K is for Kal Baisakhi

Last week, I bought Surya a rain jacket. A rain jacket would have come in handy last year when, at the beginning of the monsoon, we traveled north to the mountains in Sikkim and watched as a boulder slipped and rocketed down onto the road we were climbing up. A couple of days later we narrowly missed our Romancing the Stone moment when, on another rainy commute, the cliff above our road gave way. We watched it plunge, the dust of limestone rising while boulders and chunks of what was our road slid down the mudslide that continued below. I hoped no one was down there.

It was a surreal moment. When, in Sikkim, you read such pithy signposts as, “Do not gossip; let him drive,” “You sleep, your family will weep,” or “Driving is risky after whisky,” you point and laugh, and then pull out your camera. That day we sat in our car at the edge of what had been the road, peering down into the gaping hole. We waited a good two hours before the military arrived to rebuild it. I had to hand it to the villagers who simply picked up their rucksacks and bicycles and walked across the foot-wide fraction of asphalt that hadn’t disappeared.

Events like these sometimes happen in India; people don’t let it get them down.

What gets them down, rather, is the heat.

The first time I traveled to Kolkata heat — real heat – blasted into my life. I do not mean to compare the experience to the intolerably high temperatures that hit the Atlantic seaboard last summer. Seriously. Millions of Facebook complaints? Network news headers? Consider for a moment Dubai, Jeddah, the cities that dot the edges of the Sahara.

Kolkata airport is a tad underdeveloped for its population size. Most noticeably, there is no air conditioning in the arrivals area. As I walked out of the plane and into the transfer arm that led me to the airport, India’s heat finally realized itself. One hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit. Eighty percent humidity.

The difficulty of Kolkata’s summer is that for months there is no relief. No desert sky opens wide at night to absorb the heat wafting off the planet. No rain cools the afternoon or the evening. When I was young I watched films about colonial India, where men, women, and children in crisp, white jodhpurs and Gibson gowns languished behind the gently rustling mosquito netting on their beds. From the light of the television set, it all seemed very Romantic. It’s not.

By six in the morning the day is hot and bright. I open the bedroom’s wooden shutters to a mélange of waxy green leaves reaching through the iron window grill. The heat has intensified the fragrance of the frangipani blooms. In fact, every smell is intensified. The frangipani mixes with cumin and pepper in the kitchen, and the spices mix with the aroma of tea that Kakima prepares. A morning stench rises from the bathroom pipes, too. I scramble quietly out of bed for a quick, cold bath, but within the hour I am sweating again.  And I smell something else. It’s me.

When the afternoon comes the house is hotter. We close the shutters and turn off any lights that are not essential. It is an unpleasant measure to make the house bearable. Below, the streets are abandoned. On the worst days, there is no going anywhere. Our movements are slow not only because nothing seems to be open and no one appears to be around, but because the sun has pilfered any last ounce of human energy. While Kakima and Alta lay on the tiled floors for a nap, I settle down behind protective shutters and try to finish my work. Or read a book. Or, better yet, take a nap. The wait for evening begins.

There’s certainly truth in the theory that ethnicities adapted specific traits in harmony with their original environment. When I’m in India my thin, long Caucasian nose makes me feel as though I have a permanent sinus infection. My blood vessels swell; my nose clogs; my head feels thick. In this state I sometimes wonder how many inappropriate As or Fs I have given to my students. To be honest, the thought passes quickly.  In this situation I realize what I should expend my energy for: coffee. A good, caffeinated cup of coffee would do wonders to stir my senses. And then I lay down again because the dizziness has returned and there is no morning cup of coffee, no afternoon cup of coffee. There is only tea.

Surya eventually paid for and installed two air conditioning units in the house. But we are careful both to share them and to avoid skyrocketing electricity bills. We turn the machines on for twenty minutes at a time, enough to feel the chill through our bodies. Then we turn it off again until, a few hours later, a certain malarial delirium creeps in, and we can no longer converse, let alone sit up. It is surprising how well you acclimate to this sort of situation.

During these days of summer chattering and gossip are reduced to complaints. When you are not sleeping off the heat, you are complaining about it. Everyone wonders where the rain is; “the rain seems to be late this year,” they say, though it never really is. The newspapers, as though they had the power to invoke it, present lush articles in the travel pages about the best vacation spots for this year’s monsoon. Unlike most of us in the world, Bengalis see the rain as impetus for travel. A vacation is to sit out on a veranda and watch the steel-gray sky envelop the coast, or to stand inside the fog that blankets the mountains. Bengalis will wait forever in that rain just to watch the clouds break and to take a glimpse of Mount Kanchanjangha.  But the travel pages are only a hope.

