Kolkata Food & Culture Of Bengalies

A crowded, bustling metropolis, Kolkata (once called Calcutta, and the capital of West Bengal) is known as the City of Joy for mostly unknown reasons, but it sure is one, given how quickly its charm reaches out to anybody who enters this old city. Bengalis are great hosts, and it is always a good idea to stay at someone’s house rather than at a hotel.

Each city has the impressions that it has conveyed best, and Kolkata does, too. If you didn’t like seafood, you definitely will once you visit Kolkata, and if you didn’t like intellectual conversations over chai at an adda, you are sure to develop a tendency for them by the end of your stay. Bengalis love their fish, and they love their erudite conversations. (And we’ll come to a certain Tagore later.)

It would not then be a surprise that any discussion of the Kolkata food scene would revolve around seafood. Indeed, you would discover seafood all over again at Kolkata – Bengali women actually attribute significantly to their seafood diet, their fantastic skin and hair. There is a mind-boggling variety of fresh catch cooked in a variety of ways. Mustard oil is commonly used, and it is an acquired taste, so specify dietary preferences beforehand.

Rice is a staple part of the Kolkata/Bengali diet, and is eaten with fish almost everyday. Hilsa or ‘Ilis Maach’ is considered a delicacy despite all its bones. Chicken, fish and prawns are also commonly served.

It is however a false assumption that Bengali cuisine is primarily about fish, because even though it prides itself on its coastal cuisine, it has a terrific variety in vegetarian food. Vegetarian dishes include Aloo Poshto, Moshoor Dal, Jhinga Sabzi and Kofta curry, among many others.

A city with plenty of heritage structures and a lot of the colonial feel intact, Kolkata is great for tourists, and almost all through the year. But a great time to go is October’s Durga Puja, when the city is all decked up in lights to hail in Goddess Durga, the Hindu mother goddess. Apart from the throngs that lend even more vibrancy to the streets, there is also the enhanced shopping scene. Kolkata is known for its exquisite cottons and silks, and you can see a wide variety of these, primarily in saris – long cloths draped around the body. Indeed, Bengal is one of India’s major producers of cotton and silk, with Baluchari silk saris from Bengal being famous for depicting the sun, moon and stars in their warp and weft. Bengali women wear cotton saris on a regular basis, and silk saris for special occasions.

Kolkata is also one of the country’s oldest producers of jute, and today, with efforts to contemporise the product, you can find everything from jute jewellery to jute furniture and jute cell-phone pouches. The Kolkata yellow pages have several jute shops listed.

Terracotta, also typical of Kolkata, also moulds itself into an array of beautiful artefacts. From lampshades to jars and pots, and likenesses of the Goddess Durga, the potters cast them all in clay.

Kolkata is often also called the backyard of Indian art. From its soil have sprung several greats like Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Ramkinker Baij, Bikash Bhattacharya, Paresh Maity and Devajyoti Ray. The Progressive Artists Group, who were followed by the Calcutta group, were the percusers of modern Indian art. The pseudo-realism school had its first exhibition in the city at the Birla academy.

Rabindra Sangeet and Nizrul Geeti are popular in every household, and music fests like the Dover Lane Music Festival are popular. Park Street has always been a legendary zone for jazz and cabaret, with singers like Usha Uthup rising from its clubs. Places like Mocambo, Moulinn Rouge etc. have an avid music-loving audience. Music is perhaps even more popular than movies in Kolkata.

Kolkata, known as Calcutta before its name was changed by the government, was once the capital of British India, before the British shifted the capital to Delhi because the heat of the freedom struggle was getting too hot to handle. West Bengal has been greatly influenced by Communist ideologies and had the longest running democratically-elected Communist government in the world till the Trinamul Congress came to power in 2011.

Given its intellectual profile, Kolkata is also expectedly known as the literary capital of India, and has several educational institutions that create the intellectual atmosphere. These include Jadhavphur University, Shantiniketan, Calcutta university, Presidency College and St. Xavier’s College. The student culture encourages ‘adda’ – hanging out – to discuss issues. Advertisements for debating clubs make their way into several Kolkata classifieds pages.

Calcutta loves sports, and football is the top favourite. Since time immemorial, Kolkata has kicked ball with clubs Mohun Bagan AC, East Bengal, Chirag United S. C. and Mohammedan Sporting Club, and is known as the Mecca of Indian Football. The Calcutta Football League, which started in 1898, is the oldest football league in Asia. Mohun Bagan AC, one of the oldest football clubs in Asia, is the only club to be termed “National Club Of India”. Of late, cricket, which was what Kolkata played in the gullies, has gained further in importance as Kolkata became home to the Kolkata Knight Riders IPL cricket team franchise. Rugby is also popular, as is rowing at the Sailing Club.

Visit Kolkata, take a boat ride on the Hooghly, and try to figure out why it’s called the City of Joy. It might just be worth it.