Iti Misra, a former airline executive and now a home chef, is hugely popular for her culinary skills in the Kolkata circle. Misra describes the street food of Kolkata as ‘eclectic’ and ‘cosmopolitan’, which is refreshing, because Bengalis—who take immense pride in their food—sometimes refuse to acknowledge that their food might have been influenced by other cuisines and/or other ethnic groups might have contributed to their famous street food. “It’s not Bengali food, but cosmopolitan food. In Kolkata, you will find semi-British/Anglo-Indian food, as well as Chinese and Tibetan cuisines,” says Misra, who has teamed up with Dheeraj Varma, head chef, Monkey Bar, to give non-Kolkatans a taste of the city’s street food this October across its outlets in India.
The reason for the food’s cosmopolitan nature, Misra says, is the city’s various communities, their food and specialities. Seeking to dispel the notion that Kolkata street food is solely Bengali, Misra says that, since decades, the city has seen an influx of non-Bengali settlers, so you will find Gujarati and Marwari office-goers frequenting Camac Street for north Indian chaat, Bengalis digging into tasty momos in Tiretti Bazaar and college-goers from across India frequenting College Street for the quintessential hing-er kochuri, which, interestingly, has its roots in Uttar Pradesh. “You will get north Indian kochuri with typical Bengali alur dom and ghooghni… you will get Tibetan momos, Chinese dumplings, and also south Indian dosas and vadas,” Misra says, adding, “Hing-er kochuri, which has been a popular street food item in Kolkata, has its roots in Uttar Pradesh. Luchi has always been the Bengali Sunday breakfast, but this stuffing and frying of puri… that’s been influenced by UP because traditionally Bengalis love maida and are not much fond of atta.”
It’s definitely fascinating how most of Kolkata’s street food wasn’t born in the city, but introduced through people who came to settle here. Be it the momos made popular by the Tibetan joints or the delicious chops and cutlets, the street food of Kolkata exemplifies its multicultural nature. Talking about the ‘chop-cutlet’ obsession, Misra says that, thanks to our colonial past, the former capital of the country has a deep affinity towards these food items, which are eaten along with tea. During the British rule, many Bengalis didn’t have access to the classy and posh places where chops and cutlets were served, so they frequently visited Radu Babu’s Tea Shop and Mitra Cafe to satisfy their cravings for chops, cutlets and fish rolls.
Putiram Sweets in College Street, the scrumptious Chinese breakfast in Tiretti Bazaar, ghooghni at Vivekanada Park near the lake, succulent chicken patties in Radu Babu’s Tea Shop, tele-bhaja shops and Esplanade’s Mughlai porota are all symbolic of Kolkata’s street food. Misra fondly remembers the advent of the momo culture in Kolkata, saying, “Thanks to the influx of Tibetan asylum-seekers, we got a whole lot of them coming to Kolkata… And they started making momos at home. One gets to see rows of houses where the lady of the house makes momos with soup and serves them to college-goers and youngsters… These outlets are amazing. They serve reasonably-priced food, are not pretentious at all and there is no talk of fine-dining experience. You sit on a moda with a plastic table, eat delicious home-cooked momos and that’s how momos have made their mark on Kolkata.”
Over the years, though, there’s been a rapid influx of international coffee chains like Starbucks and fast food restaurants like KFC and McDonald’s in the city. So are the youngsters being tempted to replace the traditional street food with sandwiches, burgers and pizzas? “Yes, they want to have the experience of eating at a westernised outlet… they would not eat a burger standing on the road because the experience of eating a burger is an aspirational thing. But then, you also frequent Mitra Cafe or some quaint momo place because you get food at cheap prices. The main difference here is the experience,” Misra asserts.