As the winter sun simmers over the Bay of Bengal, Kolkata renews vows with its perennial playmate, food. Grandmothers (and of late, commercial sweet shops) willing, plump parcels of pithey and jaggery-scented batis of payesh are a given. But the monkey-cap-conjuring chill also brings a host of other seasonal treats—sweet, savoury and short-shelved.
What is triangular, stuffed with cauliflower, and takes umbrage at being confused with its Punjabi cousin samosa? Phulkopir singara. A winter companion to cha and adda (tête-à-tête, best served with snacks), the deep-fried delight is something of a dark horse. Looking at its golden, water chestnut-like body, you might imagine the saltiness of fried flour, prepared to snowflake on your tongue. You might anticipate the faint hint of ghee, marvel at the rigour of rolling pins that have coaxed the dough into shape. But you won’t know, unless you do, about the treasure vault of spice-tossed cauliflower, potato, and sometimes green peas that it hides. Only when you’ve bitten into a phulkopir singara—no good unless hot off the kadai—will you be privy to the beauty of the winter vegetables, stir-fried with cumin seeds, green chilli, ginger and ground spices. One can count on the flavours to erupt faster than debates on Marxist reforms. While peanuts, crushed and added to the mix, bring crunch and depth, it is the nigella seeds in the dough that spruces up the singara’s Sunday tea attire. Drowsy Sunday evenings are, in fact, a good time to reach for the pastry. As is any other time of the day.
Try it at Mrityunjoy Ghosh & Sons, Putiram, Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick, Sweet Bengal
Amid New Market’s din and colour sits the iconic Jewish bakery Nahoum. Photo by: B Maiti/Dinodia Photo/Dinodia Photo Library
The grind of pestle, the hiss of dough in hot oil. Nippy mornings in Kolkata are richer for the smell of fresh green peas, puréed and packed away inside the winter version of fried flatbread, or koraishutir kochuri. Cumin, carom, dried red chilli and other roasted masalas groove with ginger and asafoetida in a warm parley, sharpening the flavours of the kochuri with a secret. Although, if you look closely, its puffy, green-speckled outer skin is a dead giveaway. The winter star of many a parar mishtir dokan (neighbourhood sweet shops) is a trusted accomplice to the other seasonal delicacy of notun aloo-r aloor dum. Which means koraishutir kochuri pairs especially well with winter harvested baby potatoes, dunked in thick spicy-sweet gravy. If for some inscrutable reason potatoes are not for you, consider folding your kochuri
and using it to scoop up mouthfuls of cholar dal, a festive lentil dish of Bengal gram cooked with coconut, ghee and raisins. Or you can do as I do, eat that kochuri solo, lick your lips clean minutes before the host has had the time to serve any… distractions.
Try it at KC Das, Tasty Corner, Putiram, Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick, Sweet Bengal
Dark and slow-dripping, date palm jaggery emerges every winter to alter the personality of yearlong favourites like sandesh and roshogolla. Sweet, with a half-there smokiness, its work is to infuse and elevate. This is true of jolbhora, the sandesh designed to conceal nolen gur in its rather wide belly, and of nolen gurer roshogolla, with silky brown syrup that clings to the sponge balls. Not to forget its brush with kachagolla, fragile and sublime, or the decadence of a nolen gur-encased monohora. Joynagarer moa, the jaggery-and-cardamom-twined puffed rice balls from Jaynagar in 24 Parganas, is a story in itself. Of course, there are newer kids on the block staking claims to the fragrant jaggery—high-budget hispters like nolen gur ice cream, nolen gur soufflé, even the odd nolen gur crème brûlée. Whatever the vessel, nolen gur unravelling in your mouth at a tap and a bite is the closest you will get to sex without sex.
At their best, winter mornings in Kolkata are a haze of cold sunlight and grab-or-miss treats such as rum-soaked plum cakes (top left), koraishutir kochuri (top right) and the lush nolen gur er roshogolla (bottom left); Jolbhora (bottom right) comes with a hidden pocket of date palm jaggery. Photos by: Grezova Olga/shutterstock (plum cake), Anuja Mukhopadhyay/shutterstock (green peas kachori), Photo courtesy: Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick/facebook (nolen gur er roshogolla), Photo courtesy: Banchharam’s/ facebook (jolbhora)
Try it at Nalin Chandra Das & Sons, Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy, Putiram, Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick, Sen Mahasay, Banchhram’s, Mouchak, Hindusthan Sweets, Sweet Bengal, Oh! Calcutta, Kasturi Restaurant, 6Ballygunge Place, Bhojohori Manna
December in the city of joy is all komlalebu and carnival. As the senses tune into Park Street’s corporate twinkles, Bow Barrack’s bustle, and recorded loops of “Que Sera Sera” heard out of one enduring cassette store in New Market, select patisseries across the city stock up on plum cakes. Some like it no-frills, picked up on the way back from work at one of those deliciously obscure outlets, more dokan (shop) than bakery. Others are partial to the legacy of a Nahoum or a Flury’s. At Nahoum, the 100-plus-year-old Jewish bakery credited with summoning Christmas nostalgia for generations, you’d have to tear your eyes away from old-timey glass displays of chocolate rum balls and lemon tarts, and reserve your wonder for their strong-tasting, raisin-riddled plum cake. Flurys, at the winter epicentre of Park Street, offers a rich, rum-soaked version, warm in its abundance of cashews, almonds and candied fruits. It is good to remember that the cakes, with their heady taste (and scent), can be overwhelming for those used to milder variations. But like its plum cakes, Kolkata is a hooting extrovert in winter. And if you’ve contracted the cheer, then dig in, friend.
Try it at Nahoum and Sons, Flurys
While winter eats make their appearance in Kolkata’s new and old food joints aplenty, there are also the more elaborate, sometimes slow-cooked home recipes that don’t seek to escape the snugness of an aunt’s recipe book or the ancestral kitchen. Bori die palong shaak ghonto, a tumble of stir-fried spinach and lentil dumplings (bori), takes its flavours from both the season’s fresh spinach and the bori, declared fit to meet the kadai only once it had been sun-dried to perfection in olden days. Potatoes and eggplants, often thrown into the mix, bring out the mellow earthiness of the dish, which one might find on the menu of some highbrow Bangali restaurant, but is best relished at home. The same applies to sheemer jhal or sheem shorshe, haughty whole-lots of mustard paste and mustard oil uplifting the humble broad beans. Komla lebur payesh, of which my Thammi speaks in tender tones, uses orange to turn the sweetness of rice-and-milk pudding tangy. Don’t let micro serves of the gourmet kind fool you. Instead corner your nearest Bangali, snag an invite, and prepare for a feast. Or as we call it, a bhuribhoj.
Sohini Das Gupta
travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.