To really understand something, you need to grasp it with your senses. To really understand a city and its people, you need to be out in the streets, exploring and eating with the locals. Kolkata is a melange of cultures, tastes, and ideologies, a melange that can be understood best in the city’s complex relationship with flavours. It wants simple and soulful food but it craves variety; it wants food that can satisfy the palate while replenishing the soul; it wants the act of eating to strive past the definition of gluttony into a cultivated, thoughtful, mindful experience where the eater is engaged with what is on the table, on the tongue. And in this city of fine dining restaurants and roadside shacks, there are endless ways of reaching food Nirvana.
It is no secret that on a holiday, a Bengali wakes up planning the day’s meals. They will stroll to the neighbourhood kochuri’r dokan for a cup of tea and settle down for a plate of kochuri-chholar dal, eat a few sondesh, and indulge in adda over the day’s newspaper. We, Bengalis, don’t devour. Instead, we relish, we savour. Breakfast done, they will saunter to the bazaar, haggle over the prices and freshness of fish, and return home on a rickshaw with bags full of produce. Over lunch, they will loudly plan dinner while secretly wondering how to escape the house to down a peg in the evening. Their siestas will be plagued by dreams of telebhaja and kathi rolls.
Kolkata is a foodie’s fantasy. In the rumbling belly of this city, Bengali flavours collide with British cooking and Mughlai zaika waltzes with Chinese flavours. If you let the city trespass deeper into your psyche, you might wake up longing for that crispy buttered toast and poached egg you had at a grimy cabin. Or, that cup of lemon tea you lazily sipped while eavesdropping on a politically charged conversation. Or, how that first taste of ilish paturi reminded you of Tagore’s poetry… In this post, we bring to you 15+ such experiences that you can only find in the city of joy. This is a treasure hunt of culinary proportions where each experience is unique to the city and also makes the city what it is. Join us, as we take you on a culinary tour of Calcutta.
And to make you drool, we’ve photos from the feeds of some of Kolkata’s fantastic Instagram foodstars! Give them a shout!
1. Learn to buy fresh fish
Whether or not you are courting a Bengali, learning to buy fresh fish is a skill that will go a long way. Every morning, the bazaars of this great city fill with locals haggling over glistening katla, chital, rui, ilish, padba, bhetki, pomfret, and numerous other varieties of fishes. Freshness is ascertained with a gentle touch of the thumb on the gills. It’s a skill the Bengali bhodrolok has perfected over centuries, a skill they apparently carry into the afterlife. Thus, Bengali folklore is replete with stories of the fish-eating mechhobhoot who, once in a while, takes a break from stealing fish and strides off to a market to test and taste the day’s produce. Once the connoisseur– human or ghost– has selected their fish, it is descaled and fleshed open on the fishmonger’s gigantic bonti, chopped into pieces, and handed over in a plastic bag. While not a very pleasant sight, buying the right fish and cutting it right is an essential skill for any cooking enthusiast.
Also Read: Shyambazar Neighbourhood Guide
2. Dig into a traditional Bengali meal
Bengali cuisine follows the rules of service à la russe. So, you get to savour each course and feel a fresh wave of anticipation well up inside your belly for the next. First come the bitters, then the leafy greens, followed by dal and fries, then the curries, fish, and meat, and finally dessert. There is, at least, one type of fish and either chicken or mutton. Well-known non-vegetarian delicacies include shorshe ilish, daab chingri, mutton kosha, and chicken kosha. A variety of batter-fried vegetables and jhurjhure alu bhaja is served on the side. For vegetarians and vegans, there is dhoka’r dalna, bandhakopi’r torkari, aluposto, kochu’r loti, and more. Don’t forget to indulge in delicious Bengali sweets, especially the rosogolla, served at the end of the meal. Bhojohari Manna, Oh! Calcutta, Aaheli, Kasturi, Lokahaar, and Sonartori are some of our favourite restaurants that serve Bengali food.
