Lucknow – the city of Nawabs, Kebabs, and Aadabs

A group of 15 gastro-nomads from Mumbai and Kolkata committed themselves to 2.5 days of food explorations in Lucknow. Suprio Bose aka The Nomad Foodie and Sunaeyaa Kapur of SnS Tables took up the challenge of feeding the hungry bunch and also giving them plenty of exercises in the form of Imambara hopping and chikankari shopping in between eclectic food experiences. Could the duo deliver? Read on to find the answer.

Dining with the Royalties:

On February 14, 2020, Mumbai and Kolkata folks flew in from opposite directions and the Ganga Yamuna confluence happened right at the airport before Suprio picked up the gang in a comfortable AC micro bus. After negotiating the old Lucknow traffic, we reached Levana Suites near Hazratgung, at 7ish in the evening. Post check-in we changed into Indian attires, the required dress code, to meet and dine with the Royal family of Khajurgaon. A narrow entrance (that required a bit of maneuvering for our bus to enter) opened to a fairly big courtyard with fountain and flowering plants and a good view of the grand haveli. Rajkumar Shivraj and Rajkumari Indrani, along with Ranisaheb Aabha and Sunaeyaa’s mother, Mrs. Kapur, were right there at the haveli portico to welcome us. What followed was truly Shahi Mehmaan Nawazi. At the centre of the exquisitely decorated century-old durbar hall, was waiting a Qawaali troupe that later filled the hall with energetic voices singing popular songs. Before we could take it all in, trays full of appetizers and wines started arriving to further delight us. The appetizers served were Shami Kebab, Murg Sufiyaana Tikka, Galawat Kebab on Sheermal, Chatpati Machhli, Sikandri Paneer, Pitey Palak ka Khasta, Aloo Piyaaz ki Pakori and all of them were excellent. It did not take us very long to let our guards down and start enjoying the bonhomie that blazed the environment. A few of us took the floors and proved fitness by sitting with folded legs to do the Qawaali moves. It was a good photo op too but I am sure that was not the sole intent ;P.

Qawwali at Khajurgaon Palace. Photo credit: Swapnil
Dinner at Khajurgaon Palace. Photo credit: Suprio Bose

Dinner was another elaborate affair with a grand table laid out with goat meat Korma, Murg Musallam, Shahi Pulao with goat meat, Machhli ka Saalan, Paneer Begum Pasand, Awadhi Nimona, Besan ki Aloo, Rang Birangi, Dal Sultaani, Subz Pulao, Sheermal, Rumaali and Phirni, and Malai Paan as desserts. Murg Musallam deserves a special mention as the melting meat with flavourful spices was one of the best meat dishes I have had in my life. Rajkumar Shivraj explained that the recipes were closely guarded culinary secrets in the royal kitchens. The khansamas who cooked them got the recipes as heirlooms from their ancestors who were also a part of the service staff for the Maharajas of Khajurgaon.

Well, the royal treatment did not stop there. Dinner on Day II was an equally enthralling experience and this time we were invited to Avanbai Mansion by Sunaeyaa’s family. Not many are aware that Lucknow has a third secret river Saraswati aka the Parsee Community flowing underneath the Ganga-Yamuna Culture, that is the Hindu and Muslim Communities that co-exist famously in this city. Sunaeyaa’s aunt Ms. Zarine Viccaji explained that her ancestor was awarded a taluk in Lucknow by the British and he eventually had invited his doctor and friends to move in too giving Lucknow a rich Parsee legacy over the years. If Khajurgaon was about elegant Awadhi cuisine and upbeat yet soulful Qawaali, Avanbai showed how to party Parsee style in Lucknow. The lovely terrace was lit up as a bokeh background and live ghazals and barbecue with an open bar had set the mood for the evening. We soon discovered quite a few singing talents and more than that, dancing talents amongst us that made for some absolutely fun facebook lives. We were also offered a tasting of famous Raja Bhaiya’s bhang with ample warnings to consume only if we could handle the intoxicating herbs. The after-effects are heavily censored in this blog and will remain as private jokes for our next foodie trip.

Doma with the Kapur family

The food at Avanbai Mansion was an extravagant event. The Appetizers were Tandoori Soya Chaap, Malai Broccoli, Mutton Seekh Kebabs, Murg Makhmali Tikka, and Kakori Kebab. While Kakori stole my heart Malai Broccoli was a first for me and I bow my head to this innovation that tasted delicious.

For the main course, we had Mutton Pasanda Kebab, Fish Mussallam, Paneer Khush Rang, Veg Pulao, Mint Raita, Kulcha, and of course the Parsee touches in forms of dhansak and brown rice. Dessert was superlative Gajar ka Halwa that was drenched in I was sure home churned ghee to make the dish that delectable. My sweet tooth wanted more and more of it while my bhang overdosed fuzzy head wouldn’t let me have any. Such dilemmas are serious matters in the foodie world. I, of course, listened to my tooth and had a second helping.

Lucknow architecture and Lucknowi Tehzeeb:

So that the group was not declared as excess baggage by Indigo and GoAir, Suprio and Sunaeyaa had put plenty of calories burning cardio in the itinerary. We went around the city to visit Bara Imambara, Bhul Bhulaiya, Baoli, Rumi Darwaza, Clock Tower and Chhota Imambara. We had an excellent guide with us who matched our sense of humour and helped us have a great experience. We learned a lot about the amazing architectural skilfulness of the builders of that era, laughed a lot while navigating the seriously fitness challenging steps and labyrinths of Bhul Bhulaiya and Shahi Baoli and of course clicked hundreds of pictures.

Photo credit: Swapnil Kalghatgi

We were also acquainted with the history of aristocratic Lucknowi Tehzeeb that even the common people of the city displayed and how Aadab was introduced as a neutral greeting for every religion and culture that was a part of Lucknow. The city still retains the culture of being warm and polite and using phrases such as ‘Muskuraiye, aap Lucknow mein hain’ (Smile, you are in Lucknow) and ‘Yaar nehin tu bhai hai mera’ (You are not a friend, but like a brother to me).

Some of us on the rooftop of Bhul Bhulaiya

Gunjing and Chowking for Lucknow Street Food

The one phrase that caught our imagination was ‘Gunjing in Hazratgunj’. Say again? Yes, you have read that right. Hazratgunj in Lucknow is equivalent to Cannaught Place in Delhi. And hanging around in Hazratgunj is known as ‘Gunjing’! So very cool! Though our short trip did not provide much scope for gunjing we did stop at neighbourhood Lalbagh on our final day for breakfast.  

Sharmaji ki Chai is a 50 plus year old tea shop in Lalbagh that is known for its bun makkhan, samosa and of course tea. The shop was a humble hole in the wall one. The buzzing crowd occupies the unstable tables on the pavement to eat and sip. Our group attacking the shop with cameras provided much amusement to the regular customers. A (cute) man even wondered loudly why everyone was clicking kulhads suddenly to which I had to explain that we were tourists. He was from Chennai and after learning that I was from Kolkata he sweetly smiled and pointed out that Bengal had BhaaNr which was equally unique. Samosa at Sharmaji looked more like a smooth tennis ball, but that did not hurt its fillings and the spicy half-mashed potatoes inside tasted like as they should – delicious! But what I liked the best was Bun Makhan. Soft semi-sweet pillowy bun cut horizontally to spread a generous quantity of creamy white butter in between. The right way of having bun makkhan is dipping it into the tea and then taking a bite. The tea is milk heavy, thick and sweet. The milk and the strong tea liquor are poured separately into the mud cups yet the two liquids get blended well without anyone stirring the cups. Quite a memorable breakfast!

Photo credit: Suprio Bose

Breakfast on Day II at Netram was also remarkable. (Apologies if I am not following day-wise sequences, I am more focused on the flow of the write-up. I have put the itinerary at the end so that one can put the puzzle together.) The piping hot daal puris and the crispy baby jalebis were dangerously addictive.

