The perception of the city of Calcutta , or Kolkatta as it is now called, is changing fast. At last it is beginning to acquire an image other than that of destitute poor and the Black Hole of Calcutta.
The economic boom in India means that third world meets first world on every street, Mercs glide alongside belching tuc tucs, glitzy shopping malls spring up in the midst of the roadside food stalls and dhabas. Yet Calcutta is unique in India in retaining its trams, and is the only metropolis in the world to still have hand-pulled rickshaws. You take your life in your hands every time you attempt to cross the street with a sea of honking yellow ambassador taxis, bicycles, tuc tucs and motorbike riders, some with funny helmets from World war two.
Unimaginable loads are carried on Honda heroes and old Enfield motorcycles, two adults and two children, sheets of glass or plywood propped up between the rider and the pillion passenger, building materials, crammed baskets, vegetables, live chickens, fish. …. We once saw a water buffalo with feet tied squished into a tuc tuc. Of course there are vibrant markets, fruit, vegetables and spice markets where vendors sit crossed legged on the ground calling to attract passers-by to their wares, which might be just a handful of vegetables or a couple of fish. We rose at dawn to go outside to explore Calcutta ’s wetlands, not normally on a tourist itinerary, but this unique eco-system, 2000 hectares of lakes and marshland, an extraordinary eco achievement where the night soil of the city is piped out through a natural reed bed system. This not only purifies the water but leaves it rich in mineral deposits and plankton, making it a prime producer of some of the world’s most sustainable fish on a massive scale – over 10,000 tons of fish a year is produced. Furthermore a series of market gardens have been created on the rich fertile soil between the ponds, these produce lush vegetables and leafy greens, spinach, oracle, coriander, mustard greens, squash blossoms, coriander…..
We arrived in the little village of Bantala about 15 kilometres from the centre of Calcutta soon after 7am just in time to catch the end of the fish auction. Fishermen on bicycles, with saddles made from old tyres, arrived from the surrounding area with tin vessels called decki, covered with wet sacking attached to their carriers, these were full of live fish. The fish merchants were waiting, sitting cross-legged in their latticed bamboo huts. The fishermen cycled up, they upended their bicycles, front wheel in the air to tip the wriggling fish into the plastic barrels so the auctioneer could assess the quality of the catch. The fish was weighed on huge balance scales, the bidding started, 46-48 rupees a kilo seemed to be the going rate that morning. The fishermen, dressed in traditional dhoti would have waded knee deep in the shallow ponds for hours catching the fish with little nets and sometimes with their bare hands.
After the transaction, the fish is transported still live into the fish market in Calcutta , but they go along to a tea shack to enjoy a glass of chai, hot sweet spiced tea, swap fishy yarns before picking up some fresh vegetables from the roadside market to take home to make a simple stew. Although many people are very poor the basic food is still very nutritious.
On the outskirts of the village we came upon an entire family on the roadside making chals kumar from gram flour mixed with ginger and chilli powder. Three generations passing the skills from grandparents to grandchildren. They picked off balls of dough and left it to dry in the sun on a sheet of canvas. These provide little sundried nuggets, a nutritious staple to eat with gravy or daal. In the city they are dried on the roof, but this skill is fast disappearing as more people become affluent and buy them ready made in packets, even though they are a vastly inferior product according to Ankur, our guide.
Back in the city, later in the morning, we headed for the bustling office district where the street food is at its most riveting. Each stall has its own speciality. There under makeshift awnings are charcoal stoves with kadhi full of oil to cook pakoras and shungara, the Bengali names for samosas. Little stalls piled high with biryani pots, mutton stew, daals, chow mein ( Calcutta has the oldest Chinatown outside China .) Each stallholder offers up a puja (prayer) to the Gods before they start and there is always an auspicious symbol of limes and chillies strung together, hanging from the stall for good luck.
Several stalls were rolling out dough for a variety of breads, chapatti and luchi, others slapped paper thin rounds of dough onto red hot upturned metal kadhi (wok like pot) to make romali roti (handkerchief bread) in seconds. In fact some of the best food I’ve tasted comes from street stalls and dhabas in India . It is freshly cooked and hot, and in my experience a much safer bet than lukewarm hotel buffets. The complexity of the food and traditional cooking skills are mesmerizing. The flavour of every thing I tasted was truly delicious – nourishing complex food. The number of people that these and other street stalls feed every day is staggering, not just thousands but millions in Calcutta alone.
