On the Streets of North Kolkata,
A Food Trail going back Two Hundred Years in Time
A Food Trail going back Two Hundred Years in Time
From a centuries-old breakfast joint serving traditional Bengali jolkhabar (the Bengali word for breakfast which literally translates to ‘food and water’) on banana leaves to the birthplace of Kolkata’s legendary rosogolla and historic pice hotels that fed and sheltered revolutionaries during the freedom movement and continue to cater to hundreds of regulars even today, the streets of North Kolkata have much to offer the wayfaring epicurean. And it all begins with a traditional Bengali breakfast at one of Kolkata’s oldest eateries.
One of Kolkata’s oldest food joints, the 250-year-old Adi Haridas Modak in Shyambazar is famous for its loochi and aaloo-r torkari — deep-fried Bengal-style flatbreads and a light potato curry seasoned with turmeric, kalo jeerey, coriander seeds, kasuri methi, and aamchoor — served on a banana leaf. The loochis are light and flakey, and the aaloo-r torkari has a savoury-sweet aftertaste that lingers in the mouth. The menu is seasonal — always changing with the availability of produce. During winter, when green peas are in season, the Bengali classic koraishooti-r kochuri — a variant of the kachori stuffed with mildly spiced mushy peas seasoned with hing, kalo jeerey, cumin, and coriander paste — served with chhola-r daal is popular with regulars like Asit and Deepika Ghosh who shared a table with me on a recent visit to the shop.
“Have you been coming here for long?" I asked them.
“Oh, so long,” Deepika said. “Must be decades now.”
“What makes you keep coming back?” I asked.
“It’s part of our culture, of course,” Asit answered.
This was a sentiment shared by many of the regulars I spoke to — a sentiment I, as a Bengali, understand all too well. We are a stubborn lot set in our ways — with one foot firmly placed in the past, high on nostalgia, reluctant to let go.
We call this Bangaliyana or Bengaliness — a deeply ingrained connection to Bengali history and culture that forms and informs, shapes and reshapes the ever-evolving, never-changing experience of being a Bengali in Kolkata. When a Bengali says, “it’s part of our culture,” this is what they mean: these places are shrines to intangible, unbroken traditions that are greater than the sum of their parts. They are portals to the past and the future of the city and her people. Both the people who run these places, like Indrajit Modak, a sixth-generation member of the Modak family and the current proprietor of Adi Haridas Modak, and regulars, like the Ghoshes, are profoundly aware of this.
Address: 220, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road, Shyambazar, Kolkata 700004
Getting there: Adi Haridas Modak
Kolkata is home to many such places that connect its past to its present. Take the second exit from Shyambazar 5-point crossing and start walking towards College Street, and soon you will reach Sovabazar-Sutanuti — one of the three settlements that merged to form modern Kolkata in the 17th century. This is where you will find Lakshmi Narayan Shaw & Sons, a snacks shop famous for its savoury croquettes, fritters, and cutlets called telebhaja — a Bengali word that translates to ‘fried in oil.’ Founded by Khedu Shaw in 1918, the shop was supposedly a rendezvous point for revolutionaries during the freedom movement.“I’ve heard Netaji was a frequent visitor,” says Sudhanshu Gupta—Khedu Shaw’s great-grandson who now runs the shop with his father, Kesto Gupta—referring to Subhash Chandra Bose, the Bengali politician and freedom fighter known as ‘Netaji,’ meaning ‘Dear Leader.’
Aam-er chop or mango fritters and soybean-er chop or soya chunk croquettes are L. N. Shaw & Sons' specialities.
Address: 158, Bidhan Sarani, Sovabazar, Kolkata 700006
Getting there: Lakshmi Narayan Shaw And Sons
At the other end of Sovabazar, opposite A.V. School, sits the sweetshop of Nobin Chandra Das — another establishment with deep roots in Kolkata’s culinary history. The eponymous Nobin Chandra Das was a confectioner who, in 1868, invented the iconic rosogolla by experimenting with new ingredients and techniques he had acquired from cheesemakers of the Dutch colony in Bandel. After Nobin Chandra’s death in 1925, his only son Krishna Chandra Das inherited the family business and invented another Bengali classic, the rosomalai — a disc-shaped variant of the rosogolla soaked in saffron-infused condensed milk.
Address: 77, Jatindra Mohan Avenue, Sovabazar, Kolkata 700005
Getting there: Nobin Chandra Das
From Sovabazar, walk down Central Avenue, then take a turn to M.G. Road, or hop on a cab to College Street, and you will be in Boi Para — Asia’s largest open-air book market and home to Kolkata’s legendary Coffeehouse and historic pice hotels like the Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel — famous for its wide variety of fish curries.
Pice hotels got their peculiar name from the word ‘paisa.’ In the early 20th century, when Bengal’s economy was shifting from its agrarian roots to rapid industrialisation, these hotels popped up all over Kolkata to cater to the migrant workers who came to the city looking for work. These hotels were run by the working class for the working class, serving affordable, traditional, home-style food like aaloo posto or potatoes cooked with poppy seed paste, kumro-phool-er bhaja or pumpkin flower fritters, bhetki paturi or barramundi fillets marinated in mustard sauce and baked in banana leaf, and maach-er bhapa or steamed fish. To keep operating costs low, every item was billed individually, and menus were decided daily depending on what was available in the local market that morning. Times have changed, and prices have increased since then, but pice hotels still function the same way to this day.
Supposedly, the Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel was also a clandestine meeting place for revolutionaries during the freedom movement. Legend has it that Mangobinda Panda, who founded the hotel in 1926, often sheltered revolutionaries in a backroom when they were on the run from the police. Sadly, this backroom no longer exists, but Arunangshu Panda—Mangobinda’s grandson and the current proprietor—beams with pride when asked to tell the story of his grandfather’s involvement with the freedom movement.
Address: 8/2 Bhawani Dutta Lane, College Square, Kolkata 700073
Getting there: Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel
Located at the other end of College Street, in Bowbazar, Bhim Chandra Nag is another almost 200-year-old sweetshop with a storied history. The shop was founded by confectioner Param Chandra Nag in 1826 and named after his son Bhim Chandra Nag, who later inherited the shop and invented the ledikeni — a variant of the Gulab Jamun named after Lady Charlotte Canning, Countess Canning—wife of Lord Charles Canning, the Governor-General of India from 1856 to 1858 and the first Viceroy of India—for whom it was first made in 1858.
Address: 5, Nirmal Chandra Street, Bowbazar, Kolkata 700012
Getting there: Bhim Chandra Nag
Once, North Kolkata was home to many historic eateries like this. Time, sadly, has claimed so many of them. But while most such establishments have long since shut down, the few that remain have cemented their place in Kolkata’s gastronomic landscape — enduring as living relics of a bygone epoch, serving every dish with a slice of history: both of the Bengalis as a people and their epic city.
This guide was first published on The Goya Journal.