Mmm, Kolkata: Eats on the streets and off the beaten path

Kolkata, India, offers delicious-looking -- but potentially gut-busting -- street food, beautiful temples, fascinating religious effigy workshops and legendary coffeehouses.
By Ted Weesner
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 28, 2010

A crazy frustration for any traveler in Kolkata is the abiding wariness you have to exercise in the city's thriving culture of street food. For anyone who even half-relishes gastro-adventure, it's exceedingly difficult to stroll past so much tasty-looking fare. Certainly the natives aren't passing it up. On my first day in this wildly vibrant city, I got lost at noontime in a crowd of hundreds, men and women in business suits hovering around food stalls, lunching on delicious-looking dosas, parathas, samosas, stews and other edibles I couldn't identify. I stopped at every stall and gawked, registering minimal vicarious pleasure and outsized, nearly delirious, envy.

The temptation is real. But talk to anyone who has visited India, and you're likely to hear at least one tale of gut-busting food trauma. More intrepid travelers, though, will be tempted to test their luck anyway. I particularly craved phuchkas, a dish Kolkata is famous for, a one-bite shot of spiced potatoes in a tiny sphere of fried bread, doused with tamarind water.

Phuchka stands are all over the city. It was impossible not to become obsessed with what I couldn't (or shouldn't) have. I watched as they were made, including the part where the phuchka purveyor reaches up to his elbow into a jug of unfiltered tamarind water and gives it a healthy stir with his arm. Having already encountered my own dose of stomach trouble on a brutal and seemingly endless train trip, I found myself shuttling between needing/wanting to taste a real phuchka and needing/wanting to not lose one more minute to fiery intestinal revolt.

Throughout my week-long stay, I remained on the lookout for a stomach-safe phuchka. Day by day, the vaunted phuchka rose in my estimation, to the point that I'd elevated it to the holy untasted grail of Bengal (the province of which Kolkata is the capital). Would I -- could I -- snack on a phuchka? It was hard to fathom leaving Kolkata without trying.

A word about the name Kolkata. Although it makes sense that local authorities abandoned the imperialist British spelling -- a change formally executed in 2001 -- what an incredibly evocative name to offload: Calcutta! Judging from the bare smattering of camera-strapped tourists one encounters wandering the beguiling streets of this metropolis of 15 million-plus, the city fathers might want to reconsider the decision. As in: Reclaim that old and notorious moniker -- Calcutta! -- and proceed to brand and seriously promote it.

Of course, it's that undiscovered-by-tourists quality that makes the place feel so charming and authentic. Unlike the much-visited Varanasi, which takes an afternoon to digest as you tolerate a river-length of badgering, boat-offering touts, or Delhi, which presents as a giant traffic jam glimpsed from the rear of an auto rickshaw, Kolkata offers up compact, real-city experiences on a minute-by-minute and blessedly walkable basis.

Kolkata is large enough that it's best to deploy a simple organizing principle to unpack the city. There's simply too much terrain -- physical, psychic, historical -- to cover in a few days, or even a week. You could choose a British Raj-era frame, which translates into a great deal of dramatic, if now crumbling, Victorian-era architecture, or you might take a far older spiritual angle, hunting down memorable Hindu locales. Alternatively, there's the epicurean route, with your stomach leading the sightseeing. Considering Bengali cuisine's range and depth, you'll coincidentally collide with numerous city sights and nutritious history lessons, so you won't depart from this storied place feeling like a vapid 21st-century hedonist.

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Bengali cuisine is rarely found in the United States. It bears little resemblance to what's known as "Indian food" stateside (which is better labeled "Punjabi"). It's not as fiery hot, but brighter and fruitier -- some would say more refined. Mustard oil is the central cooking medium. Fragrant curries can be delicate and coriander-spiked, dry and more heavily spiced or rich and ginger-laden. Seafood, especially prawns and freshwater fish from the many local rivers and reservoirs, is a widespread favorite, and the region features its own array of funky produce (banana and pumpkin flowers, jackfruit, drumstick) along with an essential five-spice mix called paanch phoron. Yogurt and poppy seeds are widely used.

There's also a strict order to how a meal unfolds: It starts with rice, followed by a bitter dish, vegetables and dals, seafood, chicken or mutton and finally a palate-cleansing chutney. Not to forget dessert, in particular mishti doi, yogurt sweetened with vanilla or molasses-rich jaggery. And according to local custom, it's traditional to conclude with paan, a piece of betel leaf wrapped around shredded coconut and rose petal preserve. It's said to aid with digestion and act as a mild stimulant.

A stimulant may be the first thing you need upon arrival in Kolkata, especially if dinner still flickers in the distance. Bengalis are known throughout India for their artistic and political inclinations, and two legendary cafes radiate this kind of ferment.

On the north side of the city, there's the legendary Indian Coffee House. Kolkatans are famously communist -- have been for 30-plus years -- so as you step into this high-ceilinged, rollicking space, you half expect to witness Trotsky arguing with Lenin arguing with Marx. Instead, you see students, professors and various locals clustered around small tables, everyone holding forth and sipping cups of sweet, weak coffee.

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