Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kolkata: In pursuit of Bangla flavors

When we planned to travel to Sikkim, we had to go via Kolkata. So we thought, why not visit Kolkata as well. I was brought up in Orissa and therefore quite familiar with the culture, cuisine and language of the eastern states . I wanted to re-experience those flavors that I get so nostalgic about.
As part of my research for sites to see, I called up my Bong friend at Kolkata. Her first response was,"What is there to see in Kolkata?" :) I understood her response perfectly. If she had called me to plan about a Hyderabad visit, I might respond in the same way. The metros/capitals have become so indistinguishable from one another. We have the same malls, the same restaurant chains, the same cinemas. Despite this invasive urbane culture across major cities in India I was hoping to catch the Bengali sights and smells.
Towards this process, I first drew up a list of the recommended places to see: the Victoria Memorial, the Indian museum, Dakshinewar etc. But there was something different in my visiting Kokata this time. I wanted to experience the real Kolkata, get the whiff of Bengal and catch all the Bengaliness in it.

For shopping, we went to New Market off Chowringhee lane and Dakshinapan in Ballygunge.
New Market is extremely crowded, chaotic, and filled with 'guides' who try to ensnare you into buying the exorbitantly-priced wares at their shops. We went there on two consecutive days as we got tired just from going round the complex. We went with the expectation that we will get everything we wanted there but found ourselves going round and round the same shops selling only clothes. May be because it was 'Pujo' time.The upside was the throw-away prices that you can bargain for. Got a kurta for Rs.150!
Dakshinapan was a more solemn and a quieter  place offering you khadis/cottons/hand looms  from every state in India. Got 5 khadi kurtas for a total of Rs. 1500! That too from a West Bengal government-run shop which doesn't allow any bargaining. Can't think of such bargain  prices anywhere else in India!
For authentic Bengali cuisine, I short listed three places: Bhojohari Manna, 6 Ballygunge and Sholo Ana Bangali. Of these three, we had time to visit only 6 Ballygunge. From my rudimentary knowledge of Bengali cuisine, at 6 Ballygunge, I ordered for one shukto, one bhaja, one torkari, one pulao and of course the Loochis. The steward assured me that this was more or less the perfect combination of a typical Bengali meal.
On the day of return, we were less than 100 meters from Bhojohari Manna where we planned to lunch but had to give up as we were afraid that we'd miss our flight back home.We got jittery even though we had  four hours for the scheduled take-off as we had experienced terrible traffic jams where we covered distances like 5 kms in 1 1/2 hours! So we just took a U-turn and ate at Halidram's--a quick snack would have to do for lunch.
Despite the fact that Kokata has a majorly fish eating populace, in a city as large as Kolkata, I thought I'd find some exclusive vegetarian restaurants but these were few and far between. When we went to try the Bengali food, we had a very limited choice as vegetarians but what was a satisfying experience was to recall the tastes from my childhood... especially of the posto and mustard-oil combinations. Of course, my family found it a bit tepid as the Telugu cuisine is known to be fiery by comparison!
If Kokata is known for its mustard-oil preparations, it is equally famous for its street food. I was dying to try it and went to Vardhan Market near Park Street. But on the one opportunity that we got to try the street food, it was raining hard. Just a few puchkas and we had to run for shelter. Elsewhere we did try the equally famous Singhadas but the rolls and chops got left out :( Knowing how yummy they taste, it made me really miserable at having gone all the way there and come away without eating it.
The real Bangla experience was waiting to happen just round the corner...what else...THE PUJO! But instead of waiting for it to appear, we decided to flee as we were warned of serious traffic issues during Pujo and we didn't want to stay back to experience it.

More on Kolkata in coming posts.