City Guide: Eating Out in Kolkata

Lucky Peach, our favourite food magazine, is putting out its last issue this month. Although the magazine had a relatively short run of six years, in that short period, it changed food media forever. It showed us that food writing need not necessarily fall under two polar camps — restaurant reviews or personal essays, but could instead straddle everything in between — from rating supermarket ramen varieties to guides on making fruit preserve at home. Most importantly, it gave permission for food writing to be technical (without being inaccessible), irreverent and cheeky. The most iconic pieces in the magazine’s short stint however, were the city guides that informed the reader on the best places to eat, in each particular city.
As a hat-tip to the magazine that changed the world's perception of food writing, The Goya Journal asked some of the most distinguished voices from each major city in India to put together a city guide for the hungry traveller. 

No city in India serves up nostalgia with quite as much style as its easternmost metropolis. Pronounced a dying city by a former prime minister in the 1980s, Kolkata long gave up the race with Mumbai and Delhi and, later, Bengaluru, to proudly mine its inalienable culinary heritage. New brands, with the odd exception, have a tough time surviving here but half-century-old restaurants still witness snaking queues for lunch and dinner. Every successful food business in the city knows that what the diner seeks in Kolkata is familiarity and confirmation that the centre continues to hold. No one does reassurance better than Kolkata.

Mutton biryani

The Kolkata biryani, a close cousin of the pakki Awadhi version, is distinguished by the potato. According to Manzilat Fatima, a direct descendent of Awadh’s deposed Wajid Ali Shah (who fled to the city in 1856), the exotic tuber – a Portuguese introduction in the early 17th century – was added to the biryani to impress the diner, while distracting him from the reduced quantity of meat, a fallout of the family’s straitened circumstances. The cognoscenti, then as now, appreciated how beautifully the potato absorbed all the biryani’s goodness: a tinge of saffron, the unctuousness of the ghee, the robust flavours of the mutton, the comforting fragrance of the long-grained Basmati. Shiraz also throws in a whole boiled egg, its yolk firm and golden, with the ‘Special’ Biryani. A number of places serve variations of this classic but Shiraz – set up in 1941 – continues to be a favourite. For such a rich dish, it’s exquisitely clean on the palate.

Getting there:

Chicken a la Kiev

Guide to eating out in Kolkata | Mocambo illustration

With its red banquette seating and scalloped lampshades, this is Kolkata’s most recognizable restaurant. In its menu, as in the decor, Mocambo is the sole survivor of the grand nightlife the city knew in the 1950s. While restaurants such as Firpo’s and Sky Room have passed into history, the recently expanded Mocambo still serves up Continental and American dishes that have fallen out of fashion elsewhere: quaint prawn cocktails, creamy stroganoffs, sizzlers, Baked Alaskas. Or, consider the Chicken a la Kiev. Arriving in Kolkata via the White Russians, the chicken fillet is breadcrumbed and fried to an even, innocent crispness, yielding its gorgeous, sinful butter filling only at the touch of a knife. It comes with the standard sides: carrots, potatoes, peas, parsley’d and buttered. More is definitely more here, and “healthy” baked dishes here wear their cheese sauce blanket without fear of being fat-shamed.

Getting there:

Bengali thali

Kasha Mangsho, or slow cooked mutton curry.

Kasha Mangsho, or slow cooked mutton curry.

Scores of restaurants serve Bengali food in Kolkata today, filling a primal need for those who find the cuisine labour-intensive. Suruchi, though, is special: A unit of the All-Bengal Women’s Union, in 1969 it became the first place to sell Bangla khabar, prepared by women refugees from Bangladesh who had no other skills or source of livelihood. For close to 50 years, it has entwined the culinary excellence introduced by some of the city’s premier hostesses (and ABWU office-bearers) with the homeliness (and distinct East Bengal-ness) of the hands-on cooks – it continues to be serviced entirely by women – offering traditional Bengali favourites such as Bhaja Muger Dal, Potoler Dolma, Mochar Ghanto, Machher Paturi, Kasha Mangsho in a no-frills setting. This is where you go when you’re in the city and don’t have a friend to invite you home for lunch.

Getting there:

Pabda roll in cherry tomato-spinach broth

Once you’re acquainted with Bengali food as it should be, it’s time for Bengali food as it could be. A classically trained chef, Bohemian’s Joy Banerjee twins his deep respect for the food of his ancestors with a fiercely modern imagination, pepping up traditional Bengali ingredients with unexpectedly complementary twists sourced from a gamut of cuisines. Mushrooms are marinated in a mango-mustard, pork spare ribs get a nolen gur coating, fish are stuffed with an egg yolk-mousse. While Bengal’s star commodities – gondhoraj lebu, panchphoron, kasundi, nolen gur – get pronounced (some say populist) play, there’s no compromise on the chef’s vision. The Pabda Roll stewed in a cherry tomato-spinach broth is a favourite: Fillets of the fish wrapped around long beans and served in a broth seasoned with celery seeds and kasundi, alongside white rice flecked with crushed bori (deep-fried lentil dollops). It’s utterly unlike anything a Bengali grandmother would dish up – and utterly unforgettable.

Getting there:

Mishtir dokan

Every neighbourhood has at least one of these, and each of them will be justly renowned for at least one confection, sweet or savoury. Mrityunjoy, on Lansdowne, is where you go for a breakfast of hinger kochuri (asafoetida-seasoned stuffed breads) and a runny potato curry, Binapani in Dover Lane is where you’ll find me at 4pm for their fresh, delicate shingaras. Mithai, at Park Circus, is your best bet for mihidana on weekends; Banchharam has arguably the best pantuas. Jadob’s shada mishti doi at Triangular Park can cause every panna cotta on the planet to tremble and die. Nokur and Nalin Chandra Das, next to each other on Ramdulal Sarkar Street in North Calcutta, both boast of sublime sandesh. While some old-style shops have grown into chains peddling luridly coloured fusion concoctions, I’d suggest seeking out the smaller, older establishments showcasing the day’s offerings behind glass and aluminium. Your sweet tooth will be eternally grateful.

Getting there: Around the city.

Radio Goya goes behind the scenes on the city guides, to get the low down on what didn't make it to print. To listen to Sumana Mukherjee, skip to 9:30.

Sumana Mukherjee is a freelance journalist, restaurant critic and columnist based in Bengaluru. She writes on a variety of subjects, but considers food her most enduring passion. Her articles have been published in a number of publications, most recently in Mint Lounge. You can follow her here.
Illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin.