I’ve rolled a couple paans here in the United States.  You can get the basic ingredients at some Indian grocers, or I understand if you live in Chicago or New Jersey you can even purchase one freshly made.  Unfortunately, in Portland the resemblance is quite mere.  The paans I’ve made were from betel leaves so astringent they were reminiscent of novocaine.  More anesthetic than digestif.

Not so the juicy, delicate leaves in India.  Here’s a pale-leafed variety, called Banarsi, hailing from, uh, Benares.

The essential innards are 1) the betel nut, cut in a variety of manners 2) chuna (calcium hydoxide/lime) which activates the betel nut, I understand and 3) kattha, a pale brown bark powder made into a paste.  This can be eaten in many varieties, plain as above.  Or trumped up with tobacco in various strengths (not for me) or all sorts of sugary things (for me).

On Park Street in Calcutta, I started buying some sweet paans.  Here’s three tucked into a banana leaf to-go carrier…

and filled with fennel, sugar candies, rose petal jam, cardamom and countless other embellishments….

The art of assembling a paan and the endless variation are great fun.

Here’s a paan seller’s station in Lucknow.  I wasn’t too snobby too enjoy the candied cherries.

On the fourth floor of The Forum shopping mall…

oldmall.jpg

…is Oh Calcutta!, a restaurant I dined at on three occasions.  It’s a high-end joint, with a comfortable atmosphere and great service.  They play hideous muzak from hell, but the food more than makes up for it.  I thought it was one of the best places I got to try on my trip.

These little morsels were outstanding, I thought:

ohcalcutta1.jpg

ohcalcutta2.jpg

Steamed in banana leaves, the first is a delicate fish forcemeat and the second a sweet mouthful of onions and fresh chhena, a sort of moist paneer.  This begs for comparison with amuses-bouche and would be both familiar and prized in an American restaurant.  Everyone (all Americans) at the table relished these.

They were preceded by:

ohcalcutta.jpg

Some puffed, mildly spiced lotus seeds.  The rest of the table liked these more than I did (a lot), somehow they always taste a little old to me.  The cocktail was terrific.  It’s green roasted mango pulp with vodka and a sulfurous pinch of black salt, just delicious.

This is sort of a silly picture to include, but why not?  A condiment convention that seemed unique to Kolkata, the chilli on a toothpick:

ohcalcutta3.jpg

I suffered from bravado one evening with these at the Taj Bengal and had to order through a waterfall of tears.

Here’s a plate of Oh Calcutta!’s terrific white luchis, a cousin to the more familiar puri:

ohcalcutta4.jpg

While I was in Kolkata, OC! was promoting a chilli festival.  Here are a few dishes from that menu:

ohcalcutta5.jpg

On the plate, a silky bit of chicken, some pulao, a dish of squash and poppy seeds and kosha mangsho, a relatively dry-cooked dish of mutton.  I enjoyed the kosha mangsho here so much I ordered it again, on a second visit.

An order of sauteed chhena with green chillis, a simple dish of balanced, nuanced flavors:

ohcalcutta6.jpg

I loved it.

On my second visit, I started with a small plate of spicy chicken:

ohcalcutta21.jpg

I gobbled up almost this entire plate of freshwater crab:

ohcalcutta22.jpg

Then I ordered this fish jhol, a thinnish curry.

ohcalcutta23.jpg

I was stuffed, but I ate on.  Here it is on the plate:

ohcalcutta24.jpg

For dessert, a malpua, flecked with a bit of fennel seed. 

ohcalcutta25.jpg

And a couple dishes from my last visit…Oh Calcutta’s lovely mochar chop (banana flower fritter.)  The filling was delicately spiced with a kind of garam masala, I think.

ohcalcutta31.jpg

And this is their lovely prawn cutlet, finished in a lacy egg batter:

ohcalcutta32.jpg

When will I get to eat here again?  Soon, I hope.

Gautam was often making great suggestions of neat stuff for me to buy, taste and play around with.  Here’s some more odds and ends I found, most of it with his guidance.

