Sunday morning is different.
Travail. Agony. Decisions. Prompted by an all-consuming imperative. Truly all-consuming.
Hunger. I’m always hungrier than usual on Sunday mornings. Damn.
So what should it be? Kochuri-torkaari and jilipi from Maharani? Hot, slightly crisp, a hint of heeng (asafoetida) in the daal stuffing of the kochuri, the accompanying torkaari just this side of fiery and speckled with cumin seeds. The jilipi convoluted, crunchy, faintly sour under the sweetness of the syrup. Sadly enough, Maharani - on the western side of Lansdowne Road between Lake Road and Rashbehari Avenue - hadn’t come up back when we rowed on Saturday mornings. We made do with Jolkhabar, at the corner of Lake Avenue and Southern Avenue, but frankly, their shingara was much better than the kochuri torkaari. And their jilipi was of uneven standard.
(OK, assume there’s a reader or two who’s not from Calcutta. Or even Bengal. Kochuri is a fried bread – stuffed with spicy ground lentils, rolled flat, then deep fried so it swells to an inflated mouth-watering shape. Torkaari is the generic term for vegetable dishes. In this case, it’s potatoes diced small, in a spicy thin curry. Jilipi ... now jilipi or jalebi is a tough one to describe. It’s sweet, it’s twisty, it’s crisp, it’s doused in syrup and you do not want to know how it’s made. Shingara is called samosa elsewhere in India, a triangular pouch of dough stuffed with savoury vegetables and deep-fried. Available at just about any sweet-shop in Bengal. My grandmother used to make the best in the world - the crispest, flakiest pastry-crust envelope, filled with succulent florets of cauliflower and spiced potatoes and crunchy with posto, poppy-seeds. All soul food, if not exactly health food.)
Or should it be the same fare from Tasty Corner? Good, but not quite so good. The torkaari is rarely up to scratch, the jilipi is more like amriti and often doused with rose syrup. I hate that. But Tasty Corner (corner of Swinhoe Street and Mandeville Gardens) scores heavily with the radhabollobi and aloo’r dom. Even better than the Dwarik’s at Gariahat, and that’s saying something.
Of course I didn’t realise the depth of my craving for kochuri-torkaari on Sundays until I pined for it in exile. After weeks of bagels and Philly cream cheese, of “sunny side up” and pumpernickel bread for breakfast, I stayed over at a friend’s place on the weekend. Up on the Jersey shore, not too far from Jackson Heights and Edison, those bastions of mixed pickle and papad. On the Sunday morning I poured forth my home-sickness over the morning cuppa and he, God bless his kind heart, drove me twenty miles to pick up … yes, you guessed it, kochuri-torkaari, even jilipi by the bucketful. Perhaps it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but after six weeks in that benighted country it was manna in the wilderness. Here’s to you, A*, you earned my life-long gratitude that day.
The ultimate kochuri experience remains elusive. Kalo’r dokaan in Shantiniketan, or his newly resurgent competitor, Nara’an, are just not equipped to deal with the hordes who descend upon them during Boshonto Utshob and Poush Mela. Their kochuri comes off poorly in the general melee. Of course, there it’s all about the atmosphere. At least in theory. There is a special charm to flip-flopping down those roads of red dust, a shawl thrown round the shoulders to ward off the chill of the morning, then sitting for hours on a scarred wooden bench with a leisurely breakfast and endless rounds of watery sweet tea in earthen khnuri. But it can’t make up for bad kochuri.
Kalo’r dokaan (shop) has one thing in common with the kochuri breakfast of my dreams. Chholaa’r daal. (Forget the translation, it’s a kind of lentil, OK?)
Benares. An old old house near the river, up a steep staircase, through a stone doorway that opened on to a grassy little walled courtyard with three trees. One was a neem and it rustled all day in the breeze off the river. At least in my memory. And every other morning there would be huge brown-paper packets smelling of the saal leaves inside, leaves that would be parted to bring forth fragrant golden kochuri. The chholaa’r daal would be carried separately, in a large earthen pot sealed with more saal leaves and tied at the mouth with grass twine. It tasted divine. I remember it would sometimes have minute chunks of coconut, or does my memory play tricks on me?
We’d be shooed into the house to eat, though we’d much rather have sat out in the courtyard on the masonry bench, looking out over the houses to the river and the boats and the crowds on the ghaats, while the neem whispered to its shifting shadow. There was good reason, however, for our staying in the house. Monkeys. They “fought the dogs and killed the cats”, they jabbered on the corners of the roof, they rustled in the trees at night and scared the cook into fits, they hogged the sunny corners of the courtyard on winter mornings even when my great-grandmother shook her stick at them and cursed them at the top of her lungs. And they snatched the food from the unwary hands of us young ‘uns.
One of them left me with a lasting sorrow when he swooped down from a window-ledge and neatly filched a saal leaf heaped with kochuri and chholaa’r daal. A counsellor will no doubt divine that I still seek to compensate for the lost kochuri …
Or should it be a “Madrasi” breakfast at Ramkrishna Lunch Home? Three cement-paved steps lead up to a narrow verandah near the corner of Lake Road and Southern Avenue. Inside, lugubrious neon lights a spotless shrine to the purest “tiffin”. Kaapi served in those double-bottomed stainless steel mugs, each on its own metal saucer for the ritual of pouring and re-pouring to cool it before the first deep susurrating sip (but the “maaan-jerr” will not call for it till after you’ve finished your “tiffin”).