And then, with no embellishment, one day everyone chatters about the rain. “There is rain today,” they say. “The rain is here.” I look out the window, over the frangipani tree. The sky is cloudless and blue. I shrug it off, settle in for another day mixed with work and naps, until midday arrives and I find myself a little chilled. Gray has replaced the blue, and it’s getting darker. The wind picks up, the birds dart about, chirping more than usual, and Kakima opens all the shutters in the house to take advantage of the currents and cool air. The sky turns the color of a nasty Midwestern thunderstorm.

In the beginning I can’t even hear myself think. Conversation stops because I’m hard pressed to decipher what anyone else is saying. Kakima sets up a few chairs on the veranda that’s just outside her bedroom. As she stands and leans her head against the door frame, Surya, Alta and I sit and watch. We don’t talk. Though the rain is thick, we can see the banana leaves fly up like albatross wings. Overripe fruit fall, like hail, from the branches. But what I can’t take my eyes off of are the coconut trees. They can grow nearly 100 feet tall, and in the grip of a strong wind, they behave like bamboo, their top halves giving way left and right but their bottom halves somehow standing firm and unruffled. It’s easier then to understand why our driver Sanjit is so comfortable with shinnying up those trunks to pluck the fruit. But the rain gives Sanjit a break. He’ll collect a few from the puddles when the sun peeks through. In the meantime he stays with us, and we sit and listen and eat the sweets that Kakima brought from the kitchen.

The first of these storms begins this month, with a pre-monsoon nor’wester that runs across northern India bringing to Kolkata early respite from the hot summer. They call it Kal Baisakhi.

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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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I is for Informal Economy

Hi Folks!

First, congratulations to India’s national cricket team for winning the World Cup of Cricket this past weekend. It was their first win in 28 years — Woo hoo!

Since this next entry’s subject is from the field of economics, I invited Surya (an economics professor) to be my first guest poster on this blog. So, without further adieu…

 

Growing up in Calcutta is synonymous with getting used to the constant cacophony around you. I think that is why most of the memories I have of my childhood days are auditory, not visual.  I remember cuckoos and other birds singing their heart away in search of potential mates, and hundreds of crows perching themselves on the over-head electric wires every Sunday for their incredibly noisy weekly meetings.  The street dogs (our version of Neighborhood Watch) barked incessantly at night, trying to keep the area free of thieves and drunks. Owls and foxes hooted in the mysterious unlit marshes in the distance. Occasionally, a family of langurs would pass by. Three generations of monkeys, led by a stern looking grandfather (who I named Indiana Jones) would whoop by the neighborhood, destroying anything in their way. Children squealed, while grand-moms ran frantically to the roof to see whether their clothes lines (and their supply of pickles drying in the sun) were still intact.

But most of all, I remember the seemingly infinite stream of sales people passing by our door every day, crying out and advertising their wares. During the day time, the milkmen navigated the narrow streets with two giant drums of milk attached to the two sides of their specially designed bicycles. Young boys sold vegetables they lugged around in three-wheelers; fruit vendors offered assortments of mangoes, plums, pears, berries and bananas; tribal women carried stainless steel utensils on their backs, which they exchanged for old clothes.  Older men with vats full of water on their heads carried around precious dinner. The fish inside splashed around as a testimony to their freshness.

The most delightful sounds, though, came in the afternoon. That was the time when the snack food guys passed by. The ice-cream trolley was the most anticipated. Then there were the fuchka kaku (literally translated to “Uncle Water Balls”), who sold delicious-mouth-watering gol-gappas (hollow flour balls with a spicy potato filling and tamarind water) , the ghoogni (a chick-pea snack) guy, and an Afghan gentleman who sold delicious homemade cakes and pastries in a little black trunk that he carried around on his shoulder.

If all of this sounds very tropical and idyllic, it was. Every day, we had a mobile supermarket pass by our front door, and we all loved it.

All these sellers were (and are) a part of India’s huge “informal economy,” an un-regulated, no-benefits-no-taxation society, where the government policies and regulations are conspicuously absent. Although the size of this economy is shrinking relative to the formal sector, it still constitutes the overwhelming fraction of India’s net GDP.  The majority of Indians not only purchase within the informal economy, but they also find work in it.

