INDIA: KOLKATA, THE LAST DAYS IN THE RAJ
So, this leg of EAT MY GLOBE is at an end.
My chum, Vanessa heads to the airport this afternoon replete with new experiences and filled with memories of her first visit to this challenging, vivid, extraordinary country. Memories that will range from the delights of the food and the stunning tranquillity of the Goomtee Tea Garden to the open, festering sores that are the streets of Kolkata.
Oh, and just in case you are interested, she also saw two monkeys shagging in the street.
As for me, India has left me spinning. After nearly five weeks here, I feel more connected to my proud Indian roots than ever but entirely frustrated by much that I have seen. I feel proud to have a heritage in a country which is definitely on the move but disgusted by the way that so many people are being left behind by the rapid progress and by the way that the environment of the country is being destroyed en route to economic supremacy.
That has been true of much of my Asian adventure. Bangkok was polluted like few cities I have seen. In Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur, I experienced mounds of trash amidst the beauty and in The Philippines I saw once beautiful buildings left to crumble. But, India, the unstoppable, tops them all and the so called “City of Joy”, is the best and the worst example of what India was and is becoming.
It is little wonder that Kolkata is seldom on the map of those tourists in search of India. It is, quite frankly, a scary place. It does not have the beauty of Goa, the history of Rajasthan or the spiritual allure of Varanasi. It is an ugly city, a city filled with astonishing poverty and a city which, since the departure of the British has been watching its reputation as “The Paris of The Orient” decay with the buildings that have remained untouched since the same times.
For all that, Kolkata has real charms. The West Bengali people are genuine and friendly and can ask you disarming questions about your family, income and health which can throw you at first but are just part of an exceptionally unguarded nature.
The history, despite being slowly submerged under refuse is still impressive and, above all, of course, is the food.
Food for the Bengali, even more so than the rest of eating obsessed India, is the number one expression of love and affection. In my own family, we often joke that our way of saying “I love you” is “will you be eating that ………?”
So, what better, for Vanessa’s last couple of days in India than to get back down to basics and do what I came here to do, eat?
Even in our delightful guesthouse, The Bohdi Tree, we were treated to simple but delicious breakfasts of Channa Masala (chickpeas) with fresh, hot, puffed up Luchi (Bengali puris)
After that, some traditional Bengali food at high end restaurant, Oh! Calcutta. The name may remind the 50’s and 60’s kids amongst us of the classic nude review, but now it is the name given to a small chain of restaurants,which specialise in food from West Bengal. Amongst other dishes we tries were Murg Aam Patar Paturi, chicken, spread with a paste made from the mustard (used in so many dishes of the region) and then baked in banana leaves. Channar Moilu squares of cheese, fried (again in mustard oil) and served in a rich tomato based gravy.
Vanessa went outside the region to try an Biryani made in the Hyderabad style with goat, spices and rice being sealed in a pot to cook slowly. I kept firmly to my roots with that most Bengali of dishes, Macher Jhol, a fish stew made with the sweet, bony river fish people from Kolkata crave so much, cooked in mustard oil.
Both excellent examples of their type.
If the Bengalis crave bones and crunch in their meals, then they also crave sweet things. Few people in India have the taste for desserts you find here and the sweets made in Kolkata are generally considered the finest in the country.
KC Das has been around for ever serving everything from Sandesh and Rosagulla to Doi and Gulab Jamun to hungry crowds. Their doi comes in many flavoured variety and we were soon arguing over who would clean out the last of tubs of saffron and orange zest with the last crumbs of some warm gulab.
Better still, we spent our last full day visiting my aunts and uncles around the city where the first words out of their mouths were “have you eaten?” before sending someone out to the local sweetshop to buy more desserts.
Here, in the home, the doi is served in the classic way with no flavour other than the natural caramel of the cooking process.
I was worried, when yet another plate of sweets was placed in front of an increasingly full looking Vanessa that she would not be able to manage so said helpfully “why don’t we spilt this gulab?”
“Nope” she replied “I can manage a whole one”
Truly, a reincarnated Bengali.
So, that was it, for Kolkata, for India and for Asia.
It has been an extraordinary part of the EAT MY GLOBE journey and I will be excited to write about it when I get to that part in the book.
For now though, I shall look forward to Africa and look hungrily back at my photographs of the last couple of months as I travel onwards.
Oh, and I shall try and get the image of two monkeys shagging on the streets of Kolkata out of my head.