The gang in front of Netram

Before I go back to street food, here is a quick mention of the superlative lunch at Nawabeen on Day II. Barra kebabs, Biryani, Murg Korma, Murg Stew and Shahi Tukda disappeared within a few minutes of their arrival on the table. Ravishankar and Doma took pictures of empty biryani bowls as souvenirs because the restaurant wouldn’t allow them to take the bowls home.

Okay finally, I am ready to talk about the real Nawab and Begam of present-day Lucknow’s opulent culinary dynasty– Tunday and Idrees. Regarding Tunday, a bit of history would not hurt anyone. We know Galawat (commonly known as galauti) kebabs were invented to satiate the kebab cravings of toothless Nawab Asa-ud-Daula around the 17th century. However, it is said that in the later period, Haji Murad Ali had perfected the art of melt-in-the-mouth-Galawat and had won the royal patronage of Nawab of Awadh Wajid Ali Shah. Legend says Haji Murad fell from the roof of his house while preparing galawat and lost one arm. He was nicknamed Tunday after his physical deformity and down the years the name gave his Tunday kebabs an iconic status. His bloodlines run two shops now in Lucknow and the recipe remains a family secret. To this day the spices are prepared and mixed at the homes of the Tunday family and sent to the shops.

We were taken to the Aminabad/ Nazirabad/ Chowk outlet of Tunday Kebabs as that served both goat meat and buffalo meat galawat kebabs. We tried both the varieties and I personally liked the buff ones more. Of course, buffalo meat has the advantage of containing more fat making the meat more tender and absorbent and it could soak up the flavours of the spices and the aroma of charcoal smoke. I had once watched a BBC video of how galawat was prepared in Lucknow and the process was quite fascinating. Marinading the meat is a long process and after pounding the meat to a smooth paste and mixing it with spices, live charcoals are placed at the centre of the meat bowl and covered to smoke the meat. Like most of the Lucknow street food places, Tunday too had an open kitchen at the front part and a seating area at the back. The meaty delights were served with thin and big ulte tawa ki paratha (paratha roasted on an upturned round-bottomed pot). So did Tunday match up to its reputation? Yes, yes and yes! There were pin-drop silence at two tables as the otherwise chirpy and loud group got dirty with their fingers scooping the ultra-soft and succulent ghee bathed kebabs with paratha bites. The foodgasm hashtag should be reserved only for Tunday kebabs.

Before we boarded the bus again to continue with the food trail, Suprio brought with him a Nimish vendor and Doma treated us to this luscious creamy dessert, typical of Awadhi cuisine of Uttar Pradesh. Known also as Makkhan Malai, this frothy, airy and delicately sweet delight is an outcome of a laborious process of whipping thick milk cream and mixing it with saffron, rosewater, cardamom and topped with pistachio slivers or paste. Nimish vendors can be found on the streets of Chowk in large numbers. By the way, this intensely flavoured dessert is known as Daulat ki Chaat in Old Delhi and as Malaio in Varanasi.

Suprio with Malaio or Nimish

Situated in one of Lucknow’s most historic areas, Chowk, Idrees Biryani is a small and partially-hidden eatery that is marked as one of the most popular Awadhi dum biryani outlets in Lucknow. The restaurant was founded by an expert biryani maker, Mohammad Idris, back in 1968, and is now managed by his sons Abu Bakr and Abu Hamza. The secret of Idris’s exquisite mutton biryani is the use of milk, herbs and saffron in the recipe which is cooked in dum style in a copper degh on ‘paththar ka koyla’ or stones. The goat meat biryani was a burst of Awadhi flavours but the disappointment was the rice, which was on the drier side and one needs to add salan or a liquid containing spices and meat juices to make it more palatable. The meat, on the other hand, was of superior quality.

Some Chikankari shopping was scheduled in between to give our tummies some time to make more space. Sunaeyaa, who is an ex-fashion designer took us to a shop with a wide collection of exquisite chikankari sarees, dupattas, kurta and dress materials. I picked up two lovely sarees (one for mom) and a sheer white dupatta with elegant chikan motifs. Doma reduced the shop’s stock by half and ended up paying extra for 33 kilos of excess baggage. Well, in her defense she picked up kebabs too to feed entire Kolkata’s population.

A wonderful capture of the narrow lanes of the Chowk area by Kiran

Our last stop was at Raheem’s Nihari on a narrow and crowded lane near Chowk. If Hazratgunj reminds us of Cannaught Place, Chowk is equivalent to Jama Musjid area of old Delhi. Started in 1890 by Haji Abdur Raheem Saheb, Raheem’s hotel is well known for its Nihari-Kulcha. For the uninitiated, nihari is a robust runny curry, infused with juices from beef or mutton shanks by cooking overnight with meat on bones, spices & special herbs on a low fire. Nihari is best served with a warm, fluffy ghilaaf kulcha (the upper layer is ghilaaf and the bottom layer is khameer). Awadhi Nihari is ligher and flavourful unlike what we eat in Sufia in Kolkata which is thicker and has different spices. Both beef and mutton were available and again I found the beef Nihari more appealing. The place remains packed all the time and you have to have a hawk’s eye to spot who’s nearly done with his or her plate and place yourself strategically behind them so that you can grab the chair the moment it is vacated. Or if you are desperate like Niloy, you can tap a stranger on the shoulder, and tell him, ‘Ho gaya aap ka?’ (Are you done?)You have the Lucknowi tehzeeb to bank upon to not get punched on the face.

Summing up the food experiences in Lucknow:

Wow, is that even possible?! Hitting the food trail in Lucknow, a city known for its royal heritage, architectural brilliance and most importantly incredibly delicious food, was like a culinary pilgrimage. The 2.5 days of food extravaganza- including both Nawabi dinners at mansions and the common people’s fares on the streets made me realize one very important fact. Lucknow is till date unmatched in Awadhi cuisine. Kalyan Karmakar was right in describing Lucknow as the motherland of Kolkata biryani in his book The Travelling Belly. But the relationship stops there. It’s almost sad to see that Awadhi Biryani with its fragrance, the burst of colours (relies heavily on saffron) and the light delicate texture gave birth to a heavy, spicy, greasy, potato burdened Biryani. Yes, Kolkata Biryani will never again satiate my biryani cravings. And it is now quite humorous to see what some renowned brands in Kolkata pass off as Biryani in their restaurants. The same applies to kebabs and the meat dishes too. The other high point of Lucknow food heritage is the desserts – be it halwas, jalebis, shahi tukda, malai stuffed paan or nimish, the desserts are elegant, soul-satisfying and far superior than what we get in Mughlai restaurants in other cities. The recipes, ingredients and skills are all in Lucknow’s favour. We missed a few famous dishes like chaats and ghilohri- which I didn’t regret at all. I would have some goals for future Lucknow visits.

Photo credit: Kiran Suktankar

What happens in Lucknow, stays in Lucknow?

The wild bunch was assured by Suprio that what happened in Lucknow would stay in Lucknow. No, I am not gonna break the bro code and give you details of all the craziness. But I must admit that it was the best group of people to spend a holiday with- they were energetic, vibrant, fun and people with beautiful hearts. I met all of them for the first time except Doma and Ravishankar and I never felt I was amidst strangers. Muah to each one of them. It’s for them, I could take home some amazing memories.

