Food tour: Chinese churros or chimney soup? This Kolkata gastro trail celebrates century-old restaurants and markets
“Making sweets is a social responsibility,” says Swapan Kumar Das. The fact that he is 64 and has a muscular disorder, neuromyopathy, which makes it a challenge to move his hands and feet — is not really a consideration when it comes to the art of sandesh-making. His shop, Makhan Lal Das & Sons is 196 years old, but this is not trumpeted via bold fonts or flashy neon signage. Instead, we find ourselves gingerly navigating through squealing children and an occasional goat in the crowded Natun Bazaar. To be clear, this is a mud path, and one too narrow for a yellow taxi. And the walk is a part of the heritage experience. Although, by popular demand — despite the inconvenient accessibility by road — Makhan Lal still is available on Swiggy.
But elderly Swapan Kumar Das has no interest in talking about any of this. He wants us to taste... Rose cream, chocolate almond, Mano hara (One who steals your heart), Abar khabo (I will eat again) — we are dished out different varieties of sandesh faster than we can swallow, let alone conjure up adjectives that do justice to each sweet. “We have more than 150 types of sandesh here,” Das announces proudly. We run our fingers over one of their wooden moulds (everything is handmade of course), as he launches into a story of a certain mass order by the Birlas back in 1982... for 1,000 kgs of sandesh. A tall order, yes? But like the man said, sweets are a social responsibility in Kolkata.
We have over 150 types of sandesh.
And we have been around for 196 years.
— Swapan Kumar Das, Makhan Lal Das & Sons
Past and present
This is just the first stop of our journey through ‘300 years of Kolkata food,’ on invitation by Novotel Kolkata & Residences. Our guide and resident food expert around town, Indrajit Lahiri, has curated visits to all the oldest restaurants around the city for us, and regales us with curious bits of trivia en route. For instance, in Kolkata, chutney is not used as a condiment — but as a palate cleanser — before dessert. Ever tasted plastic chutney (made with raw papaya and sugar)? Piquing our interest even more is the fact that oppressive societal norms for Bengali widows to give up meat, onions, garlic and even red lentils (thought to evoke sexual energy) paved way for an entirely unique style of cooking: widow cuisine. Sadly, we encountered no Bengali widows on this trip!
But we did meet a Chinese one — named Josephine — at Kolkata’s oldest operating Haka Cantonese restaurant, Eau Chew (85 years old) in Chandni Chowk. Incidentally, we discover as we pore over the menu, that there is a dish named after her. Joel Huang, who runs the space with his mother and wife Doren, recalls with a laugh, as we dig into piping hot dim sums, “We had an advance order and completely forgot about it, so when the guests arrived, my mother whipped up a really quick noodle preparation (noodles covered in meat, vegetables and gravy). They said, they had never tasted anything like it, and my mother said she had never made anything like it — so the customer actually suggested we call it ‘the Josephine’.” Don’t miss the signature Dry Roast Chilly Pork or the legendary Chimney Soup on this menu. The latter is so called because of the flaming charcoal beneath a brass pot — filled with swirls of green spinach, fish and cloudy wisps of egg white, as it bubbles away on your table.
Oddly enough, Joel has no idea how many dishes are actually on his menu. “We just keep making what gets ordered. We’ve never changed our menu once,” he shares, much to our surprise.
Although, perhaps the only thing that should surprise you in the City of Joy is a dining experience, minus the joy. Flavours abound from every culture, street corner and cart. And we get a taste of this first-hand, as early as 7 am, when we kick of a breakfast trail at Tiretta Bazaar.
Prawn Sui Mai (dumpling) and Pork momos emerge from stainless steel steamers. Mushroom ball soup is ladled into colourful plastic bowls. And we even spot a handful of folks dishing out golden Chinese churros (youtiao) wrapped in newspaper. There is a buzz of hurriedness in the air, with hawkers lined up on either side of the street, crowds of regulars waiting impatiently to be served, while a lone street dog slumbers peacefully in front of his favourite stall.
From the tantalising aromas that pull at us both left and right, we’re guessing this canine has already been fed.
However, our morning is just beginning. A Mughlai feast awaits us at Sabir, which is on Chandni Chowk Street, only six minutes away by car. We can’t resist a second helping of their Mutton Rezala, a rich gravy made with yoghurt, cashew and poppy seed paste. Later, we move on to the iconic Flury’s on Park Street. And quite in contrast, our table spread comprises Eggs Benedict (this kitchen dishes up 10,000 eggs a day), tuna sandwiches,Viennesse coffee (a single espresso with a dollop of whipped cream) and the now famous rum ball. The latter, head chef Vikas Kumar tells us, falls among the “heritage items” on the menu, having now being on it for over 50 years.
If you’re looking for something quirky and you aren’t likely to find anywhere else, we recommend ‘Doodh Fanta’ at Balwant Singh’s Eating House (since 1926) at Bhawanipur. Served in plastic jugs with a liberal dose of ice, this drink is exactly what the name says it is — milk mixed with Fanta! A note to sceptics, try it before you judge it — this one grows on you!
As you can imagine, by this time, we are still eating breakfast at noon and can barely do justice to the colourful assortment of pastries that awaits us at Nahoum & Sons, a Jewish bakery, founded in 1902. Frequented by plenty of expats, this spot with the inviting aromas of freshly-baked muffins, is one of the star attractions in the midst of the hustle and bustle of New Market. Their rich fruit cake and cheese muffins come highly recommended.
In Kolkata, when people get into their car, they already know what they want to eat. In other Indian metros, people decide after they reach their destination
— Vikas Kumar, Head chef at Flury’s
Pulao and pantheras
After a few hours of no eating — we feel sufficiently reinvigorated to explore. Dinner is our final tour-guided meal around the city and this time, we are led not to a restaurant, but the Manackjee Rustomjee Parsi Dharamshala (a Parsis-only guest house). Fortunately, the Parsis-only clause is for stay-in guests, and the dining experience is open to all. Advance orders are required, of course, and we suggest that you don’t leave without a taste of their dhansak (a slow-cooked pot of mutton and lentils that is different in every household).
Anglo-Indian fare is up next at Scoop, a restaurant inside the New Empire Cinema complex, in the Dharmatala neighbourhood. Today, we’re told, they are better known for their multi-cuisine menu and ice cream shakes. So you might have to reach out in advance for a taste of their Anglo-Indian specialities. Our favourites were the Jungli Pulao with Chicken Curry and oh, the ... It’s a fancy name for a cutlet of mutton mince cocooned in parcel of bread crumbs and deep-fried for just the right crunch.
Our guide saves the best for last. Our final destination is the Royal Indian Hotel, Chitpur that was founded over a century ago. Their signature Mutton Chaap bubbles away in a large vat at the entrance. Slow-cooked and succulent, this was the only dish on the menu when Ahmed Hussain, a migrant from Lucknow, began selling it from his stall in 1905. Today, this is a two-storey building that starts serving its Awadhi biryani as early as 10 am. “It’s a family recipe that has been passed down through enerations and to this day, to retain that same flavour, we still cook on firewood," says Mohammed S, a fifth generation descendant. We understand why when our plate arrives. It is simple, no frills — but brilliant. The ‘no potato’ policy is quite staunch in these parts, so as to not dilute authenticity, given that Bengalis typically enjoy aloo in their biryani. So steer clear of that subject if you want your waiter in happy spirits and a generous helping for the invariable round two.
The reporter was in Kolkata on invitation by Novotel Kolkata & Residences.