Indian Railways fooled us again. Platform 8 was the designated stop at Varanasi Junction but after, two hours waiting, we were bored. You can only walk through the masses so many times to check the board in case there had been any changes. And when, at 16:50, the board changed to indicate the train is late and will arrive at 16:30, it was time to give up. Ignoring what happened the last time we tried playing cards on a train platform, we grabbed our cards and dealt. Then the speaker lady announced our train was arriving on platform 5. The entire platform scrambled up the stairs to get to the train on time. Thankfully, the train was delayed a little while longer as it had to wait for the cow to move off the tracks. Although late, and with a late minute platform change, we made it on and settled in for our overnight train to Kolkata.
Arriving at Howrath Junction, the oldest and largest station in India, we wandered out to the yellow crowd of Ambassador Taxi’s to our hotel in Kolkata, 233 Park Road. As the name suggests, it is on Theatre Road, so it took a little time finding. It was a step up on the guest houses but we had to treat ourselves to try and catch up on some things. We had most of the day, so decided to head out to see Victoria’s Memorial. It was a 30 minute walk from our hotel, but 20 minutes in, the skies opened and we were stuck in the middle of the Indian Monsoon that you hear so much about. Sat under a leaky tarp, we watched the rain pour, separating us from the other stranded folk, who were lucky to be sat under a non-leaky tarp in front of the Samosa Man. Next to the Chai Man who was working alongside a father and son duo enjoying the benefits of the storm so were churning out plenty of their fare, fried eggy bread. We named it Eggy Bread, and we would see it a lot in our adventures in Kolkata or as we call it – Street Food City.
About to break Rule #1 – Do not walk through puddles in India
The rain eased and although tempted for the eggy bread, we pushed forth to the Memorial. Written to be be more impressive the the Taj Mahal, if only it had been built for a dead princess, we were faced with our usual issues when visiting monuments. When will we learn! More men, more photos and more spitting as we walked through the gardens in the post rain humidity, before entering the building that has now been turned into an art gallery, by whacking up some timber walls, covering the beautiful stonework that you are there to see. We watched the staff and guards remove their shoes and socks to dry them on the stone rails before regrouping to sit in chairs to chat, all the while ignoring the buzzers going off from the metal detectors. We couldn’t help but feel at least one of them could pick up a mop and bucket and another, a duster. But as it goes T.I.I. This is India.
Dodging a few large puddles on the way out, we wandered up Jawaharlal Nehru Road to try a recommendation from our Guide Book, Hot Kati Rolls. As we turned the corner onto Park Road we could already see a crowd of locals around the small hole in the wall munching away. We ordered the Chicken Kati Roll, took a bite each, and were in food love. Consisting of a paratha fried quickly in oil until crispy and flaky, before being filled with a mix of spiced meat, egg, or veg along with fried onions and chillies then being topped with fresh sweet onion, chillies, a sweet ketchup and some delicious green chilli sauce. The master craftsmen would then roll it up in a napkin before handing it carefully over to the salivating crowd. All this goodness for 30 rupees. We splashed out and ordered the mutton version (50 ruppees). One bite in we realised they had forgotten some key condiments in our chicken roll as the spice of the mutton was more intense and delicious. There was only on thing to do after these rolls of goodness, that was walk 5 minutes down the road to Fairlawn Hotel where, under the circulating ceiling fans, we polished off a couple of ice-cold Kingfisher Beers.
We wandered on back to our hotel, ate a non memorable Biriyani across the road at Arsalan before ordering an insanely overpriced Jacobs Creek Red Wine from the government-run, wine cages that complemented our complimentary kolkatan sweets.
Waking to find blue skies after a tremendous thunderstorm, we opted to skip the recommended taxi and walked the 6kms to Howrath Bridge to see the famous flower market. Bursting with colour and smiling faces, the market was packed with hundreds of people, selling, buying, weighing, carrying and smelling flowers. The dark muddy path seemed to add to the bright colours, amplifying it, rather than detracting. We wandered along, every now and then being jostled out of the way by the men pulling carts or carrying the trays of colours or bunches of banana leaves, on their heads. In the underpass, women would intricately sort paan leaves as pushbikes and trucks would do their best to squeeze past. As the flower market came to an end, it was replaced with hessian bags filled with ground and whole spices, dried chillies and men in smiley face pyjama trousers offering us fennel seeds with an outstretched palm and a trailing voice of ‘Fennel” It may not have been candy, but we still took the fennel offering from the stranger in funny pants, and chewed it as we wandered back through the flowers.