A thank you note:

Hugs and thanks to Suprio and Sunaeyaa for the curated Lucknow food trip. You guys meticulously planned and organized every single bit so that we could enjoy to the fullest. Big thanks to Ravishankar, Kiran, Swapnil, Doma, Winnie, and Niloy for enriching my Lucknow Photo Album with your excellent clicks. Thank you Meenal for being my warm and sweet roomie. Thank you, Chaitali for being my hand model. Kiran, the title of my blog is inspired by one of your Facebook posts. Thanks for letting me lift. Neville thanks for the helping hand you stretched out each time we got off the bus. Sidhharth and Divya thank you for giving me company on being bhodro. Smikesh and Samit- you guys know how to groove! Thanks for the dance moves. And Swapnil- you know what you have to do on our next nomad foodie trip, right?! ;P

The NOOFs in Lucknow
L-R: Swapnil, Neville, Suprio, Doma, Alokeparna, Niloy, Chaitali, Winnie, Reemil, Kiran, Samit, Smikesh. Siddharth, Divya, Ravishankar and Sunaeyaa are missing in the photograph.

Readers, The Nomad Foodie, and SnS Tables will organize many more such food trips- both domestic and international, in the coming months. Join in or if you wanna do a similar trip in Lucknow, get your gang and holler for Suprio!

Itinerary


Friday 14th February
Landing and checking in at Lewana hotel;
dinner with royalty and Qawwali performance

Saturday 15th February
Head to Hazratganj for breakfast of poori sabji jalebi followed by visiting Bada Imambara , shahi bath, Chota Imambara and more.
Head to Nawabeens for a full Awadhi lunch

Bbq evening at Avanbai Mansion at 8.30 pm and Live Ghazal Concert.

Sunday 16th February
(Light breakfast and check out by 10 am)
Head to chowk for food walk:
Idrees ki Biriyani
Raheem ki Nihari
Tunday kebabi
Nimish
Followed by a visit to a zardozi/chikan workshop

Return to MUMBAI/Kolkata by evening flights

Memories of Midnapore Cuisine

Earlier this year I had transferred my blog from free platform to a paid WordPress platform with the aspirations to share my food experiences frequently. The decision was made while I was vacationing in the tranquil Majuli island in Assam and obviously, the peaceful surroundings motivated goals. Things, of course, changed when I returned and eventually got engulfed with work. Long story short, I did very little writing this year. Now that we are only a couple of days away from ending 2019, I want to at least preserve my memories of a few cherished experiences. The curated meal at Sayantani’s was one such event.

24th October 2019

3-4 days back there was a surprise message from Sayantani. “Alokeparna, I have invited Rhea to lunch. It would be lovely if you could join too!’ For me it was a double delight! I am an ardent admirer of Sayantani with whom I had interacted only on social media so far. She is a hard-working and well-known food blogger and home chef who is archiving old Bengali recipes as well as global recipes through her blog http://www.ahomemakersdiary.com. She is also actively promoting organic rice and other produce in association with ‘Amar khamar’ farmers. The opportunity to meet with her and Rhea (of Euphorea fame) and to taste Sayantani’s food was just too tempting and I said yes, of course, I would come. I must mention that I am a big fan of Rhea Mitra Dalal too, who runs a very well known Parsee food catering unit- Katy’s Kitchen, in Mumbai that she has inherited from her mother-in-law. She is also a blogger and has a strong fan following on social media. We were joined by two more surprise guests Priyadarshini Chatterjee, a well-known food writer and Soumyasree Chakraborty, a recipe archiver and one can imagine the tremendous adda we had about food over food! But for now, let’s focus on the scrumptious meal we were served.

Right to left: Sayantani, Rhea, Soumyasree. Priyadarshini arrived post photo sessions.

The number of bowls around the kansha-r thala (traditional bell-metal plate) was overwhelming. Sayantani had cooked for us a variety of intricate dishes that originated from her birthplace Midnapore, a district in the state of West Bengal in India.

The spread, well some of it!

For the uninitiated, it’s better to explain that Bengali food from each district varies in taste and ingredients. Beyond the commercial and hyped Bengali food that is served in restaurants and star hotels, is the real and nuanced Bengali cuisine that relies heavily on the flavors of the vegetables or fish/meat rather than the spices. Midnapore has its unique food culture which people outside the region not much aware of. There are many amazing dishes and cooking styles which have evolved from this place. Some of the notable ones are “Maacher Tel Jhal” cooked in West Midnapore and “Maacher Tok”, a spicy and tangy dish prepared by using dried mangoes or raw mangoes with the fish which is cooked in the East Midnapore. Another famous and very unique dish is the “Posto Bati” or steamed posto which is quite different from the usual “Posto Bata” or posto paste (poppy seeds paste )which everyone else in Bengal knows about.

Coming back to the lunch at Sayantani’s place, we started with mulo bata (radish paste) that was a bhorta made with radish, mustard, chili, and coconut paste and additionally flavored with mustard oil and nigella seeds. On another day, I would have finished all the rice with mulo bata only! Never could imagine that radish could taste this great. By the way, rice was two kinds- red and white doodher shor and banshkathi- both were organic, unpolished rice and surely helped to elevate the tastes of the dishes that these accompanied!

Peyanj bata diye khosha shuddhu aloo bhaja ( potato cubes with skins on and fried with onion paste). Pic courtesy: Rhea Mitra Dalal
Pur bhora kumro patar bowra or stuffed pumpkin leaf fritter (stuffed with poppyseeds paste and coconut paste)
Goyna Bori or Ornamental lentil chunks

With bhaja moong daal (lentils) there were 4 kinds of bhaja (fries)- Potato cubes with skins, brinjal, gohona bori (sun-dried ornamental lentil chunks) and last but not the least Pur bhora Kumro patar bawra or stuffed pumpkin leaf fritter that just won the heart. Gohona Bori or Nokshi Bori demands a bit more illustration as this rare food art is specific of only Eastern Midnapore. This local art was celebrated by luminaries like Rabindranath Tagore to Satyajit Ray and had become the pride of Bengal. Its production is still restricted to Midnapore and is available in Kolkata only through only a few cooperative organizations. Sayantani creates her own goyna boris in the winters- the only favorable weather for this fine art. Lentil paste is designed in the form of paisley or eye-catching ornamental designs like necklace, tiara, earrings or bracelets or lotus with the help of a cone. Animal motifs like elephant, butterfly, deer, peacock, fish or parrot are also not uncommon. The boris are directly formed on a bed of poppy seeds so that they don’t stick to the surfaces. You can read more on Sayantani’s blog including the recipe and techniques: http://www.ahomemakersdiary.com/2010/01/gayna-naksha-bori-sundried-lentil-paste.html

The daal was no ordinary daal either- it had shrimps and Malabar spinach with drumsticks in it and tasted wonderful. Next was ridge gourd cooked with milk and mustard aka potol jhinger doodh jhal. A bit tangy and very delightful!

Lentils with Malabar spinach and prawns
Ridge gourd cooked in milk and mustard paste. Photo courtesy: Rhea Mitra Dalal

There were 3 fish dishes. Chingri batichochhori ( a dry curry with prawn), rui macher tawk (fish in a tangy sauce made with mustard and aamchur/ dry mango) and shol macher mangshi ( a meat like dish made with the flesh of snakehead murrel fish). The last one I had for the first time and simply loved the taste.

Prawns dey curry cooked in a small bowl hence the name batichorchori
Fish in a tangy sauce
Snake head murrel cooked like meat

We ended with fish roe chutney that was brilliant and of course such a grand meal must be wrapped up with desserts like shorbhaja, rajbhog, and mishti doi.

Fish roe chutney. Photo courtesy: Rhea Mitra Dalal
Shorbhaja Or layered milk cream fried and dipped in sugar syrup


If someone asks me today what is good food memories, I would say this. It takes a culinary genius to take simple ingredients like mulo and jhinge and Kumro pata and so on and transform that into a memorable meal. I feel really blessed to be a part of it. Sayantani like a loving family member, served us while we ate and gently prodded to eat a bit more of this and that, making the experience all the more special. This touch of warmth is so missed in the modern day buffet style self-serving meals. Sayantani Mahapatra, take a bow! My respect for you has gone up several notches higher. I wish you more and more success because you deserve so!

