The words “Calcutta” and “food” are nearly always uttered in the same conversation, if not in the same breath. A special memory of Calcutta gets etched each time you bite into a crispy phuchka and feel the spicy water flood your mouth; an ordinary but unforgettable moment that you hold on to with every flake of mustard-laden jhaal muri that your tongue touches; a sip of nostalgia with every cup of hot cha that you down. And when you can eat three meals in a hundred bucks, everything tastes a hundred times better. Calcutta’s food, however, is what it is because of the motley crew that, over decades, migrated to the city, conjured up recipes, and served magic. If you take them out of the equation, the math will fail.
Forty-six-year-old Lallan Singh’s father, fondly called Shibu, moved to Calcutta in the 1960s from Muzaffarpur, Bihar. On a tiny cart, he sold lemonade to children playing cricket in Maidan, outside the Victoria Memorial. About 40 of them gathered around his cart everyday—22 from the two cricket teams, their friends, and onlookers. One summer morning, he ran out of water owing to a temporary shortage and used soda (20 paise for a 300ml bottle back then). That accidental masterstroke marked his burgeoning success. “We got really lucky. That’s all that happened,” says Singh, sitting in the Shibuji shop in Shakespeare Sarani. The soda twist to the traditional spiced lemonade, or shikanji, is what made the difference. His father even invented his own tangy masala that nobody has succeeded in emulating. The genius lies not just in the ingredients and their accurate measurements, but also in the way soda is splashed into the earthen tumbler, or bhar. Nearly the whole nozzle of the bottle is covered with a thumb leaving space only for a small slit through which the soda is sprayed out. The entire affair is carefully cultivated art (Shibuji, 26 Shakespeare Sarani and 25A Vardaan Market, Camac Street; 9007513175, 9831666947; daily 9 a.m.-12.30 a.m.; Rs40 for one shikanji).
Like Shibuji, many hawkers originally sold street food outside the Victoria Memorial. Over the years, different pieces of legislation have led to hawkers being banned from the area to ensure the place is free of plastic, fumes, litter, food waste, and smoke that were affecting the monument. They have, since, flourished in different corners of the city.
On the bend of Elgin Road and Woodburn Park, two brothers Bachu and Birendra Prasad Yadav have been serving phuchkas for the last 25 years. It isn’t the Bengalis as much as the migrants who have mastered making the titbit. The Yadav brothers were children when they relocated from Gaya, Bihar, hunting for work in the 1970s. An Allahabadi phuchkawalla they were assisting on Camac Street taught them the ropes. To that, they added their own twist and haven’t disappointed since. In a city where every corner has a phuchkawalla, it is difficult to pin down the “best”. The Yadav brothers are low-key and don’t care much for fame. What they do best is put their heads down to create crunchy balls of heaven (9 Elgin Road, daily 4-10 p.m.; Rs10 for 3 phuchkas).
For over a century, the Saldanha family from Salegaon, Goa has been running the Saldanha Bakery in a bungalow that is equally old. Ignatius and Ubelina Saldanha’s small business sold assortments through men who travelled, with boxes full of goodies, through the length and breadth of the city—cream rolls, chicken patties, sausage rolls, and eclairs were popular treats few others sold at that time. Saldanha’s popularity was a consequence of portable branding on these metal delivery boxes. Ubelina, a passionate baker, created her own recipes and since then every generation has made modifications, while retaining the original aesthetic. Their son Denzil Saldanha’s additions gave Saldanha its big boom—cheese straw, walnut cake, and coconut macaroons are still among their most loved snacks. Denzil’s daughter quit her job as a banker to continue the legacy and today, his 23-year old granddaughter Alisha Alexander, a graduate from Le Cordon Bleu London, is bringing her own contemporary additions to the recipes. While the fresh homemade flavour defines them, it is their affordable prices that set them apart (19 Nawab Abdur Rahman Street, Taltala; 9831701085; daily 10 a.m-9.30 p.m; Rs18-35 for desserts and savouries, Rs200-500 for cakes; order in advance).
