Bengali food in Kolkata, a revelation for an SF hound
Stopping in Kolkata on the way back from travels in the Himalayas. Every place has its socially redeeming feature(s) and it seems here it is the phenomenal Bengali food. Can’t get anything like it in the US and I gather it is pretty rare elsewhere in India.
Most of our experience was in early March when we passed through. I had gotten some tips from psb who posts on the Bay Area list and who I met at a China Village (Sichuan) dinner. He is from Bengal and pointed us at several places with help from one of his work colleagues. All we tried out were spectacular.
Bhojohori Manna at Esplanade. There are several branches and this was the most convenient. We had the huge prawns in a Bengali chili/mustard curry (Bati Chingri). So large, they hung out over the dinner plate. Fascinating sauce. We also had a vegetable, believe the name is mocha, banana flowers. surprisingly starchy for a flower. I believe the dish was Mocha Chingri and had some small shrimp in it (but not sure anymore). Certainly a delicious local special like nothing I have seen elsewhere. Finally we had another local special, Bhalo Laga Bhekti Patoori, Bay of Bengal bekti fish with a mustard sauce (there is a mustard theme here) wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf. The restaurant at this location is small and up a narrow stairs. Not much atmosphere, but the servers were extremely helpful in making recommendations. There is a large menu on the wall, but only a ~20% subset is marked as available at any time. Probably this place is best for lunch as it seems they can run out of things by the evening meal — and you wouldn’t want to miss those giant prawns. Prices were extremely reasonable. I think we paid about $20. This branch is next door to an extremely famous, apparently hundreds of years old sweet shop KC Das. So famous it is even the name of the bus stop on Google maps. They claim to be the originators of gulab jarmun which comes in superb white and brown versions.
Another famous Bengali dish is a Bengali fried fish, again bhakti. psb pointed us at Bijoli Grill, a tiny place in an alley, half hour walking distance (when the temperature is reasonable, unlike today when it is 43 C, pushing 110F) from the Kalighat Temple. We arrived around noon, but fish guts were still all over the sidewalk, and we needed to wait an hour. But it was worth it. The batter for the fish is very spicy and I believe there is a strong mustard sauce involved, perhaps under the batter. This place is incredibly famous among Bengalis and apparently does a huge catering business. Looks aren’t everything. And cheap. If we spent $3 for 2 of us, I would be surprised. I had fried fish elsewhere in West Bengal and it never came close to Bijoli.
In this area are some branches of another very popular sweet place, Balaram Mullick Sweets. The sweets were good, but maybe, as my wife pointed out, we didn’t get the right things. So I didn’t get the sense of the spectacular reputation for Bengal sweets. [Actually on a buffet at the Sarovar Premier hotel in Siliguri there were sweets, presumably from a place nearby which our driver, on the way to Kalimpong, had pointed out as great, and they were quite excellent.]
Another big hit with us in Calcutta was the Arselan near Park St (off Ripon St close to Mocambo and Peter Cat, which we didn’t try). It is famous for its biriyanis. First night we went, was a day of the week or whatever when “meat” was not available, so we had a chicken biriyani which was fine. Another night we had the mutton version, which was OK. Frankly I was most impressed with the tandoori chicken and seekh kabobs. Juicy and delicious. Wish something near home would approach these.
A Kolkata couple we met in Darjeeling were impressed with our foodie experiences in their city. We were trying to figure out where to go that was not too far in this late April heatwave. They recommended Aaheli in the Peerless Hotel. This is an upscale Bengali cuisine place. (They claim to have been the first Bengali restaurant in Calcutta.) It was pricey, but really excellent. In comparison with Bhojohori Manna, it was always at least as good, often even better. The place is far more pleasant, beautifully decorated, with brass oil lamps, and comfortable sitting. Waiters are in traditional dress and 3 musicians were playing Bengali music (in competition with a beer moghul's birthday party going on nearby in the not so Peerless Hotel). We ordered the large non-veg thali which had maybe a dozen dishes, including 3 non veg. We also ordered the Bati Chingri in addition and it was even more delicious, and slightly more genteely presented. There were 6 giant prawns for ~$30. The thali included another giant prawn dish, Chamoki Chingri Malai, in a slightly sweet and delicious coconut gravy. We also ordered the Mocha Chingri, which had lots of small prawns in the spicy, starchy banana leaf dish. The thali also included a superb Bhalo Laga Bhekti Patoori, maybe better than at Bhojohori Manna. And a mutton braise that was OK, but not necessary. Several vegetables included a grilled eggplant (which they call brinjals around here) served with Leuchis (a Bengali variant of Poori). Also a lentil cake in a tomato sauce and an excellent cauliflower and spinach with mustard, Palang Sorse Diye Phoolkopi. And white gulab jamon and a lemony yogurty creamy panna cotta-y cup were memorable deserts. With no alcohol — an excellent mango lassi and a fermented slightly spicy, slightly salty green mango drink (great when it is over 40C), we spent just about $100. The place is not cheap, but it is excellent, and a really good place to sample the great Bengali kitchen at a very convenient location (near many hotels including the Oberoi). The lead waiter was extremely helpful in guiding our choices and explaining every dish and checking on us frequently.
And last but not least, the apparent originator of the famous Calcutta Kati Rolls, Nizam’s in the New Market area. Again when we went in March there was no “meat” but the chicken Kati Roll was wonderful, spicy, fragrant, juicy. Street food at its best. This is a paratha rolled around the filling and wrapped in paper, for ease of street eating. Better to sit down and enjoy rather than try to eat it on the street dodging runners pulling rickshaws, tuk tuks, etc … Tonight’s plans include running out (well, walking slowly in the heat) to NIzam’s for hopefully the mutton Kati Roll and maybe a beef version apparently now only available from a nearby branch. Then we will head out to the airport for the flight to SIN, HKG, SFO.
PS Just back from Nizam's. What a wonderful last meal in Kolkata: double mutton Kati rolls, one with egg. Better than chicken. Flavorful, spicy, and well balanced. This is a don't miss place, in my book. $3.70 for 3 Kati rolls.
The sweets might be an aquired taste. The white gulab jamun probably are rosogoullah. Did you also have sandesh? Similar to marzipan, but instead of almonds, the Bengali mishti cooks knead milk curds with sugar and cook the moisture out over a low fire. Nobody in the world can make sandesh like the Bengali professional sweets makers.
Another great place for great (East) Bengali food in Calcutta is Kasturi - the original restaurant offers communal dining on a first (second for the Americans) floor space in a lane off Free School Street. Prices are very modest (much lower than Bhojohori Manna) and the food is tasty, if a little hot - as is the norm in East Bengal (Bangladesh).
You hit all the right spots that I would recommend to anyone visiting Kolkata, and there are many more for the next time you come to the City of Joy. With sweets, you have to get used to 'sweetness' and the general flavor which depends heavily on milk, and reduced milk in the case of Bengali sweets.