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.


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:


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:


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.


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:


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:


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:


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


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.


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.


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


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!


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. 


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.


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


Golden and pungent, olive oil’s relative.

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


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