Thursday, June 9, 2011

Eating in Kolkata

I can't say many good things about my trip to India. There was a lot of riding in cars, being sick, being too hot, sitting on couches waiting, waiting far too long to pee, and being completely skeeved out. We did, however, manage to eat a lot of good meals. I can't say I appreciated them fully at the time, due to whatever too-hot or too-sick to eat condition I was in, but they were indeed good. And since this blog is more about food than anything else, I won't bore you with stories about the rest of the experience.

Maharaj and his assistant, preparing ingredients on the dining room floor
We didn't eat out at restaurants much. It was much safer (hygienically), and more delicious, to eat right at the family's apartment.  This is the house that my husband grew up in, along with his cousins and their families. In Indian culture, in case you are not aware, extended families stay together. Basically, the men, or brothers of a name, stay together, and whomever they marry moves in with the conglomerate. So the households tend to be very large, thus requiring the aid of service-people.


So we had Maharaj to cook for us day and night. It's a noun, a title, or a name to call him, meaning 'cook'. I don't think we know his real name, but he's more than happy to be endearingly called "Maharaj". He's pretty awesome. Awesome enough for families to bring him along to Dubai or Singapore on their vacations, and for a world-renound temple in London to offer him a job as a chef (which he graciously declined). I'm not sure of all the names of the dishes he produced, but he can produce pretty much anything. Samosas, dum aloo, bhindi masala, pav bhaji, and even Chinese fried rice to name a few. And he crafted everything to my milder tastes, considering I was new in the house and he cared very much that each and every one of us ate a hearty meal and enjoyed it. He even turned the pav bhaji, which I dislike, into a grilled sandwich with a side of creamy corn soup for me. It was the most amazing Indian-meet-American plate I've ever had. It was unbelievable the amount of dishes Maharaj could turn out for 15 people with only 2 burners to cook on in a 4'x8' kitchen. And, with no formal training. Kind of reminds me of New York.

On Monday, our fifth day in Kolkata, I was still pretty worn out from stomach problems due to an abundance of rich wedding-reception foods from Saturday. The first time with food outside the house, and I got sick, along with a few other family members. I was also a little overwhelmed by the constant Indian food. So Amit and I escaped to the western-style mall of shops and restaurants down the street, to search for lunch.

Logo via Facebook
We were looking for the food court, where they have a Pizza Hut, Subway, McCain French Fry window, a Gyro stand and many other choices. But this glowing, clean, seated restaurant called Spaghetti Kitchen beckoned us, which I mentioned in my last post. It's an Indian chain of Italian restaurants under the culinary guidance of celebrity chef Bill Marchetti. I wanted everything on the menu, including the crispy pizza or some chicken, but I went with a healthy plate of pearl-pasta with olive oil, pepper and vegetables. Amit ordered Fettuccine Genovese, covered in a velvety smooth fresh-tasting pesto. Finally, a solid meal to hopefully stay in my belly for a bit.

In the same mall (Forum Mall, on Elgin Road), we noticed a giant sign for another restaurant "Oh! Calcutta". We recognized the name from an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, so we knew we would have to go there. Wednesday, we managed to escape family obligations for a couple of hours at lunchtime to check it out. Neither of us had experienced authentic Bengali cuisine before, so it was a treat. However, Oh! Calcutta deserves it's own post, so check back later for the details.


Muri / Puri / Chat cart on Camac Street
As you might be gathering, malls are a big part of the culture in India now. This was not the case when my husband lived there over 20 years ago. Now, Indians have money, and are not afraid to spend it. They may not all have nice houses, or cars, but they certainly like shoes and accessories - and apparently European and American clothing. Outside the malls you can find one thing that hasn't changed in 20 years - street vendors selling the local snacks. My sister-in-law Anju is a huge fan of the puffed rice snack called Masala Muri. They mix the puffed rice with lime and seasonings before giving a handful to taste. The taster then directs the level of seasoning, and tomatoes, onions and sometimes potatoes are added. Anju couldn't get enough of the Muri, bringing back childhood memories. So much so that she actually got a little sick from eating it 3 times in one day.

Muri preparation outside Forum Mall

Anju's henna'd hands ready to taste more Muri, outside Vardaan Market
With all this time spent fulfilling family obligations, religious ceremonies and relative visits, we had little time to socialize. We were lucky enough to see Amit's friends briefly, who consider my mother-in-law an aunt of sorts. They are quite successful, and live a very different sort of privileged lifestyle in Calcutta. Very late on Tuesday night, they brought us for tea at the Oberoi Grand. I was grateful for the tea, but a little annoyed that nobody had informed me of this oasis of clean and calm accommodation before my arrival. Um, why aren't we staying HERE? Hello!


The following night, the cousin-brother-friend took us to the very exclusive, members-only, Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CCFC).  So exclusive, in fact, that someone must literally expire in order to open a membership slot, if I understood correctly. The complex revolves around the game fields and members enjoy not only events, but daily swimming, running, drinking and dining in a relaxed setting. We were brought here specifically because we would not be rushed through dinner in a bustling noisy restaurant. I think it is also because there was no way Amit could fight over paying the bill, as only members are allowed to sign. We did enjoy a break from Indian food, as here we happened to have Chinese noodles and Thai curries for a change.

I can't lie, I am so happy to be back in New York. I'm enjoying my familiar Fresh Direct deliveries, cooking my own meals, washing my hands 10,000 times a day, with various soaps, and using obscene amounts of Charmin with reckless abandon. I survived India, barely, and I did enjoy most of the foods we had in Kolkata. But nothing can compare to eating at home.

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