Eggy toast is another speciality, a sustaining snack for just 5 rupees, Thick slices of partly toasted white bread were piled high. There’s a shallow griddle pan on a kerosene stove. A little groundnut oil goes in, quick as a flash he whisks a fresh egg in a tin bowl, adds chopped onion, chilli, fresh coriander leaves, a good pinch of salt, straight onto the pan. The stack of toasted bread is dipped into this sizzling omelette like mixture, first one side is cooked on the smoking hot griddle, then the other – its done. Cut in quarters, scatter on some rock salt and pepper, wrapped in newspaper 5 rupees, next please – so good and filling. A glass of sweet spicy tea from a chai wallah and then a sweetmeat or two. Bengalis have a compulsive love of sweets made from chana and jaggery, an acquired taste for a visitor. Don’t leave Calcutta without tasting rosagulla and my favourite cooked yoghurt at Kewpies Restaurant, famous for serving Bengali home cooking.
The Calcutta Kitchen written by Simon Parkes, presenter on BBC 4’s Food Programme and Udit Sarkhel, of the best known Bengali chefs in Britain – has delicious recipes for Bengali cooking and snapshots of the fish ponds, markets, artisan food producers, restaurants, clubs, cooks, gourmet, and street foods that play a part in the Calcutta’s rich culinary culture. Here are some recipes from the book, published by Mitchell Beazley.
Aloo Makallah – Crusty potatoes
These potatoes serve as an accompaniment to almost every Jewish meal. You can never make enough of them, so when cooking, use at least 4-5 per head! Ideally, use small potatoes and cook them whole; but if you use large ones, cut them in half or into quarters. Try not to use new-season potatoes, as you need a bit of starch.
16-20 small potatoes
vegetable oil for deep frying
Peel the potatoes and place in a pot with cold water to cover. Add the turmeric and salt to taste, and parboil for about 8-10 minutes. Drain, dry and pierce at random with the tines of a fork.
Place the potatoes in a Karai or heavy wok, cover with cold oil, then bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer gently, moving the potatoes around, for about 20 minutes. At this point, the potatoes can be removed and kept until almost ready to serve, if you wish.
Simmer for another 8-10 minutes. Once the potatoes start turning light golden, turn up the heat slightly and fry until they are a darker gold and crisp on the outside.
Drain well and serve immediately.
Bhapa Doi – Steamed Sweetened Yoghurt
This creamy, slice-able, textured pudding is similar to a crème caramel – one of my favourites. The sweetness of the condensed milk works wonderfully with the acidity of the plain yoghurt.
800g (1lb 12 oz) natural yoghurt
300g (10½oz) sweetened condensed milk
seeds of 6 green cardamon pods
powdered in a mortar and pestle
8-10 saffron strands
Sliced pistachio nuts
Heat some water in a steamer. If you do not have a steamer, upturn a small, metal, flat-bottomed bowl inside a lager pot with a fitting lid. Pour water into this and bring to a simmer. Put the item to be steamed into a suitable dish, cover with clingfilm, and place on the upturned bowl to steam.
Mix the yoghurt and other ingredients in a cool glass bowl and aerate it rapidly with a hand whisk. Do not over-whisk for fear of the whey separating. Pour it into 4 individual serving bowls, cover with clingfilm and put in the steamer or on to the upturned bowl. Cover with the lid and steam on a steady simmer for 35-40 minutes.
Carefully remove the bowls and leave to cool. Remove the clingfilm and chill.
Serve chilled, sprinkle with the sliced pistachio nuts.
Bhetki is highly prized by Bengalis for its flavour and lack of bones. This recipe uses fillets, and most all fishmongers in Calcutta will fillet the fish for you. The “Portuguese” connection is in the use of peppers and tomatoes. Portuguese cooks were found in Park Street restaurants, and came from Portuguese settlements around Calcutta in places such as Bandel (famous for its many beautiful churches).
