Under a tent of blue plastic on a back street in Kolkata, Jetendra Pandit is making puchka, golfball-size orbs of crisp semolina pastry stuffed with a savoury mixture of potato, chickpeas, tamarind paste, and chaat masala. It’s 8 p.m., and the burly cook is working from a single light bulb and gas flame, throwing shadows across the pavement stones. We drove for an hour to reach his stall, dodging the potholes, cows, and rickshaws that litter the suburban streets of the West Bengali capital. But it’s well worth it. In a city famed for its puchka (known elsewhere in India as gol gappa or pani puri), Pandit’s are legendary; this sidewalk stall has been in his family for three generations.
‘This is the ultimate Indian street food,’ declares Gaggan Anand, the 35-year-old Kolkata-born chef behind Bangkok’s acclaimed Gaggan restaurant, as he pops a seventh puchka whole into his mouth. ‘This is what fuels my inspiration; it is the essence of my own cooking.’
An affable bear of a man with a crop of silky hair and a patch of beard on his chin, Anand thundered into southeast Asia’s gastronomy scene two years ago with his ‘progressive’ take on Indian cuisine, which applies molecular kitchen techniques to the dishes that sustained him as a child. Keen to show off his culinary roots, Anand, who I first met in 2007 shortly after he moved to Bangkok to cook at a contemporary Indian restaurant called Red, has promised to take me on the ultimate Kolkata food safari.
The day begins with breakfast at Gupta Brothers, a sweets shop selling elaborate, multihued confections made from reduced milk alongside savoury treats served in banana leaf cups with wooden spoons. Standing at the busy counter, we devour squares of sandesh, cottage cheese and sugar baked into a crème brûlée-like pudding, and, my favourite, dohkla, a batter of fermented lentil that is steamed into a cake and topped with tamarind and date chutney, curry leaves, grated coconut, and mustard. It’s also one of Anand’s favourites; at Gaggan, he puts the same lentil batter through a siphon to aerate it, then microwaves it for 30 seconds before teaming it with frozen coconut and coriander foam. It’s a bit of kitchen wizardry that transforms a simple street snack into haute cuisine.
‘The basis for all my dishes is very simple,’ says Anand, who spent two months studying molecular gastronomy at Ferran Adrià’s now defunct el Bulli restaurant in Spain before opening Gaggan in 2011. ‘It’s just Kolkata street food made fancy.’
Earthy, light, and fragrant with an emphasis on river fish, lentils, and rice dishes, Bengali cooking is a world away from the rich cream- and butter-based curries and leavened breads of Punjabi and Mughlai cuisine. ‘It’s all about balancing sweet, sour, pungent, and spice,’ Anand tells me over a plate of minced banana flower at Kewpie’s Kitchen, an unassuming family-run restaurant tucked into a red-trimmed house off Elgin road. ‘Wedged in between southeast Asia and the rest of India, it has characteristics of both.’
Joining us for lunch is Kewpie’s owner Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta and a few of her friends, who are passionately debating the origins of Bengali cuisine. Some say its basis comes from the Punjab, others say southern India, or that it’s a blend of all the cultures that make up this fascinating metropolis.
For me, the most defining element of Bengali cuisine is the liberal, almost profuse, use of whole-grain mustard. At Kewpie’s, the condiment is added to almost everything, stirred into a light and tangy pumpkin curry, smothered on top of locally caught hilsa (a firm-fleshed river fish), and mixed with sweet mint sauce as a dip for crumbed cutlets of minced banana flower (mochar chop). While Dasgupta and her friends disagree, Anand maintains that there is no doubting the source of this mustard mania, or of the Bengali tradition of eating in courses and coating fish and cutlets in bread crumbs: Britain.
It was a humid afternoon in August, 1690, when Job Charnock, an intrepid administrator with the British East India Company, established a colony on a bend in the Hooghly river and called it Calcutta, after the nearby settlement of Kolikata. Evolving into an affluent trading port and later the capital of British India, Kolkata grew to be the most important and cosmopolitan city in India, with a wealth of grand, imposing buildings and a multicultural population that included a hodgepodge of Armenians, Jews, Persians, and Chinese, all of whom have left a culinary imprint on the city. Kolkata continued to grow after the Raj moved its capital to New Delhi in1911, but the repercussions of partition devastated the city’s economy, and it slipped into squalor and disrepair over the decades that followed.
‘Kolkata fell apart, but it never lost its soul,’ says Anand, recounting the cultural scenes that continued to flourish, churning out such luminaries as filmmaker Satyajit Ray, sitar master Ravi Shankar, and authors Amitav Ghosh and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Anand and I are on the last leg of our food safari, which will involve a leisurely dinner at Chinoiserie, a Chinese restaurant at the Taj Bengal Hotel that pays tribute to Kolkata’s Hakka population. But first, it’s time for papdi chaat, a snack of deep-fried wafers topped with mashed chickpeas and potato, beaten yogurt, and tamarind chutney that we travel deep inside Kolkata’s wholesale market and commercial nucleus, Barabazar Market, to find. It’s a multitude of moreish flavours that Anand describes as ‘creamy and crunchy, nutty and spicy, sweet and tangy, all at the same time.’ Downing another spoonful, he adds, ‘It really is the perfect dish.’
Where to stay
Occupying a Victorian landmark, the Oberoi Grand (15 Jawaharlal Nehru Rd.; 91-33/2249-2323; oberoihotels.com; doubles from US$330) offers impeccable service and well-appointed rooms. For those looking for more modern surrounds, the ITC Sonar (Jbs Haldane Ave.; 91-33/2345-4545; itchotels.in; doubles from US$195) is a better bet, though it is located on the outskirts of the city.
Where to eat
Be sure to visit Gupta Brothers (198, Block J, New Alipore; 91-33/2409-5266) for the amazing array of sweets. Across town, Kewpie’s Kitchen (2 Elgin lane; 91-33/2486-1600; kewpieskitchen.com) provides a homey setting for sampling some of the city’s favourite dishes. Also worth seeking out are the central outlets of Bhojohori Manna (9/18 Ekdalia Rd. and 11a Esplanade East; bhojohorimanna.com), a chain of great Bengali diners serving dozens of local dishes for about US$2 a plate.