3. Indulge in Kolkata’s street-food
In the early 1990s when my mother was alive, we would wait for the hawailadduwala’s bell in the afternoon. For a rupee or two, we would get a packet full of airy, pink sweetness that we would relish under the slow whirr of the fan. When she was confined to her hospital bed, I’d buy packets of boiled peanuts and chhana mixed with onions and beet-noon for her. In the few years I spent with her, we hardly had a fill of what the streets of Calcutta and its suburbs could offer but if she were here now, I know on some weekends, we would have started our day with some kochuri–chholar dal, or some malai-toast, moved on to plates of chowmein and/or rice with fish curry and/or ruti with mutton kosha, then gobbled scores of phuchka for snacks, munched an array of telebhaja while sipping from a bhanr of tea, then downed a kathi roll, and finally for dinner, worked our way through a plate of biriyani. Of course, we’d have to make space in our bellies for some jhalmuri, momos, ghoti-gorom, chaat, pao bhaji, alu kabli, and chholar chips. Your best bets at finding the pair of us would be in Dacres Lane near Esplanade, the pavements around the Calcutta Stock Exchange, the Dalhousie area, and the Park Street and Camac Street areas. Or, perhaps in Gariahat!
Also Read: How to Order at a Telebhaja’r Dokan
4. Try Calcutta-Chinese
The curious case of Calcutta Chinese is never just a gastro-chemically successful mash-up of two largely different cuisines. It is, instead, a journey of cohabitation of diverse tastes and cultures that found global acclaim and local love. The Chinese immigrants who had made Calcutta their home at different points during the turbulent Raj grew to be an inextricable part of the city over the years and as the city warmed up to noodles and meifoons, there was osmosis of the Bengali palate into the immigrants’ style of cooking. The bland and fresh flavours of Hakka Chinese cuisine were given an Indian tarka and thus were born dishes like Chilly Chicken, Veg Manchurian Balls, Dragon Fish, Crispy Chilly Babycorn, and Drums of Heaven. The Schezwan– an Indianized pronunciation of Sichuan– sauce, a fixture in Chinese restaurants across the country, was invented by one of the chef’s at Eau Chew, one of Calcutta’s oldest Chinese restaurants.
Unlike their counterparts in Tangra– restaurants like Golden Joy, Beijing, and Big Boss— where the items on the menu have been perfected to suit the Indian palate, joints like Tung Nam and Pou Hing around Tiretta have succeeded in maintaining a balance between their Chinese and Indian identities. Here the dumplings come coated in gravy and sprinkled with chives and most of the dishes proudly flaunt the smell of fish sauce. And if you can’t have enough of the green chilli sauce that is dolloped liberally on everything, drop in at Pou Chong (they have a dimsum cafe in Kasba) to buy a bottle. They have been making and selling sauces to connoisseurs of Hakka Chinese since 1958.
5. Drop in at a historic cabin
Few things are as distinctive to Calcutta’s dining scene as the cabins. Called cabins because the seating area was divided by thin wooden walls and curtains into tiny personal cabins, these eateries flourished in the 20th century and continue to be an important reminder of the city’s distinctive past. All of them serve a tantalizing assortment of telebhaja and sometimes the local street-food staples like moghlai porota and chowmein. Try the brain chop at Shobhabazar’s Mitra Cabin, pantheras at Barua & Dey, prawn cutlet at Allen’s Kitchen, and kobiraji at Dilkhusha on College Street. Expect to share tables with fellow eaters.
6. Gorge on continental fare on Park Street
Fancy some Chicken a la Kiev, Fish Florentine, or Baked Alaska? Head to Park Street, Kolkata’s prime dining and entertainment district since the colonial era. Peliti’s, the first dining establishment to introduce European confectionery products in this part of the world, and the elegant Skyroom were among the first restaurants to open on Park Street. They catered to Europeans who longed for a slice of home and to the English educated Indian middle class with colonial tastes. Both these restaurants have since shut their doors, but Park Street is still home to Flurys, the city’s first tea room, and heritage eateries like Mocambo, Peter Cat, and Trincas that serve excellent Continental fare. At Peter Cat, order the Chello Kebab, a dish which, since its inception in the kitchen here, has become intertwined with the city;s identity.
