At two poles of the country, Mumbai and Kolkata, the same thing is known by two different names: masala bhel and jhal muri. I replaced the bhel/muri by roasted chana and peanuts. Kept the chopped veggies: cucumber, tomato, carrots, Shimla mirch (bell pepper). Dropped in a bit of chopped green chili, and ginger. This is the season for fresh turmeric root, so a little of that also went in. I didn’t want any chutneys in it, so I squeezed in half a lime, added a sprinkle of black salt. It was ready before you could say “full toss.” The tea was a bag; I’m too hungry after the weights to wait to steep leaves. A tasty bowlful of protein, fiber, and fats; and rather filling. Just right for after a workout.
I suppose it is not hard to figure out that part of the photo is in black and white. I must snap out of this. Monochrome has its place, but not front and center of modern life.
“Didn’t you want to take a photo?” The Family asked after we’d nearly finished eating our plates of the Kolkata style Hakka noodles which I’d whipped together. Indeed I did. So I dug up the smallest plate I could find, and scraped the last remaining bits off the dish into it for the featured photo. After all, a blog about food is no good without a photo of the food. But then, does a photo with three strands of broken noodles make a good introduction to a blog about noodles? Or is it a little like introducing Hakka people and their culture with a dish that many Indians now associate with Kolkata?
The recipe is simple and quick, as any street food should be. Boil and cool the egg noodles. In a kadhai fry some onions and garlic, and drop the prawns into it. When the prawns are nearly done, add the finely chopped green and red capsicum into it, tomatoes if you like, green beans if you are fond of them, and, finally, a green chili slit lengthwise. All this is done quickly and at high heat, as a stir fry. Now, into the sizzling hot kadhai drop a generous splash of dark soya sauce and, immediately, the noodles. Toss them around, making sure that they smoke and burn just that little bit to add the authentic taste of Kolkata’s eclectic street food tradition. Top it off with a garnish of chopped spring onion. Street food is best if it is served immediately.
The addition of green chili, generous amounts of fried onions and garlic, are Indianization of the cuisine. The Hakka settlers, possibly from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces of China, arrived in the late 18th century CE as traders and labourers to the then-thriving entrepot of Kolkata. They were followed by waves of other Chinese immigrants, whose traces you can find in the Cantonese and Szechuan additions to Indian-Chinese food. I haven’t had Hakka food in China, so I have no idea how closely the Indian Hakka noodles hew to the original. In my student days, weekend trips to Kolkata wouldn’t be complete without visits to the Chinatown in Tangra. Those gave me the impression that the food could be reasonably authentic. I did not realize then that the bustling Chinatown was already a shadow of what it was in the days before the Indo-China war of 1962, and would be largely a memory by the 21st century.
I see the last of the Kolkata and Mumbai Chinese when I visit my favourite Chinese restaurants. Young members of the family have no connection with China; they speak English and Bengali. Now and then you see a visiting Chinese businessman or tourist who would like authentic home style food. An old matriarch will then appear and try to communicate with the customer in her broken Hakka or Cantonese. If you continue to pay attention to such a table, you will notice the eventual appearance of whole steamed fish, stir fried greens, and bowls of rice, not at all what we Indians love to eat in a Chinese restaurant.
Painted rickshaws are common in many parts of eastern India. On recent trips I’ve spent time photographing them in various places: first in Tripura, then in Assam, and most recently, last week, in the outskirts of Kolkata. A folk tradition of art is very alive in this part of the country, and artists make some money decorating things, the most visible of them being this common mode of transport. Interestingly, rickshaws in Kolkata are as bland as the taxis you see in Mumbai. You see these beautiful pieces of folk art as soon as you cross the boundary of the city. I wonder whether it is municipal rules which prevent this style from diffusing into the city. These paintings seem to be of two kinds. One is a panel which is painted and fixed on to the back of the rickshaw. The other is painted directly on to the side of the rickshaw.
The paintings are stylized. The sunsets, the covered boats, snow covered peaks, the calligraphic stylization of flying birds; these are motifs which appear again and again. Interestingly, I saw only one religious theme, and that was a picture of Kali. I hadn’t realized that parrots are a favourite of folk painters, perhaps that is a recent development. One may call the style a modern vernacular, so different from the Kalighat style of the 19th century, and the Shantiniketan modernists of the mid- and late-20th century. I suppose this vernacular must have developed in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, and was the background from which the Bengal school rose in the early 20th century. It is wonderful to see that this folk tradition remains alive even now. Perhaps it will throw up new formal movements in the future.
Kolkata is full of little gems which visitors don’t quite know about. My friend, the Sun King, has always been a very good photographer, and has recently turned to bird watching. He invited me to visit the Chintamani Kar Bird Sanctuary early in the morning day before yesterday. It is named after the noted sculptor who led a movement to turn an old abandoned orchard into a protected area. This sanctuary dates from 1982. Continue reading “A bird sanctuary near Kolkata”
Kolkata is green. I was surrounded by trees. You could hear the sun rise through bird calls. As in all Indian cities, the most numerous were the crows. But the greenery just outside the window meant that you could not miss their activity. In this season it was nesting. It seemed that every crow was in search of long thin twigs with which they build their untidy nests. Crows don’t seem to have a sense of which twig they need, and often try to pull fairly thick twigs out of trees. Continue reading “Bird sounds”
I’m briefly in Kolkata on work. It is always interesting to be in this city. There is an initial shock when you come on to the city’s narrow roads: SUVs share the road with rickshaws, bicycles and forty-year old yellow cabs.
But when you think about it, there’s nothing particularly different about this city. The traffic is certainly no worse than in Bangalore, perhaps even slightly better. There is less aggression on the road than in Delhi. Urban decay is no worse than in most parts of Mumbai. There are malls and coffee shops all over town. But there are parts of Kolkata which look the same as they did 30 years back: narrow roads, lines of shops in single story structures. The shops open late, because shop keepers are of the opinion that having a good life is more important than getting richer.
The combination of the bicycle and the locked door of a shop is quintessentially Kolkata.
I had to make a quick trip to Kolkata on work. The traffic is always bad in Kolkata, so it is never easy to make a quick side trip to a tourist spot. Right now, Kolkata is in the grip of the monsoon, and the traffic is a little more difficult than normal. So I just drove between the airport, hotel and work.
But then, Kolkata is a city where you are always in the thick of things. I found myself too slow to draw the camera on the road. However, from my temporary office I looked out on a sea of green treetops. They present a lovely picture in the monsoon, as you can see from one example above. I’m afraid I can’t identify this tree.