Rudyard Kipling once called Calcutta, “chance directed, chance erected.” He was a newspaper correspondent then, visiting the city for a brief visit. And, as most locals would say of journalists who swoop in to cover international events, Kipling got it wrong. Calcutta then and Kolkata now is a chaotic place. Luxury sits beside poverty here, and the administration of every municipality department, from waste to transportation, always lags five steps behind what the city needs. However, before Calcutta was even Calcutta, a group of businessman from an island famed for orderliness and structure conceived a plan for that patch of silt near the Indian Ocean.
In the 17th century the Indian Ocean was already part of the bustling trade route from Europe, down the African coast and across to important ports in Asia. The region of Bengal was prized for its textiles early on, but back then what is now Kolkata was no more than a group of independent villages, Kalikata, Sutanuti, and Gobindapur. At the time, the Mughal Empire ruled most of India, and Bengal was presided over by nawabs, nobility who governed over various sectors of the empire.
Although it would be several decades before Calcutta transformed from a malaria-ridden, swampy trading outpost to a bustling city, the villages looked to be promising headquarters for the British East India Company. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the French all wanted to make claim of not only the spice trade there but also the markets for jute, indigo dye, tea and sugar. Job Charnock, the company chief, socked the nawab early on, renting the collection of villages for an annual fee of 12 thousand rupees (approximately $260 in today’s dollars). It was a sweet deal in 1691; the cunning lay in the contract’s fine print, which gave the British permission to trade freely without duty fees.
The British East India Company quickly made itself indispensable to the region. Products bought and sold in Bengal not managed by the British were slapped with high tariffs, such that any independent Indian trading quickly fizzled. Some Indian merchant families met dizzying success. Most of the rising merchant class of Bengalis gave up. They settled into positions as managers and clerks for the British. It was now the early nineteenth century, the last nawab to protest English dominance was gone, and the company had grown to secure most of Western, Eastern and Southern India.
Calcutta was booming. The company built roads and lay tracks to connect the city with other parts of its empire. Neighborhoods had sprung up. The fish market, the oil market, the potters market. The city erected what are now some of the country’s oldest colleges. Mansions rose along the streets in Dalhousie Square. Young ladies back in England fought for the chance to secure their happiness with a young officer making a quick fortune in the city. People called Calcutta the, “city of palaces.”
So, how does this history relate to street food? Well, thanks to the combination of British educational influence and its destruction of independent Indian trade, a middle class emerged in Calcutta that primarily served the Crown. Suddenly each day a large contingent of office workers travelled to and from the administrative buildings around Dalhousie Square. Enterprising locals discovered a need: quick, cheap food for the babus who pushed paper for the Company Bahadur.
The tradition has only grown, and today Kolkata holds the distinction of being the best city for street food in India. It is perhaps one of the best cities for street food in the world. For those of you, like me, who grew up in the West, it is hard to imagine street food being anything more than novelty – that treat you get when you are out shopping, traveling on vacation, or waiting for the next inning of a baseball game. In Kolkata, as with many of today’s megacities, street food is more culture than novelty. With an unprecedented population growth in the city, around 60% of Indians live at or below the poverty line. Many individuals who have migrated to Kolkata to work possess no residences of their own. In that context, street food is an affordable meal. The average street food purchase contains 20 to 30 grams of protein, 12 to 15 grams of fat and 174 to 183 grams of carbohydrate. It provides approximately 1000 kilocalories, a significant percentage of daily needs and all for less than ten rupees (less than a U.S. quarter).
But the street food in Kolkata no longer signifies the food of the poor and lower classes. Once, not long ago, police chased away vendors from the street with the excuse that they were making the curbsides dirty and unattractive. Today, the trade has emerged as an organized group of vendors who offer cuisines not only from states all over India but international fare as well. Street food can cost as little as a few rupees or as much as 150 (that’s a few dollars to you and me).
The latest study — in 1996 — reported that approximately 130,000 street food vendors work in Kolkata. Compare that to the 10,000 or so who work in New York City. The vendors have their own lobbies, including the National Hawkers Federation. Through a 2009 National Policy on Urban Street Food Vendors, individuals who informally sell food on the street are now identifying themselves as micro-entrepreneurs. Although the policy is still a draft, its passing would be significant. Vendors would become a legitimate and integral part of urban trade, guaranteed protection by authorities, and provided greater assistance in standardizing their operations.