I am no expert on Kolkata nor its food, as I never lived there. I have only visited Kolkata a few times, but I had heard a lot about its restaurants and food culture long before I visited the city. In fact, I had read so much about the restaurants of Kolkata and its sweets (mishti) in Bengali stories and novels since my childhood that I had tasted Kolkata food in my imagination long before I actuallyhad it.
Much of the literature that I read in my youth centered on Kolkata restaurants and the food they served. Primary among these writings were those of Shibram Chakrabarty and Narayan Ganguli, who seemed to take enormous delight in torturing their readers with their vivid descriptions of Kolkata street food, and sweet meat shops such as Bhimnag, KC Das, Dwarik, etc. The restaurants that figured prominently in the literature of my youth were Flury’s, Firpo’s, Trinca’s of Park Hotel, Mocambo, and Indian Coffee House.
My first ever visit to Kolkata, however, did not materialize until well into adulthood - my late twenties, in January 1972. Bangladesh had just gotten its independence, and India had suddenly become accessible to us who had grown up in erstwhile Pakistan when visiting India was more difficult than visiting UK or the USA.
By road, Kolkata was only a day’s journey, but less than an hour by air. Yet, it was a distant city for us at that time. Our knowledge of Kolkata was, therefore, from books and magazines and from those lucky ones who had relatives in that city whom they would visit and regale us with stories from storied Kolkata (which, by the way, was previously spelled Calcutta).
I went to Kolkata that month accompanying my cousin (and dear friend) and her husband, travelling by air. My friend was kind of an expert on Kolkata, having visited that city almost annually despite visa regulations, because her father had his parental home in that city (Park Circus). We stayed in a mid-range hotel near Chowringhee and very near to Park Street the first time.
My immediate impression of Kolkata after my arrival was one of great disappointment. I did not find the glamour that I found from magazines and books. Instead, I found Kolkata not only lacking in glamour, but noisy, dusty, and packed with old, grimy buildings. I found the streets that I had heard of narrower and more congested than I had imagined. Traffic was awful, and so was the noise created by humans and buses, trams and taxicabs. It is for the first time I would see rickshaws drawn by humans the cycle rickshaws of Dhaka.
My mood and first impression of Kolkata would soon change, however, when we went for lunch at a restaurant in Park Street. The restaurant was called Kwality, that was also known for its eponymous ice cream. My first lunch there was pea polao, butter chicken, chole and tandoor roti. This was my first taste of butter chicken and chola, and the Kwality food would excite me more later.
That evening we went to Nizam’s - the iconic kabab shop of Kolkata located near New Market. I had already read about the legendary place in magazines. The place was buzzing with customers and it took us some time to get a table. The restaurant was filled with the spicy aroma of kabab and curry. We ordered chicken tikka, mutton boti kabab, sheekh kabab, and buttered naans. I was hungry simply by smelling the air around us. We devoured the food like a famished group of people when the food arrived. I had eaten chicken tikka and sheekh kabab before in Dhaka. But the Dhaka kabab paled into insignificance in front of Nizam’s succulent offerings.
We also visited a few other food places in Kolkata, but Kwality and Nizam’s would remain my favourites. Among the other places that we went to were Trinca’s, and Chung Wah - a Chinese restaurant. Chung Wah, located in Chandni Chowk, offered a great variety of Chinese dishes, majority of which sounded familiar to me. But what I found different were the preparation and taste. The dishes seemed heavier with soy sauce and some tasted like curry. It was difficult to have a satisfactory culinary tour of Kolkata in five days.
I visited Kolkata four times between 1972 and 1974, each visit lasting from three to six days. On every occasion I tried to eat at a variety of places, but because of lack of proper guidance I ended up eating in the places I knew or in the hotel where I stayed.
Among the hotels where I stayed during those years were Great Eastern Hotel and Oberoi Grand. Both hotels dated from colonial days, but between them, Grand was more opulent, and of course, more expensive. I found lunches in Great Eastern featuring Mughlai cuisine, which was very delicious. But the breakfast in the Grand consisting of both English and Indian fares were extremely attractive. In 1970s, Kolkata was also a frequent victim of power outage. One morning, I was stuck in my bathroom in complete darkness when the lights went out. I had to feel my way out of the bathroom.
My next visit to Kolkata did not happen until twenty-eight years later, in 2002. I had booked a room at the new Taj Bengal hotel, but I cancelled it at the insistence of a friend whom I looked upon as an older brother. He arranged for me and my family to stay at the legendary Bengal Club in Russell Street, near Chowringhee. I could not refuse this offer since only members and their guests could stay at this club.
My stay in Bengale club for five days was a unique experience in itself. Built in 1827 by East India Company officials, this club is probably the first of its kind in Kolkata to cater to the expatriate British Community. Everything inside the club smelled of old times and oozed history of the colonial times. Looking at the rooms and furniture, my young son asked me if we were staying in a museum.
Breakfast was served twice, that’s right, twice. An early morning breakfast, called Chota Hazri (literally small presence), consisted of bread, butter, fruits, and tea. (This was a tradition of British officers in the field where a light meal would be served after dawn.)
The big breakfast called Burra Hazri would follow an hour or so later, which was a full-blown meal of porridge, eggs, toast, meat (ham or bacon), fish fry, and coffee or tea. The club could serve the Indian option of paratha, aloo bhaji, omelet, and yogurt if one wanted it.
We would often skip the Chota Hazri since we were not gluttons. The club served excellent lunches and dinners also. Its signature dishes were a mélange of Anglo-Indian cuisine such as fried bhetki fish, roast chicken, shepherd’s pie, and a variety of soups and salads. On weekends, the club also served typical Mughlai and Bengali dishes at brunch. In other words, the club tried its best to preserve its colonial heritage in ambience and food.
This is a two-part article. The second half will be published in the next week’s Saturday paper.