In Bangalore, I posted a snapshot of the sour-salty-sweet-hot treats called churan.  On the left is another, looks like a bottle of pills but they’re actually snacks.  This was tamarind flavor, available even in farflung Portland.  Also, lemon drops.  I wonder what the fore-runners of these treats might have been, if any…

lobenchoosh2000.jpg

And this is a variety of parsley unique to the area, called Kolkata Parsley I believe. 

ccuparsley.jpg

I couldn’t resist these plump stuffed-chili pickles. 

chilipickle.jpg

I got this snack mix, a chivda, at a namkeen shop, cool place offering all sort of fried treats. 

chivda.jpg

I bought these flowers from a produce stall not knowing what they were.  Gautam eventually translated for me:  white egret flowers.  We fried them up into light pakoras, just a touch bitter.   You just have to remove the stamens first.

egret.jpg

I bought these, too, not knowing what they were:

kokum.jpg

A friend of Sam’s eventually told us:  kokum.  This fruit is pretty common down South of Mumbai, used for its sourness to compliment fish.  I followed Sam’s friend’s simple recipe: peel and use the outer layer only, pop mustard seeds in oil, toss in some jaggery, melt, then lightly simmer the peels.  Made a very tasty chutney:

kokum2.jpg

Eaten with Bengali-style mashed potatoes, this was hybrid Thanksgiving food! 

Jefferson took this photo of banana stems at Jagu Babu bazaar.  I guess I’m including it just because it’s a great photo.

img_1286.jpg

Here’s a local lime, the gandharaj, fragrant as Thai limes, not very juicy.  I loved these.  I squeezed their juice on all sorts of food a Bengali probably wouldn’t:

limekaunsa.jpg

I went to Koley market in front of the busy Sealdah train station to buy fish.  I bought a bag of mourala, like whitebait:

mourala.jpg

Fried ’em up crisp:

mourala1.jpg

At New Market I bought some mutton patties and a warm loaf of plain cake.

muttonpatties.jpg

Insided the puff pastry turnovers was simple, delicious minced mutton.  The plain cake came from a famous shop, Nahoum’s.

In the middle of town is a great sweet shop, Bhim Nag.  Next door, I bought these cauliflower-stuffed samosas.  I can’t help but wonder if these snacks didn’t know better days. 

phulkopir.jpg

Another fruit I’d never eaten previously, the sada jamun.  Mildly sweet, somewhat plain.

sadajamun.jpg

And lastly, a couple kachoris, stuffed savory pastry snacks:

snack.jpg

I learned in Kolkata that murabbas (preserves) may be either dry or wet.

This is pedha, a dry murabba, and I think a specialty of Agra:

murabba.jpg

It’s made in steps from chunks of ash pumpkin, first treated with chuna (chemical lime) and then cured in sugar.  It’s crusty on the outside, but dewy and toothsome in the middle.  Just one of many, many sugary treats I tortured Sam and Laura with.  Well, Sam ate his fill like me; Laura, please forgive me my torture.

I didn’t come across any other dry murabbas, though I think there may be another classic.  (??)

This was the first wet one I tasted, made from amla, Indian gooseberry.  Amla are just smaller than golfballs and very sour.

amlajam.jpg

I have no idea how a sweet preserve like this is typically eaten.  I simply tasted a couple and licked the yummy syrup from my fingers.

This is topa kool, made from a small sort of Indian plum.  I think it may be from the same fruit I posted about in Mumbai, the ber.  A sweet, chewy jam around a single hard seed, but with the merest hint of chilli. 

topakool.jpg

These are the sorts of things sold from murky glass jars in dim markets which I normally stayed away from.  But with Gautam to introduce me, I felt much less shy.  I’m happy to report that I and my fellow foreign friends tasted happily. 

Now here is an interesting critter:

bel.jpg

The bel fruit.  I believe Suresh has written on GourmetIndia that it can be used in drinks.

I didn’t cut off a single finger when producing this cross section:

bel1.jpg

It’s resinous.

I searched high and low for a murabba of bel in Kolkata and abandoned my search with some sorrow.  A couple weeks later in a Jaipur grocery store I noticed a glass jar covered in a frothy blossom of sugar-foam speckled with a galaxy of dead ants. 

“Is that bel murabba?” I asked.

“Yup,” said the shopkeeper:

bel2.jpg

What a succulent, sticky treat. 

I visited the markets a lot in Kolkata. 

More than in any other Indian city. 

