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Adda, Cha and Ta: Snacking in Kolkata

with tea, we had to taste the most favoured accompaniments—the telebhajas (fried fritters and savouries). My first stopover was Allen’s Kitchen on 1, Jatindra Mohan
kolkata tea in earthen cup
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It was over a cup of freshly brewed tea that the talk of chayer dokan (tea stalls in Bengali) cropped up. The adda (an informal chat session) over cha (tea) continued over an hour, and it was decided that a tour of various popular tea stalls had to be made to sample their cha and ta (tea and snacks). Did it materialise? No!

The pleasure of sipping hot tea from a bhanr (earthen cup) had long eluded me as I grew up away from Bengal. Therefore, when I moved to Kolkata, bhanrer cha (tea served in earthen cups) is what I craved for. Luckily, just a three-minute walk away from my residence (in Ballygunge) was  ‘Motar Dokan’ (the shop owner was locally known as ‘Mota’). It opened in the wee hours of the morning to cater to customers who came to shop for fresh vegetables and fish from the morning bazaar. Mota, as he was endearingly nicknamed, served flavourful milk tea and also had on offer kochuri (fried lentil-stuffed bread) and aloor tarkari (semi-dry potato curry), nimki (fried savouries) and bondey (a popular Bengali sweet dish). For Rs. 10/-, he would serve four pieces of kochuri with tarkari and a small bhanr of tea. The food was served on small plates made of sal leaves.

kochuri in sal leaf plate

In the evenings, he would prepare delicious singaras (stuffed deep fried snacks) with a spicy potato stuffing. In winter, the stuffing would be a mix of potatoes and cauliflower, at Rs. 2/- per piece. Later, of course, the prices increased, but the quality remained the same. Unfortunately, Covid-19 took away his brother who was also his business partner and he decided to pull down the shutters. The taste of Mota’s food still lingers and many in our neighbourhood dearly miss his tea and hot kochuris and singaras. Tea at Mota’s was made by brewing tea leaves in an aluminium saucepan filled with fresh milk. He was very particular about the milk he used. It had to be cow’s milk. He said so when I asked him once. It was not flavoured with elaichi (cardamom) but ginger, and was never sugary sweet. 

I did, of course, venture beyond my neighbourhood to savour Kolkata’s fabulous variety of teas served in various sizes of earthen cups…ranging from small to medium to large. And with tea, we had to taste the most favoured accompaniments—the telebhajas (fried fritters and savouries). My first stopover was Allen’s Kitchen on 1, Jatindra Mohan Avenue, near the Sovabazar Metro station. It was highly recommended by my uncle-in-law, who took pride in being my guide during such escapades. Though Allen’s Kitchen is not a tea stall, it does serve tea of excellent quality. But, you have to order a snack in order to relish your tea! So, along with tea, I ordered their bestseller prawn cutlet. It was not crumb-fried, as I had imagined, but batter-fried, and came on a plate with a staple green salad (cucumber, onion and carrot) on the side. First, I took a sip of my tea to quench my ‘tea’ thirst, and then took a bite of the cutlet which was fried in pure ghee. Every bite spelt deliciousness. Allen’s Kitchen started operations in 1958. A small eatery, here nothing seems to have changed in terms of décor. The old wooden furniture remains unchanged as does the layout. It was started by Jiban Krishna Saha, who according to some versions took it over from a Scotsman by the name of Mr. Allen, about whom not much is known. 

Allen's Kitchen in Kolkata
Allen's Kitchen is famous for its prawin cutlet.

Northern Kolkata is dotted with numerous tea stalls, telebhaja shops and cafes, all of which have interesting stories to tell, having witnessed long passages of time. It is not possible to talk about all of them, so we have to list just a few. Next stop was Niranjan Agar. Located near Gate no. 2 of Girish Park Metro Station, it was established in 1922 by Niranjan Hazra. It is a small eatery and is known for its excellent milky tea, dimer devil (crumb fried egg cutlets) prepared with duck eggs and minced meat and fish fry (crumb fried fish fillet). Very reasonably priced, devilled eggs come at Rs. 60/- a plate and fish fry at Rs 70/-, while tea is available for Rs. 5/- a cup. Most of the snacks are served with a salad and kasundi (Bengali mustard sauce). It is believed that the late actor Uttam Kumar relished Niranjan Agar’s fried items. The shop remains open from 4 p.m to 9 p.m, but most of their popular items are polished off by 6 p.m. 

egg chop
Egg chop or 'dimer devil' is a Bengali version of classic scotch eggs.