7. Eat too many mishtis
Wherever you go in Kolkata, there will be a mishti’r dokan, a shop selling traditional Bengali sweets, beckoning you with its mind-boggling assortment of chhana and khoya based sweets. There’s the rosogolla, balls of milk solids soaked in syrup, that Bengal is famous for and the sondesh, soft and melt-in-the-mouth. Not to forget the ledikeni, the abar khabo, the jolbhora, the kheer kodom, the komolabhog, and the mishti doi. If you follow trends to the T, opt for a chocolate mishti or mishtis flavoured with exotic fruits like blueberries and kiwis– Balaram Mullick and Radharaman Mullick makes the best of these– or ones spiked with liquor. Head to Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy near Hedua for their impeccable sondesh. Then onwards to Jorasanko’s Bhim Nag for some monohara and dilkhush. Try the rosogolla at K.C. Das and the mihidana at Sen Mahasay (of course, order some dal puris while you’re there!).
8. Drink at the city’s oldest bars
Calcutta’s old bars did not just capitalise on Calcutta’s love of snacking at every odd hour, they also offered the office weary everydayers their evening respite: a cheap pint of beer or an old fashioned glass of whiskey. Nowhere else in the world can you order a cheese-cherry-pineapple (yes, at Tripti, the age-old bar where you can see antique Belgian mirrors, it is a legitimate dish), a plate of tangy alukabli, or a singara chaat with your liquor at any time in the day! At Shaw’s, which, sadly, continues to be men-only in the 21st century, the walls and tables are grimy but the atmosphere is bright. Also known as Chhota Bristol, this is Kolkata’s oldest bar. Everybody knows everybody and everybody is here for a serious drink but without forgetting to pair every peg with tireless adda. But all that, if you manage to get a seat. Then there are these old-timey bars of office para like Duke or Broadway that could never reach the regality of Park Street but carry more stories of workspace valour than one can gather in a lifetime. Don’t worry if you look/feel out of place; order a bowl full of crispy golden slivers of fried mourola maach and nibble while you assess the place. Or you could visit Olypub on a Wednesday evening (midweek being almost an official drink day). Be ready with your order when the forever busy server turns up and trust him to bring the best cocktail sausages the city has to offer. Don’t be afraid to share a table and make new friends. They might look gruff and wise at first, but they are and always will be as young of heart as you or me or the last shot of Old Monk.
9. Dine at a Pice Hotel
If you don’t care about ambience and are eager to try homecooked Bengali food, give the Bhojohari Mannas and the Oh! Calcuttas a miss and make your way into a pice hotel where patrons not only share tables but also stories. Once upon a time, you could buy a filling lunch for less than a pice (1/4 of an anna) at eating houses like Siddheswari Ashram, Tarun Niketan, and Adarsh Hindu Hotel. The menu is a la carta and you’ve to pay for everything, including the slice of lemon, an extra ladle of rice, and even the banana leaf you are served on. There is no fixed menu and the day’s menu is usually scribbled on a chalkboard. These eateries specialize in home-cooked Bengali meals– cooked in both ghoti and bangal styles– so don’t forget to order the fish and the mutton. Dig into rice, daal, torkari, fish curry, chingri’r jhaal, fritters, jhurjhur’e alu bhaja, mutton kosha, egg curry, and chutney. Fair warning, there is no cutlery and you have to eat with your hands!
Also Read: The Siddheswari Sojourn
10. Breakfast in Chinatown’s Tiretta Bazaar
This one’s for early risers because by 7 am, the steaming dumplings, the delicious pork buns, and the peppery fish ball soup are all gone. Home to Calcutta’s Chinese population, Tiretta Bazaar transforms into a bustling breakfast spot at 6 am every day. Hawkers with cauldrons full of soup, stacked steamers containing momos, and bamboo baskets packed with giant baos arrive as early as 6 am and set up shop on both sides of the street. Besides dumplings, expect traditional Chinese items like meat steamed in banana leaves, crispy pork belly, spring rolls, and sweet sesame buns.
11. Stir up some delicacies at a Bengali cookery class
If you have been enamoured by poppy seeds and mustard and can’t wait to stir up some bhetki paturi or alu posto, join a cooking class that will lead you through the nuances of Bengali cooking. You will learn all about panch phoron and kasundi, the magic that is mustard oil, the secret to making puffy luchis, the various types of leafy greens and bitters, and the fishes we can’t resist. Of course, there will be mishti! Contact Calcutta Walks if you wish to join one.
12. Indulge in baked goods at a Jewish Bakery
Located in the dinghy confines of Hogg Market, Kolkata’s last surviving Jewish bakery serves a variety of toothsome goodies. Undeterred by globalization, Nahoum’s continues to retain its classic Jewish charm– the original menu has only been slightly altered to fit changing tastes– and old world demeanour. Loyal customers swear by their rich fruit cake, lemon tarts, water biscuits, Black Forest cake, and cream puffs.
13. Down some Bangla
Indulge the counter-culture rebel in you by taking a swig from a bottle of bangla, Bengal’s very own deshi mod. Don’t confuse Bangla with the run of the mill bootleg hooch; it is actually a refined and distilled country liquor and is now certified by the IFB. Made from starch, the pocket-friendly liquor has fruity notes and a mild sweetness reminiscent of michhri. While the state government is trying to rebrand the local drink and devise marketing strategies to push it into the mainstream, it can hold itself on its own rights. Be it the inspiration for Sunil and Shakti at Barduari or a fuel to Ritwick’s lamentations in Khalasitola, it has long been a favoured drink of Bengal’s Hungryalist icons. It pairs well with jaljeera (surprisingly!), golden maach–bhaja, literary ruminations, and heart-breaks.
14. Try some Nawabi delicacies
Of course, you must have some Kolkata biriyani at India Restaurant or at Royal, the one that comes with half a boiled potato along with the customary chunk of meat and a hard-boiled egg but what about the is-like-silk-on-the-tongue Haleem at Aminia or Sufiya‘s legendary Nihari that is only made in the winter and is gone by 7 am? What about the oh-so-tender-it-must-be-tied-with-a-thread suti kebabs at Adam’s Kebabs or the qormas and creamy rezalas at Manzilat’s, an eatery run by Wajid Ali Shah’s great great granddaughter? Can you miss them?
Also Read: The Zakaria Street Ramadan Food Walk
15. Trip to Tibet
There’s no doubt that momos have taken the country by storm but Kolkata being Kolkata couldn’t stop at just momos. It had to hike in the Himalayas and dive into the entire repertoire of Tibetan Cuisine. So when Doma Wang entered the food scene with bowls of piping hot thukpas and thenthuks, juicy beef dumplings, shaptas, phalays, and more at Blue Poppy on Middleton Row, we couldn’t be happier. To satiate your cravings for Tibetan food, drop in at Tibetan Delights, Denzong Kitchen, Hamro Momo, Momo I Am, or at Doma’s defiant smack on the face of food censorship, Shim Shim-The Beef Cafe.
Also Read: At Momo I Am, Reinventing Comfort Food of the Darjeeling Hills
16. Partake of Calcutta’s Cafe Culture
If you have been keeping an eye on Calcutta’s food scene over the years, you might have noted how the idea of a steaming cup of coffee has escaped College Street’s Coffee House as well as the countless Cafe Coffee Days and settled in cute cafes with Instagrammable decors. At Artsy, hidden in the bylanes of Minto Park, you can sip your coffee while flipping through books and artwork while at Lighthouse Cafe in Jodhpur Park, you can chance upon some world-class literature and workshops on photography. 8th Day Cafe & Bakery, run by an American expat couple, bakes some of the best bagels in town while at the popular Sienna Cafe, you can nibble on healthy avocado toasts and salads topped with topli nu paneer. Hope Cafe in Gariahat employs a staff from the marginalised and differently abled community and serves excellent sandwiches with coffee. And since this is Calcutta where we can scarce go without our tea, there are places like Whistling Kettle and Cha Bar which specialize in high-quality teas.
Here’s a tip: One trip to Kolkata isn’t enough to savour all that it has to offer, so don’t try it. Take it slow…like the locals. Spend time de-boning the shorshe pabda on your dish. Listen to the rhythm of your fingers as your mash kochur-loti in your steaming rice. Let the dimsums open up their juicy hearts to you. Enjoy as your teeth break into the shell of your fowl cutlet; let the kasundi sing its symphony to you. Remember to not hurry. Remember that in this city of mossy mansions, forgotten typography, and screeching trams there is no such thing as Grab-n-Go.