Eating Well in Kolkata

Food is a great passion for Bengalis, and they go to great lengths to ensure that every meal’s a celebration. In addition to the great variety, eating out is also quite affordable, with even Kolkata’s best restaurants cheaper than those in Delhi or Mumbai.

All over the city its narrow sidewalks are dominated by shanties, stalls, and carts serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Steaming-hot luchi (deep-fried puffy bread made of refined flour), curries, fried fish, fritters, samosas, rolls, kebabs, momos (Tibetan dumplings), chicken and mutton stew with unsliced flour bread, chapatis (flat bread) with chickpea curries, pastries, patties, and sweets—some streets resemble a smorgasbord for all the flavors, textures, and colors on view.

The street-food snack that scores over all others is the Calcutta (aka kati) roll, tender pieces of chicken or mutton wrapped in crisp and flaky parathas and served with onions and the occasional green chilli. Calcutta rolls are available at most roadside stalls, and every neighborhood has its favorite source, but Nizam's in New Market; Kusum in Park Street, and Campari, Bedouwin, and Nawab in Gariahat are some of the more famous. On the other end of the spectrum, Kolkata has always loved its continental food, and its colonial-era clubs and restaurants along Park Street are still putting their own spin on thermidors, Stroganoffs, and other classics. Of late, the city has also discovered a yen for French-style cafés and patisseries—they do a neat job of artisanal breads, quiches, pies, choux pastries, cookies, and cupcakes.

Biryani

This heavily flavored aromatic rice with meat and chicken in a rich gravy, with its roots in the Nawabi cuisine of Lucknow, takes on many forms—one very popular option is to get biryani accompanied by chaap or champ—marinated chicken or mutton slow-cooked in large, thick pans. Specialty restaurants serving their own takes on the dish are in every neighborhood of the city, but make sure you try it at a place that’s popular, with lots of turnover. Shiraz, Rahmania, and Arsalan, with many branches throughout the city, are some of the more established options. Oudh 1590, in Deshpariya Park, near Gariahat, serves Nawabi cuisine in an upscale setting.

Fish

A much-loved and festive special is the hilsa, also called ilish, a delicate fish from the herring family that’s found in fresh, salty, and brackish waters. Supplies have become limited, thanks in part to massive demand for its roe as well. The flesh is delicate, and in most restaurants it’s served deboned. Another favorite dish is the prawn malai curry, made with coconut milk, and its many variations, including one served in the shell of a tender (green) coconut. A common Bengali way of cooking fish is in mustard oil and in a mustard paste, making it quite pungent. Most sophisticated restaurants are mindful about toning down the flavors to appeal to foreign palates. Happily, local Bengali chefs are also digging out long-forgotten recipes and using spices and flavors unique to the cuisine to churn out some astonishing dishes.

Begali Sweets

The mind-boggling array of sweets sold at every corner shop attests to their importance in the Bengali diet. No trip to Kolkata can be complete without tasting the two things that the city could stake a copyright on. Mishti doi, or mitha dahi, is delicately sweetened yogurt; rashogolla (rasgulla) are sugary, syrupy, spongy balls of soft curd cheese. Another specialty is a sweet made with jaggery (unrefined date-palm sugar)—nolen gur. This is produced in nearby villages, but only in the winter.

Indo-Chinese Flavors

Calcutta is proud of its Chinese legacy and the community settled there is responsible for the city's abiding love for the hybrid cuisine served at most "Chinese" restaurants. The staples at most of these places are chilli chicken, chow-mein-like hakka noodles, mixed fried rice, all dishes made with generous helpings of green chillies and (some critics claim) MSG, although the chefs hotly deny it. The more authentic eateries in Tangra, Kolkata’s Chinatown, serve Chimney Soup and pork dishes cooked in a unique style.

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