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Kolkata: Of Fragrances & Food

Memories of Calcutta through our pop culture glasses

What better way to evoke Kolkata than through Mahanagar, The Calcutta Cookbook, Jodi Kere Nite Bole & Flury’s

A flock of parrots on a decrepit yellow house, a woman in a hand-pulled rickshaw with a bag of fish, a mango coloured summer, little floating paper boats in an endless monsoon. Calcutta , a song interrupted ,because the memory of it, sung at a more innocent time, broke her voice today.

Kolkata memories are built of fragrances and food. The rich plum cake fragrance of New Market at Christmas, the tannery smells of Tangra mingled with the hot sauces of Kim Ling, the fragrance of Shiraj Biryani with potato, the chicken rolls & mutton kabiraji cutlets served up at a hundred roadside stalls and the rolling lawns of old British golf clubs where you can still spend a pleasant winter morning soaked in gin till the birds come home to roost. Kolkata was a large city, which has today become a small town. Generations of the “Bengali Bhadrolok” (gentry) have packed up their poetry and their “Gitobitan’s”( the collected songs of Rabindranath Tagore) to form bickering Durga Puja committees across Texas, Melbourne, Paris ,Nairobi …the world. Though the Kolkatan may start his Sunday in a big, cold Connecticut House, his morning cup of tea will still be brewed from a customised blend originating from that special corner store in Gariahat and his child will always have a strange pet name like Goblu or Piklu. The highlight of his social calendar will be his yearly winter visit back home, when the city wears a shroud of morning mist, migrating Siberian birds nest on the little island in the middle of the Ballygunge Lakes and the Mrs Roy Choudhury enters her Black Rose called “Midnight Love” in the yearly flower show at Alipore.

To taste a drop of gin soaked Kolkata, we suggest you:

See This:

The Satyajit Ray Film Institute is based in Kolkata and therefore the city has served as the background texture for amateur, professional, Bollywood and Hollywood filmmakers alike. From Kahaani to Parineeta, from 36 Chowringhee Lane to Bow Barracks Forever, from Devdas to The City Of Joy, a lot of plots have been weaved across the gullies, parks and walks of Kolkata, but the one film which captures Kolkata best is Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar. It narrates the story of a housewife who challenges the old order of her traditionalist family by getting a job as a saleswoman. It marks the first screen appearance of Jaya Bhaduri.

Hear This:

Though there are a lot of songs eulogising the many facets of the Mahanagar, we recommend a song which captures the soul of the Kolkatan. This Bengali Rock song composed by Anupam Roy and sung by Roopam Islam, from the movie Autograph  describes the angst of a young protagonist who is not to be robbed of his copy book of poems and sketches, by the harsh reality of making a living. A Kolkatan’ s doodles and poetry are his last shield against the corporate life he has to lead, and she/he can compose a sketch and a poem out of the most boring meeting minutes.


Eat This:

There is a reason why the average Kolkatan is unashamedly rotund. Kolkata is one of those unique cities where all available food from footpath to “Tony” club is delicious and cheap. If you visit Kolkata , we recommend you go to Peter Cat (Park Street) and try their Chelow kebab, The Lemon Chillie Chicken at Kim Ling (Tangra), the prawn cocktail and lobster thermidor at Mocambo (Park Street), the biryani at Arsalan (Park Circus), the rolls at Baked And Fried (Ballygunge), Bengali food at Oh! Calcutta, the chicken patties and rum balls at Flury’s (Park Street) and if you can’t make it to any of these places, don’t worry, anywhere else will be just as good.

Read This:

Like the movies, there are innumerable books which are set in Kolkata. Sunil Gangopadhyay’s  Those Days and First Light captures the early days of the British Raj and the Bengali Renaissance. Sankar’s Chowringhee captures Calcutta in the swinging sixties. Amitav Ghosh’s Calcutta Chromosome, Amit Choudhuri’s Calcutta: 2 years in the City , Leena Kejriwal’s The Cake that Walked capture poignant moments from the journey of a Calcutta becoming a Kolkata. But the book we recommend the most is The Calcutta Cookbook, by Meenakshi Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha. The Calcutta Cookbook is more than a cookbook. It is a culinary chronicle of travellers and traders. Recipes from the Bay of Biscay to the China Sea, from Central Asia and Tibet to Sri Lanka, have been tasted, tried and collected in this golden treasury for the cook and the collector.

Photo courtesy:  R. Mitra via Compfight cc

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