Bihar’s Litti Chokha to Gujarat’s Pakwan-Kolkata’s Burrabazar has it all!

Recently a Global survey had declared Kolkata as India’s top city for street food. We Kolkatans were elated for obvious reasons. Who would pass up a chance to gloat in the glory of OUR egg roll, phuchka, fish fry, shingara (not samosa) and the likes.  Well, Kolkata actually offers a lot more than that and what we remain blind to, is purely our loss. As I discovered so in the maze of Kolkata’s own Bhulbhuliya – Burrabazar.

Kerosene lanterns of yesteryears

As a girl growing up in South Calcutta, my trips to North Calcutta had been very limited and always with a backup of four wheelers, providing the much needed mental strength and assurance of a rescue in case of my power failure. Food expeditions by family always stopped at Park Street as mom firmly believed that anything beyond Park Street was in the next State (no offence to Central and North Calcuttans, mom has a distance phobia). In later life, however, I did cross the threshold and ventured into the North of my city, but a large chunk still remained unknown. In my new avatar as food writer/chronicler, I am attempting to break the inner barriers, one food stop at a time. So. when friend Devashis Kuthari proposed Burrabazar food walk in Good Vegetarian Food of Kolkata facebook group, I had promptly raised my hand. It was a golden opportunity to explore Burrabazar as well as to taste authentic Western Indian snacks at humble street food shops. Being guided by Devashis is any foodie’s dreams come true, as he is quite a master Shifu in Kolkata food. Leading with him was Rajiv Desai, a seasoned vegetarian food expert.

Narrow, congested lane of Burrabazar
Wholesale saree shops offer low prices

Before sharing the day’s experience, let me acquaint you with Burrabazar’s history and its vastness albeit very briefly. Burrabazar (literally translated: Large Market) is a commercial hub in the neighbourhood of central Kolkata and one of the largest wholesale market in India. It was originally a textile and yarn market known as Sutanuti Haat and was established around 1738. Sutanuti Haat, later on, made way for Bazaar Kolkata and finally evolved into Burra Bazar. The market was spread over nearly 500 bighas and the residential area covered another 400 bighas.  At present, Burrabzar is bounded by Posta on the north, Jorasanko on the east, B. B. D. Bagh on the south and Hooghly River on the west. Cutting right across Burrabazar is 75 ft wide Mahatma Gandhi Road, which runs straight from Howrah Bridge to Sealdah railway station. Burrabazar is divided into highly specialized sub-markets as per the commodity it deals in – Dhotipatti, Fancypatti, Tulapatti, Chinipatti etc. Further subdivisions are Katra, chowk or kothi.  A popular saying goes, “Anything and everything is available at Burrabazar. Even the tiger’s eye is available here if you pay the right price”. Each katra (market) is known for a particular item. There are approximately 25 katras in Burrabazar. The market attracts a crowd of 50,000 buyers and sellers on a daily basis. Apart from the arterial road, most lanes and by lanes are about 8 ft wide and unimaginably congested with people and vehicles jostling for space. Two nearest metro stations at two ends are Mahatma Gandhi Metro Station and Girish Park Metro station and the market area is best covered on foot or by two-wheelers.

Tips: Carry water, wear breathable, comfortable clothes and walking shoes.

The day for the walk was about two weeks before the grandest festival in Bengal- Durga Puja. 45 odd members of GVF met in front of Moonlight Cinema (30, Tarachand Dutta Street, Kol-73) at 3 pm. It was a rather hot and humid day but the spirit was indomitable. Keeping Moonlight on our left, we took a few strides ahead to take a narrow lane on the left. Almost at the mouth of the lane, there were two roadside small shops. One was selling butter toast, the other was offering Bihar’s popular street food Litti. The bread-butter shop was owned by Medinipur’s Robin Senapati. Thick slices of local bread slices were being toasted on a wire rack on an earthen stove. The smokiness of fire toasted bread brought back breakfast memories of yesteryears when electric pop up toaster would test patience and toasting bread on a wire rack was a much faster (and tastier) solution. Robin was unfazed about the fact that 45 curious souls suddenly attacked his shop with camera phones and DSLRs. He kept a half smile on his face while he moved the knife across the bread slices applying a generous layer of butter. The warm bread absorbed much of the butter through its pores making the core soft and moist.  Then he dipped one face of the bread in a can of sugar, cut the sugar coasted slice into two vertical strips, placed them on a piece of newspaper and handed out to us one by one. Biting into the bread gives you that heady, fuzzy guilty pleasure when heart screams oh, don’t stop! 😉