Special Note: if you wish to try out the recipes, some of them are on Sayantani’s blog along with more such gorgeous recipes. http://www.ahomemakersdiary.com/

Special thanks to Rhea for letting me use some of the photos clicked by her. I was too engrossed in eating and missed clicking some of the dishes.

All you wanted to know about Onam Sadhya

When Saibal, a foodie friend, called and suggested Onam Sadhya, my first reaction was twitching my nose! First of all, it’s a carb-based meal and secondly a vegetarian affair! But then, I remembered my mantras- ‘I should experience everything at least once so that I don’t die with regrets’ and ‘If not now, then when?’ So I said yes to Saibal for my first Onam Sadhya.

Photograph courtesy: The Coastal Macha

The obvious choice of destination was ‘The Coastal Macha’ – a restaurant that specializes in coastal cuisine and had been a favourite since almost inception. Chef Piyush Menon is a Malaylee from Bangalore who frequented Kolkata and observed that the city lacked mid-level restaurants that offered non-vegetarian southern delicacies. He took a bold decision of opening his first restaurant in Kolkata and since then had majorly contributed to the changing palate of the city. Breaking the monotony of north Indian cuisines, the introduction of cuisines from Kerala, Goa and more, was excellent  exposure for the Kolkata foodies who slowly started embracing such experiences. For me, The Coastal Macha is all about honest and great food that reflects Piyush’s sincerity. And he is also one of the nicest, humble persons I have met so far and each interaction with him had made me believe that good men still exist in this world.

With Chef Piyush Menon

Before I share my Sadhya experience, here’s a little bit of history of Onam celebrations. Onam is the 10-day harvest festival celebrated in Kerala. The festival, celebrated on a grand scale, marks the homecoming of King Mahabali, a mythological character. The story goes that the beautiful state of Kerala was once ruled by an Asura (demon) king, Mahabali. The King was wise, judicious and extremely generous. It is said that Kerala witnessed its golden era in the reign of King Mahabali.

There was no discrimination on the basis of caste or class. There was neither crime nor corruption. There was no poverty, sorrow or disease in the reign of King Mahabali and everybody was happy and content. The growing popularity of King Mahabali made the Gods feel threatened of their own supremacy and they tricked the king out of his kingdom. To save his people, King Mahabali offered to sacrifice himself, and so, was banished to the netherworld. But Lord Vishnu, moved by the king’s gesture of great personal sacrifice, granted him one wish — and Mahabali asked for the chance to return to his homeland once a year, to visit his people. To mark the annual return of the king, the people of his kingdom — all over Kerala, and within the Malayali diaspora all over the world — hold ten days of extravagant celebration. There are boat races in the backwaters, homes are decorated with flowers, and a lavish feast is prepared with the harvest of the land.

Onam Sadhyas are traditional banquets in Kerala. Food is cooked in giant ‘urulis’ & served on a banana leaf. There are a few interesting protocols that are followed. For example, the banana leaf is placed in such a way, so that it’s narrow part always points to the left side. Sadhya is served from the top left corner of the leaf, on which is placed in order, a small yellow banana, sarkara upperi (shakkar paras) and papad. Then the mango pickle, injipuli (a thick ginger tamarind curry), lime pickle & the Thoran, olan, avial, pachadi, kichadi, Erissery & salt are placed in order. The feast ends with payasam, often two or more varieties are served.

My overall experience with Sadhya was something that I would want to return to. It’s all about simple home-cooking relying primarily on the quality and freshness of the ingredients. Focus is on bringing out the flavours with minimal intervention. And that is the reason Onam Sadhya has won my heart. It was like going back to the roots of Indian traditional cooking, very earthy, rustic and very very sensory-pleasing. Piyush had sourced all the authentic recipes from his family. He made sure that every dish was cooked fresh each day and that really helped in keeping the flavours intact. This was my first Sadhya but Saibal is a serial Sadhya offender having spent considerable time down south and he gave The Coastal Macha full marks. Even the group of 6 Bengali youngsters who occupied the table behind us was full of praises. It was heartening to see how food could erase boundaries and could be a unifier in today’s world of man-made hatred and intolerance.

The full-fledged Sadhya consists of 32 varieties of food. The Coastal Macha had thoughtfully offered mini Sadhya containing 16 dishes that totally filled us up. I cannot, of course, share the food with you all, but here is a visual treat of the Sadhya with Piyush explaining each item:

A few of the dishes deserve special mentions.

Injipuli 

injipuli is a pickle like dish made with ginger, tamarind, chillies, and a bit of jaggery. It’s tart, spicy with a lingering hint of sweetness. A little of it can elevate a meal.

Injipuli

Avial

It reminded me of our Bengali mixed vegetable curry made with milk and drumsticks. The Kerala version has the vegetables are steamed and then finished with coconut milk. Simple yet immensely satisfying.

Avial

Olan

Olan is a light and mild stew made with ash gourd, cowpea beans, coconut milk and curry leaves. It tasted delicious with Kerala red rice (matta rice).

Olan

Sambar

The Kerala sambar, accommodates all variety of vegetables, with a base of tuuar daal. The freshly ground spices and coconut masala gives it a very different flavour which is very robust, coconutty and earthy.

Kerala Sambar

Cabbage Thoran

This one just won the heart. Shredded cabbage and coconut sautéed and then finished with a tempering of mustard seeds and curry leaves.

Cabbage Thoran

Kalan

This is a sour, full-bodied gravy with bright yellow sunshiny colour. Kalan is made with yam and curd. Ground coconut is also added to balance the sourness in the gravy.

Kalam

Rasam

At the beginning of my career, I had spent a few months in Bangalore. My landlady used to make rasam every night making me dread my dinners. The Coastal Macha Rasam made me realize that my landlady was a bad cook. I loved the spicy broth that was full-on flavours. Kerala rasam is an instant rasam made without rasam powder. It is a tomato based rasam with dry red chillies, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, curry leaves and tamarind pulp.

Rasam and Kerala Sambar (left to right)

Parippu Pradhaman

It was the perfect ending to a great meal. Pradhaman is payasam/dessert made with split moong daal (lentils), coconut milk, jaggery and ghee. If I am allowed to draw a comparison, I found it very similar to our Bengali Shinni made on Lokkhi Pujo. The lingering sweetness, the aroma of jaggery and coconut invoked some happy memories of pujo and celebrations. That’s the power of food. The memory of taste.

Parippu Pradhaman

Piyush is considering to keep some of the Sadhya items in menu round the year. That will help us to revisit the memories whenever the cravings start. I ate like a glutton with two helpings of the delicious unpolished matta rice, forgetting all about low-carbing. All of you, who haven’t experienced Sadhya this year, please make a note to do so the next year. I shall wait for the ‘thank you’s. Meanwhile, if you are in Kolkata, keep on developing a taste for the southern spices with the delicious ghee roasts, ishtews and potli biryanis at The Coastal Macha.

The Coastal Macha

P411, 23b Golpark, Hindustan Park, Gariahat, Kolkata 700029 (Location on google map)

Phone: 075959 59042

Facebook page link

A Monsoon Vacation in Darjeeling

Warning: This is not a regular travel blog post dispensing information in bullet points, or a food blog highlighting hidden treasures in Darjeeling. If you are looking for either of those, this is the time to leave this page and move to the hundreds of information enriched blogs existing on the ‘Queen of the hills’.

However, if you are a lover of mountains, rains, solitude, emotions, and words, stay right here and read on. I am a solo traveller and I have recently spent my birthday in the hill town of Darjeeling in the North of West Bengal, India and this is my story.

Prologue

Unlike the previous few vacations that were almost instant decisions and involved minimal planning, the Darjeeling trip was planned 1.5 months ahead. The reason being, it was my birthday vacation and my birthdays were jinxed to go bad. I was determined to do all that I could do to make things better this time. ‘Coz hey, if not now, then when?!’

