The uniting flavours of Kolkata
Christmas in Calcutta (now Kolkata) is something special is a refrain that both domestic and foreign visitors to the city hear often. Its colonial...
Kolkata’s food district, Park Street, with its famous restaurants, bakeries and hotels, some of them over a century old, is the hub of the year-end festivities
Christmas in Calcutta (now Kolkata) is something special is a refrain that both domestic and foreign visitors to the city hear often. Its colonial past has contributed towards an amazing cultural amalgamation due to a mixed population comprising Anglo-Indians, Jews, Armenians, Chinese besides the Bengali, Bihari, Marwari, Punjabi, South-Indian and other communities.
“No surprises in that. This city has a reputation of celebrating festivals together and be it the Durga Puja, Eid, or Christmas, people almost as one rise over the mere religious connotations associated with them to celebrate the message of love, peace and happiness, enjoying the festivities together,” says Sandra Gomes, an Anglo-Indian, whose family has been residents of Elliot Road in Central Kolkata for over four generations.
Although the Anglo-Indian, Chinese and Jewish population in the city has been steadily dwindling over the years due to migration mostly to Canada, US, the UK and Israel, most return home to Kolkata for Christmas and New Year to be with the family.
And where there is celebration, can food be far behind? The city’s food district, Park Street, with its famous restaurants, bakeries and hotels, some of them over a century old, is the hub of the year-end festivities. For decades now, all shops, residences and buildings on Park Street are illuminated with fairy lights, tinsel and streamers and the aroma of freshly baked cakes, roasted duck and pies wafts through the air.
“At this time of the year we are worked to our bones baking our famous plum, walnut, almond and fruit cakes apart from coconut macaroons and lemon drops,” says Debra Alexander of Saldanha Bakery and Confectionery on Park Street. Her family owns this last standing Goan bakery set up by her grandmother 82 years ago, satiating the taste buds of a loyal clientele. Her 80-year-old father, Denzil Saldanha, is still at the helm of affairs, ensuring that every ingredient is sampled for quality.
“We use the best of ingredients and follow the motto that the better you mix, the lighter the cake,” reveals Alexander. The bakery also specialises in savouries like cheese puffs and is frequented by several celebrities.
The Anglo-Indian community is concentrated in areas like Elliot Road, Wellesley Street, Ripon Street as well as Bow Barracks, another place where one can find some great food.
However, the most welcoming sight is that of hundreds of non-Christians queuing up outside Flurys on Park Street and Nahoums, in New Market. Set up in 1927 as a British tea room, Flurys has gained fame for its exotic cakes, puddings and the “best Swiss chocolates outside Europe”. Today, it bakes up a storm of plum cakes, yule logs, chocolate cones, Dundee cakes and mince pies besides other pastries and savouries.
The 112-year-old Jewish bakery, Nahoums, on the other hand specialises in fruit cakes, which legend has it were served to the erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who apparently said it was the best fruit cake he had ever tasted! Other goodies baked here include mince pies and Christmas pudding, which needs to be steamed and flambéed. Nahoums’ Jewish baklavas and cheese fritters are also very popular among foodies.
Kolkata’s lively club culture adds to the festive spirit. At the Tollygunge Club set up in 1895 or the Bengal Club that opened its doors in 1827, DJ nights accompanied with some scrumptious British and continental food, are among the sought after dos in the city.
Having said this, it might be added here that the very inter-religious, inter-cultural Christmas celebration in Kolkata ensures that many also lay the table with biryani, pulao, Bengali fish curries like the ‘Bhapa Bhetki’ or ‘Bhetki Paturi’ and ‘Chingri Malai Curry’.
Some opt for traditional Chinese fare at Chinatown including the prawn noodles, pork fried rice and chilli potatoes. In all, it is a surfeit of both non-vegetarian and vegetarian delicacies in original cuisine or as fusion food, with mouth-watering desserts to be enjoyed the entire last week of December and beyond the New Year.