Butter Toast

Needless to say our craziness was not being appreciated by Robin’s neighbour, Mr. Litti-Chokha. He felt neglected and was sulking big time. Our food list was pre-determined and litti was not on our list that day. I am however a born rebel and I sneaked out as soon as a part of the group proceeded towards the next stop. Litti is wheat and sattu dough balls roasted again on coals. I asked for one serving. He crushed two littis a little. Poured some ghee (clarified butter) on them and served with sides of spicy aloo choka (potato mash) and mint-coriander chutney. All for a meagre amount of Rs 20. His grumpy face softened a little when he saw me clicking pictures.

Litti Chokha

The littis burst with rustic flavours into my mouth, making up for the fact that I got separated from the group and was now clueless about which direction to move. I walked a little bit to reach the famous Nakhoda Masjid on Zakaria Street and then made a May Day call to Devashish. He arrived promptly to rescue, and that followed with a fair amount of scolding. I by then had clicked a few precious clicks of Zakaria and Nakhoda as souvenirs of my maiden visit to this famous stretch that turns into kabab galli during the Ramzan month.

Nakhoda Masjid

Reaching the end of Zakaria street, we crossed over to enter Canning street. It’s rather an alley than a street and the most congested one at that. The narrow opening between rows of shops was packed with people, porters, bikes, small trucks, street food vendors and what not! Our destination was Kandoi Sweets (72, Canning Street), opposite gate no. 7 of Bagree Market. It was a proper shop, though humble in size. However, as they say, never judge a book by its cover. The overflowing crowd of customers advertised the popularity of the shop. The shelves displayed shining golden treasures from Gujrat’s Kutchh and Jamnagar. The shop was started by Grandfather of Pranav Rathore, the current generation, who manages the shop along with his dad. Pranav said the shop was built 144 years back when his grandfather moved to Kolkata permanently from Jamnagar. What is unique about Kandoi is, its products are rarely available anywhere else in Kolkata.

Kandoi Sweets

The first snack that we tasted was Pakwan. It’s a deep fried, layered and crispy nimki (savoury wafer) made of flour and spiced with ajwain (carom seeds), red pepper powder and black pepper. It’s a lot larger than most nimkis/namak paras and is almost the size of a roti, yet very lightweight I personally didn’t find the taste exceptional, but it was surely something different and interesting. Pakwan is priced at Rs280/kg. Next, we tasted Khajali. In India, there are several snacks and sweets that a particular geographical region can claim its monopoly on. Khajali is one of them. It is a specialty of Porbandar. In fact, hundreds of snack makers of Porbandar proudly boast that it has remained restricted to Porbandar as the climate suits the making of Khajali. Kandoi was probably the only brand that took khajali out of Porbandar to satiate the taste buds of Kolkata people. Khajali is a flaky fried savoury biscuit made of finely ground wheat flour and fried in Ghee. When you take a bite, Khajali disintegrates into thin flakes in your mouth and most probably that’s how it got its name (khaja=flaky). Price Rs 240/kg.

Moong Daal Kachori

Fafda or Jamnagar Gathiya is a popular Gujarati farsan made of besan. It is shaped like a papad/thin wafer and is usually eaten with a salad of raw papaya and green chilies. It was quite delicious and addictive. Thankfully there was no scope to taste more than a few bites because we had to save space in our stomach. Fafda was sold at Rs280/kg. However, the tastiest of the lot was the ping pong ball sized tiny orbs called Moong Daal Kachoris and Kandoi claimed these as their specialty item. The kachoris are flour dough balls stuffed with moong daal (lentils), spices and dry fruits and deep fried in ghee. Sinfully good and you can commit the crime for Rs320/kg! A variety is also available without the dry fruits and priced less (Rs 240). We also had Gulab Paak – a kalakand like sweet made of kheer and rose petals. Something unique and would surely appeal to people who are fond of kheer based sweets. Priced at Rs460/kg.

