Friday, October 1, 2010

Chinese breakfast at Calcutta

Su Mie Fang reminds me of Charlie Trumper. The protagonist of Jeffery Archer’s As the Crow Flies, Trumper rises from the depths to become a millionaire. In his twilight years, though, he slips away for a few hours everyday to go back to where he belongs: to being the Charlie Trumper in soiled overalls, hawking ware to customers from a wheel-barrow, just the way he had begun decades ago with his grandfather on the streets of London.
Like Trumper, it’s all about belonging and the call of roots for 65-year-old Sue Mie Fang. She comes from Vienna each winter, leaving her palatial home, to sell prawn-chips every morning on the grimy lane of Tiretta Bazaar, off Bentinck Street, in the once-upon-a-time bustling Chinatown of (then) Calcutta. For Sue it’s a way of staying connected with a past that had seen a sizeable Chinese population in the city. Theirs was an immigrant community which down the generations stayed true to tradition, leading a Mainland lifestyle infused with Indian flavours. This sparkling mélange of local and foreign has dwindled and diluted, acquiring a new connotation, but its lingering essence can still be felt.
One of the places it’s on view is Tiretta Bazaar, where in a time-honoured routine, fires are stoked every morning and stalls set-up on the sidewalk by the local Chinese who sell straight-off-the-wok breakfast, bursting with home flavours. The lane comes alive by 5 am and all activity winds up by 8 am, for this is a full-fledged commercial district now and the area has to be cleared to accommodate office rush.
But before the corporate crowd descends, for about three early hours of the morning, it’s a page out of the lively street-food tradition seen across the Far East, albeit on a micro scale. This is where Sue takes a spot to sell her typically homemade red-ringed-ready-to-fry prawn chips neatly packed and laid out on a cane basket her mother used. Her attire is typical too: the Mandrain suit, comprising of a peppy floral or polka-dot blouse and pajama. Till a few decades ago the men in this area dressed conventionally too in the deep-blue/grey Mao suit. Though Mao’s sepia-toned photos can still be seen peeping out from within the few disheveled homes, his outfit has beaten the retreat giving way to tees, tracksuits, bermudas and denims.
Most Chinese settlers, who began arriving in AD 1760, belong to the Hakka lineage. “I’m sure you have heard of the famous ‘Hakka chow’ served all over India. The name comes from our community,”

Sue says with pride, adding, “In China, though, they wouldn’t know what you are referring to. The so-called Chinese food served across India at almost every street corner and the menu-card terms are all indigenous,” she winks and smiles, her steel-grey eyes twinkling with a child-like naughtiness.
I let Sue play guide as she takes me around the stalls. This is familiar ground for her and she chats at the speed of light in a Cantonese dialect with the neighbours, fluently switching to Bengali or Hindi when dealing with customers. When I had initially arrived at this unremarkable street, the first aroma to tingle the olfactory was of a soupey kind. “That’s fish-ball soup. A hot seller,” she informs. It’s a thickish soup with two large dumplings of fish and a garnish of assorted greens. I see it being ladled into beige plastic soup bowls quite frequently and there’s a queue at almost every bubbling cauldron. “There was a time when the fare was served in Bone China crockery. That was also when there was no arrowroot in the soups,” know-it-all Sue says surreptitiously.
I’m here on a Sunday morning, a day when crowds are more and there’s a swarm of customers. Most are regulars, the local Chinese and Bengalis accounting for that majority. The others are visitors, of which I see a handful immersed in the area’s flavours, while some merely tick-mark the spot, pinch their noses and push-off (the dense meat smell, scattering of fish mongers and vegetable vendors doesn’t make it a pretty sight for the weak-hearted). There’s also a television crew filming the proceedings.
The sizzling pork sausages have attracted quite a few and it’s the strong aroma that leads me to the wok where they are being generously stir-fried. Served with soy sauce and an optional bun it’s quite a morning meal in itself. I notice a Bengali-British influence in the batter-dipped, crumbs-coated, deep-fried pork/fish/chicken cutlets.
There’s a variety of steamed dumplings too; which were once delectable offerings from the dim sum stable but have now turned into the doughy-textured momos, in what can be called a Tibetan takeover! There are savoury and sweet pancakes, lamb chops served with a tangy sauce, marine fare waiting to be tossed in sauces and various meats I don’t recognise. At 6.30 am, I find it all too tough to taste. “Our first meal of the day, is our best meal,” Chang, a stall owner, tells. “We don’t have a frugal toast-egg-cereal routine. The breakfast comprises of a few courses. We Hakkas have a typical Cantonese dim sum spread that includes gau (assorted steamed dumplings), bau (stuffed baked buns), chicken-vegetable congee (porridge), spring rolls, sweet pastry and of course tea.” Some parts of that elaborate spread is on offer and emphasizes the popularity of this street despite a general decline of standards. Whoever thinks Chinese food is a synonym for noodles definitely needs to come here.
At the adjoining stall strings of sausages are one sale. At another there’s silken tofu, a variety of sauces, rice noodles, soup cubes and mixed dried ingredients looking authentic enough to purchase. I spot a pile of leather purses too with modest price tags. Is there a bargain on, I wonder: purses at a discount with a pound of pork or vice-versa? The initial migrants had set up tanneries in the city and it remains a trade that still occupies quite a number. Even now city’s old timers head to Bentinck Street or New Market to purchase hand-made Chinese shoes, some of their designs being unique to them.
I’ve been here almost two hours. I go back to Sue’s stall. She has sold out and shut ‘shop’. The morning at Tiretta Bazaar has been about street cooking that overpowers the senses. It makes a mess of the surroundings but the passion on display in the process of making fresh food in bare minimum ways is striking. The aromas are strong yet appetising and its best to allow your nose to dictate what to pay for. The engrossing legends of a community, however, come complimentary.
Air: Jet Airways has regular flights from metro cities.
Railways: The major railhead is Howrah which is well-connected on the national grid.
Best time to visit: October to February

Published in JetWings, October 2010

Dear Reader, 
This report was dated 2010. 
In 2012 the situation is far different. What greets you here now is mounds of dirt, sub-standard fare, a dwindling/aged Chinese population and food stalls run by Nepalese/Tibetans who pass off as the originals. Disappointing? Yes, as yet another slice of 'Calcutta culture' gets drowned and eroded in its infamous filth... and decays. 
You can still manage to get a prized photo, a mood shot, but will it do justice to your real experience? That's for you to gauge. 
Sept 2012 


dharminder said...

nice story, brinda. carry on!

Jugnu said...

Hmmm!!!Brinda I can picturise the early morning hustling and bustling as the dawn spreads its wings.....the fishy not for the weak hearted aromas also linger in my mind.The momos and lamb served in tangy sauce;the silken tofu and rice.....aaahhhhh!!!!Wonderfully written piece.Transported me straight to Tiretta Bazaar and if ever I happen to be in Kolkatta,I will definitely visit this place.
But do write on availability of Gluten free food and Gluten free restaurants in India for people like me who cannot taste all the wonderful flavors that so inspire you.
All the best.

Anonymous said...

nice story it brings the place alive I know as I' been there!! Enjoyed

Anonymous said...

beautiful brinda didi...really enjoyed brought Calcutta alive here in Delhi :)

babita said...

it's beautiful