A close friend is taking me for a night out to eat up Calcutta’s Chowringhee Lane, and has instructed me to bring an appetite. Heeding her words, I spend the day both fasting in preparation and fantasising about the delights ahead. And, finally, we’re here. The initial slurp of chilled nimbu pani, ladled out from a plastic vat, is exhilarating and energising, and ignites my digestive fire, my ‘agni’, agonisingly.
So, then, to beef momos – steamed not fried, the dumplings provide a light way to dip our toes into the lane’s many and varied wonders, gone in two succulent, meaty bites. The magic of Chowringhee lies with the vendors’ alchemy of combining the simple with the spectacular, the familiar with the unexpected – like the judicious anointing of the homely momos with just a slick of pungent, fiery chutney.
And chicken seekh kebabs with paratha – a pairing unremarkable in appearance but hitting all manner of high notes when we tuck in, nibbles becoming vast bites as brains and mouths register the sweet, tender meat meeting wheat-y roti. We debate another, maybe one to share… but we owe it to Chowringhee to eat the street in its entirety.
We hear cries of ‘puchka party’, and stumble upon a joyfully chaotic group punching holes in a mountain of crisp puris, stuffing them full to burst with kala chana aloo, dowsing each in tangy, salty tamarind water, and gulping in one mind-blowing mouthful. We join in; punch, fill, repeat; ‘til everyone present is stuffed as full as a fulsome puchka.
But it would be a crime to pass up a burnished gold aloo chop scooped fresh from a pan of bubbling oil. The scalding potato burns our mouths and pleases our tummies, the crunchy shells yielding to a fluff of light mash and a secret heart of keema, seasoned with little more than a scrape of ginger and the wisdom of an experienced cook.
Morsels, mere morsels, that’s all we’ve had, we agree. No matter almost all have been fried, everyone knows that ghee lubricates the system and does one the power of good. In fact, we’re almost here on a health kick. Just justifications, of course; a few delicious augmentations to reality that make it acceptable for us to gobble up a just few more of those delicious morsels.
So, then, to the samosa-wallah for the golden triangles found not only within the Golden Triangle but mercifully here as well. The panch phoran potato filling sings of Bengal; a dunk into sweet tamarind chutney brings the volume to a crescendo. Cries of ‘Baigani, baigani!’ must be answered, responding in kind with a crunchy munch – velvety aubergine slices in nutty, mahogany gram batter.
A break for more nimbu pani, some old filmi songs, a dissection of some carefully eavesdropped masala gupshup sharply refocuses our appetite. We had dishes in mind, but now hear rumbles of a late addition to our must-try menu over the rumbles of our full-but-wanting bellies. Mirch ka salan will be sought out and scoffed. Resistance would be ridiculous.
A glorious triumvirate to contemplate with another glorious triumvirate entirely – a gaggle of good-time Bengali girls as big of appetite as of personality. Who better to share the gaudy paneer malai that stains our fingers with haldi and our minds with memories? The conversation is as spicy as the chillies in the salan, and rich and nutty as the sauce. The company captivates like the cuisine.
There’s ceremony in the delivery of a heaping platter of murgh pallau, the elegant grains studded with whole spices and punctuated with jammy aloo bukhara, the dish fragrant with cardamom and saffron. Suffice to say, we do not stand on ceremony in our eating, swooping, scooping, savouring. We dine, begin to recline, eventually, eventually decline even one mouthful more.
But how could we have our suitably sweet ending without a little something suitably sweet? Mithai must be sought. Fruit chaat whilst we chat about the possibilities? Then we’re spooning up rich bhapa doi, silky, soothing, satisfying that sugar craving. If there is a heaven, perhaps it’s here, somewhere within this crazy culinary composition.
All life is here, the food reflecting the generations of legacy, tradition, influence that have rendered Calcutta and her people so vibrantly. I feel alive in this alien, accepting environment, completely replete but hungry for more. Only, I haven’t been to Chowringhee, or even left the UK. But, as I take my leave of Asma Khan’s London supperclub, I could swear I spent the evening there.
- For all the information on Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express supperclubs, visit www.darjeeling-express.com
- Book tickets for the events through Edible Experiences.
- Follow Asma on Twitter @AsmaKhanCooks.