Kolkata’s culinary culture, until now traditionally Bengali, is being taken over by the Mumbai palate, and fish and vada pav are fronting the attack
A Bengali child is brought up to believe that there are two kinds of people in this world, Bengalis and non-Bengalis. And this impregnable logic applies to Kolkata's food as well.
You can tell a Bengali in an office canteen by the way s/he looks at a misal pav in genuine horror. Or argue with you about the absolute superiority of the Kolkata biryani over the Hyderabadi kind, and how Bengalis taught the rest of the country about the many wonderful ways to eat the chicken roll.
A puchka stall at Kankurgachi in the eastern part of Kolkata
But, taste is a fickle mistress. While Kolkata was busy haggling over the price of soon-to-be extinct ilish maach, a quiet food revolution hit its streets and crept into menu cards of posh restaurants. And, it has a lot to do with Mumbai.
In the back alley of a municipality market in Kolkata's eastern neighbourhood selling fresh vegetables, fish and grocery, a bunch of vendors do brisk business from afternoon till late in the night. On offer — old favourites such as momos, pakodas, pav bhaji, chilla, bhel puri, puchka (that's pani puri in Bengali), boiled and scrambled eggs (a huge hit with the Marwaris who come here for their protein shots) and ice-cream. The spread did not change here for decades, until now.
Bapi opened this stall in Kankurgachi one year ago. He sells vada pav at Rs 15 apiece. Pics/Rana Chakraborty
Between the chilla and bhel wallas, now sits a man selling vada pav. Bapi, as most people know him, sells a mild version and a spicier one of the vada pav with onions, on request, for Rs 15 apiece. His peers claim, on weekends Bapi does better business than some of them who have been flipping chillas and scrambling eggs for years. Elsewhere in the city, Goli Vada Pav stalls have been increasingly visible, ever since the Mumbai venture launched last year. Bapi, who does odd jobs during the day in an adjacent market, says he was encouraged to start his stall after clients started making queries about vada pav with the other street food vendors. The launch of a Goli Vada Pav centre nearby was another eye opener. “There was obviously a demand for this food,” he says.
Vendors now also offer meetha pani on request — a typical Bambaiyya flavour that is becoming popular here
At a popular shopping mall, a live counter at the food section recently stopped selling Kolkata's favourite rolls. The counter has now been taken over by Star Vada Pav, which launched “non-veg vada pav” in October this year. The company, that began with a modest capital of R40 lakh, hopes to launch 500 outlets in the foodie city next year. So, here come chicken and special chicken vada pavs, with cheese and butter, grilled if you like. In an interview to a food magazine, co-founder of Star Vada Pav, Manoj Dalal said most Bengalis were unaware of the vada pav until now. “So, we have to make them understand it is like an Indian burger with Indian sauces,” he said. The chicken vada pav, a crispy patty with potatoes and chunky chicken bits, seems to have resonated well with meat-loving Bengalis, making it a marriage between the unlikeliest partners.
And, it is not just the vada pav and Ganesh Chauturthi festival that Kolkata has embraced heartily. For a city fiercely proud of its 'puchka' over the 'pani puri', there has been a quiet change of loyalties.
In October, Star Vada Pav launched non-veg vada pav, grilled on request. Seen here is the outlet at Salt Lake Sector V, an IT-hub. Pic/WRIJU
The puchka is a fiery cousin of the pani puri, with eye-watering spices and a potato mash filling. But, tucked away between the many pots and pans of the puchka vendors all over the city, now sits a little bowl of 'meetha pani' or a sweet chutney which is produced upon request to add a dash of Bambaiyya taste.
But, the biggest threat to the Bengali food bastion has come in the form of fish. For decades, Kolkata, which takes a certain pride in its 'Continental' culinary legacy in serving up baked and grilled fish (some restaurant menus, cutlery, and waiters in the iconic Park Street area have not changed since our dads went to college), has been loyal to the bhetki or bekti.
Ditto for favourite neighbourhood kiosks and takeaways selling fried fish snacks. But the bekti's reign has now been challenged by the Bombay Bassa, as restaurateurs are calling it. While the rest of the country has been serving the bassa for a few years, Kolkata has woken up and smelled the fish. And purists are not happy. Walk into any restaurant or food court serving fish (there are very few that don't) and you will overhear snatches of conversation between wary customers and waiters about whether the kitchen has replaced the bekti with the bassa. For the passionate Bengali, the bassa is as much a fish as Pritam is an original composer. But chefs from Smoke House Deli to M Bar and Kitchen and beyond, the 'lowly', 'neutral', 'bland' bassa has been nudging out the distinctive Pride of Bengal from menus.
“Bassa is cheaper, and blends well with the subtle flavours of continental dishes,” says executive chef of the legendary Flurys in Park Street, Vikas Kumar. It introduced Bassa for the first time in 75 years, for its Christmas Special menu this year. The flagship outpost that has been making gingerbread houses and serving roast turkey with all the trimmings, decided to get a wee bit adventurous this year. The bassa fillet has been baked and crusted with parmesan and served with herbed butter and truffle oil mash and, apparently, has gone down well with gourmands, says regional food director Sharad Dewan of the The Park Hotel group, Kolkata. The bekti, sadly, has been a victim of politics and pricing, says restaurateurs and hence, inconsistent.
The Bassa served in restaurants across the country — bekti comes at upwards of Rs 700 a kilo, bassa comes at half the rate — is apparently imported from Vietnam. But local fish mongers say you need to place an order a day in advance, as the fish reaches the retail market via Mumbai. But Kolkata shows much love to the city of Shah Rukh and 'Bocchon' by naming it the Bombay Bassa; no relation of the Bombay Duck.
Rs 15 The price per piece of vada pav at a popular stall in Kankurgachi
75 Number of years in which, for the first time, legendary Park Street restaurant Flurys introduced Bassa on its menu