1 large piece bhetki, or cod or halibut fillet, about 800g (1lb 12oz)
juice of 1 lemon
1cm (½in) piece fresh root ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
2 tbsp vegetable oil
a few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
50g (1¾oz) butter
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 medium red onion, peeled and finely chopped
¼ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp red chilli powder
a pinch of granulated sugar (or, more interesting, 2 tbsp port)
1 green sweet pepper, seeded and diced
1 red sweet pepper, seeded and sliced
2-3 medium tomatoes, chopped
200g can chopped tomatoes
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4
Wash the fillet of fish and pat dry. Use, whole or, depending on the size of your oven and your dish, cut in half. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and salt to taste. Make a paste in the blender with the ginger, garlic and black peppercorns, and rub this into the fish. Leave to marinate, covered, for about half an hour.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, add the garlic and onion, and cook for 2 minutes, until translucent. Add the turmeric, chilli powder and sugar (or port), and fry for a minute. Add the green and red peppers and sauté for a minute. Add the fresh and canned tomatoes and stir. Cook on a medium heat for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thick. Taste for seasoning.
While this is cooking, heat the oil in a large ovenproof pan or casserole. Brown the fish briefly on both sides, taking care not to break it while turning. Top the fish with the thickened sauce, and put the dish into the oven for about 15 minutes, covered. Turn up the heat to 190C/375F/gas mark 5, and cook the fish for another 3-4 minutes, uncovered. Serve immediately with some crusty Portuguese-type bread.
Kuku – Spicy Spinach and Herb Omelette
This is an Armenian dish, normally eaten as a precursor to a meal, not a starter, or as a late-morning light meal, served with crusty Armenian bread. This bread is a bit like ciabatta or country rolls, with a crust created by wood-fired ovens (there are quite a few wood-fired Armenian bakeries in Calcutta ).
250g (9oz) fresh spinach leaves
250g (9oz) fresh coriander
250g (9oz) spring onions with green stalks
1½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp Madras curry powder
1 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Wash, drain well, and chop the spinach, coriander and spring onions. Sprinkle with salt and leave for an hour. Gently squeeze out as much liquid as possible, using your hands (you don’t want to break up the leaves too much).
Beat the eggs in a large bowl, and add the baking powder, curry powder, flour and greens, flour and greens. Mix together.
Heat the oil in a large omelette pan and pour in the egg mixture. Scramble it lightly, then allow it to set, covered with a dinner plate, for about 2 minutes. The top should set fully.
The omelette can be folded over and then sliced, or left whole like quiche and cut into wedges or quarters.
2-3 cardamom pods
2.5cm (1inch) piece of cinnamon
3 teaspoons loose tea leaves
500ml (18fl oz) boiling water
Put all the ingredients except the tea leaves and the sugar into a saucepan, bring slowly to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes. Bring back to the boil, add the tea leaves, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer for 1-2 mins. Turn off the heat and allow the leaves to settle. Serve in tea cups.
Slow Food for Kids at Hosfords Garden Centre in West Cork on Sunday 6th April
Official opening by Denis Cotter of Café Paradiso, market, cookery demonstration, worm composting demonstration, clown, demonstrations on growing vegetables and much, much more Tel 023-39159, www.hosfordsgardencentre.ie www.slowfoodireland.com
Mallow’s First Farmers Market, today 5th April at Bank Place – between Mallow Travel and O’Flynn’s Furniture outside URRU Culinary Store 10.30am – 1pm
Leading Irish farmhouse cheeses like Ardrahan, Hegarty’s Cheese, Fermoy Natural Cheese Company, organic fruit and vegetables…. The market will run on alternate Saturdays to the Kilavullen Farmers Market, offering a weekly market option for the region.
Spring Gardening Workshop At Country Choice, Nenagh, Co Tipperary with Jim Cronin from 7.00-10.00pm – Planning and Planting, Sowing Tips, Container Gardening, Natural Pest and Disease Control – Grow your own vegetables!
Contact Country Choice at 067-32596 to book place or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Conference 18 & 19th April – The Irish Institute of Medical Herbalists –
The Complexity of Herbal Medicine and the Implications for Research – at Cork Institute of Technology – enquiries to Frances.Lynch@cit.ie Tel 021-4326885