The Indian government has been trying to bring these participants under the umbrella of the organized sector. Various incentive-laden policies, like tax amnesties and promises of welfare and social security have been tried with, diplomatically speaking, mixed degrees of success. It is not difficult to understand why.

Take the neighborhood convenience store near our place in Calcutta.  Naran-da, as he is affectionately called by everyone, runs a deceptively tiny-looking shop, well stocked with rice, lentils, milk, pops and other day-to-day necessities of life. The shop is adjoined to a slum, which houses about 2000 residents. To these people, Naran-Da is not just a shopkeeper, he is much more. He is their financial planner, their instantaneous source of credit (especially at the end of the month, when the money is tight), their spiritual advisor and the local politician. All transactions are done in cash, and the shop is open 18 hours a day.

If this shop fell under the “organized” sector, Naran-da would have to pay taxes which would jack up the prices of all the goods in his shop. For the people who depend on this store and are living on the margins of economic ruin, this can be a matter of life and death. It is no wonder all the government policies aimed at the informal sector meet with such lukewarm response.

As India becomes wealthier and wealthier, these shops and the door-to-door salesmen have been disappearing from public view. Instead of buying groceries at the door or at the local bazaar, young urbanites prefer Western Supermarkets. The mobile snack shop jaunts in every neighborhood are being slowly replaced by organized trips to the mall.

But there is hope. Maybe one day the local bazaar will make a comeback, a la the Farmers’ Markets in the West, where the Bengali yuppies of the future will yearn for a simpler time, where service was personal, haggling for prices encouraged, the food organic, and the quality, well, unpredictable.

Meanwhile, life goes on.

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H is for Hooghly

Kolkata receives few direct flights from Europe or North America, so when Surya and I travel each summer we first pass through New Delhi. Most passengers mill about the airport through the wee hours of the morning waiting for the next plane to Bengal. It’s a two-hour flight, and I usually nod off for most of it. But as the plane begins its descent I like to open my window shade and look out. To understand Bengalis, it helps to see the land from above. When the plane is at just the right altitude, I can watch a hundred rivers making their circuitous routes through the countryside. Dark shades of ink cut through one patch of fern-green farmland, curving, and then dividing another block of jungle green. Eventually each river flows south to the silt-rich Bengal Delta. The freshwater, carried all the way from ice peaks in the Himalayas, mingles with the briny water of the Bay of Bengal and joins the Indian Ocean.

 

by Sudipta and Sayanti Roy Chaudhuri

Bengalis are a people molded by water. Over time the silt from the Himalayas built up the land they now live on. As early as 2000 B.C. the people who lived in Bengal were seafarers, building boats that could traverse as far as the Mediterranean. In the 14th century, the Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta called Bengal a “land blessed with abundance. . . I have seen no country in the world,” he confessed, “where provisions are cheaper than in this country.” That bounty allowed the early people here time to explore arts, music and literature. Abundance begets abundance.

When my plane descends a bit lower, I can begin to make out Kolkata’s most prominent feature  — one, long, winding distributary of the Ganges that made the city what it is today. The Hooghly runs north to south, flanking Kolkata’s Western edge and mirroring the route of the historic Grand Trunk Road. Early invaders of the subcontinent came from the north, attacking Bengal through narrow passes over the Ganges. The Hooghly flowed without much care then, with space for catfish, ribbonfish, perch, prawn and Bengalis’ favorite freshwater fish, the Hilsa, to fill the river. Freshwater sharks and dolphins leaped from the surface too. The river greeted fisherman and the Bengali sailors who returned home from journeys to Egypt and Crete. The ghats provided steps to access the water, and villagers gathered to participate in religious rites of cremation or ritual bathing.

Then the Portuguese came.

By the 16th century, the Bay of Bengal was a world trading port, long known by Arab and Chinese traders and increasingly familiar to the French, the Portuguese, and the Dutch. The Europeans vied for control in hopes of cornering the market for precious spices, sugar, and jute. As the main trading port, Chittagong (now part of Bangladesh) witnessed the rivalry.

Initially, the Portuguese had dibs on Chittagong. Pope Alexander IV, presuming eternal authority over the planet, drew a line down the Atlantic Ocean, giving Spain the West and Portugal the East. That gave them religious sanction to seize any riches they wanted.  Somehow the concept of Catholic guilt eluded them. Unfortunately, no one told the Asians about that decree.

