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.