By Ted Weesner
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 28, 2010; F01
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.
* * *
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.
The prices are positively Soviet, but that's no reason to crush your appetite with a plate of cafeteria-quality food. This place is strictly about channeling the heady atmosphere. Overhead fans (and waiters) move at a leisurely clip. There's no rush to cut a discussion short. When you finally depart, with dusk dropping, hundreds of booksellers await you on the nearby sidewalks; purchase a copy of "Das Kapital" and you can properly tap into the city's heavy socialist vibe.
Step a little farther into the surrounding neighborhood, and there are Kolkata's top two universities and the home of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1913). Most fascinating and not to be missed is Kumartuli, the nearby district where puja effigies are produced for the city's many religious festivals. (Puja is a ceremony of gratitude during which an offering is made to a special guest or, better yet, a deity.) Rows of small, life-size and gigantic cows and Hindi goddesses line the alleys, in the act of being sculpted from river mud. For whatever reason, the goddesses are extremely large-breasted. The artisans, all men, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they've gotten the ladies' bosoms just right.
Closer to the city center is another legendary coffeehouse, Flurys. Instead of palavering communists, this place offers the feel of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Ceilings tower, glass counters gleam, the larger gestalt suggests elegance. If the many fluttering, uniformed waiters get little to nothing accomplished, the coffee, pastries and sandwiches that finally arrive are first-rate. This old-world cafe, open since 1927, offers prime perches for people-watching. It's also a fine spot for writing a postcard and plotting your evening moves. As India has little in the way of cafe culture, these two atmospheric establishments offer critical respites for the weary, sensory-overloaded traveler.
* * *
Alas, the dinner hour approaches. First, two restaurants best avoided, although it's likely that your hotel or a high-flying friend may recommend them: Mocambo and Peter Cat. They're in the heart of the city, on upper Park Street -- the equivalent of Times Square -- and both will tempt you through the window. The two could be sisters. Orange lanterns throw off the only light. Waiters rock the attitude of hip-hop stars. Couples nuzzle. Romance swirls in the air. Let me in!
And yet, when I entered Mocambo, the nattily dressed maitre d' asked if I was alone. Yes, I told him, eyeballing the half-dozen empty tables over his shoulder. He nodded to a tiny one wedged against the drafty entrance. "For you," he said.
"What about one of those?" I asked, pointing.
"You must be accompanied by a lady," he sniffed.
"Lady?" I said.
"Lady," he repeated.
Things tumbled briskly from there, including an entree almost certainly air- and time-lifted from Lums Steakhouse in Dover, N.H., circa 1977. As if I needed it, here was one more lesson in the folly of falling for the most eye-candyish option, whether in cars, restaurants or women.
But then it's easy to flee the scene. Vintage black Ambassadors roam the streets and immediately get you thinking that you're a diplomat. A ride across town costs less than $1, which is handy, because some of the best restaurants are stashed on the city's south side. Conveniently, two of the most beautiful temples sit nearby. The Kali Temple, Kolkata's holiest Hindu destination, is a Victorian-era rendition of a much older building and is mashed behind a busy marketplace. Its towers stick out overhead like unexploded rockets. Interestingly, water buffaloes, goats and sheep are still sacrificed at the rear of the bell pavilion. Even if "very little cruelty" is involved in their earthly departure, you try to take it on faith that these animals aren't ending up on the sharp end of a kebab stick.
Not far off is a more recently built 20th-century temple called Birla Mandir. It offers no animal sacrifice, only perfect refuge. Carved out of luminous white sandstone, this oasis hovers calmly above the motorized fray. Check your shoes (and camera) at the gate and it's easy to forget the chaotic city just beyond.
Within striking distance of these calming spots are three excellent restaurants, all specializing in native Bengali cuisine. Two lurk on dark streets, their soft lights beckoning. The dining rooms and menus at Kewpies and 6 Ballygunge Place are similar. Kewpies looks like a festive place, though that wasn't the case when I stepped in. Granted, I arrived early -- opening time, 7 p.m. -- and was trailed by other touristy-looking types (and frankly more white faces than I'd come across all day). Like 6 Ballygunge, the restaurant has multiple rooms, all white-washed and pleasantly lit.
In addition to a la carte options, the menu offers thalis -- a selection of several small dishes -- which give a visiting diner the opportunity to sample a cross-section of local flavors. Sticking to the proper ritual order, two exquisite vegetarian dishes arrive first -- baby eggplant in yogurt sauce and a fruity version of dal made of yellow lentils -- followed by two kinds of fish. Fried bhetki is similar to a fillet of flounder, while hilsa, the most coveted of local river fish, is bathed in a piquant mustard sauce, a Bengali classic. A waiter passes with a communal plate of rice. A platter of luccis -- small fried breads, like snow-white puris -- come after.
The night deepens. Locals start to surface. Kewpies is no longer so quiet (or white). You're reminded: Indians eat late; there's little or no advantage to seeking the early-bird special. After the compulsory Bengali dessert, custardy, jaggery-sweetened yogurt, and an astringent chaw of paan, a good walk or an idling Ambassador awaits.
The third restaurant is in a mall, of all places. A mall in India? With the economy among the fastest-growing in the world, they're no longer such a novelty. But set aside freighted preconceptions -- and also the restaurant's unfortunate name: Oh! Calcutta -- and you'll find some of the finest fare in town. Brunch is an excellent one-stop option, with a buffet stocked with more than a dozen freshly cooked Bengali classics. Among the surprising favorites: green pea cakes, cabbage mutton, white pumpkin with lentil dumplings and, most brilliantly, banana fritters bobbing in a tangy curry. You may have to tolerate a very high bourgeois quotient -- easy-listening jazz, track lighting -- but then the service may vie for nimblest on the subcontinent.
* * *
Memorable eating, but where on earth to find a filtered-water phuchka? I wandered north above the Maidan -- Kolkata's equivalent of Central Park -- past incredible colonial-era architecture, through Dalhousie Square and past the striking Writers' Building. I paused before a haunting synagogue -- history literally knocks you off stride here -- then ventured into the incredible labyrinthine alleys of Chandni Chowk. Every possible ware is on sale. I felt my way down a pitch-dark lane where nothing but burlap bags of nails were being hawked by candlelight. But no phuchkas!
When I finally returned to Park Street, having worked up a ferocious appetite, I could simply wait no longer. There was a long line at a food stall, and I joined it. Kati rolls? I had lots of time to watch them being made. A young man rolled out a piece of dough, fried it on both sides, cracked an egg on the top, spread a line of goat (or chicken or paneer) kebab, then topped it with red onions, green chilies, hot sauce.
Okay, so not a phuchka -- with its dangerously seductive tamarind water -- but serious, truly sensational street food nonetheless. I lingered there in a daze, savoring the kati roll. During my last days in Kolkata, I ate a dozen more. The owner soon knew my order by heart.
Phuchkas? They'd have to remain a fantasy. I'm happy to report that at least on this, my stomach and I agreed.