Kolkata in Pictures (and Food!)
This is Part I of a recap of my trip to India. Read Part II here.
Three years ago, I returned from Kolkata inspired by the myriad sights, sounds, smells and especially tastes of the city. The sweet, spicy, tangy, earthy, and occasionally even bitter flavors I encountered there awakened an interest in food that had always lived in my brain (and my stomach), but had lain dormant in my college years, buried under a deluge of bad dorm food and takeout Chinese.
And so followed this blog, a place to document the adventures that ensued from my re-discovered curiosity for food. Almost three hundred posts later, I returned to Kolkata eagerly anticipating culinary fireworks (literally – some of the food is spice-y).
Traditional Bengali cuisine is very fish-centric, taking full advantage of the rivers and waterways of the Ganges River delta. (Kolkata itself is on the Hoogly River, which flows out of the Ganges.) There are a few dozen different types of fish that are popular, and probably a million ways to prepare each type — none of which I can actually tell you about, since my fish-hating self ate none of them.* But common seasonings include cumin, turmeric, coriander, ginger, chili and mustard oil.
Unlike other Indian cuisines, Bengalis serve food in courses, rather than all at once. A typical meal might start with batter-fried vegetables (cauliflower or eggplant are most common) or deep-fried fish, served with ghee, rice, salt and a chili on the side. Next comes a vegetable dish – likely some sort of sautéed greens plus dal, then a fish, then perhaps another fish or a meat dish. After that, maybe chutney, and then finally dessert. And a coronary.
Given my pickiness, I stuck mostly to vegetables and chicken, but I really went H.A.M. on the sweets. My go-to is always sandesh, uber-fresh ricotta-like curd cheese sweetened with a touch of whole cane sugar and molded into small shapes. Everyone knows how much I like sandesh, so everywhere I went, there was a little box waiting for me, and I was shameless in asking for more when they ran out. But this time, I also became enamored with mishti doi, a sweet but tangy and oh-so-creamy yogurt dessert that had the added distinction of being the rare sweet that my mom doesn’t make.** The doi comes in kilo-sized clay pots and I may have threatened to eat an entire one by myself.
Almost better than the sweets is the street food. Sidewalks are crowded with small carts and stalls selling phuchka, small hollow shells filled with a chickpea-potato-onion mixture and tamarind water, jhal muri, puffed rice mixed with red onion, chilis, spices, cilantro leaves and mustard oil, just-fried vegetable fritters, kati rolls and even steamed dumplings, called momos. It’s impossible to go anywhere and not smell food, which may or may not be why I ate enough to feed a family of 10.
Apart from the food, the city itself never ceases to amaze me. Every stereotype about it is true – it can be noisy and dusty and crowded and smelly. But it is also colorful and vibrant and exciting, and occasionally serene, such as when staring out at the river from the Sovabazar ghat or watching craftsmen create and decorate statues of Hindu gods and goddesses in the Kumartuli neighborhood (both in north Kolkata). And though I spend considerably less time there than I do at any other home, our little flat in Ichapur (on the opposite side of the river), feels like my own little space, the lone place where we’re literally surrounded by family members day and night.
I’m at 600 words and have yet to even mention our week-long family trip to Darjeeling, the Himalayan hill station famed for its tea. I’ve added pictures of it below, but I’ll tell you more about it tomorrow – including our taste test of rare yellow tea, which retails for $300 (yes, dollars – 15,000 rupees!) per kilo.
*While I’m less opposed to boneless, skinless filets, I’m not at all into Indian-style fish. The one fish I did try on my trip: my cousin ordered Barramundi (called Bhetki there) filets from a fusion restaurant in the city, and they were lightly breaded and then baked in a lime-yogurt sauce that was so good I almost licked my plate clean.
**Apparently, she used to make this when I was little, just like “she used to make” baingain bharta. Lies, I tell you.