As soon as I arrived in Kolkata, I wanted to try Bengali food so that I could be seen to be loyal to my new people and also so I would have something to talk about when I had business meetings. But being lazy as well as enthusiastic I ended up taking the easy way out each time we went for a meal – choosing the dishes that I recognised like Butter Chicken, Tandoori, Naan etc.
In Mumbai, before travelling to Kolkata I was told that Bengali cuisine is based around seafood. Alarm bells! Kolkata is also on the Ganges delta and the Ganges is so polluted that there are documentaries about it.
Now here a bit of geography for those, like me before I got there and even then only about six weeks into my stay when I finally opened up Google Maps. Calcutta is now known as Kolkata. It is the capital city of West Bengal which is the far east of India, next to Bangladesh. Bangladesh used to be called East Bengal until they had a war and broke off with Pakistan in 1972, or something.
What we know as the Ganges seems to be called the Hooghly once it gets to Kolkata (pictured right, cool name). I went to look at it and I didn’t spot any dead bodies floating down it as I’d been lead to expect by the documentaries. Pffft.
At Newmarket* at Aminia, which seemed to be a pretty local looking restaurant (no-airconditioning, fairly rudimentary hygiene) I ordered Chicken Chat, with almost my own weight in Roti accompanying it. This was delicious and I went back to the restaurant many times. But my Indian fellow-eaters scoffed at it and said it is ‘Mughlai’, or coming from the north / and Hyderabad.
Another time I ordered a biryani (rice with a big hunk of lamb and a whole egg hidden in it like treasure, getting it mixed up in my mind with ‘Pilau’ which I now know to be rice with bits). But even in this I was scoffed at – yes, this might be Bengali food but it is hardly worth worrying about because everyone knows that the Hyderabad Biryani is the best. Tried that as well – not a fan.
Then I struck gold. It was actually room service, eating alone at the hotel one night I thought I’m just going to order from the page that says ‘local fair’. Be it fish, so be it. At the same time making sure that I wasn’t ordering on the night before a game when I couldn’t be dealing with the consequences of last night’s meal.
What was delivered was ‘Macher Jhol’, with Bhapaa Aloo, black dhal, rice and then a Mishti Doi taster for dessert. And of course I couldn’t resist the garlic naan. One word. YUM! Macher Jhol is a kind of fish stew (unknown provenance, and in layman’s terms I would call it a curry), and the fish was superbly fresh. Bhapaa Aloo is spicy potatoes, black dahl – lentils, and Mishti Doi is a sweet yoghurt, but not too sweet.
Then we discovered the ‘Chat Man’. At about 5ish in the afternoon when the snacky hunger pangs start we did a round of Chat for everyone! There is a man that stands outside the office with a small cart. He prepares a dish that consists of crispy fried savoury biscuity things as a base, chopped up tomato, chopped up raw potato, chilli, coriander, onion, chopped up coconut, crushed dried noodles. All served up on a paper plate.
Then when we got busy and couldn’t go into Park Rd, or nip out to Newmarket we started eating at the staff canteen. Well, some of us did (me plus a couple of others). The preparation area was a bit dubious but one of my predecessors assured that it was hygienic. Good enough. Every day I had a chicken curry, vegetarian curry, rice and two bits of toast. Often the vegetarian curry was so hot I was gasping. The whole for INR80, which is about EUR1, or AUD1.60. You can imagine how much, comparatively, I paid for the Macher Jhol at the hotel, but never mind. I never got sick, honest.
There were some days when the canteen didn’t open – fairly random days it seemed to me. But always an adventure. On these days we sent someone out to get a khati roll. Another revelation, but quite heavy I couldn’t eat them every day. They are a type of fast food wrap – to be eaten on the run, or as in our case at your desk. Varieties were either chicken or veg, with maximum fried onion.
I didn’t do Indian food justice. There were frequent offers to try ‘safe’ or ‘reliable’ street food and boy did I want to. But the demands of work called stronger. Having said that there weren’t many days in the three months that I stayed that I didn’t have a curry.
* Newmarket is shown in the featured image at the top / home page.