Doing research on Darjeeling is not a tough task at all. A plethora of information is available on the internet, though one needs skills to identify the right sites. I didn’t make an itinerary, as that was not my style, and I love to surprise myself. I made flights, hotels and transport bookings, read up on places to see and do and of course where to eat and what to eat, (also, where to shop, ahem!).

It was a four-night vacation and I divided it into two parts – the first part was an attempt to do it the backpackers’ way for experience’s sake and the second part involved my usual small luxuries. Well, at my age, one would want to gather as many experiences as one can ‘coz hey, if not now, then when?!’

Airport selfie!

I flew with Indigo on Thursday, 1st August and reached Bagdogra at around 12:30 pm. I had about one hour to kill as my ride was scheduled at 1:30 in the afternoon. Bagdogra is a small airport near Siliguri that connects the world to Darjeeling and other nearby hill towns and Sikkim. As all religious foodies, I decided to wait at the Airport restaurant on the first floor. From the arrival area, the access to the restaurant is through several flights of staircases, but thankfully restaurant staff waits downstairs to assist (read capture) passengers to the food zone. The restaurant was spacious and had a bar and travellers were relaxing over chilled beer. As most airport food places, the menu had boring options, average food , and high-end prices. I settled for a chili, onion, tomato, masala omelette and lemon tea. I was served an Esplanade sidewalk (Kolkata street food style, for the uninitiated) omelette which was thin, fried till golden and loaded with green chillies- just the way I prefer my eggs (much to the indignation of my corporate honcho ex-boyfriend and ex-travel partner). A smug smile was hovering on my mouth when I received a phone call from Wizzride that my driver had arrived.

Bangali mumlet aka omelette at the Bagdogra Airport Restaurant

Wizzride

Wizzride (www.wizzride.com) is a cab service started by a bunch of North-Eastern guys and is an excellent way to ‘share cab it’ to Darjeeling and other destinations. You can also book an entire cab. It’s a fully online service and you can select the date, time, type of cab, and seats and pay online against a formal receipt. I found the service to be professional. The driver arrived dot on time and the car condition was excellent. The big car had only one other woman passenger as it was off-season. I had chosen the seat beside the driver and Subbaji was a pleasant man with great driving skills. Well, all good things have some not-so-good sides as well. For Wizzride, it was the route and drop off points. The route would be chosen by the driver and the drop off points would be near your hotel, but not at the door step. This caused me a wee bit of pain as Subbaji had taken a route that was bumpy, congested, shabby and longer (almost 4 hours). And my hotel was a good 10 minutes uphill walk from the drop off point. But hey, I did ask for backpackers’ experience, so why complain! And I had paid only Rs 649/- including GST for my Wizzride.

Revolver

I had booked a room in Revolver for the first two nights. I had been hearing a lot about Revolver, the Beatles themed backpackers’ den run by a couple – Vikash and Asenla who left jobs in Nepal to return to their roots. The two-storied house has 5 rooms on the first floor, each named after a Beatles member and a restaurant on the ground floor. Though I had booked Brian, Asenla upgraded me to John, the largest and nicest room at no extra cost. The rooms don’t have mountain views as such, but birds chirping could be your morning wake-up call and the trees outside definitely host loads of unknown, beautiful birds. If there’s a list of budget hotels, Revolver would definitely top the list in that category. It was squeaky clean (including the washroom), comfortable, and very, very sensibly-maintained place. The owners’ aesthetic and disciplined senses were written all over the place. It gives you more of a home stay like feeling rather than a hotel with all the amenities of the latter. The other great thing about the place is food. I had ordered a Naga dinner on the first night, and the taste ranged from interesting to superb to someone who was eating Naga food for the first time. The platter consisted of pork with dried bamboo shoots, merse-un or broth made with dried fish and lentils and boiled vegetables. Rice is also served with the platter but I had skipped that. The broth taste was a bit too alien to me, and I guess one needed to be more accustomed to the taste to develop a liking. Pork with bamboo shoots was excellently textured and Pork quality was A-1. If you are looking for lean meat, Darjeeling is not the place for you. Here pork fat is a way of living. The dish was loaded with Dalle chillies and I just loved the salty, fiery taste enveloping the soft meat. The pork quality was superb at Revolver and I realised that once again when I had ordered pork sausages for breakfast a day later. Crisp casing packed with excellent pork meat. Too good stuff! And last but not the least, you get drop dead gorgeous drip coffee at Revolver!!!!

Chowrasta

The first thing to cover for any first-timer is Darjeeling Mall. Oh did I not mention that this was my VERY FIRST TRIP to Darjeeling in spite of being born and raised in Kolkata? My bad! Yes, I am Bangali and I had not been to Darjeeling before- something that was kinda blasphemy in Bengali’s Holy Book of Travelling Destinations. Coming back to the most popular thing to do in Darjeeling, is obviously checking out Chowrasta or Mall. The joining of four roads [hence chow (four) +rasta(roads)] is a flat town square lined with benches and heritage shops. The most widely accessed road to Chowrasta is Nehru Road that begins with Keventer’s, an institution in itself. The uphill 7-8 minutes stretch also has Glenary’s, the heritage bakery and restaurant, a few hotels and several shops selling  Tibetan handicrafts, warm clothes and Darjeeling tea (best to avoid these shops as things are priced for the tourists). The mall is a huge open area where people just relax and absorb the environment- a tradition that has been going on since the Victorian era. Darjeeling was a planned summer resort town on the hills that served as recharge point for the British officers who worked in Kolkata, the then capital of India.  The shops lining the mall have a history that attracts the heritage thrill-seekers. Nuthmulls and Golden tips too have their tea-lounges at the mall. The over-enthusiastic and ill-shaped tourists also torture the ponies by riding them around the mall and amateur photographers with burly lenses try to pull off NatGeo to impress wives. I sat on one of the benches and tried to relive the pages of ‘Feluda’r Goendagiri’ or the scenes from Kanchanjangha, another Ray classics. There were goosebumps and smiles, helped by the fewer tourists and more locals in the environment. One of the primary reasons for doing Darjeeling in the off-season was to avoid the sea of Bengalis in monkey caps looking for bhat-daal-deemer dalna and disciplining ghontu and jhontu, the trouble-making kids. I was hugely rewarded for my decision and the otherwise crowded Darjeeling had only a few oddballs like me during my trip.

Two of the Chowrasta are two ends of Observatory Hill Road. The road goes around Mahakal hill and comes back to Chowrasta. It is one of the most beautiful roads with great views and several rest points equipped with benches and make-shift tea stalls. It’s quite a bit of walk for city dwellers but is thoroughly enjoyable. By the way, no transport is allowed in or around the Mall and walking is the only option. For Observatory Hill road, one can ride a pony but that involves animal cruelty and definitely NOT recommended. I had taken only one break to cover the entire rain-drenched, emerald mossed, trees adorned, cloud smeared stretch and was proud of myself! 😀

Central Heritage

On Day 3, I shifted to Central Heritage, one of the oldest resorts in Darjeeling. It was pre-booked as per my plans. A list of cab drivers was provided in the room at Revolver and that helped me get a cab for the hotel transfer and the drive to the ropeway. Central Heritage, built in 1905, is in a prime location at Robertson Road – one minute away from Keventer’s and two minutes away from Glenary’s and 5 minutes away from the Mall. You can’t get any more central than this! Of course, the tariff is also prime but I got off-season rates. I had booked a deluxe room with mountain views. It was a luxurious room that a birthday girl deserved. The room came with breakfast and spa. The service was a bit slow, but in off-seasons, many things tend to get off the tracks. Another great plus point about this hotel is car can come to the door steps, a privilege most of the hotels in Darjeeling lack.

View from my window

Tip: The heritage wing has mountain views. There’s an annex building across the road, that doesn’t have anything heritage about it and zero views. So if you are booking a room, make sure you book in the main wing. I did good research and I knew about this beforehand.

