Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Soul Curry

Even as we move around the country and trot around the globe tasting exotic cuisines and sampling expensive wines, somewhere we never manage to get over some very ordinary food - just because some of our fondest memories are associated with them.

One of my earliest memories of such soul food was the Club Sandwich at The Saturday Club of Calcutta. Sat C is one of those propah clubs from the British era who don't allow round-necked t-shirts in their bar and slippers anywhere in the club!
About one Saturday a month, my father would pick me up from school and we would go to Saturday Club where I would devour one Club Sandwich. Since I was in primary school then, the triple deck of egg, chicken and ham would need a huge effort for me to chomp on - and I would always be in fear of getting a lock jaw! I am not sure if the sandwich tasted that good because I was ravenous after a full day of school or because of the forbidden taste of ham - but it did. Washing it down with a chilled bottle of Thums Up, I would go up to their reading room and read hardbound Tintin comics till it was time to go home.
On the way home, I would marvel at the Club's stupidity because the number of pages in the paperback Tintin comics was exactly the same as the hardcover ones, despite the latter being almost double the price.

On what is known as Ballygunge Phnari (basically, a large crossing in South Calcutta) is a very old restaurant called The Dhaba. For a significant part of my childhood, it remained shut due to some labour union trouble and the red-flag-shutters-down-posters-all-over was a familiar sight.
However, prior to the restaurant shutting, I had already tasted their Chicken Bharta and Roomali Roti. It was my first taste of both - and I can still remember the wonder I felt when I unfurled a roti and saw its massive size!
Thanks to Dhaba's proximity to my school, a large number (if not all) of our 'treats' ended up being here. Dhaba's massive servings, terrace and an ability to overlook our teenage boisterousness added to their pluses.
I have had far better Chicken Bharta elsewhere. Indeed, I have had far better dishes than Chicken Bharta in the first place. But somehow, the place where you celebrate your eighteenth birthday just refuses to fade away!

During my stint in Bangalore, a colleague introduced me to Lazeez. It is a non-descript joint serving Mughlai food on the busy Commercial Street and they are spectacularly unknown among even the residents of the Garden City.
I was lured there for just one reason - they had potatoes in their Mutton Biriyani. Did I mention that the colleague who took me there was a Bengali? No? Well, you must have guessed by now!
As it turned out, their entire serving and half the cooking staff was imported from Calcutta and in a moment of extravagance, their owner even claimed to be a partner in Calcutta's Shiraz restaurant.
For weeks on end, our standard Sunday lunch would be Mutton Biriyani and Chicken Chnap washed down with Pepsi and topped off with a phirni. After a point, the waiters stopped taking orders and just plonked the food on the table minutes after we walked in.
Their biriyani was good but nothing brilliant. But it was unavoidably addictive. Biriyani at home meant a festive occasion and for a homesick Calcuttan, this small restaurant unerringly brought back those happy memories.

Just as a small hole in the wall near Paradise Circle of Hyderabad called itself Calcutta Chat Centre and served phuchkas (along with other assorted chaat items).
My boss took me there, promising to treat me to authentic phuchkas - as opposed to golgappas or panipuris or whatever other monstrosity that tries to masquerade as Calcutta's roadside passion! The taste was bang on.
The crunch of the phuchka, the viscosity of the potato mixture, the tang of the tamarind water were all perfect. It is said that the main taste of the phuchka (or any roadside chaat) is due to the under-nail dirt of the chaat-wallah. Even that must have perfect!
I remember this guy because in a strange sort of way, it opened my mind a bit. Probably for the first time in life, I accepted that perfection exists outside Calcutta as well.

No description of soul food would be complete without a mention of Chelo Kabab at the Peter Cat. This now-slightly-run-down restaurant in Calcutta would probably be getting 75% of its turnover from that one dish on its menu. And believe me, their kababs as well as their sizzlers are pretty good.
As far as the Chelo goes, it is a skewer of kababs served on a bed rice with a dollop of butter. Neither the kabab is terribly succulent nor the rice suitably warm to melt and absorb the butter. And yet...
My theory is that Peter Cat holds an enduring allure because for innumerable Calcuttans, it is the place where they start to go after their first jobs - and THAT brings on a huge sentimental value. And when you go back, you do so either with old friends or to savour the nostalgia. Either way, you do not want to waste time poring over their cat-shaped menu and see what the chef "passionately recommends". You just order what you had ordered the first time round. And every time, it tastes just as good as whatever you had eaten with your first salary!

To round off the whole affair with a little sweetness, let me confess the kinds of sweets I do like. I like chocolate. Mostly I am satisfied with chocolate bars (and even Eclairs) but once in a while I get such a tremendous craving for chocolate pastries, that I fear that I may have to be sent for rehab! And this entire addiction started with a small shop near Theatre Road (again, in Calcutta) called Kookie Jar.
Since I eat only chocolate pastries, I am partial towards their Macaroon Tart - which is closest you can get to heaven without abstinence! I have been repeatedly told that the true test of a bakery is when you taste their stuff after keeping them in the fridge for a night. The good ones still have their crusts crunchy and the centres soft and the bad ones have their crusts soft and centres hard. The problem with Kookie Jar products is that they don't survive a night!
The other examples of soul food I had given were not the best but the favourites. Kookie Jar is a favourite and also the best pastry shop ever!

There is a profusion of Calcutta eateries in the above list. What to do? The bloody city continues to be the breeding grounds of nostalgia, great food and most of the finer things in life.
And it is programmed into my DNA.
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