The words “Calcutta” and “food” are nearly always uttered in the same conversation, if not in the same breath. A special memory of Calcutta gets etched each time you bite into a crispy phuchka and feel the spicy water flood your mouth; an ordinary but unforgettable moment that you hold on to with every flake of mustard-laden jhaal muri that your tongue touches; a sip of nostalgia with every cup of hot cha that you down. And when you can eat three meals in a hundred bucks, everything tastes a hundred times better. Calcutta’s food, however, is what it is because of the motley crew that, over decades, migrated to the city, conjured up recipes, and served magic. If you take them out of the equation, the math will fail.
Forty-six-year-old Lallan Singh’s father, fondly called Shibu, moved to Calcutta in the 1960s from Muzaffarpur, Bihar. On a tiny cart, he sold lemonade to children playing cricket in Maidan, outside the Victoria Memorial. About 40 of them gathered around his cart everyday—22 from the two cricket teams, their friends, and onlookers. One summer morning, he ran out of water owing to a temporary shortage and used soda (20 paise for a 300ml bottle back then). That accidental masterstroke marked his burgeoning success. “We got really lucky. That’s all that happened,” says Singh, sitting in the Shibuji shop in Shakespeare Sarani. The soda twist to the traditional spiced lemonade, or shikanji, is what made the difference. His father even invented his own tangy masala that nobody has succeeded in emulating. The genius lies not just in the ingredients and their accurate measurements, but also in the way soda is splashed into the earthen tumbler, or bhar. Nearly the whole nozzle of the bottle is covered with a thumb leaving space only for a small slit through which the soda is sprayed out. The entire affair is carefully cultivated art
Like Shibuji, many hawkers originally sold street food outside the Victoria Memorial. Over the years, different pieces of legislation have led to hawkers being banned from the area to ensure the place is free of plastic, fumes, litter, food waste, and smoke that were affecting the monument. They have, since, flourished in different corners of the city.
On the bend of Elgin Road and Woodburn Park, two brothers Bachu and Birendra Prasad Yadav have been serving phuchkas for the last 25 years. An Allahabadi phuchkawalla they were assisting on Camac Street taught them the ropes. To that, they added their own twist and haven’t disappointed since. In a city where every corner has a phuchkawalla, it is difficult to pin down the “best”. The Yadav brothers are low-key and don’t care much for fame. What they do best is put their heads down to create crunchy balls of heaven
Tiretta Bazaar is a historic hub for street food in Calcutta and famous for Chinese breakfast. A hoard of hawkers, spread across opposite sides of the street, offer authentic Chinese food that gets demolished in a matter of hours. Pork momos, fish dumplings, lap cheong (Chinese sausages), pork pantras (Chinese spring rolls), fried Chinese savoury breadsticks, fluffy Chinese buns or paus, and dim sums—there is an endless list to choose from. Also known as Old Chinatown, it is Calcutta’s first Chinese settlement dating back 250 years. Sixty-five-year old Ling Hua, who has been selling fish balls and prawn crackers for the last fifteen years, says his grandfather moved to Calcutta from Canton (now Guangzhou) about a century ago to sell shoes. Hua tried five different businesses unsuccessfully before setting up at Tiretta. He and his wife spend the entire day preparing food to sell early morning.
Originally from Jashpur, Orissa, N.K. Sahoo, fondly called Mayaram, spent his early years in Bombay learning and practising the recipe of pav bhaji. Half a century ago, he then moved to Calcutta to sell his food outside the Victoria Memorial for nearly thirty years. His perfected version of the pav bhaji masala (also sold separately) was created through years of trial and error, after which others impersonated him—the recipe is a shared secret between him and his son. Mayaram’s recipe took him from the thoroughfares outside Victoria to a full-fledged restaurant that still serves food, street style
No Calcutta food story is complete without biryani. And while the battle of the best biryani is a never-ending one, let’s just agree to disagree with whoever disagrees with us. Arsalan, Zeeshan, Royal, Aminia, Nizam’s, and Shiraz are some of the legends, and sell theirs with a potato