A banana leaf appears on the narrow formica table, spread with magical ease by a mannikin in a dazzling white shirt and slightly less gleaming mundu. I suspect the length of the mundu is inversely proportionate to the length of service; the older staff are perilously close to being mini-skirted. Two steaming idlis follow (I remember I laughed and laughed when Span – does anybody still read Span? – described them as “steamed lentil patties”. Those were the days before “desi” became international usage). With two little steel bowls on the side, one with coconut chutney and one with sambhar, both ladled from that strange contrivance which has three bowls slung round a single rectangular handle. Then … ahh, then comes the piece de resistance, the ultimate dosai, the best I’ve ever had north of the Vindhyas. (Down south, of course, there’s always Woodlands. In Madras and in Bangalore ...) Crisp round the edges, almost fluffy in the centre, redolent with the aroma of ghee, faintly sour from the fermentation of the batter. (A little bragging: I used to make decent dosai myself, even used the professional touch – lopped off the end of a brinjal and used it to spread the batter on the tawa - but of course I never attained the papery perfection of the professionals.) I always have a sada dosa, never ever a masala one. Sully a good dosa with potatoes and even – Lor’ lumme! – beetroot? Perish the thought!
Raj (or to give it its full appellation, Hotel Homely Raj) on Manoharpukur Road also serves a mean dosa, but it can’t compare with RK Lunch Home either on price or for authentic atmosphere. I know people enthuse over Anand. Let them. RK Lunch Home for me every time.
The other Southern delicacy I lust for is appam, and there’s only one place in my experience (I’ve never been to Kerala, mind) that consistently serves perfect appams with ishtu. The Konkan Café at the Taj President in Bombay. Nowhere else is EVERY appam perfect. Nowhere in Calcutta, alas, not a single place. The Taj Gateway in Bangalore isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have the same consistency of performance. Chef Solomon at the President (may his tribe increase!) actually confided to me the secret ingredient which ensures that every single appam rise just right. While I am honour-bound not to disclose the secret, I can say this much - it’s not something you’d find in the average kitchen. Or household. Oh for a platter full of the warm south, the true, the magical appam serene!
There’s also the calorie bomb. The so-called English breakfast. Eggs and toast are all very well (more of that later), but for a breakfast that leaves you with barely enough strength to totter from the table, give me sausages, give me chewy ham, give me rashers of bacon that loll voluptuously on the side of the plate, give me the contrast of spiced beef and cherry tomatoes.
The Park in Delhi used to have a sinful breakfast buffet that tested even my gormandising abilities. Do they still have it? I must check it out when I next visit. In Calcutta, the best bet is Kalman’s. A narrow doorway on Free School Street, tucked away among the second-hand-music shops between Mullick Book Store and Kathleen’s. I learnt about it from a 1998 column by Nondon Bagchi in the Telegraph. They now have the column framed on the wall. They also have unique stuff, like the “Hungarian smoked sausage” which is arguably neither Hungarian nor smoked but tastes great especially when dipped in egg yolk (oh the cholesterol!). Also spiced beef and even pressed tongue. The tongue is not exactly great, but what the hell, I try it once in a while in homage to all those Enid Blyton picnics where it was a staple. Such a menu leads to a torment of choice, since a breakfast like that removes all possibility of lunch and Sunday lunch is Very Special. But this post is about breakfasts. We shall not lament the loss of lunch.
Breakfasts of legend and song … three years ago I spent a week in Moscow. The hotel where I put up had colourful ladies importuning the guests in the lobby. It also had the most magnificent breakfast I can imagine. I reasoned that with the mercury at 22 below zero, I needed lots of nourishment. Forsook all shame and decency. And plunged right in.
Starting with an array of breads: chocolate bread, cream rolls, fruity breads, muffins, perhaps a few pieces of fruit, all washed down with glasses of cold milk. Then on to a most incredible cheese selection - feta, Gouda, brie, Emmentaler, herb Cheddar, you name it - while the waitress brought me a plate of eggs. (From the second day onwards she regarded me with a strange mixture of awe and pity. As much as to say, this man’s powers are beyond the ordinary but I hope to God the paramedics turn up quick when he has his attack) I ate the eggs with chornyi. This is the most wonderful chewy whole-grain bread, so dark it’s almost black, soft inside a crisp crust and just faintly sour. I’ve looked for it elsewhere but never found it, it’s unique to Russia. Moscow is worth another visit just for chornyi!
Finally, breathing heavily and already loaded to the Plimsoll line, I’d navigate carefully to the end of the buffet for a couple of tinned peaches and apricots. To be eaten very slowly. While I sipped my way through two glasses of champagne. (Champagne breakfasts. TWO glasses of champagne. Every day for a week...) Dear reader, do not think ill of my gluttony. My suits did not stretch an inch. The warmest day was still six degrees below freezing and I had to walk a few miles every day. But oh, the sheer debauched sybaritic pleasure of those breakfasts.
One important point in closing. Before the adipose reached dangerous levels, my standard breakfast was toast and eggs. Toast just brown enough and dripping with butter, eggs (always in the plural) winking from the plate or losing themselves in the fluff of an omelette. My heart and taste-buds, however, always stayed with the omelettes. I have described them elsewhere on my other blog, I shall not venture down that path again. The point I want to make is this. Mr. Russi Mody, whom I hold in high regard, has claimed in print that he makes the world’s best omelettes. This is, unfortunately, a lie. It cannot be true. I make the best omelettes in the world. This is not idle bragging, merely an objective statement of fact.
And next Sunday I shall make another one.
Sceptics are NOT invited.