The Ropeway

After checking in, I took the same car to the Ropeway point. Though Darjeeling is a small town, the ropeway station was a bit far from the centre and was not really doable on feet, at least for me. Rajesh Ji, who was driving me enquired if I wanted to cover all tourist points and was totally understanding when I said I had come for peace and would skip sightseeing. He dropped me at the ticket counter and went to the parking to wait for me. Rides were priced at Rs200/person and the wait wasn’t long at all. Each car could accommodate 6 persons. I shared the ropeway car with a family that came from Nepal-Husband wife and two boys. We had no common language yet we co-existed peacefully and also helped each other with photos. The ride offered breathtakingly beautiful views of tree plantations on the hills. It was a drop of 1000ft but the car moved slow. After an initial 2-minutes of rocking, everything was stable and well-balanced. It takes you to Takdah where you can get off if you wish to. There’s a small shack there selling tea and momos where you can enjoy the views and indulge in clicking photos. My co-passengers skipped getting off and returned. I stayed and had a cup of tea. On my way back, I had to share the ropeway car with two young Bengali couples (most probably unmarried). It was a hellish 20 minutes ride. They looked okay but totally lacked manners and education. My presence made them conscious and they tried every way possible to prove that they were cool. The result was me being subjected to crass PDA and moronic conversations that they continued with. I never missed my iPod so much! And I felt so ashamed to be a Bengali!!! What’s wrong with the present generation?!!!!

The tea shack at Takdah

Kunga

To do something about the bad taste in the mouth that my own race caused, I decided to have Momos at Kunga- the tiny Tibetan restaurant on Gandhi Road (just a stone throw away from Keventer’s) that gets raving reviews from the epicureans. Well, I had visited Kunga the day before as well and had the most awesome chilli pork and delicious chicken and mushroom soup. I had shied away from momos as I was still undecided whether to break my low-carb diet. But that afternoon I was in ‘what the hell’ mood and went straight for steamed pork momos. Boy oh boy! The momos were the gateway to heaven. Each had thin dough walls holding herbed pork mince and juice inside. Very little onions to tamper with the taste of meat. The fiery red chilli paste made perfect yin-yang balance in the mouth. I had planned to order phing (glass noodles made from moong beans) after the momos. But 10 meaty balls bowled me out of the playground and I retired full and satisfied. It was time to return to the hotel and take a nap.

Chilli pork loaded with green chillies! Hot and heavenly!!
Chicken and mushroom soup, the heartwarming kind!
Pork momos

Toy Train

You can’t be in Darjeeling for the first time and not ride the heritage toy train. No, not because of Rajesh Khanna trying to hit on Sharmila Tagore memories (which I find meh!), but because of several childhood stories and poems including Annadashankar’s Ting Ting Darjeeling. I was pretty excited about it and had booked it on the official website more than a month back. But nothing happens in my life without some drama. Even before I could enter Darjeeling town, I had received an SMS from Indian Railways that my train got cancelled. You should have seen my face! Much miffed with the railways, I had decided to give it a miss. But the constant train whistles I could hear from my room at Revolver made me make another attempt. The original ride was scheduled on 2nd August. I re-booked for the 4th – my birthday. No more drama unfolded and I reached Darjeeling station an hour earlier for my joyride. The station was 1.6 km downhill walk from my hotel and gave me a chance to explore the town on feet, something that I really enjoyed! Reaching early was the Plan as I wanted to absorb the environment and click plenty of pictures of this UNESCO declared World Heritage Site. It was a cute little station with two platforms. The DHR logo (Darjeeling Himalayan Railways) was proudly displayed everywhere and surely transferred the pride to the passengers as well. The off-season was the magic mantra and the station was nearly empty barring a few enthusiastic monsoon travellers like me. I noticed the Bengali ‘Phamily’ that breakfasted with me at the hotel (Central Heritage) was present there too. They had idli and aloo paratha for breakfast much to my indignation. Who eats idli in Darjeeling??????!!!!! Anyway, there were two souvenir shops at the station where one might pick up postcards and other items. The train ride was of 1 hour 30 minutes and made two stops – one at Batasia Loop and the other at Ghoom station. Post that it returned to Darjeeling. At both stops, the passengers were encouraged to get off and look around. The two-coach train was comfortable and rode through the city. Though it didn’t offer much of a view, it was fun! And you should see the air the steam engine drivers put on (pun intended ;P)!

Glenary’s

The place that made my birthday extra special was definitely Glenary’s. I had four meals there over 3 days, and each was a unique experience. Not only because of the food, but also to a large extent the environment and the slow life that it promoted. Yes, I am a sucker for old world and unrushed breakfasts and dinners. The British Colonial Building which is existing since 1915, has three parts. On the ground floor, there’s bakery and café and a pub. On the first floor is the restaurant that can be directly accessed from the road. For ground floor, one has to negotiate a slope as the entrance is on a lower level than the road. I was aware that Keventer’s was closed for renovation. A friend who visited a week before had alerted me. So on the very second day, I reached Glenary’s for breakfast. It was raining and I took a table inside the cafe, overlooking the glass wall that separated the room and the terrace. I was transported to the British Era when a silver pot of Darjeeling tea was placed on my table followed by fried eggs and sausages. You can spend hours there and nobody would bother you. There’s free wifi also in case you are carrying a laptop. I am not sure why people go crazy about Keventer’s which looked pretty pedestrian to me and lacked the glamour of Glenary’s. I came back the following night to have dinner at the 1st-floor restaurant. By that time I had shifted to Central Heritage and of course, Glenary’s was the logical choice. It was love at first sight. It had the looks of our Park Street restaurants of the 80’s complete with live music. 60’s classics were belted out by the in-house singer who had a marvellous voice and did goddamn justice to the songs! I ordered roast pork that was washed down with a screwdriver. I exercised caution as I was drinking alcohol after a month. But man! The environment was so lively like it is always Christmas in Glenary’s and you would feel nothing can go wrong here. The next day was my birthday and also the last night in Darjeeling. After returning from my toy train ride, I settled at a terrace table in Glenary’s to have a late lunch. And it started raining… one of the most wonderful afternoons of my life!!!! I wished time stood still. But it was a birthday and I knew I would have to come back for dinner. A nap, a shower, and a dress change later, I was back at Glenary’s. The drink this time was planter’s punch. I am not really a rum person, but this was interesting. The order of fried pork turned out oversalted and I had to return it. Instead, I ordered fish au gratin and a glass of Sula. In spite of knowing the fish would be basa, I had to give in to the craving for fish and cheese. The dish was decent enough, the wine fantastic and the songs were magical. There was a group of teenagers that celebrated the birthday of a group member. I smiled inwardly and said a silent blessing for the girl. This happiness evaded me when I was growing up. In fact, in the past 43 years, there wasn’t a single birthday that didn’t bring tears. I dreaded my birthdays as those were always the saddest day of the year. But no more! I broke out of my own prison and my 44th birthday was perfect from morning to night. The first birthday without tears and I know I have happier days ahead.

Was it the place or was it the tests of life I had gone through and emerged a stronger person, I wouldn’t deliberate on that in this post. But Darjeeling and I connected soul to soul and the town would always remain special for the memories it gifted. I know I have to come back to ‘Hamro Darzeeling’ and spend more time here. Till then, I have enough stock of the fine tea to sip and relish thoughts about this trip.

The birthday girl all dressed up for dinner!