About 8 minutes’ walk from Kandoi would take you to Jay Ambika Bhujiawala at Mullick Street. Halt and order yourself Rajasthan’s trademark street snack Pyaz ki Kachori. These onion kachoris are thick crusted, crispy, flattened balls made of refined flour and filled with a mixture of browned onions, red chili pepper, turmeric, coriander, fennel seeds, and asafoetida. The spices are commonly known as “thanda masala” meant to cool your body as a protection against the climate. Easy availability of onions in bulk quantity in Rajasthan, made for an obvious ingredient. Those who had the good fortune of having pyaz ki kachori at the well-known Rawat Mishthan Bhandaar in Jaipur would surely have unforgettable memories. Kachoris at Rawat are stuffed with an incredibly well spiced potato-and onion stuffing and the addition of potatoes enhances the flavour much. Ambika doesn’t put potatoes and the taste is a lot inferior to Rawat. But still a good deal for those who want to be initiated into this snack. Kachoris here were priced at Rs 12 a piece and were served with garlic, asafoetida and tamarind mix chutney. You may also try Gujarati pao sandwich Dabeli that has a filling of potatoes, pomegranate, and sev mixed with chutneys. Damage is Rs30/Dabeli.

Pyaz ki Kachori

From Ambika, it would take a bit of walking to reach Mahatma Gandhi Road. Opposite Burrabazar State Bank Of India, a hole in the wall shop belongs to Shree Gopal Kulfiwala (166 M G Road, Kol-7). This is also the only place you can give your tired legs a little rest. The shop has a wooden bench nearby to sit and enjoy Gopal’s amazingly delicious Kesar Pista Kulfi. He unmoulds the kulfis and cut them into small pieces before handing them out. The solids melt into a delicious liquid of sweetened kheer and pistachio paste into your mouth. It was without any doubt the most delectable item that we tasted that evening. And no idea how Gopal affords such a high-quality kulfi at a meagre Rs25.

Kesar Pista Kulfi

Mallick Street stretch continues once you cross over M G Road. A few steps would take you to the super famous halwai shop Kaligodam. Unlimited boondi being prepared in gigantic kadais in front of the shop was quite a visual. People travel miles to buy their jalebi, boondi, and chandrakala. Their fame has got them to be a bit funnily arrogant. The chief halwai dadu was quite upset to see us shoot and shooed us away without giving any jalebi or boondi.

Boondis are being fried at Kaligodam

The non-bravehearts may return from here and those who are game for more adventures may carry on further to taste dry malai from Yadav Milk Supply at 13 Narayan Prasad Babu Lane, kachoris and potato curry from Badri Curry Kachoriwala at Banshtalla and kesariya tea from Dilip’s at Hanshpukulia Second Lane. The tea is worth the suffering (of legs- mine were about to give up). Priced at only Rs13 a kulhad, the thick milk tea was heavily flavoured with saffron strands. The ambiance was also remarkable- the courtyard of an ancient house at dusk can do things to your imagination. Nearby shop owners were quite curious as this was probably the first time they were seeing a large group clicking pictures of tea so enthusiastically. I always battle questions with humour and assured them we were sent by the Government to do a food quality survey in Burrabazar. The result was, of course, a respectful invitation to be seated on the wooden bench of a photocopy shop.

Kesariya Tea at Dilip’s
The haunted courtyard

From Dilip’s, a rather long, tiring walk through narrow overcrowded lanes would take you to Girish Park Metro Station, from where you would find all modes of transport to return home. Yes, Burrabazar food walk is no child’s play and when I mentioned that to Devashis, I got the usual scolding from him (he’s a marathon runner and got innumerable awards) and he added that we did only 1/8th of Burrabazar. The lanes sometimes reminded me of the proverbial lanes of Varanasi. Kudos to Devashis & Rajiv Desai, that they did a herculean task of discovering gems of food shops hiding deep into the lanes of the most difficultly negotiable part of the city. We walked more than10 km that evening. Everybody seemed okay and I was probably the only one who huffed and puffed. But still it was a personal victory and that was one of the reasons I wanted to share this experience in this end month of 2018. In November 2016, I was diagnosed with a critical health challenge and was almost immobile and bed bound for many months. At one point, I had seriously doubted whether I would be able to use my legs again. It took me nearly 2 years to trust my feet again and the 10 km walk was surely a celebration of my determination. Those who were too quick to leave my hands in 2016, know that I have a lot of fight left in me 😉

Acknowledgment with thanks: Pranav Rathore, Devashis Kuthari and Rajiv Desai.

A Bengali version (not translation) of my Burrabazar expedition was published by DailyO, the web portal of India Today. You can read that article by clicking on the link below: