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Thursday, 16 June 2011

Calcutta Egg Rolls

The weather is flirting with me today. One minute the sky is ominously dark and grey, and it’s chucking it down, as if rain’s going to go out of fashion, and then, as soon as I turn my back, it’s sunny again.

Whatever it is, this game of hide-and-seek makes for one of those lazy days when you don’t feel like doing anything at all. I need to sort out dinner though, and it has to be something easy. No marinating or grinding or simmering or standing for hours in front of the stove. No spices, no mess and no clean-up. So, here is the best example of taste without effort that I can think of:  These are Calcutta Egg Rolls.

Here’s what you need:

- Tortillas
- Eggs (1 egg for each tortilla)
- 1 tbsp milk (per egg)
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- Green chillies, chopped (as many as you like, for as hot as you like)
- ¼ cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
- Lemon juice
- Pudina (mint) chutney, imli (tamarind) chutney or plain tomato ketchup
- Salt, to taste

Beat the eggs in a bowl, add milk (to make them fluffy), and add salt to taste. Smear a griddle or frying pan with little oil and pour the egg mixture. Spread it out in a circle.

Before the egg cooks fully, place a tortilla on top. Then, when you start to notice the edges of the egg browning, flip the tortilla over, so the egg-side is on the upside. Give it a couple of seconds for the under-side to brown.

Remove and assemble the filing on the egg-side.  The standard filing for a Calcutta egg roll consists of red onions, chopped green chillies and cucumber, all thinly sliced and sprinkled liberally with lemon juice. Add some of the chutneys to the filling, if you have them, or if not, tomato ketchup does the trick beautifully.

Roll, wrap it up in foil and tear as you bite your way through.

Super, super easy and super, super delicious!

Egg rolls are of course wildly reminiscent of Calcutta’s dusty streets, where the ubiquitous egg-roll walahs sit on street corners serving up their wares piping hot off the griddle. The best can be found at Kusum on Park Steet, Campari at Gariahat or Nizams, behind New Market (Nizams, I believe is where the Kathi Roll originated to begin with). Taste-wise, mine will pale in comparison to theirs. There is that special something about street food that makes it so good – I don’t know what it is, but really, perhaps in this case, ignorance is bliss.
Anyhow, writing about egg rolls has stirred up a deep longing for Calcutta that’s tugging at my heart strings. For it is the city of my birth.
By the way, I just can’t get myself to call it Kolkata. It’s perfectly acceptable when I’m speaking Bengali. But it’s mighty odd when I hear people referring to the city as “Kolkata” in an otherwise perfectly constructed English sentence. It seems unnatural to me, as much so as I would expect my German friend Romy to puff up her chest and declare, “I’m from Deutschland!”
So – really people –it’s Calcutta. Pronounced, if you like, with the border-line pretentious-Loreto-House-anglicised-lilt: “Calcaata”
Anyway, Calcutta is really the only city I know of that does not produce a binary reaction (love it or hate it). In fact, when people speak of Calcutta, you hear a term I’ve never really heard applied to anyone or anything else – “It grows on you,” they say.
Lord knows what that means.
But I? I just love Calcutta.
I never lived there long enough to ever call it home. And yet, I feel a great kinship to it.
Why, you ask?
I don’t know, is the honest answer.
Perhaps it’s because it is the city where my father first romanced my mother
Perhaps it’s because it is where I spent so many memorable childhood days with my grandmother in her New Alipur flat
Or perhaps, as the daughter of a Bengali mother, I just have Calcutta in my blood.
Don’t get me wrong – Calcutta has no dearth of the filth and squalor which sadly characterizes most big cities in India today. But still...whatever it is, I love it.
To me, there’s something utterly romantic and old school about it – like a place stuck in time.
Perhaps it’s the architecture: The Calcutta High Court, Writer’s building, the GPO, The Grand Hotel, the numerous buildings around Maidan Park and Dalhousie Square. These are perhaps some of the finest example of British imperial architecture one can ever see. Sadly, a number of these so called “Heritage Buildings” remain in various stages of dilapidation, blackened with dirt and grime owing to years of neglect and disrepair, defaced by rows of ugly electrical cables and posters of politicians with fake smiles and folded “namaste” hands. Yet, despite all this, there is something to be said for the glorious marble façade of Victoria Memorial at dusk, the dome lit up against the darkening sky, it’s rotating bronze winged angel calling out to twilight lovers meeting secretly in the shadows…
Or is it the people? Take for example, the Bengalis’ sitting on their verandahs clad in their dhoti-kurtas, engaged happily in animated discussion over endless cups of tea. Observe carefully and it’s none of this boiled-milk-and-tea-leaf-Masala Chai business (much as I love Masala Chai) – it’s perfectly brewed Assam or Darjeeling in a teapot (adorned with tea cosy), milk and sugar in separate containers, all served neatly in a tea service, English style. The discussions are really on any topic under the sun, and more often than not, for no reason other than the sake of debate. It is a rare sight in the world, this – people engaging in conversation with each other, in no perceivable rush to get anywhere. For these are a people strangely unmotivated by economics, choosing to live their lives in pursuit of some other-worldly happiness. Go figure.
There is more of course. Much, much more, but Calcutta is hard for me to write about. My memories of the city are disjointed, stitched together like patchwork from various sources including stories from my mother and my grandmother, old photographs and letters, snippets of my own memories from visits over the years...Sadly, the imagery is inextricably jumbled.