Eventually, no thanks to Columbus, the Portuguese found India and henceforth Chittagong. But from time to time they sailed up the Hooghly and found a throng of individuals wanting to buy and sell. Betar, on the opposite side of the river from what is today Kolkata port, became an annual hub for trading with the interior. By 1632, the Portuguese built their first factory on the Hooghly. It soon became the main trading port along the bay.

But the Portuguese were not liked. Sure, they introduced Bengalis to cheese-making, without which we would not have Bengali sweets, but the local population had it up to here with their tails of divine rights. Divine? They couldn’t change forms; they couldn’t defeat local demons.  Besides they also held a distasteful obsession with forcibly converting the locals to Christianity, not to mention a reputation for looting.  And then there was the sport of rounding up men, women and children to sell them off as slaves.

Then Emperor Shah Jehan wasn’t too pleased either. Portuguese behavior not only was appalling, it also distracted him from his life’s true endeavor – building the Taj Mahal. So, when the Dutch sailed up the Hooghly and seized control, the emperor, envisioning a comeuppance, ordered his men to confiscate the Portuguese factory. Then he gave them the choice between conversion and slavery.

Good times.

But the Dutch were not free-sailing (so to speak). They made the mistake of increasing the price of pepper from three shillings to eight. The British, disgusted by a situation that, ironically, presages their later tea debacle, moved in. Fighting in the bay and on the Hooghly went on for decades until the two players reached an agreement, with the English retreating from Indonesia and the Dutch letting go of its holdings in Bengal. By that time the Mughal power in India was waning. The British, as much opportunists as the Portuguese, dived into the local political skirmishes.

What landed them in now Kolkata was a retreat. The English declared war on the Mughal Empire, and headed to their ten ships to conduct the conflict on the water. A bit north of the Hooghly trading center sat Sutanuti. It was protected on the west by the river, and on the east and south by impassable marshes. There was also a great space for anchoring ships, to boot.  When they attempted attack Chittagong failed miserably, the English licked their wounds back at Sutanuti. Eventually they purchased Sutanuti and a few other villages for their own.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the Hooghly and its surroundings continued to be dangerous waters. Pirates marauded ships in the bay, and the river itself teemed with people.  Fishermen navigated the waters alongside a sea of foreigners who fought to ship products from India to the West. Rudyard Kipling penned it all in his 1888 essay, “On the Banks of the Hugli.”

Today, although the Hooghly occupies a great space in Kolkatans’ memory, its significance to the city has diminished. Trains and planes now take Bengalis to other parts of the world. Dams, such as the Farrakka Barrage and deforestation in the Himalayas have reduced the water flow on the Hooghly, such that large sea vessels can no longer travel up to Kolkata.  Kolkatans themselves failed to rescue the river from obscurity. In cities like Paris or London or Vienna, rivers have been transformed into attractions for visitors and residents. But in Kolkata no grand esplanade lines its banks. Artists do not paint near its age-old ghats. No tours float visitors along the water.

by Ken McChesney

The Hooghly is now, along with the rest of the Ganges, considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Industries dump large quantities of untreated sewage, industrial chemicals (including DDT waste) into the river daily. Not only business but individuals pollute the river too. Trash collection in Kolkata is neither well organized nor culturally ingrained, so when individuals have no use for a banana peel, for instance, or the leftover end of a bidi, or a plastic cup, they toss. Along with these relatively minor items go animal and human carcasses. The Hooghly is a convenient secular and spiritual garbage can.  A number of ghats are now all but abandoned, and what is left is grime and crumbling stairs. As of last year, fifteen sewage treatment plants sat unused. A few months ago Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey of the Times of India wrote an eloquent, albeit desolate, lament of this decay.

Luckily the river is known to have an almost magical self-purification effect. It has somehow curbed the spread of large-scale epidemics despite the significant human pollution. Scientists believe that Ganges water contains higher levels of oxygen than the average body of water, which neutralizes some of the toxins. Still, the amount of trash that accompanies modernity and population explosion has pushed the river to the brink.

Each year plenty of individuals and groups push for better environmental standards for both the Hooghly and the entire Ganges, but the effort is not yet a winning battle. In 1985 then Prime Minister Rajeev Ghandi launched the Ganga Action Plan to clean pollutants from the river. But the reality is that the river is even more polluted today, a result of mismanagement, corruption and incompetence. In 2007, the Kolkata high court passed an order that the thousands of Durga statues dumped in the water each year during the puja had to be cleaned from the river in order to avoid further pollution. And the Ganga River Monitoring Committee was established to aid in the prevention of further polluting. But in a busy city of ten million, the efforts of such organizations barely make a dent. Just last November, two oil tankers collided on the river, spilling both metal and oil into an already murky Hooghly Point.