Tiretta Bazaar is a historic hub for street food in Calcutta and famous for Chinese breakfast. A hoard of hawkers, spread across opposite sides of the street, offer authentic Chinese food that gets demolished in a matter of hours. Pork momos, fish dumplings, lap cheong (Chinese sausages), pork pantras (Chinese spring rolls), fried Chinese savoury breadsticks, fluffy Chinese buns or paus, and dim sums—there is an endless list to choose from. Also known as Old Chinatown, it is Calcutta’s first Chinese settlement dating back 250 years. Sixty-five-year old Ling Hua, who has been selling fish balls and prawn crackers for the last fifteen years, says his grandfather moved to Calcutta from Canton (now Guangzhou) about a century ago to sell shoes. Hua tried five different businesses unsuccessfully before setting up at Tiretta. He and his wife spend the entire day preparing food to sell early morning. Weekdays are light with few customers and fewer stalls, while weekends are buzzing with people sampling food, sipping on tea, buying vegetables, and reading newspapers on the streets (18 Rabindra Sarani; weekdays 6.30-8 a.m., weekends 7.30-9.30 a.m.; Rs10-500).
Originally from Jashpur, Orissa, N.K. Sahoo, fondly called Mayaram, spent his early years in Bombay learning and practising the recipe of pav bhaji. Half a century ago, he then moved to Calcutta to sell his food outside the Victoria Memorial for nearly thirty years. His perfected version of the pav bhaji masala (also sold separately) was created through years of trial and error, after which others impersonated him—the recipe is a shared secret between him and his son. D.K. Sahoo, his son, says they filed many cases against imposters, some of which are still pending. Sinful as it looks, each plate of bhaji is drenched in 100 grams of butter. “We are happy to feed our customers more butter if they ask for it,” says Sahoo, who believes the dish wouldn’t be the same without it. Mayaram’s recipe took him from the thoroughfares outside Victoria to a full-fledged restaurant that still serves food, street style (Maya Ram; Shop No. 1/2 Lord Sinha Road; 033-40034312; daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Rs95-150 for pav bhaji).
Outside Vardaan Market on Camac Street, two large framed photos of U.K.’s ex-prime minister David Cameron hang on Rajendra Prasad Chauhan’s stall. In the five-year-old photos, Cameron’s mouth is full with a dal vada or, popularly called Victoria vada. Sixty-three-year old Chauhan sold steaming vadas outside the Victoria Memorial for eighteen years before establishing a stall here thirty-five years ago. He named it “Victoria Vada” so people could easily draw the connection. At 13, he moved to Calcutta from Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh. His guru, Madhav Lal Sharma from Jaipur taught him to fry the oil-laden baubles, which contain coriander, chilli, ginger, saunf, and asafoetida. Today, he is the most famous dal vada seller in Calcutta. The crackling sound of the batter as it is released into the hot oil is very convincing, and his chutneys are perfect condiments—one is garlic based and the other has coriander and green chilli, with an aroma that engulfs the immediate air. Even Cameron remarked “very nice” after heartily downing six of them (25A Vardaan Market; +91 9007320966; daily 1-9.30 p.m.; Rs50 for a plate of vadas).
No Calcutta food story is complete without biryani. And while the battle of the best biryani is a never-ending one, let’s just agree to disagree with whoever disagrees with us. Arsalan, Zeeshan, Royal, Aminia, Nizam’s, and Shiraz are some of the legends, and sell theirs with a potato. Among the oldest and finest is Aminia. Started in 1929 by Abdul Rahim, who came from Barabanki district in the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh, Aminia has grown into a brand with eight outlets. Now run by the fourth generation, Asher Ather says his grandfather Abdul Qayum reduced the spice and oil levels in the very spicy Awadhi cuisine to please local tongues. Aloo, which is not part of the original recipe, was added to what is now a true Calcutta delicacy (www.aminia.co.in; 8100666444; daily 11.30 a.m.-11.p.m.; Rs140-310 for biryani).
The fact that most food sellers have retained their flavour with only slight variations says a lot about the versatile taste buds of Calcuttans and their unadulterated love for food—a quality that contributes significantly in making Calcutta the warm and fuzzy city that it will always be.
Chandni Doulatramani is trying to hide somewhere on the fringe, swapping between the roles of an independent journalist and a writer. These days she can be found loitering around the streets of Calcutta, eating jhaal muri and thinking up stories to tell.
Manjit Singh Hoonjan is an internationally published photographer, living and creating in Calcutta, India. He dedicates his photography to the city and its inhabitants.