Epilogue

I had booked the same cab that had taken me to the ropeway point. Yes, I didn’t book wizzride on my way back, because I knew I would want to enjoy one solo ride. I was hugely rewarded for my decision. My driver took the picturesque Pankhabari route that spirals down keeping the Makaibari tea estate on the left. The stretch had all the thrills of mountain roads such as –- sharp bends, deep forests, and sudden streams. The ride back was also shorter, could be because we were going down. I reached the airport within 3 hours, a good 2.5 hours before my scheduled flight. I was told the Mirik route was even better throwing open gorgeous views of pine trees but takes 4.5 hours. Time to plan a trip to Mirik? 😁

Luchi – Fish Fry Bhalobasha at Chilekotha

Sometimes, I truly feel that my parents can be the brand ambassadors of Bengali food. Even after cherishing Bengali cuisine for 8 decades, they still prefer nuchi, pheesh phry and the works when they eat out. So for family dinners, our go-to place is 6BP. However, this time when we were selecting a restaurant for mom’s birthday dinner, we decided to give the newly opened Chilekotha at 7/2B Dover Lane, a try.

Honestly speaking, if you are a true blue Bengali grew up reading Sarat Chandra, Satyajit Ray and Ruskin Bond, you can never ignore a name like Chilekotha. For my non-Bengali readers, I would loosely translate Chilekotha as Attic, but it’s really a room on the rooftop. In the older days, most of the individual houses in Bengal were adorned with a ‘Chilekotha’. It was a space where usually extra bits and pieces of a household were stored. However, it was also a space where rules were broken, imaginations were given wings and passions were let loose. Our previous generation had actually lived the Chilekotha days-played to their hearts’ content in the room that was hidden from the world, emptied that jar of pickles during summer breaks, smoked their first cigarette, or stole the first kiss from their sweethearts. So, Chilekotha spells nostalgia and romanticism for us Bengalis.

And if you combine that with Bengal’s other love – food, the outcome has all the potential to be a super hit. So did Chilekotha live up to the expectations? Let’s find out!

Location wise, the restaurant is pretty easy to found, though it is not on the main road. If you are coming from the Golpark side, after negotiating Gariahat 4-point crossing, you will have to drive straight ahead and take the second left. After driving straight down for about 700 mts, you will find the restaurant on the left side. Here’s the location on Google map.

Chilekotha is on the ground floor of a residential building. The good thing is the entrance,  that comes with an ornamental door, is right on the sidewalk. This was another reason we had chosen the place. My folks have weak knees and they just can’t do stairs-even 5-6 steps. Inside, there are two rooms. The outer room is on the funkier side- with a yellow Kolkata taxi picture on the back wall. The wooden benches give the space a casual look. It was also a bit dark hence was not social media friendly.

I wanted to take pictures. So we moved to the inner room which was well lit and in spite of being not so big a space, gives the impression of a large room. The inner room is on a higher level and my folks had to negotiate two steps. But the staff was extremely nice and they made sure mom and dad could do it comfortably. I met an acquaintance from the PR world inside and we both caught each other by surprise. She was on work, so after exchanging quick hellos we three settled down at a table. There were four large tables and each could accommodate 4-5 persons. One wall was painted with a view from a roof top to give the room a chilekotha feeling. Next to the wall, in a corner, there was a spiral iron staircase just like you find one in the old houses. This one obviously goes nowhere. There were faux antique shuttered windows giving a feel of a typical Bengali house of the previous century. My ancestral house had those and it was emotional to be surrounded by those. There was also an antique phone and how could I not mention the jumbo switch box, immediately transporting me to my childhood days. All good. Mom was impressed which should be counted as 10 stars as she usually does a ‘nak shintkano’ in star hotels as well. No, I am not gonna translate that.

We had ordered Diamond Fish Fries for starters. Impressive sizes, thick fillet of Bhetki and thin crumbed walls. Tasted good, just a tad overpowering lime juices in the marinade. Usually, excess lime is used to cover smells. Was it yesterday’s fillet or was the cook having a bad day? We wondered. Fries were served with herbed tartar sauce and it was yum!

The main course started with Luchi, Begun Bhaja (fried eggplants slices). I like my begun bhaja crispy, these were lightly fried. Luchis were not puffed up. Sliding the luchi into the oil when it is just rightly hot, is a skill. Otherwise, the luchis were soft and light.

Next, we had Daab Chingri and Bhetki Paturi with steamed white rice. Daab chingri was more of a chingri malaaikari than being baked in a tender coconut shell with coconut shell meat. The dish was served in a jhuno dab (older coconut) and that was proof enough. Four large tiger prawns came with it. It had all the goodness of a malaaikari. But if I am to compare it with the finger licking good dab chingri served at 6 Ballygunge Place, Chilekotha has miles to go. I must mention all the ingredients were absolutely superb. Freshest chingri, fresh coconut milk and hand ground spices. The Bhetki paturi too used excellent fish and tasted nice and subtle. The pungency of mustard and heat of chillies were missing. Those were my personal preferences and everyone might not appreciate that.

The last dish of the main course was Dhakai Mutton Tehari. Those who are unfamiliar with Tehari or Tahari, let me enlighten. It is something between Pulao and Biryani. Unlike biryani, smaller chunks of meat with fat are used and another important ingredient is milk. Meat and rice are prepared separately and then put on a dum (low heat cooking with sealed lid). Tehari usually has a lot of onions in beresta form (crispy fried onions) as well as in paste form.

 This was the first time we had Tehari and the Chilekotha version was more of a mutton pulao. Colourwise, it was yellow, rather than white- the Tehari Colour. Melting mutton chunks and delectably flavoured short grain rice really delighted us. We simple loved the taste and ignored the fact that it had no beresta. One pot carried 6 pieces of mutton and enough rice for sharing.

Desert options were not really enticing. Ma had ordered a payesh, and a small bowl of sugared milk with boiled rice was served. Sorry, there’s no picture.

Prices at Chilekotha are slightly less than its seniors such as Bhojohori Manna and 6 Ballygunge Place. The restaurant actually has some Bengali cuisine giants in 2 km radius and has good chances of catching surplus crowd in high demand seasons like Noboborsho, Jamai Shashthi and Durga Pujo. It also has a fusion menu that looked very interesting. I would surely go back to taste some of the fusion dishes. By now it was clear, that Chilekotha team has good intentions. However, they lack in good recipes. Most of the shortcomings I mentioned would not even be noticed by patrons unless they are Bengali cuisine experts which both mom and I were. So all they need is a good recipe consultant and they would be good to go! Chilekotha owner Debaleena Chakraborty was present at the restaurant and when she requested feedback, I did give her some hints.

The interior is surely beautiful, the location is priceless (with plenty of parking on the street outside),  and if you are not extra critical, food is good without creating deep holes in pockets. Our damage was 2153 which really was not much in today’s world. Must mention the staff was extremely helpful, with a great sense of hospitality. They even made sure that my parents could get into the car comfortably. Very rare and I must praise owner Debaleena Chakraborty for nurturing a good team.

Chilekotha was born only 4 months back and is taking baby steps. I have written an honest review from my perspective and I do hope if Chilekotha management is reading this, they will take it in right spirits and take steps to overcome any gaps. Otherwise, in the long run, promotions will not really of big help. Excellent food will be.

Mandatory pic with the birthday girl!

Iftari Beyond Zakaria Street in Kolkata

Zakaria Street has almost become synonymous with Iftar in Kolkata during the holy month of Ramzan. The attractions are the make-shift stalls that pop up near Nakhoda Masjid and the entire stretch of Zakaria to attract the Iftari crowd as well as foodies of all religions, cast, and creed. Well, in fact, food is the greatest unifier in my opinion. Whether Zakaria is overhyped or if there are really some gems worth experiencing, I can’t tell ….simply because I have never been there. I had, of course, cherished some really interesting write-ups from gastronomes I trust and obviously there was a keen desire to visit the place during Ramzan at least once in my lifetime. So when Poorna Banerjee, a travel and food blogger, and a close acquaintance proposed a Ramzan food walk, I didn’t hesitate to jump on the bandwagon of Zakaria craze.

