It’s 8pm on a back street in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. Flanking the pavement, under a tent of blue plastic, Jetendra Pandit is making puchka, savoury bombs of crispy semolina filled with mashed potato, chickpeas, tamarind paste and a dusting of chaat masala. Clad in a Giants jumper the cook works from a single light bulb and gas flame. It’s the only light on the street. In a city well known for puchka (better known elsewhere in India as pani puri), Pandit’s are known as the best. His family have held this dinky street side stall for three generations. “It’s the ultimate Indian street food”, says Gaggan Anand, the 35 year old chef of fine dining restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok (this No. 17 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and No. 3 on 2014 Asia's 50 Best Restaurants List) and my tour guide for the day. “This is what fuels my inspiration; it is the essence of my restaurant”.
Anand and I are on a food safari of Kolkata, the once iniquitous capital of British India, now a decaying Elizabethan city best known for its squalor and orphans, tracking down the textures and flavours that define his cooking. Kolkata is also Anand’s birthplace. An affable bear of a man with a crop of shoulder length hair and vivacious laugh, Anand thundered onto the Asian restaurant scene two years ago with his eccentric take on Indian cuisine that matches street food staples with kitchen wizardry and cheeky presentation.
“Bengali cuisine is all about balancing sweet, sour, pungent and spice”, says Anand of the earthy, light, sweet, sour tastes dominating the food largely based on river fish, vegetables and rice. “Wedged in between south-east Asia and India, it has characteristics of both”. We had begun the day with breakfast at Gupta Brothers, primarily a sweet shop making elaborate multi-coloured snacks from reduced milk but also savouries for breakfast. Standing at the counter we devoured puri- deep fried bread that puffs into a ball, with lentil flour and potato curry and sandesh- cottage cheese and sugar baked into a pudding, almost like a crème brûlée.
It is dohkla, a fermented lentil batter steamed into a cake and topped with tamarind and date chutney, curry leaves, grated coconut and mustard, that steals my heart. It’s also one of Anand’s favourites and a dish he serves as a dessert at Gaggan. He puts the same lentil batter through a siphon to make the pores big and spongy then cooks it in a microwave for 30 seconds before teaming it with coconut ice cream and coriander foam. It’s what he calls “Kolkata street food made fancy”.
A hotchpotch of cultures and ethnicities that came during the reign of the British, Kolkata’s cuisine has borrowed traditions from all. Chinese is big here, thanks to a sizeable Hakka population, albeit an Indianised version with pungent sweet flavours in contrast to the subtle flavours of the cuisine’s origins. But it’s at Kewpies Kitchen, a rustic family restaurant run by the spirited cook book author and purveyor of Bengali cuisine, Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta, that the food’s most notable cultural influence is apparent.
Mustard, thick and whole grain, is added to almost everything here- the light and tangy pumpkin curry, smothering locally caught hilsa- a strong and firm fleshed river fish that tastes like mackerel, mixed with sweet mint sauce to dip crumbed cutlets of minced banana leaf flower in. While many disagree- especially the owner of Dasgupta and her friends- Anand argues there is no doubting the source of whole grained mustard, along with the habit of multi course eating and coating fish and cutlets in bread crumbs: Britain.