They were invented at Nizam’s, which moved to its current location (23-24 Hogg Street), just north of the New Market, in the 1930s: although the restaurant is a bit grotty to look at, the signature dish is seriously good.
The best place to sample Bengali cuisine is in a family home, but if you can’t score an invite, Kolkata has an ever-increasing number of restaurants specialising in the region’s traditional cooking.
Among the best is Kewpie’s Kitchen, a private home with an attached restaurant: several lavish thalas (multicourse meals) are on offer, featuring dishes like daab chingri (spicy coconut prawns).
Founded 114 years ago, and with a wood-panelled interior that appears little changed in that time, Nahoum & Sons is tucked away in the covered New Market, surrounding by clothing stores. Today it continues to do a roaring trade in currant buns, cashew macaroons, lemon tarts, cheese straws, chicken puffs and the like. Its speciality, though, is a rich, succulent fruit cake, which is particularly popular at Christmas.
Less heralded than a cup of Darjeeling’s “first flush” (the first leaves picked during the harvest season), a sweet, milky chai on the street is nevertheless an essential Kolkata activity.
In much of India chaiwallahs now serve tea in glass, paper or plastic cups; in Kolkata, however, most stick to the traditional bhar, small clay vessels produced in their millions by the city’s potters.
Bhars are traditionally smashed on the ground after use and the characteristic crunch of shoes on the brittle clay fragments is part of the city’s soundtrack.
In an unprepossessing location, off Ganesh Chandra Avenue, above a petrol station and up a gloomy flight of steps, is the long-running, family-run Eau Chew, one of the city’s oldest Chinese restaurants.
Its tasty, copiously portioned “chimney soups”, which are cooked slowly around a metal coal-burning container, is particularly good, especially when followed by the roast duck.
Don’t miss the rosogulla (syrupy cottage cheese-and-semolina dumplings), sandesh (a sugary, creamy sweetmeat), or the mishti doi (a thick, sweetened yoghurt often flavoured with cardamom and served in earthenware pots).
Then jump ahead a few decades into the bohemian 1950s and 60s at Peter Cat (18 Park Street), an atmospheric restaurant-bar famous for its Indian-Iranian chelo chicken kebab.
And finally stroll north to Sudder Street, the city’s traveller hub, for a taste of the Raj. Nothing beats a sundowner in the beer garden of the Fairlawn Hotel, which dates back to 1783 and has hosted everyone from Michael Palin to Sting.