Lebu cha is the fuel that keeps the city going. Photo: Shirin Mehrotra
Calcutta is bursting at its seams with history, and that’s not an exaggeration. Walk on the streets of north Calcutta and the mere feeling of tracing the footsteps of legends will give you goose bumps. Every corner tea stall, every snack shop has a story to tell that dates back to India’s independence movement.
When British established the city as their capital and took up central Calcutta to convert it into “White Town”, the local population moved to the northern part of the city. It later became the hub for India’s freedom struggle movement and communism. Shops were built as a meeting point for the revolutionaries.
Kochuri-subzi & tele bhaja arepopular eats in the city. Photo: Shirin Mehrotra
One such place is Paramount in College Street, which is now declared a heritage building by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Established in 1918 by Niharanjan Mazumdar, the shop was first known as Paradise, which later became Paramount. It’s said to be the favourite hangout of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the owners still have that chair where Netaji used to sit regularly. As I sit there, sipping on my second daber sherbat – the most popular drink here made with coconut water, ice, syrup and the pulp of coconut, the owner tells me the story behind the drink. It was Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, the founder of Bengal Chemicals, who suggested the recipe to the owner since it was inexpensive and highly nutritious. On a hot and humid day, dab sherbat is a blessing in disguise.
Netaji’s footprints become more evident as I move ahead. At Lakshmi Narayan Shaw and Sons, where he regularly ate telebhaja (Bengali fritters), his birthday is still celebrated every year with free food for all the customers. The most famous snack here – the onion bhajiya – is known as Netaji ki piyaji.
The iconic Indian Coffee House. Photo: Shirin Mehrotra
Atithi, across the street from Lakshmi Narayan Shaw and Sons, is where I stop over for some lebu cha – the fuel that keeps the city going. The lebu cha or lemon tea in Kolkata is a hot concoction of black tea, lime juice, sugar and a special spice mix, which gives it its zing. In the midst of the locals getting together for adda – meetup to chat and discuss, I sip multiple cups of cha. I move on to Sukea Street to line up for my evening snack of kochuri-subzi at an old shop at the corner of the street. The humble shop has just two rows of benches where people sit with their plate (made of dried leaves) of kochuri and potato subzi.
The Indian Coffee House, right opposite Presidency College, still has lingering memories of India’s independence struggle and the rich literary past. While most of the tables are occupied by the young college-goers, you’ll also spot a few elderly men sitting with a newspaper and sipping coffee. And then there are cabins, the dining rooms of the era bygone. Cabins served as private dining areas in the times when it wasn’t usual for women to eat out in public. The curtained dining booths provided them the much needed privacy. A few of such cabins still exist, albeit as tea and snack joints. A few such places are Basanta Cabin and Mitra Café – the latter is where I eat a dinner of prawn kabiraji cutlet - deep-fried cutlets coated with bread and eggs.