Crowded and chaotic Kolkata (also known as Calcutta) is India’s third most-populated metropolitan city, East India’s commercial capital and a major riverine port. Much like the city, the food is old world, traditional and a mash-up of local Bengali cuisine and those that still bear a colonial British hangover.
For the essential Kolkata eating experience, seek out those eateries that are still running to packed houses after being in existence for over 20, 30 or even a hundred years. Like visiting the pre-revolutionary buildings built by the British during their 200-year rule and travelling via the city’s vintage tram system, there is a certain charm to doing things the old way in Kolkata. Like the city and its people, the eating experiences can be equal parts chaotic and idyllic. From queueing up for sinfully sweet Bengali mishti (bite-sized confections) to coffee and intellectual conversation at a coffee shop from the 1940s, and varieties of biryani you cannot find anywhere else in the world – it all has to be experienced to be believed.
Sure, there are roadside hawkers and luxurious hotel restaurants, and both contribute to the city’s foodscape, but that is a story for another article. Here, we explore the restaurants that Kolkata and her visitors have been eating at for several years, for good reason.
Let’s start with the quintessential Kolkata breakfast spot. Flurys’ tea room on Kolkata’s main food and nightlife hub, Park Street, has been around since 1927. The Flurys today is a sleeker version of its original self, with trendy new menu offerings but it is their traditional goodies that people say are still their bestsellers. The decadent chocolate rum balls (above), the almond cube pastries and basic breakfast items like eggs, toast (try their light-as-air milk bread) and sandwiches are all must-tries. It is not uncommon for people to travel overseas with the pastries, cakes and biscuits to give to homesick Kolkatans living abroad. When you visit, make sure to ask for a window seat to pair your pot of tea (they have their own brand and blends) with a side of people watching on busy Park Street.
From Flurys’ swanky digs to a gritty Jewish bakery that has been in existence for over a hundred years, Nahoum & Sons (F20, Bertram St, New Market Area, Taltala; above), housed deep within Lindsay Street’s Hogg Market, is an institution that prides itself on doing things the old way. Their original recipes remain unchanged and the vintage-style display has probably not been upgraded in decades. The city’s Jewish community has since dwindled, but Nahoum’s bakes have found favour with all of Kolkata, and beyond. Their rich fruit cake, individually wrapped brownies, walnut cake and decadent pieces of chocolate fudge are what you should try. At Christmas time, there is barely any breathing space in the bakery and the fruit cake is a coveted choice for festive dinner tables.
There are several varieties of biryani, and Kolkata’s version may bear resemblance to the Awadhi-style rice and meat dish from Lucknow, but the city’s taste preferences have evolved the dish into a unique one with the addition of potatoes and boiled eggs. Fifteen-year-old Arsalan is not the oldest biryani restaurant in town, but their version is consistently good, and more luxurious for their generous chunks of meat, waxy potatoes and the use of extra-long-grain basmati rice. The mutton biryani ‘special’ (above) is their signature, it comes with a heaping mound of saffron and kewra (pandanus extract)-laced rice, two succulent chunks of bone-in mutton, a mammoth-sized potato and a whole boiled egg. Delicate, greasy and aromatic with spices, this type of biryani is not to be doused in curry – that would be unacceptable.
This sweet shop’s name is quite a mouthful, but say Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick (above) to your taxi driver, and you will be driven towards sweeter, more luxuriant mouthfuls. They’ve been around since 1885, and if that isn’t testimonial enough, the 4pm queues at one of their outlets (for that’s when the people of Kolkata feel peckish for mishti (local confections) is. You will be spoilt for choice – should you try the roshogolla (cottage cheese dumplings in sugar syrup), mishti doi (yogurt sweetened with jaggery), the nalen gur sandesh (jaggery and cottage cheese sweets) or the baked mihidana (fried rice flour balls, baked with sweetened cream)? The descriptions do not do these confections any justice, you need to try them for yourself.
Frankly, the best Bengali food in Kolkata should be had in someone’s home. But Kewpie’s (2 Elgin Ln; above) kitchen comes a close second; maybe because you have to seek out this restaurant in a sleepy little residential neighbourhood, or the cosiness of the decor. The thala is a prepared platter of vegetable and meat dishes, paired with ghee-laced rice, fried luchi (puffed bread) and sweet yogurt. The flavours are pungent with mustard oil, and the signature dishes are betki paturi (river fish steamed with coconut in banana leaf parcels) and a mixed vegetable curry called shukto. The vibe may be homely, but the meal is nothing short of princely.
Order the coffee at Indian Coffee House (15 Bankim Chatterjee St, College Square; above) as an excuse to be able to soak in the ambience at the cavernous hall that has been in existence since 1876. Rumoured to be the spot where political debate and intellectual discussions have been held – possibly even those where Bengal’s freedom fighters converged to strategise. The Indian Coffee House is a restaurant chain in India, run by a series of worker co-operative societies. There are nearly 400 coffee houses across the country, and this outlet is possibly the most iconic.
The city’s most glamorous restaurant to drink and dine at is Mocambo (25 Park St, Taltala; above) on Park Street, which used to be a nightclub with live music and dancing until the late 1970s – it was Kolkata’s first nightspot when it opened in 1956. The dance floor may be gone, but the rest of the decor is clearly stuck in a time warp – low hanging silk lampshades, sultry lighting and servers in white uniform with turbans and cummerbunds.
The menu is boastful, and describes the Pork Cutlet (above left) as “insanely tasty” – it is has been stuffed with ham and cheese, and then breaded and fried before being topped with an aïoli sauce. Also excellent are the devilled crabs (above right), where crabmeat flavoured with cheese and mustard are served baked in their own shells. The cuisine is hard to pinpoint – it is a mash up of Anglo-Indian, British and European with generous lashings of originality.
A few doors down, Peter Cat (18A, Park St; by the same owners, but newer as they opened in 1975) is remarkably similar in decor, but slightly different in menu. While Mocambo’s menu is more European, Peter Cat serves North Indian cuisine with a few unique, experimental dishes thrown in. The chelo kebabs are what you should order. Traditionally north Indian kebabs are meant to be had with roti, but Peter Cat serves their chicken and mutton kebabs with buttered rice, a fried egg and grilled tomatoes. It’s a bizarre combination, but there is always an order on every table, and a snaking queue outside. Every. Single. Day.
Another must-have is the kathi roll, which is similar in concept to a shawarma, a kebab wrap or a burrito. The exact recipe though, was invented in Kolkata at a restaurant that still stands today. Nizam’s (24 Hogg St, New Market; opened in 1932) signature dish is essentially skewer-roasted kebabs (above) topped with raw onions, spices, lemon juice and chilli and all wrapped in a crisp fried paratha (wheat flour flatbread). There are several varieties available; the kebabs itself could be chicken, mutton, paneer or potatoes. You could opt to have your paratha fried with an egg or even ‘upsize’ your order into a double-meat, double-egg roll – it may burst at the seams but is double the deliciousness. The best part is that the most expensive roll on their menu is no more than Rs. 70 (US$1.09). Takeaways are recommended as the kathi roll is such a convenient meal on-the-go.
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This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.