India’s most underrated city, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is a far cry from its negative stereotypes: it’s friendly, attractive and home to some of the best – and most diverse – food in the country. Shafik Meghji picks out seven essential foodie experiences.
Kolkata's ultimate street food is the kati roll: a paratha flatbread stuffed with chicken, mutton, paneer, egg or spiced potato, then spiked with chilli and a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and finally rolled up in paper. Sometimes referred to as a “kathi roll” or simply a “roll”, these inexpensive snacks are sold from humble stands right across the city.
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.
Bengali cuisine is one of the tastiest in India, but amongst the least known internationally. Mustard oil, panch phoran (a blend of five spices: fenugreek, and cumin, nigella, mustard and fennel seeds), coconut, seafood, and fresh and saltwater fish all feature heavily.
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).
Kolkata was once home to a flourishing Jewish community of 4000, but many emigrated after India gained its independence and the city’s prominence began to fade. Although there are now barely 20 Jewish Kolkatans left, the community’s heritage lives on thanks to a legendary bakery.
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.
The city of Darjeeling, high in the Himalayas north of Kolkata, is synonymous with high-quality tea: the crop was introduced to the region by the British in the 1840s. Much of it today eventually makes its way to Kolkata, where you can sample it at one of the city’s burgeoning number of cafés.
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.
During the Raj, the city had a significant Chinese community. In north Kolkata a bustling Chinatown developed, filled with restaurants, temples, markets, shops and even opium dens. Little remains of this world today – most of Kolkata’s 2000 Chinese residents have decamped to the Tangra district east of the centre – but a few echoes remain.
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.
Bengalis have a famously sweet tooth, and there are plenty of places in Kolkata in which to indulge. Perhaps the most famous sweetshop is Ganguram, which has branches scattered throughout the city.
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).
The central Park Street district has long been at the heart of cosmopolitan Kolkata. Start the day at Flury’s, a Swiss-style tearoom and patisserie that has been serving all-day English breakfasts, cakes and chocolates since 1927.
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.