Perhaps after years of communist rule the little guy still retains some power?  I don’t know.  I do know that small businesses flourish here, where in many of the other cities I visited the mega-chains are taking over.  In Bangalore I spent a great deal of time in department stores and groceries in which a single ownership interest controls the sales.  In Kolkata, New Market was my haven, a hive of hundreds of small, independent owners.  I won’t pretend that I understand the economics of these situations with gravity, but I admit a preference for New Market over shopping malls.  This isn’t about the aesthetics of capitalism, even though shopping malls are inherently tacky.  It’s because I’m a small business owner, and I admit I take some pride in my product, not just pride in selling.  I feel some empathy with the little guy.

Here are some things I bought.

aamsattva.jpg

This is mango leather, a black variety.  Gold kinds are sold too.  I didn’t taste them, but I understand they are neither as sour nor pungent as this is.  Expensive stuff.  One of Gautam’s ideas.

(I’m currently at odds with Gautam, I regret to report, but he helped shape a great deal of my Kolkata trip so there’s an element of awkwardness in recounting some of this.)

I used this in ‘a meal of fruit.’  Gautam suggested this, and I’m embarassed to post what I came up with.  It must be a very weird rendition of the real thing. 

I took some bananas (kanthal?) some pressed rice flakes and some sugar:

bitter.jpg

Gautam said the crunch of the sugar should be retained, so it was cut into dice.  Here, the rice flakes are soaked and the rest of the party has arrived:

bitter2.jpg

Yogurt and that Leather.  It may be a meal organized along lines of religious Observance and Restriction, but it still appealed to my heathen palate.

bitter3.jpg

I ate this a couple of days for breakfast, and even somehow once dared to replace the sugar cubes with liquid gur (notun gur).

Here’s that, liquid date palm sugar:

notun.jpg

This tastes somewhat like maple syrup, but with a background hint of molasses. 

While I was out wandering around looking for Bhim Nag mishtanna bhandar one day I came across this man:

rathia.jpg

He was making fried snacks called rathia, and it was fun to watch him work.  In the photo above, you can see he is about to lay a strip of dough in the frying oil.  He was whipping these out with lightning speed!  Deft work, and in the next you can see the quality product he was putting out:

rathiastall.jpg

On the top shelf is the finished product stacked up neatly.  These are thin and crumbly, a delicate treat.

rathia1.jpg

The closeup above shows their formation.  A lump of dough is cut from the piece on the left and spread quickly and evenly across the wooden board.

rathia3.jpg

He used the palm of his hand with speed and delicacy.  Then used a flat knife to scrape up the thin sheet of dough.  This is what I think of as artisanship.

I’m including the next photo merely to show the fan at the base of the fire, used to keep the fire hot.

rathia2.jpg

I bought these rathia at another namkeen shop, all broken, still very tasty:

gurathia.jpg

One distinguishing ingredient (this is perhaps overinflated by outsiders like me) used in Bengali cuisine is mustard oil.  I wanted to taste some good stuff and I found an oil press in Chetla Market not far from Sam’s house.  My friend Jefferson went with me, and he took some of these photos.  Thanks for sending them, Jefferson!

img_1278.jpg

Inside was a mammoth machine, blackened with time, with belts and pipes and nozzles dripping oil.  Buckets of mustard seeds were fed into a chute, and underneath it cakes of the pressed seeds were slowly extruded.  I can only describe it as Dickensian. 

tili2.jpg

Yet also consider this, as I’ve tried a little to indicate throughout my blog:  the freshness and the quality of the products at hand.  Quite amazing.

shoppin1.jpg

Here’s my bottle of the sap of this machine:

sorshetel.jpg

Golden and pungent, olive oil’s relative.

These guys walked alongside us on the way out for a while:

img_1279.jpg

The one on the right, obviously, was the mustard oil connoisseur.  He pointed at my bottle and gave us his best bodybuilder poses:  Mustard Oil is tasty and makes men strong!

edited to add: see an important correction to “rathia” (sic) in comments

Many people have taken time to make my visit to India special, but the three who really went all-out to show me a good time were Suresh, Sam and Gautam. 

So, I’m starting my reports on Calcutta with a trip outside the city, in honor of Gautam’s tireless help, suggestions, and thoughtful prodding.  I wouldn’t have made this outing without his guidance.  It was a wonderful day, a memorable day, and clarified for me a little of how Kolkata fills its plates. 