I wish I could end this post with a “but” or a “however,” but the state of the Hooghly and the entire Ganges is still dire. One hopes that as investment continues to flow into India, as living standards improve, the cries for fixing the Hooghly will turn into effective action.

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G is for Gulab Jamun

 

Gulab Jamun, an Indian dish

When Kakima first offered me gulab jamun, I was not impressed. It was my second or third day visiting India, and as Surya and I gobbled up soft slices of bright orange mango at tea time, she came into the sitting room with three, small bowls. In each dish sat a small, fried, brownish looking donut hole, floating on a puddle of syrup. Not quite as exotic as I had expected. State fair food, I thought, can find you anywhere. Where were the famed sweets dressed with silver foil? Or the carefully cooked pot of rice pudding? I fully expected to be eating cheese curds at dinner.

I’ve since revised that history and now, when I think back to that evening, I remember the calls of the cuckoo outside and the rustle of leaves from the jackfruit tree that stood near the open window. The gulab jamun was a tawny color, fried just right, and soft when I pressed the bottom of my spoon on it. The dish was warm, and when I brought it close to my mouth, I smelled roses and cardamom and sugar.

I fell in love.

After that, I asked for gulab jamun every night, and Surya was at pains to introduce me to the other famous mishti, or sweets, of Kolkata. The city produces the best sweet makers in the country, such that if you travel to other cities in India, the best sweet shops are always run by a Kolkata transplant. Bengalis themselves have an over-ambitious sweet tooth. Literally thousands of sweet shops dot the city, and each night families pick up a selection of burfi, mishti doi, and sondesh to replace the assortment that ran out that morning after breakfast.

The name gulab jamun, if translated, means “rose berry,” a nod to the purplish jamun berry that is a popular snack during the rainy season, and rosewater, the signature ingredient that flavors it. Ironically enough, the jamun fruit is believed to be a diabetes fighter. Too many gulab jamuns, on the other hand, will likely give you a heart attack.

Although no real comparison exists in the American repertoire of sweets, the gulab jamun, as I mentioned, looks like a donut hole, although lighter and more airy than cake donuts you might pick up at Dunkin’ Donuts. It is composed mostly of milk that has been boiled down to a solid state (called khoya in Hindi), mixed with flour, and deep fried to a crimson brown. Finally it takes a bath in sugar syrup flavored with the rosewater and saffron or cardamom. I like to eat it warm with a dish of vanilla ice cream.

Although gulab jamun likely has its roots in North India, its cousin, pantua, is a creation of Kolkata sweet makers, or moiras. Whereas gulab jamun is held together by a base of flour and milk solids, pantua is predominantly made from a dessert cheese called chhena.

Chhena makes all the difference, at least according to Bengalis. The Bengali tradition of making sweets from cheese (uncommon in most of India), is so revered that using flour in traditional sweet making is considered a disgrace. Might I remind you here that Bengalis have the reputation of being a bit French?

It’s hard for me to imagine such a thing as a flourless donut hole. Mind you, I’m sure the French introduced that idea centuries ago. Still, I took a particular interest in this hallmark of the pantua, and each day I ate my dessert slowly, picking it up to examine the insides and trying to find evidence of any cheese. I couldn’t. Each pantua looked to me exactly like any gulab jamun I’d eaten. In other words, like a wet donut hole. Did it taste different? I wasn’t sure. They all tasted good. And I wasn’t exactly in the habit of eating multiple pantuas and gulab jamuns at a time (The practice is not uncommon, however; Surya routinely tells me the story of the time when he ate 25 pantuas, on the spot, at someone’s wedding).

But I took a cue from Pepsi-Cola last summer and designed my own gulab jamun/pantua challenge. It was a small affair. Just six of us took part, so I can’t say that it was terribly scientific. The goal? To decide who in the city made the best gulab jamun/pantua. More importantly, to find out if there really was a difference between the two.

