Kolkata, The Culinary Capital of India, Have a Taste!
By Sam Sarkar
I spent my college years in the city in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when the food scene was very different from what it is today. On my annual visits to the city, I tend to eat out a lot, but on my trip this year, I was inspired to explore the food scene in greater detail.
Kolkata has had an unfair reputation of being very poor and dirty. Still, the reality is that it is not much different from other big Indian cities as far as poverty is concerned. It had fallen far from its glory days as the 2nd city of the British Empire and the former capital of India when it was Asia’s most important city.
Rocked by the partition of India in 1947, followed by decades of political turmoil, the city was brought down to its knees in the 70’s. Over the last 2 decades however, the city has not only survived but has thrived. It has always been the art, literary and cultural capital of India, and now can claim to be its culinary capital too.
Kolkata’s New Elevated Highways
New elevated highways crisscross the city, while mushrooming skyscrapers head for the clouds next to rundown colonial area buildings. The city is a fascinating mix of old and new, rich and poor.
Just like the city, the food is fascinating as well. The local cuisine (Bengali) at one time was simple, composed mainly of rice, vegetables and fresh river fish cooked with a few local ingredients and spices.
With the arrival of the Europeans, the cuisine transformed rapidly. Traders brought in potatoes, chillies and exotic spices. Local chefs cooked European dishes and added local spices and flavors and launched the beginnings of ‘Kolkata (Calcutta) cuisine’.
‘Fish and Chips’ became the famed ‘Kolkata Fish Fry’, ‘Deviled Eggs’ became ‘Dimer (Egg) Devil Chop’, etc. Then came the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Swiss, the French, the Italians, the Armeniains and the Jews (mainly from Baghdad).
Nahoum’s Jewish Bakery
Most of them came to trade, but they all left indelible impressions on the local culinary scene. Nahoum’s (Jewish) bakery in the heart of the city still remains the city’s most famous bakery even after 126 years, especially during the Christmas holidays.
Flury’s on tony Park Street, a bakery started by a Swiss couple in 1927 is still one of the most popular go to places for a European style breakfast in the city. When the last ‘Nawab (King) of Oudh’ was exiled to Kolkata by the British East India Company in 1856, he brought his cooks along with his family and this launched the ‘Kolkata Mughlai’ cuisine.
Chinese Workers in Kolkata
Many Chinese workers migrated to the city in the 1800’s and today ‘Kolkata-style Indo-Chinese’ food is one of the most popular cuisines in the city and the country.
On every visit, I am surprised by the sheer number of new restaurants that have cropped up in my absence. From casual cafes and bars with live music or DJs spinning tunes until early morning, to more formal gourmet restaurants, every place seems to be packed at all hours. It is truly a foodie paradise.
For the visitor, it is quite easy to get around the city. Even though there is a decent public transport system, the best option is to use App Cabs (Uber, Ola) or hire a car with a driver (both very inexpensive by Western standards).
The core of the city is small, distances are short and the traffic moves faster than in most other Indian cities. The city is also generally very safe.
One needs to step outside the 5-star hotels to taste the real food. The street food is awesome, but because it’s not the most hygienic, I would recommend that most visitors avoid the street vendors, with the exception of the ‘Kolkata Roll’ (Kathi Roll). Because it is deep fried, it is safe to consume (ask them to leave out the uncooked filling).
Flaky Paratha Fried with Eggs
This very popular snack is a flaky paratha fried with eggs and wrapped around grilled meats (chicken, mutton).
One bite and you are hooked. One of the most popular places to grab one of these is at ‘Kusum Rolls’ on iconic Park Street. Park Street is also where the well heeled locals go for lunch, dinner or to drink and dance at a bar or nightclub.
Trincas (founded by a Swiss couple in 1927) serves continental as well as Indo-Chinese and Indian food and has a full bar and live music every evening.
Nearby are other popular and iconic restaurants: Bar-B-Q (Chinese), Peter Cat (Mughlai, Indian), Mocambo, Kwality, Peter Hu and many others.
There are also local and national chains like Wow Momo for Indian style dumplings and Barbecue Nation for ‘all you can eat’ grilled meats.
For the best Bengali food, head to one of the many branches of 6 Ballygunge Place or Saptapadi and opt for the lunch buffet. The amazing spread is mind blowing.
You can get your fill of appetizers, vegetables, fish, shrimp, chicken and mutton for under $10. Bhojohori Manna, Aaheli and Oh Calcutta! are other options.
People in Kolkata tend to eat 4 times a day. Between lunch (usually around 1-2 pm) and dinner (around 9-10 pm), there is the ‘evening snack’.
People will usually grab food from a street vendor, but you can head to Mitra Cafe, serving snacks since 1910 and now with multiple branches, for your fill of fried delicacies. Fish fry, Prawn cutlet, Mutton chop and Mughlai paratha, are some of the must try delicacies.
For dinner go to one of the very popular Mughlai restaurants and feast on Kebabs, Biryani, Mutton Chap and Chicken Rezala.
Oudh 1590 is a local chain specializing in ‘Awadhi style’ Mughlai food, in a dining room which transports you back to the 1500’s. Arselan, Shiraz, Royal, Aminia, etc. are other popular Mughlai restaurants.
After dinner head to one of the many bars and nightclubs spread across the city. Head to the Sky deck bar at Floatel – a small river cruise ship converted into a hotel and watch the sunset over the Ganges (Hooghly) while the city and its 2 iconic bridges light up.
Or head to one of several rooftop bars. Capella on top of the 20-storey Altair Boutique hotel in Sector 5, Salt Lake (the city’s IT hub), has outstanding views, handcrafted cocktails and music. For live music head to Someplace Else on Park Street or 5 Mad Men in Sector 5, Salt Lake.
No visit to Kolkata is complete without tasting the local ‘sweets’. The city is justly famous for its rich culinary heritage of making the most creamy, delicious, melt-in-your mouth desserts that you never knew existed.
Balaram Mullick and Radharaman Mullick, making sweets since 1885, now has multiple outlets and is among the most well known. Try the ‘baked Rosogolla’ and ‘Sandesh’, their most popular items.
Made out of cottage cheese, these sweets are to die for. Luckily there is a new mall just for sweets, named ‘Mishti Hub’ and right on the main road leading to the airport, where 10 iconic Kolkata sweet shops have outlets under one roof.
Kolkata is very hot and humid from March to June, the monsoons usually last from June to October and dump around 75-80” of rain. Winter is mild and pleasant between November and February, and is the best time to visit.
From the USA and Europe, you can catch connecting flights to Kolkata from Dubai, Doha, Singapore or Bangkok. There are many 4 and 5 star hotels, but choose one close to the center.
Sam Sarkar is a physician who would rather travel, write, cook and eat. His work has been published in the LA Times, Medical Economics, Physician’s Money Digest, LA Physician, GoNomad and other magazines. He has a cooking channel on YouTube: youtube.com/@booeats. When not on the move, he lives in Long Beach, California.