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HomeLifestyleAmid Dhak & Dhunachi, Kolkata is Brimming with These Flavours, Writes Kunal...

Amid Dhak & Dhunachi, Kolkata is Brimming with These Flavours, Writes Kunal Vijayakar

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What The Fork​​
The Bengali I know is passionate. He is as passionate about his fish as he is of a good argument. I’ve had some of my best arguments with Bengalis, from Kosha to Kobita, Rosogolla to Ray, Biryani to Bangladesh and Bhappa Aloo to Bhappi Lahiri. Be it, music, religion, culture and food, it’s a passion which is honest and towering. And all this intense sentiment and fervor explodes during the four days of Pujo.

I’ve been to Kolkata at least four times during these auspicious days of Pujo, and the city seems like it’s on speed. The streets turn into a psychedelic carnival, a deep dive into a colourful and curious world filled with ‘dhunachi’ in the air, fully themed décor, outrageous immersive colours, and the throbbing of ‘dhaak’ and drumming. There are pandals everywhere, accessible and within easy reach of each and every devotee. Besides the fervour of the Aarti, which resounds in the streets and heavens, with Maa Durga beaming, at her magnificent and glorious best, the evenings and nights are also time for some original Bengali hard Rock. Young bands with lead drummers in dread-locks, and bass in beads, belt out modern Bengali fusion. And the lanes are lined with the best street food most of which is available and often tastes as good only during the festivals. It’s truly four days of tumultuous thrill and enjoyment.

I usually head straight to North Kolkata to Bagbazar and ShyamBazar. The Bagbazar Durga Pujo Pandal is one of the oldest pujas in Kolkata and is more than 100 years old. As you walk through the lanes with old prehistoric buildings all around, you get a sense of a culture slowly breathing it’s last, though temporarily rejuvenated by the lights of the festival. Here old and young gather around in addas, sipping chai, and smoking cigarettes. Walk into the narrow streets and you will find shops serving traditional street foods. Ancient ones selling Kolkata staples like Kabiraji cutlets and Mughlai parathas. Kabiraji cutlet is a fish, chicken, or mutton cutlet encased in a lacey, crispy mesh of beaten egg batter. The cutlet is dipped in egg batter and plunged into hot oil, and while it’s still frying, the remaining batter is poured on the cutlet while turning it all the time. Sometimes, the slightly more swashbuckling cooks, use their fingers and wrists to drop longs strands of egg batter onto the cutlet while it is frying. It’s magical to watch this dance of the hand as a crispy lace emerges around the spicy, minced chicken, fish or mutton. This you eat with a soft hot paratha.

While the rest of India either fasts or adheres to a strict vegetarian diet during Navratri, a diet that often even eliminates the use of onion and garlic, Bengalis feast on an array of the finest meat and fish. There are a couple of theories why that is so. One is that Goddess Durga, who is celebrated during Navratri, having vanquished the evil Mahishasura, is invoked with a ‘bhog’ of fish and sacrificial meat. Another theory is that Maa Durga is not worshipped as a Goddess as much as she is worshipped as a mother. And in that case, how could it be possible to welcome your own mother home, if your choicest dishes were not on the table. So, I suppose if it’s good for the Goddess, it’s good for us. Who am I to argue, I will just enjoy the celebrations and indulge in the blessings.

Fried stuff always makes great street food. Like Kachoris and Pakodas in the North, Telebhaja of Kolkata are one of the most popular street snacks in the east. Bagbazaar Street in Kolkata is home to the best Telebhaja or bhajjiyas. People literally queue up here for their Kochuris in the morning and Radhaballavis later in the day. Kochuri is a kachori, and like the kachori, these too come with a variety of stuffing. Matar Shutir Kochuri or Koraishutir Kochuri, most often available in the cold months is kachori stuffed with a spicy green-pea filling. Hinger Kochuri is Kachori stuffed with a pungent and spicy filling with a lot of asafoetida or hing.

There is also the Potoler Chop made of Pointed Gourd or Parwal. I prefer the crumb fried chop to the batter fried one, especially if it is made from raw banana flowers. The Mochar Chop, raw banana flowers mixed with a spiced potato mash and crumb fried.

Another delicacy is Dhokar Dalna or deep-fried spiced lentil cake made with Chana dal, traditionally fried and then simmered in a gravy without garlic and onions. Interestingly, it’s called Dhokar, which means ‘betrayal’. This is when the family is tricked into believing the lentil cake, flavoured with a gravy of spices, coconut, peanuts, etc., is actually meat.

But the king of all bhajas in the Radhaballabhi. These are soft pooris, literally Lucchis, stuffed with a spicy dal filling. They are just sinful and wonderful.

Stalls selling Puchhkas are a dime a dozen, and without getting into a full-throated Bengali argument over what is better, the Golgappa, Pani Puri, or Puchchka, I will move over to the Ghugni. Ghugni is white peas boiled to a silky mush, gently spiced, and garnished with fresh coriander, raw onions, and coconut bits. A bit like the Ragda of Ragda Pattice, but more evolved, I would say.

How can the Chinese community not be represented when it comes to Kolkata Street food? So, you can find Momos in most places. Both steamed and fried and stuffed with either fish, chicken, pork, and vegetables, are served along with chowmein and the chilli chicken outside nearly every pandal.

But my all-time favourite is the Mutton Kathi Roll, or the Kolkata Roll. Succulent pieces of mutton have been marinated in spices, and cooked over charcoal, smoky and slightly burnt, sauteed sliced onions, lime, and green chillies, wrapped in a slightly sweet but crisp and flaky paratha which has been fried in egg.

Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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