Why you should care
Because for under three dollars a day, you can induce a food coma.
Photo essay by Smita Sharma.
It’s lunchtime on a Monday in Kolkata, which means the sidewalks outside the city’s high court are swarming. Among the sweaty throngs are taxi drivers pausing for a cigarette, local shop owners in white tank tops and lawyers somehow still wearing their black-and-white vests and dress pants. It’s an increasingly rare scene in India: Here, social classes mingle over their shared love of some of the country’s most famous street food.
Local snacks in the global south: You’ve heard it before. But here in the former capital of the British empire, street food comes in a vertiginous variety, in part because Kolkata was once a wildly cosmopolitan city. Though today it takes a backseat in globalization to Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, its street stalls remain diverse.
Suparna Ghosh, a lawyer, is lunching on a quick 25-rupee (37-cent) mughlai paratha, a bread filled with biscuit powder, spices, onion and chili and fried in egg yolk and oil on a huge steel plate. This style of treat is from Rajasthan, the desert state further to the west, says the stall’s owner, Nikhil Mistry. Down the way, you can find things as simple as tea, toast and omelets, as hearty as biryani (fried rice with meat or vegetables) and as diabetes-inducing as Kolkata’s famous malpua (pancakes) or rasgulla (a dumpling consisting simply of fried dough and sugar — can’t beat it). Chinese food is barely considered foreign; in fact, Kolkata’s home to India’s only Chinatown, and on top of grabbing hakka noodles at lunch, you can line up for Chinese breakfast on Sundays. (Vegetarians: Don’t bother.)
In another of the town’s business districts on R.N. Mukherjee Road, another rare find awaits: Bihari food. You won’t find street lunches from Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, in most of the rest of the country. Migrants from the state tend to pick up jobs as guards or auto drivers instead. But here, Sriram Prasad — who’s of Bihari origin but came to Kolkata from the state of Uttar Pradesh — is cooking up a 10-rupee (15-cent) meal that could easily be adapted for a gourmet menu. He’s making litti — Bihari bread that looks a bit like a dignified dinner roll. It’s whole wheat dough outside (old hippies rejoice!) with sattu powder inside. Think of it like crumbly gram powder. You might use chickpea powder inside if you’re seeking to replicate it at home. After rolling it around in a vat of ghee (clarified butter), Prasad serves it up with a black mustard sauce worthy of the $7 aisle at Whole Foods. Biharis use litti as a staple, often eating it with mashed potatoes, yogurt or curries.
Don’t forget the drinks! Sugary chai in clay cups — you can keep them as tiny, cute shot glasses — or fresh lime soda. On one corner, a boy holds up bael fruit, offering to crack it open for a smoothie. It has a hard exterior; he smashes it on the sidewalk and shows off its cantaloupe-like innards. A perfect top-off, and worth it. We don’t want to hear you worrying about your prissy Western stomach.