The Bangladeshi I know is passionate. He is as passionate about his fish as he is about a good argument. I’ve had some of my best fights 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 is a passion that is honest and towering. And all this intense sentiment and zeal 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 to be up to speed. The streets turn into a psychedelic carnival, a deep dive into a colorful and curious world filled with ‘dhunachi’ in the sky, a fully themed decor, crazy immersive colors and the beating of ‘dhaak’ and drumming. There are pandals everywhere, accessible and within reach of every devotee. Besides the zeal of the Aarti, resounding in the streets and in the sky, with Maa Durga beaming, at her beautiful and glorious best, the evenings and nights are also time for some original Bengali hard rock. Young bands with lead drummers in dreadlocks and bass in beads are bringing forth modern Bengali fusion. And the alleys are lined with the best street food most of which is available and often only tastes this good during the festivals. It really is four days of tumultuous thrills and fun.
I usually go straight to North Kolkata to Bagbazar and ShyamBazar. The Bagbazar Durga Pujo Pandal is one of the oldest pujas in Kolkata and is over 100 years old. As you walk through the alleys lined with ancient prehistoric buildings, you get the sense of a culture slowly taking its last breath, albeit temporarily rejuvenated by the festival lights. Here young and old come together in adda’s, sipping chai and smoking cigarettes. Walk into the narrow streets and you will find shops serving traditional street food. Old ones selling Kolkata staples like Kabiraji chops and Mughlai parathas. Kabiraji cutlet is a cutlet of fish, chicken or mutton wrapped in a lacy, crispy gauze of beaten egg batter. The cutlet is dipped in egg batter and dipped in hot oil, and while it’s still frying, the remaining batter is poured onto the cutlet while turning it all the time. Sometimes the slightly more reckless cooks use their fingers and wrists to drop long strands of egg batter onto the cutlet while it is frying. It is magical to watch this hand dance as a crispy side emerges around the spicy, chopped chicken, fish or mutton. You eat this with a soft hot paratha.
While the rest of India fasts or follows a strict vegetarian diet during Navratri, a diet that often even eliminates the use of onion and garlic, Bengalis feast on a range of the best meat and fish. There are a few theories as to why this is so. One is that the goddess Durga, who is celebrated during Navratri, after conquering the evil Mahishasura, is invoked with a ‘bhog’ of fish and sacrificial meat. Another theory is that Maa Durga is worshiped less as a goddess than as a mother. And how would it be possible to welcome your own mother home, if your most delicious dishes were not on the table. So I suppose if it’s good for the Goddess, it’s good for us too. Who am I to argue, I will just enjoy the celebrations and enjoy the blessings.
Fried stuff always makes great street food. Like Kachoris and Pakodas in the north, Kolkata’s Telebhaja is 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 here for their Kochuris in the morning and Radhaballavis later in the day. Kochuri is a kachori, and like the kachori, these also come with a variety of fillings. Usually available in the cold months, Matar Shutir Kochuri or Koraishutir Kochuri is kachori filled with a spicy green pea filling. Hinger Kochuri is Kachori filled with a pungent and spicy filling with lots of asafoetida or hing.
There is also the Potoler Chop made from Pointed Gourd or Parwal. I prefer the crumb fried pork chop over the batter fried, especially if it’s made from raw banana flowers. The Mochar Chop, raw banana flowers mixed with a spiced mashed potato and deep fried.
Another delicacy is Dhokar Dalna or fried spiced lentil cake made with Chana dal, traditionally fried and then simmered in a gravy without garlic and onions. Interestingly, it is called Dhokar, which means ‘treason’. This is when the family is misled into believing that the lentil cake, flavored with a gravy of herbs, coconut, peanuts, etc., is actually meat.
But the king of all bhajas in the Radhaballabhi. These are soft pooris, literally Lucchis, filled 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 Bengali argument about which is better, the Golgappa, Pani Puri or Puchchka, I go to the Ghugni. Ghugni is white peas cooked into a silky slurry, gently spiced and garnished with fresh coriander, raw onions and coconut pieces. A bit like Ragda Pattice’s Ragda, but more evolved I’d 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 fish, chicken, pork and vegetables, are served along with chowmein and the chilli chicken beyond almost every pandal.
But my all time favorite is the Mutton Kathi Roll, or the Kolkata Roll. Juicy pieces of mutton are marinated in spices and cooked over charcoal, smoky and slightly burnt, fried sliced onions, lime and green chillies, wrapped in a slightly sweet but crispy and flaky paratha fried in egg.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer from 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 views of this publication.
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