January 2008


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:

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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.

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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. 

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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:

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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:

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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:

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What a succulent, sticky treat. 

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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!

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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. 

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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.

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

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Golden and pungent, olive oil’s relative.

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

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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. 

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

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

Getting closer to the hubbub.

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Some of the traffic jam around the market.

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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. 

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

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

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

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More pumpkins.

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Some eggplants.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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Here’s Ganesh Mishti Bhandar.

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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?)

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

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Here’s the unwrapped pot I brought home.

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

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