I hired a driver with Sam’s help, and headed north up toward Barasat.  Villages along this road host wholesale produce marketplaces which shift according to the days of the week.  Wednesdays and Saturdays, for instance, the market might take place at Gadamaara, and on other days of the week elsewhere.  I would guess this allows the farmers to harvest and deliver their crops in a reasonable manner. 

It was a spectacle, a marvel, to drive up the highway and start seeing the vegetables being bicycled to the market.  See this one full of light pink radishes?  (The photo doesn’t really show the freshness and the delicate pink.)   I must have passed fifty of these, pedaling along the road toward the market.  From either direction down the road of course, heading toward the haat. 

rural1.jpg

Here, in this photo you can see at least three vegetable mountains being brought to market.

rural2.jpg

At this market, radishes and cauliflowers seemed to be the current harvest. 

Getting closer to the hubbub.

rural3.jpg

Some of the traffic jam around the market.

rural4.jpg

Shopkeepers from the city come and barter.  Some vegetables are driven into Calcutta on the highway.  At some of the markets there must be a rail station which terminates at Sealdah in Calcutta. 

rural5.jpg

I didn’t see pumpkins being cycled in, but there were thousands already there.

rural6.jpg

I love this market scene.  Can you find the guy picking his nose? 

rural7.jpg

Needless to say, most of the produce is FRESH in India. 

rural8.jpg

More pumpkins.

rural9.jpg

Some eggplants.

rural91.jpg

I like this photo.  One shy guy, and one wonderful smile.  One neutral.  The vegetable on display is interesting, too.  It’s used for pickles (and maybe more?) and is known as a jolpai.  Hopefully Gautam or Jyoti can chime in with real info.

rural92.jpg

I wish my photos could give a better feel for the dynamics of the market.  They don’t, though. 

After wandering around, we drove kilometers across the area toward Bardhaman city, the center of the district of the same name.  Aside from observing the Bengali landscape, my real goal was just to taste some sweets.  People travel for different reasons, some for history and some for art, some for nature.  I don’t think there’s any way I can tell you how satisfying I found this visit, traveling to eat.  It was immensely, profoundly satisfying.

Look at these strung-up boxes, this strung up clay pot.  Can you read the label, “Ganesh Mistanna Bhander”?  (Ganesh Sweet Shop.)  Boxes from the city of Bardhaman, and clay pot from the highway leading there.

burdwan1.jpg

First, from Bardaman (you can pronounce it Bird-wan, too) are these twins:  sitabhog (right side) and mihidana (left).   Sitabhog (blessed offering of goddess Sita?) is a lightly sweetened rice noodle, while mihidana (no guess) is a sweetened semolina treat.  Bardhaman is famous for these two. 

burdwan2.jpg

Here’s Ganesh Mishti Bhandar.

burdwan3.jpg

The city of Shaktigarh (shuck-tee-gar) is a couple kilometers north of the highway which runs between Calcutta and Bardhaman.  It’s famous for its sweet, the lengcha (“clubfoot”).  Entrepeneurs have set up satellite shops selling lengchas on the highway.  Of course I stopped.

Gigantic roadside pots.  (See more pots hiding below?)

burdwan4.jpg

These are sort of like oblong gulab jamuns, to be crude.  They are studded with the seeds of black cardamoms and swim in syrup. 

burdwan5.jpg

Here’s the unwrapped pot I brought home.

burdwan6.jpg

And an out-of-focus shot of one cut in two. 

burdwanend.jpg

My friends seemed to love these.  I liked them.  But I have to say, I’m a shondesh kind of guy…

Aside from the biriyani institutions Shadab and Paradise, I ate at four more full-service restaurants while in Hyderabad. From least preferred order to most, they were:

‘Southern Spice’ in the Banjara Hills. I started with these very tasty quails, chilli fried.

southernspice.jpg

The bones are tender enough that you can practically crunch them up whole. I was sitting alone on the terrace and more or less did. Not as chilli hot as you might think.