Women would smile and the men would pose as we took their photos, while one charmer wooed Sarah with a lotus flower. As we just started to head away from the muddy streets, the blue skies turned black and the rain poured again. We hid under another leaky roof until it eased and wandered back towards Old China Town. The piles of flowers upon heads were now car windscreens, metal pots and steel rods, so we dipped, ducked, dived and dodged in and out of the crowd on the way stopping on every corner to try get our bearings.
We had to walk past the trolleys selling their eggy bread, or the men crushing sugar cane into questionable cups, or the strange but common vendors at the chow mein stands. By the time we were finished wandering through the eerily quiet and decaying streets of old china town, the smells overwhelmed us and we were drawn to a small cart crowded by happy patrons. We stopped and peered over the shoulders to see what was on the menu. A chickpea curry, Gunghi Chaat, served in a dried leaf bowl was being eagerly devoured so we spared the 10 ruppees and shared the warming meal in the pouring rain.
It was delicious, so when the same vendor was also serving some popular bright orange wiggly things we handed over another 10 ruppees which scored us two, we soon learned, Jalebi’s. We bit into to discover a sweet batter fried and doused in syrup. It was delicious, especially warm. The sugar high helped us walk the few kilometres back towards our hotel and as it slowly started to fade, we were injected with sugar once again, as we stopped for at a busy little store selling the tiny earth-ware pots of sugar and spiced Chai Tea.
For weeks now, we had seen the men with bikes riding along with giant bags of crispy puri balls. If not cycling, they were sat on the side of the street with a bunch of customers repeatedly shoving the Puri into their mouths as the servers would crack one of the balls open with their thumbs, dip it into tamarind flavoured water with a couple of extra spices for good measure, pass it to a waiting patron and start the process again. Somehow, they would keep count of how many each person would have, collecting the money in between the crushing and dipping. Tonight, this would be our dinner, so we squeezed in beside a very hungry lady and waited our turn. We ordered the minimum 4 and after one bite each where the the ball would crumble, exploding the tamarind water and grease over our mouth and clothes. The tamarind didn’t really come though, instead it tasted not dissimilar to the smell of the roadside puddles mixed with the colour of the Ganges. We pushed through the remaining few while hungry mum next to us, polished off 10. We stopped at a shop for chocolate.
Undeterred by our failed dinner, we woke the following morning with the decision that we would spend our last day in Kolkata eating as much street food as possible. The problem we faced, was it was a Sunday, so most of the stalls were shut. Eventually, nearby our favourite Kati Rolls, we got the chance to do some taste testing. The Bengalis have been influenced by Tibetan/Chinese cuisine, so not only is there chow mein sold everywhere, Kolkata – along with us – was lucky enough to be introduced to Momo’s. Small vegetable filled dumplings, steamed to perfection and served with a spicy chilli sauce and a sweet corn soup. Incredible. We would have gone back for more, but around the corner was the smell of fresh bread calling our name. Two men were baking fresh naan in burning hot tandoor oven next to some lads serving up a spicy dhal curry. Once that was devoured, we walked towards the New Market market.
Setting up shop under the shady trees or pushing their carts in the heat, were scores of men around the city selling little newspaper parcels of what looked like a boring nut mix. How wrong we were. Armed with a metal tub, a spoon and little satellites of spices, they would mix puffed rice, raw onion and nuts with fresh chillis, masala spices and crushed tomatoes in their tub, pour into the pre made paper pockets and hand them over. We didn’t expect much, but the flavours and spices got our taste buds tingling. It was one of the tastiest snacks we had eaten. Then we walked past Hot Kati Rolls again. After another chicken roll, filled with all the condiments, we were reminded of their amazing taste again. Now a ritual, we washed down the spices of the roll with a cold beer, this time at the modern Street Café.
Our last item on the agenda was to visit Mother Theresa’s House where she worked tirelessly to help the poverty stricken people of Calcutta. We made it just before it closed, but we quickly saw the good she did and could see the relevance in her beatification by the Vatican and why she was awarded the Noble Peace Prize. Reading that some people are not overly impressed with what Mother Theresa and her order have, and are achieving, we were surprised. But then we read one of those people was Germain Greer. And let’s be honest, other than Germain Greer, who cares what Germain Greer says?
Bordering one of the the most derelict and destitute areas nearby our hotel was a busy little chai stand surrounded by tea drinking men, Carrom playing boys, playful goats and relaxing cows, so we had to stop by for one last injection of sugar and spice.