No one knows when it was first made, or how. Some say it was ‘invented’ when the British found it impossible to eat the roti and kebab combination using their fingers, others say it was created when the busy people of Calcutta (now that is an oxymoron), found no time to sit and savour their meal. There is one more school of thought, which does not believe in debating when and how the humble roll came to Calcutta, all they are concerned about is how many can they eat at one go, and which place makes the best ones. I belong to this category. And I find my answer to both questions at Kusum rolls, one of the city’s most popular joints.
Kusum rolls has been standing in an obscure corner off the park street for as long as I have known Park street. It has also been dishing out the best rolls since the time I have known rolls. I have heard people say that the shop has been around for close to forty years, some of my family members seem to agree: they remember eating there as long back as 1982. Even though the place is inconspicuous by its presence, the serpentine queues outside, and the intense aroma around ensures you cannot miss the humble stall situated behind a large iron gate.
“Yesterday I had a chicken roll at New Town. It was horrible! Ekdom baje. I knew only Kusum’s roll would be able to offset the trauma, so I came here.” I hear as I walk into the lane housing the stall. My twenty years of experiencing the city and its food has taught me that Calcutta and its people take its street food very seriously. One reason is that it is the street food that is often served inside the most popular restaurants here. And the other could be a mix of convenience, affordability, and the taste. Biriyani, rolls, puchka, noodles, litti everything that once belonged to the streets of Calcutta is now served in hip cafe’s and upmarket restaurants, but none of it tastes or feels quite the same, especially the roll which is best had standing by a crowded shack.
While roll shops are dime a dozen in the city, some remain more popular that the others. This happens to be one such.
A bright yellow board tells me that the roll here comes in 30 varieties – egg, chicken, mutton, veg, paneer, cheese, liver, prawn and their variations – and the price ranges from a paltry thirty rupees to a whopping two hundred and twenty. While the outsiders usually fuss about the filling, the regulars know it is the perfect combination of casing and filling that sets these rolls apart. Crisp, flaky, and soft at the same time, the parathas act as the perfect foil to the flavourful filling of the hot rolls.
I place an order for my favourite, egg chicken roll, and stand aside for my turn.
A total of three men man the shop. The first, who stands by a tiny counter, hands over tokens, the second, stationed at the griddle, fries the parathas, makes the eggs, and keeps the fillings ready, and the third, placed between the two, assembles the rolls. Their hands move in perfect coordination as they dish out rolls by the dozen, customizing each one as they go: extra chilly in one, no chilly in the other, fried onion in one, raw in another; sauces, spices, vegetables, eggs, everything can be added, removed, reduced or increased to suit your palate. If you are a regular you won’t even have to tell them — they remember your face and your preferences.
I am neither a local, nor a regular, but the shop remains my first pit stop after landing in the city. I know the menu by heart and remember the faces of these men. I also know the chronology of their actions. The parathas are fried on the griddle until they are about half done, eggs are simultaneously beaten and poured onto the center of the griddle, the two are then combined and fried again until each paratha becomes thick, flaky, and golden. Next these are transferred to the counter where they are assembled in batches of six or more. The meat goes in first, followed by raw or fried onions, green chilies, some sauces and seasoning. The rolls are deftly rolled and wrapped in butter paper before being handed over to you.
The actions are being performed right in front of my eyes now, and the rolls are being handed over to the sea people ahead of me in the queue. Even as my mouth salivates and fingers long to hold the hot kathi roll, I remind myself that food tastes best when you have waited long for it.