But here it is, in the spirit of creative writing – I give you the essence of Calcutta as it exists in my mind, muddled no doubt, but still beloved: hard boiled eggs at picnics in Alipore Zoological park; Park Street glittering at Christmas time, decked out with silver stars and fairy lights; the bearer at Tolly Club who’s been there ever since I was born (at least) and always recognises me with a “Gopal Babar mei na ki;” the Bengali peoples’ undying love for all things intellectual, their penchant for art and culture and music and education; the peculiar obsession with all things British; the street hawkers selling everything from newspapers to lychees to fresh vegetables to stainless steel cutlery; the faint strains of Rabindra Sangeet playing on All India Radio from a neighbours house; women in flowery nighties, foreheads adorned with large red bindis standing by their gates, waving goodbye to school going children and working husbands; the vibrancy and fervour with which the city comes alive during Durga Puja; Rum-soaked plum cake from Nahoum's, the Bengali habit of always carrying umbrellas, regardless of whether its raining or not – and as an extension – the endearing Bengali way of crossing the road (rotate open umbrella sideways, shade-side out, stick it in the face on oncoming traffic and cross)...

And the FOOD. My god, the food! Whether its momos on Lee Road, Indian Chinese in Tangra, Mutton Patties at Fluries, or Pineapple pastry at Kathleens, Calcutta offers – in my objective view – the best cross section of food in the country. I will hand it to Delhi for the best Mughlai, but really Shiraz and Dhaba will not disappoint even the most Punjabi Punjabi. I even remember on one visit, being dragged by my grandmother to some South Indian restaurant (Raj?) for Dosa. My parents lived in Madras at the time and I didn't know why I was being taken for Dosa when I lived in the Land of Dosa. 
“Why are we going for Dosa, Didima, I can get Dosa in Madras any time I want” I would ask.
The Dosa in South India is hopeless dear,” she would reply solemnly.
“But Didima, Dosas come from South India”
To which she would roll her beautiful hazel-green eyes and repeat with infinite patience – “I know dear. But they’re hopeless.”  

And then you have the sweets. Even I, born evidently without a sweet tooth, find it hard resist the sweets of Calcutta. So – Mishti doi, Roshoglla, Chomchom, Shondesh, Rajbhog, Pantua, Pithe, Payesh...bring it on! Of course, if you are lucky enough to be invited to a Bengali home, authentic Bengali food is distinctive enough and numerous enough to fill volumes. Apt subject matter for a subsequent post...or many!

For now, enjoy the egg rolls – perhaps the most famous street food offered by this charming metropolis with its indomitable spirit, that truly does grow on you.


  1. :)
    My mum makes these at home, she calls them Dim-Ruti. Didimas rule. I never got to know mine well enough. My Thakuma makes up for the loss though. Do you speak Bengali?

  2. I do! But badly. I grew up speaking English, the sad product of parents from different parts of the country + a dad who got transfered all the time. But Didima (the only grandparent I ever knew/know) was a big part of my life and I picked up bits from her. I still think in English and even when I speak Bengali, I have to translate in my head! Make the dim-ruti - you can find the ingredients, even in Glasgow! I used to make this in my undergrad days and assemble it all in my dorm room :)

  3. I've only been to Calcutta once!... but I love it. Best Indian Chinese food I've ever had (in some market)... driving on Howrah bridge in an open Gypsy in the wee hours of the morning (and shouting I'm the queen of the world - no drinks were involved!) and setting my sights on the Victoria Memorial (?)... pale, gray and a shadow of its former self - but such a beautiful sight nevertheless. Calcutta does grow on you... and it will always be "calcutta" for me too... just like "Bangalore". Lovely post Ami... thanks for sharing - Faz

  4. OH! when are you making Roshogollas and Chom-Choms?.. would love to know how to make 'em. Thinking of all the glorious sweets at KC Das... and salivating! XOXO Faz

  5. Thanks Fazi! Its a special city...with REALLY good food, which always works for a gobbling lip-smacker like me :0
    As to Bangla Mishti (sweets) - I admit defeat there...absolutely no idea where to even begin. Maybe I'll ring up my grandmother and ask her. If her hearing aid is in a good mood, it might work :) Thanks for reading. X

  6. That was Yummy ami
    As an adopted Calcuttan myself - spent 25 wonderful years growing up there - your blog refreshed some warm memories of all the street food that Cal has to offer
    A few tips - a sprinkling of ground pepper and using some "chinese" green chilli sauce 'Chings' should be available there. Hold back the milk - it will cut the typical eggy taste you actually want- a few drops of water added while mixing will make it equally fluffy
    make the tortilla of "maida"..... and you are as close to perfection as us NRC's can be
    To the long list of unforgettable food that Calcuttans love and miss ....add "puchka" and biryani
    thanks for the chance to reminisce

  7. Hi Jerry, I dont know how I missed this, so sorry, I usually try to reply to all my "commenters" in time.
    apologies :(
    thanks for the tips - Chings sounds yummy, Ill try and get a hold of it. somehow. Im a sucker for any chilli sauce...
    Puchka and Biryani...damn, you are making me hungry now!
    Thanks for stopping by and sorry for the tardy reply. Later!