Good food is very often, even most often, simple food. ~ Anthony Bourdain
I believe that the heroes of each para or locality in Kolkata are… the phuchkawalas, jhalmuriwalas ~ the saviours of the city’s delicious street food culture. Just like Dilipda in Vivekananada Park, whose phuchkas have marked almost my every adolescent escapade, be it a breakup or a disastrous school report. Hail, rain or storm, you can find these unsung heroes everyday at their designated places feeding hundreds of dissatisfied street food addicts. Dissatisfied, because you will never find a satisfied customer when gorging on street food. There is always a feeling of something missing – either the salt or some spice, or the tanginess in the tamarind chutney or the crispiness of the phuchkas. And this eternal dissatisfaction leads to regular visits to one’s favourite roadside food stall. There is also this eternal trying to get hold of the ‘secret formula’ that goes into the customised ‘bite’ dictated by an individual’s taste buds. While I like to believe that the secret of not falling sick when you eat on the streets is to ‘believe’ that there’s nothing wrong with the food, there’s a bit more of logistics that one needs to adhere to – avoiding old dips and chutneys or making sure that the water used is safe. Also, sticking to popular places or those which are crowded makes sense, where the food turn around is prompt. Last year around this time, I had the honour of presenting Kolkata’s street food to Benjamin Zand for the BBC Travel Show (the link above opens up to the Kolkata episode). August in Kolkata is dedicated to the rain gods and is definitely not the best time to showcase dips and chutneys, specially from roadside food stalls and that too to westerners. However, fate had other things in store for me. Keith Wallace, director with the BBC Travel Show shared his brief with me… “we’ve had loads of suggestions for the street food in Decker’s/Dacre’s Lane, and we’re looking for someone who can tell us what all the food are, but also give us tips on food safety/hygiene, as I guess many westerners would be anxious about trying street good in India. It would be great to allay fears AND show off the street food”. And I did the honours!
To be honest, Dacres Lane wasn’t my first choice for showcasing Kolkata’s street food considering it now faced a bit of dilapidation, although one can’t deny the fact that this stretch was still a heritage in the city’s street food landscape – a decaying heritage much like the city’s personal story. The show was based on social media suggestions and Dacres Lane outweighed all the other options. On the destined day, the rain gods thankfully didn’t play foul and we managed to taste all the signature dishes in the legendary Chittobabur Dokan. This entire lane off Esplanade is still strewn with restaurants and food stalls dating back to more than five decades with Chittobabur Dokan holding centre stage. We had their signature fish roll, ghugni, chicken stew with toasted pauruti and also the monsoon special khichuri combo. The latter priced at a mere Rs 25/plate and comprising with a runny khichuri, beguni, a cabbage torkari, papad, chutney and payesh is testimony to the fact that the Bengali sentiments for khichuri is more than just a tummy satisfying meal. It is commendable that all these sentiments were being upheld in the Khichuri served here, even though it had a humble pricing. Chittobabur Dokan is an eating hole in the office district and still boasts of a few regular diners who have been visiting the place for the last 40 years! Ditch the air-conditioned seating in Suruchee, a modern day expansion of the original food stall further down and opt for the outdoor benches in front of the original one instead. You may have to balance your lunch on the steel tray, but do concentrate on the simple flavours of the food. The stew screams comfort and deliciousness. The light gravy may look bland, but it’s strong in flavours, specially the piece of papaya and carrot that comes in a plate with the generous piece of chicken or the mutton. It’s humble and comforting and even the not-s0-overcooked-but-just-rightly-done papaya explains why regulars have been flocking here during the lunchtime for decades. This is as good as a tiffin brought in from home. Coming back to the legendary fish rolls – once you bite through the bread crumbs and a subtle layer of kashundi, the fish filling breaks easily into flakes, as is desired from a fresh catch of bhetki (and not its substitute basa). Ignoring an occasional car hooting through the narrow lane through the crowd or the rain water held by the tented ceiling above (in case it rains) may be difficult for some, but these things find their own steam and balance in cities like Kolkata!
The Recce… a day earlier
When I am in Kolkata, I am spoilt rotten by my dear friend Milon who makes sure that all my desires on my Kolkata food bucket list are ticked off. Be it the Icecream Sodas, one of my childhood favourites that used to be available at different clubs in Kolkata and manufactured by Bijoli Grill and now almost extinct (he gets me cartons of bottles straight from the Cotton’s factory) to Mitra Cafe’s fish fry, his contribution to my food story writing is immense. Coming from a bonedi family in North Kolkata, he’s got his pulses in the city’s food scene like no other friend of mine. Whether it is to suggest the fusion Bengali restaurant Bohemian or bringing signature items from popular centenarian restaurants over to his place for dinner so that I don’t have to run across the different restaurants, Milon is on real adrenaline when it comes to food. On my recce to Dacres Lane before the actual shoot, he even lent me his father who has been diligently having his lunch in Dacres Lane for the last few decades. Although a real foodie, my friend refused to join us in our lunch explorations lunch in these roadside food stalls (his aristocratic demeanour prevents him from doing so, I think). Meshomoshai very generously guided us through his favourites from this place sharing his few decades long stories. Although there are many new restaurants which have mushroomed along this stretch, his loyalty over Chittobabu’s Dokan hasn’t swerved a bit. His favourite from the menu is the Diamond Fish Cutlet, which required pre-ordering – and for which we will have to revisit Dacres Lane again.
Do watch the full episode to see Benjamin in my city wresting in a traditional aakhra, visit the kaleidoscopic Kolutola bazaar, play football on the streets in a North Kolkata ‘para’ and more. Milon, Sumitava thanks for helping me with the recce (Milon, for lending your gracious dad for our lunch exploration), Amit and Rupanjali for sharing some amazing clicks; and finally Keith and Benjamin for embracing my city!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Pssst: I have been shortlisted for the BBC GoodFood Awards ME 2017 under the ‘Food Influencer’ category. Do cast your votes for me!
Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post, nor are there any affiliated links. The subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own. While you enjoy reading my posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. Do join me on my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
Read my friends’ write ups on Dacres Lane:
- Yummraj ~ Chittobabur Dokan
- Pikturenama ~ Dacres Lane Kolkata – memories of 2 years