Only to discover later, there wouldn’t be any Zakaria stall hopping on the walk. Flexibility has always been my forte and Poorna’s logic was solid and intentions were good. So I wouldn’t say I was hugely disappointed when I got to know Zakaria was not there on the itinerary. Poorna had been to Zakaria several times and had found the food to be very unhygienic and the place claustrophobic with too many people on the narrow street. Her goal was to acquaint us with the same food, albeit in the back alleys of Park Circus and of much better quality. Another huge advantage of knowing these less talked about food places (except Shiraz) was these were permanent eateries/restaurants/shops and would be there to satiate our cravings round the year. So let’ start.

Haleem at Shiraz

On paper, Ramzan is about abstinence. But the holy month has become as much about dusk-to-dawn feasting as it is about the dawn-to-dusk fasting, iftari in particular being the scene of some impressive gastronomic action. There are pakodas and samosas, jalebis, Rooh Afza, of course, dates and fresh fruit. The uncrowned king of the iftar in South Asia, though, is the haleem.

Haleem is meat and broken wheat stew used for breaking fast at sundown. The recipe of Haleem is believed to have been an Indian experiment with a Persian dish called Hareesah containing meat, wheat, and cardamoms. It had a consistency like porridge. Like most foreign cultural imports, hareesah was eventually Indianised. A variety of lentils were added to make it less thick, and more stew-like. And, of course, various spices, India’s secret weapon, soon found their way into the dish. The meat was traditionally lamb, however, modern haleem is made with goat, or buff/beef or, sadly, chicken. The earliest mention of haleem was found in the 16th century when the Yemeni royal guards of Nizams in southern India used to prepare this dish regularly.

Shahi Haleem


We reached Shiraz (the outlet with the AC first floor) at around 6 in the evening. Just in time, because while we were there haleem got over. Lucky we had ordered by then. Shiraz offers the most varieties in Haleem. We tasted Kolkata Shahi Haleem and Irani haleem. Shahi haleem is common across Kolkata and is a spicier version of haleem to satisfy the local palates. Irani is smoother, less spicy and uses mutton boti instead of big goat meat pieces. Anchita, who was a part of the food walk group, thought there was sago in it and that made the texture smoother. And we did find evidence in the bowl. As part of the haleem rituals the toppings of fried onions, mint and coriander leaves, chilies and limes were provided separately. Haleem is a Ramzan special dish and not available at other times. I am not too fond of it. However, I actually liked the taste at Shiraz. The slow-cooked stew also creates a lot of heat in the body after consumption and it totally beats me why this is Ramzan food in Asian countries. The price for a bowl is around Rs200/-.

Irani Haleem
Haleem Toppings

For more information on haleem in Kolkata you can refer to my fellow blogger Pratik Banerjee’s excellent research:

https://myfoodsojourn.wordpress.com/2018/05/21/haleem-hysteria/

We also had delicious and succulent chicken malai til kebabs as a bonus dish. The tils or white sesame seeds gave it a different texture and elevated the taste by a few notches. The kebabs were slightly charred giving the exteriors a light crunch before your taste buds dig into the melting meats. This dish was definitely the find of the day for me!

Chicken Til Malai Kebabs

Butter Chicken at Food Rocks Café

Next, we moved to Quest Mall. No, not inside, but we took Shamsul Huda Road that is right next to it (right-hand side). A non-descript eatery had a live kebabs counter at the façade and 4 tables inside. Not to be judged at all by the cover. The eatery presented some gorgeous old-Delhi style butter chicken and KFC ka baap fried chicken. The butter chicken had way too much butter for my comfort though tasted great (I mean, why won’t it?!). Well-done chicken chunks were tossed in a generous pool of butter and malai and they offered gold class gluttony. The super hot Fried chicken had all the oomph of KFC and bettered it by using fresh chicken and tastier coating. In fact, if I ever crave for fried chicken, I would want to pick them up from FRC instead of KFC. Poorna mentioned the owners have their own hatchery and they hand pick chicken for their dishes. If you doubt the hygiene etc, I can offer that I didn’t feel any discomfort post-consumption in spite of having a super sensitive digestive system.

Butter Chicken
Fried Chicken

Kulfi at Royal Kulfi

Satiating all the carnivorous cravings we came back to the main street. On the corner, there was a roadside kulfi stall offering kulfi falooda and rabree kulfi. I went for Kulfi Falooda topped with Rooh Afza. Superb stuff. No bull shit only malai and pista solidified. The shop remains there for 365 days. The Kulfi man was a smiling guy of 50ish. He was pretty amused at slightly different customers suddenly attacking his stall. He had his mouth stuffed with paan (betel leaves), and spoke barely opening his mouth. Quite a talent! Falooda Kulfi was Rs50 and rabree Kulfi was Rs70.

Kulfi Man
Kulfi Falooda with Rooh Afza
Poorna, our walk leader (in blue and green dress)
The kulfi shop is just in front of this med shop

Jilipi at Jaiswal Testy Corner

Across the street is the Karaya Road stretch. 5 minutes walk took us to Jaiswal Testy Corner. Testy, and not Tasty, mind it! They immediately put us to test whether to choose hot jalebis or hot gulab jamuns. Very difficult decision! But somehow we made up our mind for jilipi. Fresh, crunchy and sugary goodness can make the butcher shops all around invisible. However, if you are a rigid vegetarian, the area could be a little unpleasant for you. Jilipi comes for a royal price of Rs5 each.

Hot jilipis/jalebis
Gulab Jamuns

That was the end of our Ramzan food journey. Though the heat and humidity were killing, the spirits were high. And so was the camaraderie. Those of you who can’t do Zakaria, you might find these places as good options. If you know similar places in Calcutta, do comment below and add to the list.

A very happy Eid in advance to all my readers!

Yours truly at the Royal Kulfi. Photo by Subhadip Mukherjee

Jagantmata Bhojonolaya- a pice hotel that is keeping Kolkatans well-fed for more than a century

Honestly, I am not a Summer-friendly person at all. I avoid all kind of outdoor or non-AC activities including food adventures during the very inconveniently long summer in Kolkata. But pice hotels had certain attractions for me. I had been hearing about them for some time now and never had the chance to visit one. So when a lunch opportunity at one such place opened up with fellow foodies in mid-March, I couldn’t resist.

Continue reading Jagantmata Bhojonolaya- a pice hotel that is keeping Kolkatans well-fed for more than a century

Humans of Mullick Ghat

Mullick Ghat is a name Kolkata and Travellers to Kolkata are well acquainted with. This century-old heritage flower market has appeared in countless publications- from Nat Geo to local travel & culture blogs. Spring lives here forever and riots of colours at this place can make Holi at Vrindavan a shade paler. The location is also awe-inspiring. The market is spread about a kilometre by the ghats of Hoogly (a tributary of River Ganges). Continue reading Humans of Mullick Ghat

A Winter Afternoon in New Market

A Note before we begin:

I deliberately haven’t included history in the main body as this article is about my experiences. However, New Market (earlier Sir Stuart Hogg Market) is a historical place and many will be interested in the background, especially my readers from other countries. So at the end of this article, there are a few useful external links on New Market- which is more than a century old British era shopping arcade and Nahoum’s- the Jewish Bakery inside the market. I have also mentioned several shops in New Market in my write-up. I have given a list of my favourite shops, containing one sentence introduction and location on Google map, at the end. Happy reading! Continue reading A Winter Afternoon in New Market

Bihar’s Litti Chokha to Gujarat’s Pakwan-Kolkata’s Burrabazar has it all!

Recently a Global survey had declared Kolkata as India’s top city for street food. We Kolkatans were elated for obvious reasons. Who would pass up a chance to gloat in the glory of OUR egg roll, phuchka, fish fry, shingara (not samosa) and the likes.  Well, Kolkata actually offers a lot more than that and what we remain blind to, is purely our loss. As I discovered so in the maze of Kolkata’s own Bhulbhuliya – Burrabazar. Continue reading Bihar’s Litti Chokha to Gujarat’s Pakwan-Kolkata’s Burrabazar has it all!