I can’t believe it took me so long to visit Kolkata. Even though I’ve passed through the city on my way to Odisha, for some reason I’d never stepped out of the airport until now. By chance I managed to pick up a cheap flight about 6 months ago and forgot about it, so it was a nice surprise when I remembered I had a date with Cal!
My dates weren’t set with any real forethought, so as luck would have it I was there just before Durga Pooja, but unfortunately wasn’t there for the actual festivities. I did however visit the northern suburb of Kumartuli where many of the idols are made. The festival celebrates Durga’s victory over evil (Mahishasura) and continues for 10 days. It’s the biggest festival in Kolkata, so it’s no surprise that there were literally thousands of Durga idols in production in Kumartuli.
Just off the main road through narrow alleyways were hundreds of small workshops where seemingly thousands of arms were being crafted. Frankly I found most of the Durga statues a little creepy, but it was fascinating to wander through the laneways and watch artisans hone their craft. There weren’t just statues of Durga here though, there were also sadus, Ganesha and even a replica of Michaelangelo’s David. It was like the world’s statues had all come to one place in a mish mash that made little sense but all seemed strangely at home here.
The weather took a turn for the worse from here, so my friend and I sought refuge in Tagore’s House. This museum was a fascinating exploration of the writer and artist and his family and is well worth a visit. Tagore travelled far and wide, and had a keen interest in almost everything he came across, which is reflected in the artworks and history that has been well maintained throughout the old family mansion.
Kolkata is also famous for many of its other buildings, from the Victoria Memorial to St Paul’s Cathedral, but for me the city really is all about the food. Bengali cuisine is famous for its love of mustard, street food and flavoursome (yet surprisingly not all that hot) sauces and snacks. I felt obliged to try out as much of the cuisine as possible.
First stop was for a late lunch just off Park Street at Kusum’s. This street side stall makes piping hot kati rolls while you watch. I had a double egg and chicken roll that was fluffy (from the egg), crispy (from the paratha) and spicy from the chicken, altogether it was a party in my mouth.
The next stop was Bhojohari Manna, a traditional Bengali place that serves quality food without frills. I started with some chicken kebabs which were tender and flavoursome, followed by the hugest prawn I’ve ever seen cooked in a delicate coconut based sauce. It was a meal in itself! The highlight of the meal though was a delicate and creamy aam (mango) mishti doi. Mishti Doi is a sweetened yoghurt that is simply divine, and that’s coming from someone who’s really not a fan of Indian sweets. One of my friends is so enamoured with it, she asked me to carry some home for her (a word of advice to anyone who’s thinking of doing this, Kolkata airport wouldn’t allow me to carry a kilogram of mishti doi in my hand luggage, so be prepared and pack it very, very well).
The next day I visited the Peerless Inn for their seafood thali on the recommendation of a friend. It certainly isn’t a cheap meal, but the thali was a great way to sample the best of Bengali cuisine in one place. There was a smoky and succulent slice of eggplant to start with, followed by a selection of local specialities including mustard fish which was the highlight of the meal, a close second was another serve of mishti doi.
That evening I tried Bangla fusion at Bohemian. This ambitious restaurant is a delight, with a local neighbourhood feel but a creative menu that hits the mark. The dish of the day for me was the chilli cheese baked crab which simply melts in the mouth with subtle crab and bags of spicy flavours from chilli and mustard.
My final day was a dignified affair, with a late breakfast at Flurrys. This old style English diner serves pots of tea and baked beans on toast in a setting that would feel quite at home in a quiet English street. This throwback from the British Raj doesn’t feel very Bengali, but is an experience nonetheless.
Overall, I enjoyed my time in Kolkata. Wandering the wide streets and soaking in the atmosphere, it’s a great city to spend a few days. It felt like it had the best of both Mumbai and Delhi, with wide streets, beautiful buildings and great food. On the downside, it’s challenging to get around if you need to go somewhere the metro doesn’t go (and there was a taxi strike on while I was there), and it seems to be much quieter and smaller than I had expected. But I guess the flipside of this was how friendly people were. A case in point was when I was in the airport trying to pack my mishti doi safely into my luggage, 3 airport staff members voluntarily helped me with a smile, all because they were so thrilled that I loved their food so much I wanted to take it back to the big smoke (Bombay). Their kindness and friendly nature was certainly a welcome change from the larger cities in India that I’ve visited.