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Kolkata food is finally getting the respect it deserves

If you have been following the Indian food scene then you will know that Kolkata is having a moment.

On social media, the praises of Kolkata biryani just keep on coming. Among young home chefs who deliver, the Kolkata puchka is becoming trendier than the Mumbai pani puri or the Delhi golgappa. And the Nizam’s Roll has never been more popular nation-wide.

 

Vikramjit Roy, the Bengali chef who is universally admired for his Oriental food (most recently at Hello Panda), has just opened a Kolkata-food delivery service called Park Street Rolls and Biryani in Delhi/NCR and will soon open physical restaurants for the brand. Anjan Chatterjee, the world’s most successful Bengali restaurateur (Oh! Calcutta, Mainland China etc.) has a restaurant called Chourangi set to open in London, when the pandemic calms down (it would have opened earlier, but for Covid) and has also launched a new chain called Kaazi, based around Kolkata biryani and chaaps. And among the biryanis rolled out by ITC for its biryani-pulao delivery project, one of the most popular is a Metiabruz biryani, taking forward the traditions of Wajid Ali Shah, who was exiled to Bengal by the British.

 

   Kolkata is not as cosmopolitan as Mumbai. But it has always been much more cosmopolitan than many other Indian cities. So, while the Bengalis have what they say is one of India’s great cuisines, there is also a Kolkata cuisine, which goes well beyond Bengali food.

 

   The biryani is among the most famous examples. Legend has it that when Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, was in exile in Metiabruz, his cooks continued to make the biryani of his native Awadh. Over time, this biryani changed and the Nawab’s cash-strapped descendants cut down on the meat and added potatoes and boiled eggs.

 

   These stories may or may not be true, but today’s Kolkata biryani is a common man’s biryani served at modest prices all over the city. Foodies in Kolkata spend a lot of time arguing over which restaurant has the best biryani (Aminia? Arsalan? Royal? Shiraz? And so on). But wherever you go, the biryani has a distinctive character of its own.

 

   Now, it is finally getting the respect it deserves. Vikramjit Roy’s restaurant offers a take on an Aminia-style biryani. Anjan Chatterjee’s new chain offers biryani cooked on coal fires because, as he says, the real thing was never cooked on gas.

 

   Just as Wajid Ali Shah’s descendants popularised biryani in Kolkata, the city’s two other signature dishes also have non-Bengali origins.

 

   I have searched high and low for medieval references for the kathi-kebab, but the earliest mentions I have found date back to the last century and to a restaurant called Nizam’s in Kolkata. It was founded apparently, by a man called Nizam who may have well created the dish. If not, he certainly popularised it.

 

   These days, the idea of wrapping kebabs in a paratha may not seem too novel, but it seems to have started with Nizam’s. The Nizam’s Roll is a legendary dish, which relies on the quality of the kitchen: the right kind of paratha, the right tawa (the Nizam’s tawa is said to be decades old), the marinade used for the kebabs, etc.

 

   While other restaurants in Kolkata now specialise in the dish, it has always been hard to find it in other cities. The one exception is Delhi where a restaurant, also called Nizam’s, has served rolls in Connaught Place for over four decades.

 

"Though I grew up on the pani puri of Mumbai, I have no hesitation in saying that the Cal puckha is easily the best version of the genre."

   I spoke to Kabir Chugh from the family that runs the Delhi Nizam’s. Kabir says that the sons of the original Nizam fell out and that one of them landed up in Delhi where Kabir’s grandfather AC Chugh and his friends JS Sawhney, and IS Bawa offered to back him. Thus, was born the Delhi Nizam’s in 1978, making rolls to the same general recipe.

 

   Time has moved on and the Delhi Nizam’s now has five outlets, but Kabir says they have not messed with the original recipes. They still use kathis (the bamboo skewers from which the name ‘Kathi Kebab’ comes) even though it would be more practical to use metal skewers and the marinade for the kebabs still remains the restaurant’s secret.

 

   Vikramjit Roy also makes his own rolls (as the name of his restaurant suggests), though he has gone beyond the original recipe from the Kolkata Nizam’s and makes interesting variations, including the hugely popular Soya Chaap Roll (no, I can’t figure it out, either). He also does fillings that are largely unknown in Kolkata, but which, I suspect, draw on his time with ITC: Kakori Kebab Roll and Kadak Seekh Kebab Roll.

 

   Vikram is a very good chef, so the variations are excellent and their popularity demonstrates that once you master the original (which Vikram has), you can use your creativity to design interesting riffs on the roll. His restaurant (owned with his old partner Anurodh Samal and a new backer and partner, Vir Kotak) is now getting so many orders for rolls that the kitchen is struggling to keep up.

 

   And then there is the puchka. I asked Vikram what he thought were the defining characteristics of the Cal puchka versus the Delhi golgappa. He said that they never use suji puris in Kolkata. Puchka water in Delhi can rely on saunth or mint. But in Kolkata, it has a distinctive khatta taste that comes from lemon (often Gondhoraj lemon) and the Cal potato stuffing differs from Delhi because it includes white peas.

 

   The taste and mouthfeel are very different from a North Indian golgappa. And though I grew up on the pani puri of Mumbai, I have no hesitation in saying that the Cal puckha is easily the best version of the genre.

 

   Once again, the puckha is not a Bengali dish. It was brought to Kolkata by chaat-wallahs from UP (and perhaps Bihar), and then adapted to suit the tastes of the locals.

 

   Some of the great dishes of Kolkata have been sustained by the city’s Muslim minority (about 20 per cent of the total population, according to the 2011 census), much of which does not regard Bengali as a first language.

 

   It is the cosmopolitan spirit of Kolkata (now in some danger) that has allowed different cuisines to develop and migrant communities have been encouraged to leave their mark on the food scene.

 

   Anjan Chatterjee says that not enough is being done to research and promote the culinary traditions of Kolkata and indeed, of Bengal in general. His mithai brand Sweet Bengal, which makes mithai (Bengal’s primary contribution to Indian cuisine) to old recipes using premium ingredients, has been a huge success and Chatterjee feels that the great Kolkata dishes (chaap, rezalas, biryani) will also find greater national popularity once he expands Kaazi (which is an affordably-priced brand) to cities all over India.

 

   For people who still think of Kolkata in terms of Bengal fish dishes, the current boom in the cuisines of the city has been a revelation.

 

   Finally, Kolkata is taking its place as one of India’s great food cities.

 

 

Posted On: 09 Jan 2021 02:30 PM
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