Come Puja and the city of Calcutta turns into a life-size food court. Streets are lined with stalls, people queue outside eateries, and plates full of food are passed between family and friends. Then there is bhog, the most important part of any Puja. On some days it comprises of simple khichdi and labda, on others it is a lavish fare of mutton curry, luchis, sweets, rice, and payesh, the Bengali version of kheer. While most of the country fasts during this time, Calcutta feasts and why not, food after all is an integral part of any celebration—in Calcutta no celebration is bigger than the homecoming of the goddess and her children.
So whether you are busy hopping from Pandal to Pandal appreciating the art, craft and beauty of the festival, or walking miles in search of a taxi and cursing the drivers for quoting obscene amounts, food remains a constant companion throughout. It however changes forms depending upon which part of the town you are in – the posh south or the more down to earth north.
While eateries in Calcutta are open all night during the Puja but even at 2:00 AM you may not get space to sit in a restaurant. Street food therefore is your best bet. It is fresh, it is authentic, and you’d never have to wait for more than a few minutes.
Here’s a list of things you must try this Durga Puja.
Rolls, Chowmein, Chops & Cutlets
Everyone who knows Calcutta knows about its rolls. Flacky parathas filled with chunky chicken, fried egg, and sliced onions, seasoned with ketchup and chillies, and wrapped in a butter paper are found everywhere, especially during the Puja. These rolls define Calcutta in one bite. The huge griddle is also used to dish out spicy noodles tossed with julienned vegetables, eggs and shreds of meat and topped with chili and tomato sauce. No one makes roadside noodles like Calcutta does.
Chops and Cutlets are slightly more subtle. Made with Chicken, Fish, or vegetable mince, they are coated in bread-crumbs and are deep fried before being handed over to you with kasundhi, salad, and rock salt. The egg devil however, is a different devil altogether – boiled egg, coated in spicy potato mix, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Think twice before you order the second helping of this one.
Puchka, Jhaal Muri, Alu-Kabli
No trip to Calcutta can be complete without the three essentials — puchka, jhaal muri, and alu-kabli. While Alu-kabli – a mishmash of chopped boiled potatoes, chickpeas, onions and cucumber, seasoned with green chilli, cumin powder and tamarind water – is the city’s favourite snack, the Puchka needs no introduction.
Calcutta’s Puchkas are in a league of their own – large, crisp, and filled with zingy potatoes and tangy water. Every pandal has at least half a dozen puchka sellers lined up, and each one of them has at least a dozen people waiting their turn. That’s is a lot of puchkas!
Jhaal muri comes next. A mixture of various textures and flavours in a base of puffed rice, peanuts & potatoes, the bhel like mixture hits you hard if you are not used to it. The secret is in the raw mustard oil added in generous quantities. The jhaal muri is the quintessential snack that keeps you company as you walk through the Pandal, or during the day-long adda session outside a pandal.
Chicken Korma and Biryani.
Calcutta loves Biryani like no one else does. No, not even Hyderabad or Lucknow. And in Puja, the demand for it hits an all time high. When the popular joints struggle to keep pace with the city’s insatiable hunger, the street side vendors spring in action and set up stalls outside the pandals. More often than not their Biryani is better than the most famous names in the city. This Biryani, kept on low flame in giant pots, is had best with chicken korma offered by the same stalls.
These Succulent pieces of chicken smothered in thick gravy, pan fried and doled out on steel plates can also be eaten with rice or luchi, but as I said have it with biryani for complete Puja indulgence.
Sondesh, Mishti-Doi, Rosgulla
It is hard to say if the Durga Puja started earlier in Bengal or does the love for sweets of the Bengali predates the love for celebration of the Godess’ homecoming, but one thing is for sure: there can be no celebration without Mishti.
Every street in Calcutta boasts of its own sweet shop, and every neighbourhood has a favourite Mishtir Dokan. Make the most of the city’s sweet obsession and gorge on the famous Mishti doi, Rosogulla, and Sondesh. While at it, also try the local version of the Samosa, Singhara, and some lesser-known sweets like Shorbhaja, Ladykeni, and kacha gola.
Remember though, that sometimes these shops maybe hidden behind the pandals. Do not hesitate to ask a local for the nearest sweet shop, chances are they’d walk you there themselves.