globe in vaccuum sealed containers...

Jokes apart, my lunch menu today seems too mundane after reading this post.
#6 May 1st, 2009, 16:37
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#6
Great plan, kausiks!

Where was I in my story of our latest visit to your city?

Rabindra Sangeet has four Sanskrit synonyms for night (jamini, nisha, rajani and birabari) each for a specific mood and a different part of the night. A melody, a tempo, a refrain, a rhythm, all can set a tone or suggest a setting. In Kolkata there are different "paras" or neighbourhoods, each with its own musicality and pulse, beating simultaneously in harmony (or cacophony).

A trip to Dakshineswar and Belur Math had been near the top of my list of must-sees along with Shovabazar and Kumartuli. Last year we had glimpsed the splendours of North Kolkata when visiting Jorasanko Thakurbari in Rabindra Sarani, the family home of the great Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore (exact address: No 6 Dwarknath Tagore Lane just off Chitpur Road). There the strains of Rabindra Sangeet accompanied our glimpse into the family treasures.

From the name Jorasanko (= wooden bridges), referring to the fact that originally there was a stream over which stood a wooden bridge, the whole of the neighbourhood came to be known as Jorasanko. In the same para (district) you would be able to find the home of the Brahmo Samaj, a free-thinking theistic society (who included among its members some of the family of Satyajit Ray as well as of Tagore). Chitpur Road (Rabindra Sarani) bisects Kolkata from Dum Dum in the north to Kalighat in the south, so one might say that this is the backbone of the city.

Slightly to the north of Jorasanko is Shyambazar, an important market area, as well as home to the Mohun Bagan football team, one of the oldest football clubs in Asia, established on 15th August 1889. Of course, they carry on an intense rivalry with East Bengal football team. The friction between the Bangals and the Ghotis is alive and kicking (pun intended). But it is much more polite to ask: "Do you support Mohun Bagan or East Bengal?" rather than the direct question: "Are you a Ghoti or a Bangal?" The classic culinary divide is between prawns and Ilish mach. But let us not dwell on stereotypes here.

Proceeding in a northerly direction, we find Shovabazar. This is where the most elaborate architectural displays of faded grandeur are to be found, homes of former Zamindars (landlords) and merchants who lived in splendour before Partition. There are also the bustees (slums) and the baris (rented rooms) of modest citizens. Some of the inhabitants included amongst their ranks foremost intellectuals and artists who found inspiration in the Indian Coffee House on Bankim Chatterjee Street and sustenance in the sweet parlours or Mithai shops (such as the famous Bhim Nag in Bowbazar, or Girish or Nakur, where the 'real' sondesh is to be found).

On the day we set out for the Indian version of Sacre Coeur, we took the metro all the way from Park Street up to Dum Dum and then a taxi to the temple complex of DAKSHINESWAR. It is actually a Kali temple with nine turrets (navaratna = nine jewels) devoted to Krishna and Radha, as well as twelve smaller mandirs dedicated to different incarnations of Shiva. There is a serenity about the place and even though the glimpse of the inner sanctuary is brief due to the pressure of waiting crowds of pilgrims it is well worth it.

After admiring the ghat, it was time to take the small ferry across the Hooghly to BELUR MATH on the Howrah side of the river. It is a short crossing but with a cool breeze blowing and captivating riverside views, the ride seemed to us far too short. Arriving at Belur Math, the inspiration of Swami Vivekananda, you are struck by the timelessness and the tranquility of the scene. The Ramakrishna Mandir, set amongst beautiful gardens, is a hymn to the unity of religions, reflected in the unity of its architectural styles. The jostling streets of the city seem a million miles away.
#7 May 1st, 2009, 18:17
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#7
I can't get enough of these Kolkata experiences.

The city just becomes more and more fascinating the more one visits it.

I wonder if I'll ever pluck up the courage to visit during the monsoon.........
#8 May 1st, 2009, 22:35
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Although prawn is the icon of Mohan Bagan and Hilsa of East Bengal, but every Bengali - whether he is ghoti or bangal - likes both. What's more associated with bangal culture is "kochur loti". And perhaps "posto" with ghoti. Also, there is an affinity in many ghoti households to add sugar to curries. It may have changed now, but that was the tradition even 20-30 years back.
#9 May 1st, 2009, 22:40
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#9
A quick google tells me that "kochur loti" are yam leaves and I have eaten "posto" which is poppy seed paste.

(I'm changing my name. )
#10 May 1st, 2009, 22:45
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#10
If "kochu" is added before something in Bengali sentences, then it loses significance. So kochu, although a noun, behaves like an adjective meaning insignificant.

So you're a "kochu" dancer - meaning not a dancer at all.
#11 May 2nd, 2009, 00:11
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#11
Thak. Thik acche. amar naam POSTO...*


*(= so be it. It's OK. My name is POPPY...)
Last edited by theyyamdancer; May 2nd, 2009 at 10:45.. Reason: typos
#12 May 2nd, 2009, 00:23
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#12
Quote:
Originally Posted by mousourik View Post Also, there is an affinity in many ghoti households to add sugar to curries. It may have changed now, but that was the tradition even 20-30 years back.
I doubt if it has changed. I know a 'ghoti' household that puts gur(jaggery) in mutton curry after it has been cooked to make it sweet. No 'bangal' can even imagine it in his or her dreams...
#13 May 2nd, 2009, 00:25
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#13
Why is it that the discussion always has to revolve around f o o d ???

I've just eaten and yet...
#14 May 2nd, 2009, 00:28
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#14
Its nostalgic reading this thread. I lived in Kolkata all my youth. Oh hell, I miss everything about Kolkata so much!
#15 May 2nd, 2009, 00:31
It's all Greek to me, but Benglish will do
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#15
Join the club, vikaskumarojha, of Kolkataphiles. There are quite a few of them hiding around here on India Mike, mainly in the Photo Section...
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