Into the Belly of Kolkata

'Deli belly', 'dirty hands', 'be careful, and don't eat the street food' - or maybe hearing 'the black hole of Kolkata' is enough to bring the barge pole out to play. People have so many stereotypes when they hear you're headed to Kolkata or even just that giant lump of land called India but it isn't half as deep fried 'n dangerous as you may think. Feb 2020, first time in Bengal; with no expectations and an open mind after the opportunity to follow The Everybody Love Love Jhal Muri Express aligned. Here's a visual sweep into the belly of the city, led by Angus Denoon. He made a film on Kolkata 10 years back.

** Updated in the context of corona and the importance of still writing ** I thought at first this may seem a little off-topic 🦠, that the sight of a bare hand delving into juicer might make you choke on your laptop-poised spaghetti. But I think it's probably important to not just have all corona-focused content at the moment. We still need to look back to learn, and not forget everything before 'mad times' 2020, still celebrate it *. I watched a film (Blinded by the Light) yesterday and the scene of people dancing in a club made my instinct flinch a little (ironically in sync with the protagonist's Pakistani parents in 1970's Luton, and that that's all I'm craving right now 😭); it looked wrong and that's just one week into isolation. We're all in this together, and it's important as ever to see and learn about other worlds. Not saying we should be like that - every city has its own way, rhythm, fabric which at the moment seems frighteningly torn apart and ground to a halt but to be able to let down our preconceptions and appreciate it, look up not down because it is beautiful 'same but different' as they say in Bengal, we too are at different stages of developing but all the same. So spag bol aside and delve in.


Cha bars. Beginning with the one you'll see the most, yes, when you get to Bengal it's tea and biscuit hole-in-the-walls that dominate the streets. Milk mix lifted high, from hot saucer with spices and sugar poured piping into those tiny clay cups that you smash on ground when finished. Then there's black tea, lebu char that comes with lime, black salt, cumin, sugar served on the train carriages it's delicious. A little goes a long way.

Juice. Mosambi and pomegranate going in.

Sugar Cane. Crunch Crunch Crunch. Served with a squeeze of ginger and lime, sometimes, while the wheel bells ding. He's there every day; apron tied, moustache mighty and unexpectedly fat fancy shoes, he doesn't flinch and has been doing it for decades.

Lime soda, pinch of black salt - and wait till he yanks up the lever, lab-coated to waterfall the fresh lime in. 

Satu. Protein shakes - but real ones. Made of roast chickpea flour and downed by the workers before they start a day’s heavy shifting. Mixed from a powder packet and topped with green chillies, indian onions and a little black salt. 


Dahi kachori. Afternoon dunk-in when the sun is beginning to get a bit sweaty - dahi (yogurt) floating with ice cubes pulled from the pan then topped with sweet spicy crunchy it will quite blow you apart. 

Same but different… Dahi bada. Come out to play in the evenings, water soaked dumplings then lidded by the dahi and all the wondrous sweet and spice.

Bhel puri, the best you will find. Chandu Bhelwala puts dhokla in his and he’s been flown to Italy and Singapore to serve the crisp chutney wet paper boats because it’s that special. Pulled from his steel chest of wonders, since 1982.

Jhal muri, Kolkata’s favourite snack. Served up from carts with all the trimmings (peanuts, green chillies, mustard oil etc every wallah slightly different) in cones or paper bags and tossed back into mouth like popcorn, here is the alley where the puffed rice is sorted into giant sacks.

Papri chaat - night snack. Indian nachos, reach in and pull a slice. Topped with coconut, tamarind, coriander and all things nice. 

Healthy healthy one. Rise up from the metro and first thing you see is the fruit hanging to be juiced and this. Worth a wolf down to awaken your senses before you ride further into the streets.


Muslim beef kati rolls. Beef skewers marinated overnight in green papaya, spices and turmeric then cooked on the hot coals and tucked with radishes or crunchy onions in a freshly spun paratha. Open in time for the after work crowds from 4pmish.

Haleem. Another Muslim dish - beef soup take out or eat while he looks at you, cinematic.

Biryani but don't be too bewared by the chilli spikes; rice spiced so beautiful, black peppery quite subtle and light with a lump of chicken thigh and potato rolling underneath. 

Breakfast puri - deep fried discs with tarka curry and spicy chutney 

More puri - softer discs

Singara (Bengali samosa but lighter), sweet ones studded with fennel and dunked-a-dream through dal.


Mustard oil factory cranked on the ancient black wheels in the back, fresh, pungent, brought 2l back in the suitcase. 

Head to mr Yusuf's if your in need of shirts.

Season for date sugar - by the lump or liquid gur, this stuff is magic and you can only get the fresh stuff late jan-feb and you can drink it.  

Vegetable sellers carrots and beets

Happy Valentine's Day from Barar Bazaar, fresh from the attic

Kasundi (Bengali mustard green mango staple) and pickles from a cart outside Tarakeswar station


* "We need more means to counter the growing nationalist and illiberal tendencies in our societies. Why not use the power of celebration? Celebration as cultural and political intervention. Festivity as an act of gratitude, of attention, of hospitality. A power to create and entrench narratives, to foster love and loyalty for the things the state holds dear", Priya Basil, Be My Guest - Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity. 

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