If you stand on Chowringhee, near Esplanade in Kolkata, and listen to the passing trams, you can hear the sound of the city. There’s a word to describe that sound. That word is ‘creaky’.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Kolkata. It’s the most decrepit city I’ve ever been to. Don’t get me wrong. There are far worse cities in India, but Kolkata has the most visible evidence of the atrophy of generations and the putrefaction of glory. Having said that, the city still has such a sense of majesty and romance that, even today, its immortality shines through.
My parents always claimed that I was conceived in Kolkata, or rather in Kalyani, a town on the River Hooghly, a few kilometres outside the city. If that is indeed true, maybe I could attribute the draw that I have for this creaky city to my parents. And, of course, to the great food Kolkata offers.
My first trip to Kolkata was in the late ’80s. We were performing a play at Kalamandir on Shakespeare Sarani. I discovered two things on that trip: Kolkata’s Chinese food and mishti doi. It was Tangra for dinner and Gangurams for mishti doi.
The backstage door of Kalamandir led straight to a small branch of the famed Ganguram Sweets. During every intermission, I’d run down and consume a potful of that creamiest of Bengali confectionery. When the show got over, the whole cast would get into a van and rush to eat and get drunk on cheap booze at Kolkata’s Chinatown, Tangra.Tangra then smelt of tanning leather and garbage. It’s probably one of the only Chinatowns in the world that does not look very Chinese. No big Chinese archway or Chinese-influenced architecture. But it did have old, Chinese folk just hanging around, and rows and rows of Chinese restaurants.
And this is where they say all Chinese food in India came from. The Chinese immigrants here were Hakka people from Northern China, and the cuisine was, and still is, a mix of Chinese with Indian ingredients, and Bengali influences.
To the original Hakka cuisine, the Tangra Chinese added green and red chilies, made hot fiery pastes and sauces with oil and garlic. They introduced tonnes of ginger, coriander and kashundi (Bengali mustard sauce). They invented a new cuisine, and gave the dishes exotic names like pat pao chicken, shang kong, dragon chicken, gold coin prawns, foo yung, drums of heaven, and egg drop soup.
So assimilated with Kolkata were the Chinese community that they even prayed to Bengal’s patron goddess, Kali, and presented the goddess noodles, chop suey, and rice as ‘bhog’.
Tangra was, of course, the New Chinatown in Kolkata. The Old Chinatown was Tiretti Bazaar. Tiretti Bazaar (where it still stands) is where the pretty promenade of Chowringhee lies. It is where Metro Cinema ends, and the busy, over-populated part of Kolkata starts. Since getting there is a nightmare, thankfully, the food stalls are open only in the wee hours of the morning. If you want a Chinese breakfast, you need to get there at 5.30am. It’s filthy, slushy, and smelly, but when you watch the goodies emerge from large aluminum steamers, it is dim sum heaven. Sui mai, dumplings, bao buns, deep-fried and pan-fried chops, and buns with sesame seed, fish ball soup, and pork dumplings: all combusting away in the early morning Kolkata air.
This food was created in the bylanes of Tangra and Tiretti Bazaar, in restaurants that were called Fat Mama and Kim Fa. Slightly impoverished version of this cuisine still thrives in restaurants called Fung Fa, Beijing, and Golden Joy, to name a few. What we now eat at road-side Chinese stalls and Udipi-run Chinese restaurants also find their culinary origins in Tangra. But the food is not what it used to be, and I stopped going to Tangra after the first few times.
So, when my dear friend, who I have explored Kolkata with, and who is the executive chef at Trident Mumbai, Chef Joy Bhattacharya, asked me if I would like to re-live the glory days of Tangra cuisine, I jumped with joy.
My favourite Asian restaurant, India Jones at Trident Mumbai, is hosting the Best of Tangra Recipes through this week. As I settle down in the cool basement of India Jones in the same space that once housed my childhood habitat, The Outrigger, I dig into what Chef Joy and his team have re-created. I start off with shrimp gold coin, which is also known as sesame prawns on toast (golden deep-fried triangles of bread with prawns and sesame seeds). Then there’s crispy thread chicken (breasts of chicken, wrapped in thin noodles and fried, served with a sweet chili sauce), pan-fried chilli fish (fillets of beckti, chilli, with ginger and garlic) and the legendary drums of heaven (fried chicken drumsticks served with spicy Tangra sauce).
There are certain dishes that you will now find in Kolkata or in Mumbai with great difficulty, but are synonymous with early Tangra food. These are dishes that came out of the confluence of the two cultures that I spoke about.
Dishes like lamb in dragon sauce (a sauce flavoured with red chilli paste, dark soy sauce, tomato ketchup and sugar) and spicy chicken in green sauce (chicken breast in a sauce of spring onion greens, leeks, garlic and mustard oil), pepper and ginger prawn (ginger marinated red prawns, tossed in black pepper and oyster sauce) served with the all-time favourite American chop suey and Hakka noodles or the long lost but simple fortune rice (vegetable rice with edamame and mushroom).
I came out of the restaurant, stuffed and gleeful. Like a boy with a toy, jumping with joy. Boy, Joy and Toy, all being Bengali names.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar