J is for Jol Khabar

When I am abroad, I generally try to avoid the American food chains that have cropped up around the planet. When I first began traveling, I furiously guarded the philosophy to “do as the Romans do.” Of course, these days the Romans, the Chinese, and even the Bengalis go to McDonald’s, so the maxim doesn’t apply in quite the same way. Globalization has, on one hand, changed the pattern of life to such an extent that in some contexts I feel completely at home in Kolkata. In a neighborhood like Alipore, in Kolkata’s south, teenagers loiter around the coffee shops, laptops attached to their hips, and slurp mango frappes. But in adjacent Taratala globalization has made little headway. When I’m traveling it’s hard to know what is authentic anymore.

So I have eased up a little on my formerly stringent rules, still unsure of where I am heading. It started with breakfast. A few years back, during a long adventure across India, Surya and I came upon the All American Diner in Delhi. Well, to be honest, Surya found it online before we even left Canada.

“By the time we reach Delhi,” he assured me back in his apartment in Thunder Bay, “you’re going to hate Indian food.”

Of course I pooh-poohed the idea. Who did he think he was traveling with? Some kind of white-socked, fanny-pouched, pasty-white American tourist? I wore the white socks only in the mountains because it was cold. I also could not have known that the self-tanner would rub off so quickly. And I have a backpack, thank you very much.

I honestly didn’t think about the All American Diner at any moment in our trip. I happily feasted on chana batura and luchi, and chana batura and luchi…and sometimes toast. And then suddenly we were there, in front of a tall, glass office building, where I thought Surya had business with visas or some such nonsense, but inside, wrapped in gleaming chrome, red neon, and checkered floors, was a diner.  And I had this thing about breakfast, you see. Traveling never ceases to remind me that American breakfasts are the best in the world. Bacon, eggs, sausage, ham, pancakes and waffles drizzled with pure maple syrup… I don’t feel bad about this bit of patriotism I cling to. Our food is ridiculed otherwise, so we at least have to deliver on one meal. Lucky for me, Surya agrees. After days of chana batura and luchi, a stack of fluffy buttermilk cakes with a side of sausage (and a jukebox standing in the corner) was, well, really nice. So, if you ever find yourself homesick in Delhi, I recommend a visit.

But I digressed before I even started. Breakfast, or jol khabar, in India is a typical exercise. Sometimes it’s quick, like the times we set out early in the morning and pick up shingaras (the far superior Bengali version of samosas); sometimes breakfast is a plate of billowy luchi – whispery thin bread fried to a golden flax color and puffed into miniature pillows – and a potato curry. Mmm! Kakima is also fond of getting her hands messy making us chili-laced egg rolls for breakfast, and occasionally, when leftover vegetables are sitting around, our cook Alta fries up a hearty plate of chow mein. I’m not particularly fond of the chow mein. Did I mention that the serving size in the Banerjee household is twice as large as what we serve ourselves at home? My heart sinks a little on the days that I sit at the table for breakfast and see a fork sitting on my place mat (Bengalis will alter their eating traditions for Chinese). Alta is a great cook, but her chow mein tastes like the really bad Chinese you had in America in the nineteen seventies – with the messy hand print of another culture’s flavors all over it. It reminds me of my youth, when my mom threw in half a rib of celery and crispy La Choy noodles with every Chinese dish she made (Hi Mom! Thanks for reading my blog post!).  After that, all I tasted was hotdish.

The quirky fact about breakfast in India is that it is also a snack. Literally. Jol Khabar means at once breakfast and snack. I have no idea why.  Surya doesn’t know either. I tried to find an answer on the Internet, but Google kept trying to introduce me to Jol Khabar on Facebook. Incidentally, in translation the term jol khabar means ‘food and water.’ Really. Were his parents trying to be funny? As much as I love breakfast, I don’t recommend that as a name – first or last.

Google is funny. But it also can be useful. My search also turned up Jol Khabar, the restaurant. It’s in the Bronx, for all you New Yorkers who aren’t too terrified to travel north. Of course, it hasn’t received a ton of reviews, and one poster on the food-obsessed Chowhound confessed that the restaurant is “presently very pedestrian and lackluster.”  Typical Chowhound vulgarity, I say.

Bengalis need snacks because, while lunch is served at midday, dinner is not taken until ten at night. The other reason that Bengalis need snacks is because they like tea. They love tea, and among the millions of Bengalis in Kolkata, some serious tea connoisseurs stroll the streets.  Bengalis take tea throughout the day, but they commonly take a snack at around six in the evening. Many of the same breakfast nibbles are served then. Shingara, for instance, is a popular breakfast and snack. Sometimes Surya, Kakima and I sit down for tea with a simple plate of cookies and a really sweet, juicy mango. Surya has a fondness for the chemical-laced, bright orange cream wafers.  I indulge him. It doesn’t taste all that bad.

Most of the time afternoon jol khabar is an opportunity for Bengalis to sample the variety of snacks from shops in the neighborhood: cutlets, egg rolls, puri (spiced, stuffed, fried bread),  chingri (prawn samosas), beguni (fried eggplant). Sweets are just as welcome. Although Bengalis first love is the traditional mishti — the gulab jamun or the rosogolla — the British instilled in them a taste for cake as well.

When Surya was young and his mother called him home for tea time, she always served him an unfortunate plate of roti warmed over the burner and sprinkled with sugar. Every day. Not surprisingly, no one came over to his house to play. Street-urchin-themed jol khabar was not a selling point. I think Surya forgave his mother. She was, after all, working and earning a PhD.  Now that Surya comes home with Canadian dollars, snack time has no limits. Well, at least not until the nostalgic craving for toast returns.

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