Apparently, I felt the need to follow poultry with two more meat dishes, so I also ordered a paya (goat’s foot) curry and dry cooked mamsum (mutton, as designated in Telegu, the language of Andhra Pradesh. I’m about to make a couple spurious characterizations of the area, so I hope Sekhar will step in to correct me. Hyderabad, unlike AP, has a majority Muslim population, thus the city is known for it’s ‘mughlai’ cooking. Outside of the city, the state is mostly Hindu, so a mamsum dish (as opposed to a Hindi ‘gosht’ dish, e.g.) suggests a non-mughlai origin.)

southernspice2.jpg

The mamsum burned my lips pleasantly and had a nice, coconutty aroma. Paya still challenges me. I love the marrow and happily sucked up the juices through the bone like a straw. I even love the soft bone parts, which are very pleasant to gnaw upon. (Lamb’s bones at home seem depressingly hard to me, now.) But all the skin and fat on the foot? I’m not feeling it. Give me a bowl of pho, and I’ll eat great, glistening gobs of fat, pillows of melting tendon and nets of chewy tripe spiderwebs. I will probably persist in eating paya when I visit India in the hope that somehow my tastes will transmute and I’ll come to appreciate them as greedily as I do pho.

At ‘Our Place’ I seem to have dined similarly. This prawn chilli fry was okay.

ourplace1.jpg

But this mamsum was superb.

ourplace2.jpg

I ate every morsel of the curry leaf scented meat with intermittent nibbles of green chilli, then sucked on the bones like lozenges. My photos of the restaurant itself didn’t turn out, but this is great place to visit if ambiance is what you’re after. It offers nightlit gardens, spacious halls and romantic interiors.

This next photo is merely of the condiments available with your meal at ‘Abhiruchi’ in Secunderabad.

abhiruchi1.jpg

And by merely, I mean, who needs anything else? Bring on the rice. I put away two mountains of it myself, first with the vegetable dishes on my thali, but secondly with not much more than ghee and gunpowder, the dry, powdered chutney in the rear of the trio. Okay, with big dollops of the other sour-hot-spicy pickles, too, but mostly with ghee and gunpowder.

Here’s the thali.

abhiruchi2.jpg

A soft, tomatoey dal, sauteed potatoes and a buttermilk based dish. I supplemented this with mutton, smartly.

abhiruchi3.jpg

The meat was cooked in a soft, mildly sour puree of gongura leaves. Tasty.

The last place I visited was ‘Rayalaseema Ruchulu’. If I had more time, I would have eaten here again. I understand this was where I could sample goat’s head curry, but if I’m not feeling the feet it would probably be foolhardy for me to tackle the head. Anyway. Great food. After Shadab’s biriyani, perhaps the highlight of my little Hyderabadi visit.

This is just the front door.

rayala1.jpg

Here’s the soup you start with. (Did I just write that about Indian food?! Oh my.)

rayala2.jpg

Yup, more bone sucking goodness. You can see the marrow, what you can’t see is the excellent depth of flavor and body here.

The vegetarian portion of my meal included a millet bread, a pappadum and various stews, yogurt, rice and sautes.

 rayalaseema.jpg

At one o’clock is my favorite, a generous portion of a savory peanut chutney. This constituted an entire side-dish in its own right if you ask me.

I put my hand in this photo so you can judge the size of this accompaniment. You will think it’s small from the photo, but it’s actually comparable to a common American orange.

stevemcqueen.jpg

The menu called it ragi sankati (a sankati made from ragi flour) though it might also be known as a muddi. The subtleties and variations around this are beyond me, though you should at least be able to see that it’s a great, moist ball of the flour mixed with rice. You pull off bites of it, and mix it with, in my case, a pair of chicken and mutton curries.

stevemcqueen1.jpg

I really enjoyed my sankati, though the idea of a moist ball of flour and rice might be offputting to some people at first, I would heartily recommend trying them out. Healthy and delicious.

Now I most report some unfortunate business. It seems that also dining with me at Rayalaseema Ruchulu was The Very Important Man. I last encountered Him in Las Vegas, where He harried the dining room staff so incessantly that everyone else’s service suffered. At Rayalaseema Ruchulu, The Very Important Man was SO important I didn’t get a chance to order dessert. I’m still miffed about this.  While I tried to ask a question about the sweets, The Very Important Man snapped His fingers and my server disappeared. He flew across the patio, wringing his hands, to sate His Important needs. So, this is a small revenge, but as I sat without my dessert I snapped His Picture. Here He is, the Denier of Desserts. Can you figure out which one He is?

rayala4.jpg