The gulab jamun’s origins are in Persia, where its counterpart — Luqmat Al Qadi – was made with honey. The Mughals introduced the sweet to the Indian subcontinent. These invaders from the North made a grand entrance, coming adorned in the finest, most colorful silks and keeping peacocks and tigers as pets. The royals brought a tradition of haute cuisine, too: the haute cuisine, which I imagine would rank four stars in a Michelin guide book. The royal kitchen was a department of state. It included a superintendent of cooks, a treasurer, storekeeper, clerks, tasters and, oh yeah, around 400 chefs. Some of these cooks hand fed the palace chickens each day. They served the hens rosewater and saffron, then massaged them with musk and sandalwood (chickens do, after all, have a reputation for being smelly). Others spent their days fetching the emperor’s favorite butter from a faraway town, and horticulturalists traveled from Central Asia to tend the orchards.  To make gulab jamun, khansamas boiled fresh milk for hours before it reduced to the solid form used to shape the sweets. Court slaves meticulously collected thousands of rose petals, then soaked them to extract the essence.

A fraction of this obsession rubbed off on Bengalis, and me as well. So I found myself pouring over the sweet shop section of The Times of India Food Guide, trying to make a roster of contenders for the trial. I certainly couldn’t test thousands of different gulab jamuns and pantuas. I couldn’t even test the sixty or so shops listed in the book.

It came down to a mixture of the tried and true, and a soft spot for the underdog. Chittaranjan Mistanna Bhandar, an old North Kolkata sweet shop, was small but it received good reviews in the guide. And I liked the name. Banchharam crafted beautiful gulab jamuns twice the size of any other in the city. It’s become so popular in Kolkata that it now boasts branches around the city and the country. I chose Bhim Chandra Nag because it won fame a century ago when its owner presented a new, oblong-shaped pantua in honor of the then governor general’s wife, Lady Canning. Chhappan Bhog made the cut simply from reviews. The Times called its sweets, “no less then extraordinary.” I added Ganguram and Sons because it stood the test of time, Nobin Chandra Das because it is the father of the rasogolla, the precursor to the pantua, and Sandhya Sweets for its “superior quality chhena.”

by gingog

Finally, I added our local, Behala shop. As a middle class neighborhood, Behala elicits laughs from Kolkata’s upper crust, and it rarely finds itself in guidebooks, food or otherwise. But I stand by my belief that the best chicken roll in Kolkata can be found in Behala, so I guessed that maybe, just maybe, a Behala pantua was waiting to be discovered.

I wasn’t surprised to find out, after the fact, that Kolkata has its own mishti challenge. The Kolkata edition of The Times of India introduced Madly Mishti in 2009. It’s a festival of fashion, music and sweets that culminates in a grand finale where celebrities hand out the reader-nominated awards. This year Madly Mishti took place in January, and Banchharam was one of the winners.

Preparing for my own competition was exhausting. Surya, our driver Sanjit, and I crisscrossed the city in the effort to collect all the sweets for our evening fête. That’s no small feat in a town known for its grueling traffic. In most cities the road to land ration is 30%. In Kolkata, it’s 4.2%. It takes at least an hour to get anywhere in the city, usually two.

So, on a Friday evening we assembled in the sitting room of the Banerjee residence. Kakima arranged the sweets for our blind taste testing. Chittaranjan Mistanna Bhandar was the hands down favorite. I was a little disappointed that our Behala shop had not won, but Chittaranjan’s small shop, tucked a block or two away from the main road, is just the kind of sweet shop I liked to frequent. When we next stopped there for a fresh supply, I asked the owner what made his so special.

“Half cheese; half khoya,” he divulged. “And a little flour.”

So was it pantua or gulab jamun? I didn’t know. More research may be required.

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Kolkata is in the news!

Kolkata Eats is  experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by.

 

In the meantime, we’d like to bring you the latest news: Kolkata is now official.  Whoop!

 

 

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F is for Foodtripper

It’s Friday, and I thought I’d provide an intermission from the history lessons, recipes,  and random stories I’ve been offering up.

Foodtripper is a great website and tv production company dedicated to finding unique intersections between travel and food.  That sounds as though I was paid to write a blurb for the business. Honestly, I wasn’t. I found the website. . . and  these videos while I poked around the Internet a few months ago. These short films are a great introduction to street food in Kolkata. I’ve also included some more short film from the filmmaker’s library at Vimeo.com.

Thanks for creating them, Angus Denoon — if you’re out there.

Readers, I hope you like them!


Street Food Kolkata: Trailer —  Why not? by Angus Denoon

 

Street Food Kolkata: Part 1 – Chai by Angus Denoon

 

Street Food Kolkata: Part 2: Milk by Angus Denoon

 

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