If you are in northern Kolkata, you can never miss out on the hundred-year-old Potlar Dokan. Residents of Bagbazar will vouch for the deliciousness of the telebhajas from Potlar Dokan. According to them, it ranks on the top of the list of the best telebhaja shops in Kolkata. But at Potla’s, tea is not available. They are so busy serving their long line of customers waiting to buy their kochuris, dhoka ( Rs 4./- each) and vegetable chops (Rs.5/- each), that it is not possible to entertain tea drinkers. For tea, there are numerous stalls nearby to serve you a bhanr at Rs. 5/-. Located opposite Union Bank of India, Bagbazar Branch, Potlar Dokan is nearly a century old. It was built by Sashi Bhushan Sen who worked as a cashier in the Calcutta Tramways Company and wanted to supplement his income to bring up his seven sons, one of whom was called Potla. Eminent Bengali literatteur Sanjib Chattopadhyay frequented this place for its radhaballavi, potoler chop and dhoka. Despite having no signboard, it always has a long queue of customers. The shop remains open from 7:30 a.m to 12:30 p.m, and thereafter from 4:30 p.m to 9 p.m. Place your orders, pack your telebhajas in a paper packet and head home to savour every bite.

 

Southern Kolkata too has its share of iconic tea stalls and telebhaja shops. For tea, it has to be Dilip Mukherjee’s or ‘Dilip’s Tea—Quality Tea for Quality People’. Located on 2/3B, Southern Ave, Lake Range, Dilip Mukherjee opened this tea stall in 1984 on the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated. His son Deep now assists him. It operates from 6.30 a.m to 11 a.m, and again from 3.30 p.m to 8 p.m.  It is here, at this roadside tea stall, that one will chance upon Gautam Ghose, Soumitra Ray, television and theatre actors and musicians, sharing a bhanr of cha and discussing current affairs. It is buzzing with customers who come to Dilip’s for his freshly brewed tea prepared with condensed milk. I personally feel Dilip serves one of the best teas in the city– flavourful and light. A small bhanr is priced at Rs. 8/-, and the larger one comes at Rs. 16/-. Earlier, butter toast, cheese toast and jam toast used to be served, but after the onset of Covid, they have been struck off the menu.

dilip mukherjee tea stall
Dilip Mukherjee (left) with filmmaker Gautam Ghose at his tea stall.

Maharani on Sarat Bose Road, Apanjan on Sadananda Road, Radhu Babu’s Tea Shop on Janak Road and Sharma Tea House on Sambhunath Pandit Street are some of the other popular tea & snack stalls in southern Kolkata. Each of them has a huge clientele, and all of them do brisk business. At all these places,the evenings are the most crowded, with people gathering for a freewheeling chat (adda) over a cuppa—actually over a bhanr. In fact, small roadside tea shops can be located almost all over the city of Kolkata, catering to the tea-loving population.

Images courtesy: Pixabay, Wikipedia, Pinterest and Bongeats. 

Notes:

  1. Cha- tea in Bengali
  2. Ta- rhymes with ‘cha’ and refers to snacks accompanying tea.
  3. Adda- an informal chat session frequently conducted over tea 
  4. Bhnar- earthen cups in which tea is served at roadside stalls
  5. Shingara- a conical deep fried savoury snack. A Bengali version of the north Indian ‘samosa’.
  6. Telebhaja- term used for deep fried savoury snacks like fritters, samosas, cutlets
  7. Dimer devil- a Bengali version of scotch eggs made with hard boiled eggs, potatoes & mincemeat. 
  8. Fish fry- a Kolkata fish fry is a crumb fried fillet usually of the Kolkata Bhetki fish. 
Arundhati Gupta is a Kolkata based food enthusiast, communications consultant, freelance writer and a translator.

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