Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Calcutta series: New Market

That's what I thought: Calcutta = Bengoli cuisine = palate in heaven. But what was my disappointment when I was told (several times - yes, I triple checked) that I can taste the quintessential Bengoli cuisine, the delectable fish and vegetable curries I have read so much about, only at someone's house. And that no restaurant on this Earth can do justice to this rare kind of cooking. So I had to content myself, again, with just thinking about it, and browsing the market looking at ingredients. While even that didn't really live up to my expectations, I still made some interesting discoveries:

1) These guys obviously love their meat! Most roadside stalls I saw were selling a mince preparation with a lot of onion, combined with fluffy, freshly fried bread rolls and thick, juicy parathas. As much as my tastebuds were begging for a try, I could not bring myself to stop at one of these not too hygienically looking spots and ordering a plate. So I contented myself to watch and take snaps of the preparations, and of the plates of fresh chillies and onion neatly cut up and ready to be tossed into the mix.

2) We also saw a very strange snack of halved hard boiled eggs filled with a funny mixture of the yolk and mince, I think.
3) As my brother-in-law Raj and I walked into the market, we came directly through the poultry, meat and fish section. It didn't start that bad - we first walked through what I decided to name Bird Flu Lane - full of caged chickens, enough to feed a small country. We then decided to brave the meat market, but barely a couple of steps on the slimy stones, I was ready to run away from the sights and smells I would rather not describe here. Just as I was turning around to walk out, with my peripheral vision I spotted someone coming directly in my way with something on their shoulder, and I quickly wiggled away, barely escaping what turned to be a HUGE pig carcasse this guy was carrying into the market. I have never sworn so loudly, and got quite a few surprised glances. Truly traumatic...

4) Walking around the provision stores, I realsed that Bombay's Crawford Market is light years ahead of this place. None of the exotic imported ingredients and goodies were present here. Just the basics.
5) I came across a sign board that set my imagination racing – Fresh Aligarh Butter. It sounded utterly butterly delicious, and my mind started churning out images of endless grazing fields with happy cows, village maidens milking them in buckets and the milk looking superbly frothy. I looked up 'Aligarh' in Wikipedia. It turned out it is a small city in Uttar Pradesh, famous for its Muslim University, and where the main industries are flour milling, the processing of raw cotton, and the manufacture of butter and glass
6) Surprisingly, I still had appetite after what I had seen, so Raj and I walked into a small restaurant filled with a jovial crowd. Too chicken to order fish, we asked for noodles (could we be more boring??) and chilly chicken. It was not a gourmet experience, but at least it stopped my stomach from grumbling, and gave me the opportunity to spy on our neighbour's plates. People had ordered all sorts of different things - fish curry with rice, soups, even sandwiches. But what really amazed me was a strange sort of preparation everyone was eating as a side dish - in a soup plate, they were served a completely spice-devoid, bland, boiled vegetables (potatoes and carrots) and chicken legs, with a bit of soup. It was looking delicious in a cold European evening kind of way, making it seem completely out of place here! Some people ordered seconds of it, and then topped it with the main Indian dish... Mystery!
7) We found Gurtaj's old favourite bakery - Nahoum - from where his mom used to buy sponge cake. Amazinfly well organized, it had a huge variety of dry cakes, birthday cakes (so laden with artificial colour, that they reminded me of the brightly coloured posonous animals I have seen on Animal Planet - the more colourful, the more poisonous). I loved the old-fashioned scales and cash machine!
8) But here's the most amusing thing - while walking through, we saw a tea man serving the tiniest tea cups I have ever seen - literally two sips inside. A shop keeper ordered it and I went to ask him how much it costs - one rupee per cup! He very proudly and ceremoniously posed for me with his tea, and insisted on seeing the photograph. On not liking it, he requested for a second shot. And was finally satisfied!