Until the ’50s, Kolkata was an extremely cosmopolitan city with large communities of Jews, Armenians, Chinese, Anglo-Indians. As a result, Kolkata’s cooking pots are truly eclectic with Jewish mahashas, Portuguese Bandel cheese, Mughlai paranthas, Chinese chow, Armenian dolmas and British cutlets. These influences have created a street food culture not found in any other city in India.
Here are seven famous Kolkata street foods that offer a glimpse in to the city’s chequered past:
Chops and cutlets for tea, anyone?
Kolkata loves its chops and cutlets with streetside kiosks, and even railway stations, serving a variety of these. The breakfast menus of long-distance trains running from the city offer two options – a runny omelette on bread. And the more popular order bread with two portions of chops (made with chopped beetroot and other assorted vegetables).
City streets are dotted with small kiosks and shacks with glass counters showcasing rows of prepped chops and cutlets ready to be fried and served. Cutlets are flat and oval patties made from ground fish, meat, vegetables or eggs, coated with breadcrumbs and fried until golden brown. Fish cutlets and fish fingers are the most popular with chunks of flaky bhetki marinated in a hint of ginger and a dash of mustard and batter fried.
Chops are a spiced round potato cake filled with egg, fish, meat or vegetables, crumbed and fried. Like ‘dimer devil’ – the local version of the devilled egg – where the egg yolk is replaced by a minced meat or potato filling. These are all served with the inimitable kasundi – Bengal’s signature mustard sauce made with ground mustard slightly fermented, – sometimes the juice of an unripe green mango is added to give it an extra zing.
Roots: Kolkata’s chops and cutlets is European food with Indian touches. They were introduced by the Portuguese and Brits. The British mashed potatoes, Scotched eggs and braised cutlets came in contact with Indian spices, and turned into the Bengali chops and cutlets though very different from the originals.
Kabiraji is a cutlet made out of minced mutton, chicken, fish or prawn with a coating of breadcrumbs and a brushing of kasundi. What sets it apart, and gives it its name, is the thin, delicate lace-like layer of whipped fluffy eggs on top. It is served with thinly sliced onions, carrots and cucumber.
Roots: The name is believed to be a derivation (from the Bengali pronounciation) of ‘coverage cutlet’ or ‘cover egg’ cutlet, a dish introduced by the British. However, a few detractors say the origins are Japanese as the lace-like covering is more reminiscent of tempura batter coating.
Heaped plates of Hakka
Bengalis are crazy about Chinese food – when Kolkata eats out, Chinese restaurants are the most popular options. Roadside stalls serving heaped plates of chowmein are a common sight. But if you want to taste authentic Chinese food, head to Tiretti Bazaar for an early morning breakfast of fish ball soup, noodle soups, steamed baozi buns, steamed and fried dumplings in both steamed and deep fried forms, congee and a fatty sausage known as lap cheong.
Roots: Chinese people have been living in Kolkata since the 1770s – the city has the only Chinatown in India. The food served in most Chinese joints here is Hakka Chinese adapted to the Bengali palate. Hakka cuisine, or Kuhchia cuisine, is the cooking style of the Hakka people, who originated mainly from the southeastern Chinese provinces of China.
The case of the Kathi roll
Nizam’s (www.kolkatarestaurants.net/2013/01/nizams-restaurant.html) behind New Market on Hogg Street is credited with inventing the kathi roll. Did they really do so or is it just another embroidered foodlore? No one knows. But yes, the kathi roll is the most popular street food in Kolkata. The roll is created with a parantha fried on a tava with an egg, and filled with juicy mutton or chicken pieces pre-sauted in a sauce, topped with chopped onions, green chillies and a dash of lime. All of this is rolled up and wrapped in a piece of tissue to soak up the oil. Vegetarian versions have sprung up with potatoes or paneer inside, but the original kathis were pure meat. Incidentally, the Nawabs brought with them the joys of cooking with onions. Before that, onions were taboo in Bengali kitchens. And with them also arrived the kebabs and paranthas.
Roots: How did the kathi roll come into existence? –The most popular story says the roll was invented for the finicky British who didn’t want to get their hands dirty on kebabs. So, someone hit upon the idea of rolling up the kebabs in a parantha with a napkin around it.
Is that a Sambusak with an Indian touch?
A divine roundel of crisp outside-flaky-soft-bread-inside filled with layers of cheese, the cheese samosa doesn’t strictly fall under street food. You need to walk into the 141-year-old New Market to get your hands on one. It is available at Nahoum and Sons, Kolkata’s iconic Jewish bakery. Don’t just walk out with a samosa, Nahoum’s windows heave with stacks of brownies, rum balls, pastries and cakes, macaroons, cheese straws, brownies and fudge, biscuits and breads — all fresh from the oven.
Roots: Jewish, of course. Kolkata has a 200-year-old Jewish history – about 250 years ago, a wave of Jews emigrated to India from countries like Iran. The bakery was started in 1902 by Nahoum Israel, an Iraqi Jew migrant. After more than a century, Nahoum’s is still going strong with its own Facebook page.
The Moglai – parantha with a difference
The Mughlai parantha (or just the ‘Moglai’ as Bengalis call it) is a popular street food that comes in to its own during Durga Puja. A square envelope made of a parantha with minced mutton stuffing and an egg inside, it is fried in oil or ghee to lend the parantha its flaky golden texture.
Roots: Some say it has influences from Dhaka cuisine, while others say it originated during Jehangir’s time. A story in a leading national newspaper narrates how the emperor asked his cook to think of something unconventional as his palate was fed up with conventional paranthas and keema. The cook created the Mughlai parantha. Jahangir was supposedly won over by the new creation and gave the cook 1,001 gold coins. The cook was originally from Burdwan which is now in West Bengal. He zealously guarded the recipe and passed it on only to his son. Burdwan eventually became the Mughal Empire’s official revenue-collection centre for Bengal at the time of Shah Jahan, and eateries serving Mughlai cuisine came up. When the son’s descendants began to work as chefs in 19th century Calcutta, Mughlai paranthas became Calcutta’s own dish where it was relished by Bengalis and the men of the East India Company.
What ties the Rosogolla, the Ledikeni and Bandel Cheese?
Kolkata has a sweet shop on almost every corner. Often commuters returning from office will munch on rolls and top it up with a sweet. Most sweets use thickened or curdled milk. The milk is curdled with lemon juice or yogurt to produce curds, called channa. The famous Bengali rosogolla is made of chhanna as is the ledikeni, named after Lady Canning, the wife of the first Viceroy of India. Another popular confection, the chhanar jilipi, is like a jalebi but with thicker swirls, and softer.
Roots: Chhaana is said to be a Portuguese contribution. Portuguese cheesemakers in Bengal used to produce curds by breaking milk with acidic materials. One of their products was a salted smoked cheese called Bandel Cheese, which is still made and sold in a few shops in New Market – don’t leave Kolkata without buying a few roundels.