Posts Tagged ‘Calcutta’
Summer in Kolkata is typically not hotter than 100F but your skin feels like a dripping faucet, each pore that is. After a while, you don’t even want to wipe off the sweat. It is cooler to not have to make that effort. At times like this, the only remedy is to take a cool shower. As the cooling begins, feel free to sing aloud in bliss. After the shower, move as quickly as possible to the nearest air-conditioned room. Switch on the ceiling fan at full speed and sprawl on a bed – maximum surface area for the skin-air contact. When you need to be out in the heat again, do so and repeat the cooling regime.
Bengalis are enthusiastic fish eaters. We eat fried fish in rich curries. We steam fillets papillote style. We fry fish heads with rice or slow cook them with lentils. The fatty fish entrails are fried and eaten with rice. In dhabas, bones from large fish are added as flavoring to vegetables. Small bait are fried whole and eaten as snacks with tea. Fish eggs are made into fritters.
I am sure I eat a pound of fish a day when I am visiting Calcutta. So when my father offered to take me fishing, I decided to follow the fish trail from source to plate. Unlike the last fishing trip, this was a visit to the a nearby village where he has friendly access to a pond. From the comfort of my city lifestyle, I sport a very romantic view of villages in Bengal with their dirt roads and banana trees, and little kids playfully swimming in ponds lined with lotus and lilies, a vision born out of watching Satyajit Ray movies. Our air conditioned car landed us within a couple of blocks of the village pond in question. A recent windstorm had shredded the leaves of the banana plants lining the dirt path. Otherwise it was a picture perfect village.
In cities like Calcutta or Paris, the river is the precious that brings together the livelihoods and lifestyles of the people of the city. There is no denying the differences of course. In Calcutta, Ganges river is wide. Wide enough that on a regular traffic clogging business day, crossing one of the two bridges can take an hour or more. For many in Calcutta, the river is everything. They live in small precariously placed shacks along the riverside, cooking on crude stoves, bathing, urinating, defecating in the river, making a living off odd jobs by the riverside. Every once in a while the city police comes by and tears down the shacks and the cycle starts up all over again. For other Calcuttans, the riverside is a sanctuary from the hot and muggy interiors of the city. Often in the evening, when the rays of setting sun make the silt laden water look like gold, the Bengali babus can seen heatedly debating politics and cricket accompanied with roasted peanuts and hot chai. The local train line is just by the banks so every once in a while the toot of the train pierces the surrounding noise and the din. Is it just the mugginess that makes everything feel slow even in that throng of moving bodies? Large ferry and cargo boats crawl past without attracting attention. Tiny little picturesque boats offer rides to young lovers who can perhaps steal a kiss away from the throng of hawkers and gawkers. Nothing spectacular but nevertheless stunning.
Kathi or kati roll – kababs wrapped in paratha, flat fried bread, and served with a variety of condiments such as chopped onions, spicy green chillies, yogurt, chutneys and salsas. Admittedly, these rolls originated as street food in Calcutta. Close variations on the concept exists in other cuisines – replace the paratha with a naan and you can be standing at Khan market in New Delhi. Put the kabab and condiments it a pita pocket and you end up with the popular gyros.
But when you set up a hip taqueria on the gentle rolling hills of beautiful Pacific Heights in San Francisco, and serve home style Kathi rolls, you have done something brand new. For one, the milieu is orthogonal to the neon lit battered stall on the crowded Calcutta street that serves a hungry crowd of pedestrians on hot summer evenings.
And secondly, can there even be a concept of homestyle Kathi rolls? Did Kathi roll not originate to satisfy the hunger for spicy, juicy meat held together by flaky, chewy fried bread? Are these rolls not to be had in the anonymity of street crowd - away from the watchful eyes of the dear spouse, away from the responsibility of being the ideal parent? Why would the average Calcutta babu seek out nutritiously balanced and healthy food on the street.
For food purists, Kasa will never reach the divine heights of unwholesome Calcutta street food. However, for the rest of us, there is something to be said about enjoying a glass of mango lassi with a turkey kathi and not having to worry about the number of sick days one has left.
Kathi rolls are Calcutta’s specialty cuisine. What is a kathi roll? It is a wrap – the outside is a flaky shallow fried flat bread and inside can be scrambled eggs or sauteed chicken or slow cooked mutton or a combination of meats with fried onions, chutneys and other spices. There are a few shops along the famous Park Street of Calcutta where the best kathi roll makers are to be found – the shops are typically small shacks and the popularity can be gauged by the length of the queue outside the shop.