An Englishman’s first taste of Bengal

by Jacob Jarvis

“This is the best biryani you will ever have.” “This is the best chai you will ever have.” “This is the best gravy you will ever have.” In Kolkata, it’s clear that the Bengali’s adore their food.

Normally when people boast about something so much, you feel let down when you have it. But every time I took a first bite of any of the region’s signature dishes, all their high praise was proven right. Each first mouthful gave me that warming, comforting, satisfying feeling that only truly exquisite culinary delights can.

Practically on arrival I was handed a plate of naru, a coconut-based sweet, which is crunchy on the outside and softer in the middle. It crumbles then melts in the mouth slowly, filling it with a succulent sugary sensation, with a unique hint of savoury after taste. After this I was taken for my first chai experience, a creamy drink flavoured with a selection of Eastern spices. If you’ve never had the pleasure of sipping on a cup of this warming concoction, imagine the best hot chocolate you’ve ever had – there’s the consistency. Utterly milky and soothing, it caresses your mouth as you sip away. The taste is something altogether different though, it’s incredibly sweet, without being sickly, with a vast array of undertones within it. Cardamon is the main flavour, which leaves a rich taste in your mouth, leaving you longing for cup after cup.

For my first meal I was taken to famous restaurant Arsalan, where I was to try my first authentic Bengal biryani. Back in England I’d eaten this wholesome rice meal before, but found it usually to be dry and unfulfilling. The dish I put in front of me was altogether more appetising. A unique mix of seasonings meant that every spoonful tasted slightly different, which pushed me to go on shovelling the vast portion into my mouth, as I anxiously awaited the next flavour. Here in Kolkata the portions are mammoth, but the quality of the food gives you no option but to finish it – no matter how full you are.

The next day, at lunch time, my Bengali friend’s grandmother made us the biggest lunch I’ve ever had, with mounds of perfectly steamed rice and a variety of vegetarian and meat items. Alongside this in the home-cooked platter of delights there were prawns as big as my fist, delicately cooked fish, so flavoursome it needed only the slightest pinch of salt and pepper for seasoning, paneer with an almost Italian flavour, as it was mixed with tomatoes, peppers, and onions, alongside a selection of curried gravies to pour over my plate.

Each item had its own completely unique taste and texture, though they all seemed to complement each other perfectly. By my third plateful I knew very well I was full, as I said earlier, though, food here doesn’t let you stop eating it that easily.

The temporary magnificence of Durga Puja in Kolkata

by Jacob Jarvis

During my first couple of days in Kolkata, everybody looked at me dumbfounded when I said: “no, I’m not staying for Durga Puja.” Their faces would bounce into expressions of abject disbelief, scrunch up with confusion, or even contort into practical disgust. After enough of these reactions, I decided to stay for the festivities.

Puja is a Hindu celebration of the religion’s mother goddess, the ten-armed and three-eyed Durga. It lasts for ten days in total, where families gather together to ‘eat, drink and be merry’, much like how those of us in the West do at Christmas. Bengal is particularly famous for getting into the spirit so, being the capital, Kolkata goes into practical meltdown for the main days of the celebration. Anyone who can take off all ten days does, to make sure they’re free to fully immerse themselves in Puja, and often the Ganges as well.

As people made their last minute preparations, the streets became an absolute blur of traffic, while markets and shops absolutely swarmed with shoppers. If you’re from Britain, imagine the Next sale, but it’s like that everywhere. Police man every street crossing, actually using rope to herd shoppers behind like cattle, before lifting it when they’re allowed to pass. The noise of car horns is incessant, and it amazed me I didn’t see a single crash whilst I was there.

The crowds, however, are much more inviting than you might imagine. With the sparkling lights and the smell of street food and chai intoxicating everyone’s nostrils, it’s hard not to be swept up into high spirits. The Hindu religion is one which teaches compassion and at its core is the belief in treating people well. Everywhere I went I felt welcomed.

All over the city, every area has its own Pandal, a temporarily constructed temple of sorts, each vibrantly and distinctly decorated, all seemingly in competition with one another to be the best. These host statues of the idols, with the goddess Durga taking prime position in the centre. These incredible structures take months to plan, design, and build, then are open for just four days, before being deconstructed. In each the artwork is distinct, with each year a new theme being used by each, unlike the old nativity scenes and beat up trees dragged out annually in Britain.

This combination of modern art work and worship is something I’ve never witnessed before, and, at least on this scale, seems distinctly unique to Kolkata. Whether a devote Hindu, a die-hard agnostic, or whatever else, the temporary masterpieces which are created are unbelievably impressive to see. The knowledge that they are purely temporary makes them all the more special too. Unlike anything placed in a gallery or reprinted to be put on the walls of millions of people across the globe, you know only a select number of people can see these. The dedication of the artists to something which is ultimately fleeting and ephemeral makes you feel truly lucky to see it.

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At night, groups of all ages go ‘Pandal hopping’ until the early hours of the morning, and you’ll find people at the largest ones 24-hours-a-day. Ceremonial drums are played intermittently, timed to welcome the gods each morning and to thank them each evening. This sound of steel percussion encapsulates the fever of Puja, and players are even inclined to jump into the crowds to whip up a frenzy of dancing from the revellers. I spent from 6:00pm to 6:00am hopping around on the first night, and saw but a tiny selection of what was on offer. Then over the coming days I visited many more but still couldn’t even make a dent in the total number.

For any fan of partying, the intoxicating vibe of being surrounded by people, and general good times, Durga Puja is a must visit spectacle at least once in a life time. Added to this, any lover of art and culture will also relish the sights around the city. The lights, the paintings and the sculptures are all mesmerising in their own ways.

Now I’ve been once, I’m sure I will again. I can see why the locals practically insisted I stayed, as I’d insist that anyone who heads to India while Durga Puja is happening goes to Kolkata. Because if you miss a Puja, there’ll never be another one quite like it again.

India’s welcoming cultural capital, Kolkata

by Jacob Jarvis 

India can be a daunting place for foreigners – it’s chaotic and busy and incredibly different from anywhere else in the world. So the friendly and welcoming culture of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, was immensely appreciated when I visited the cultural capital. 

In ‘Cal’, as the younger locals call it, it seems everybody is a little more relaxed. The traffic, though still intense, appears to run more smoothly. The workers, though still busy, aren’t running at full speed constantly. The culture, though still as rich and impressive as any other Indian city, is less daunting than elsewhere. In Kolkata, everyone can fit in, regardless of background. Even tourists like myself can blend into the crowds, if we try hard enough.

Arriving at my friend’s grandparents’ home, where I would stay throughout my trip, I was welcomed so warmly I felt like I might never want to leave. Straight away the family embraced me as a temporary member, and began imparting their knowledge of the cultural highlights of the city on me, highlighting everywhere I should visit.

It seems unanimous of everyone here in Kolkata that they are immensely proud of the city they are from. From the architecture, to the food, to famous icons such as Mother Theresa and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, you can see there’s plenty which can be bragged about. And as an avid reader, I was flabbergasted I hadn’t heard of this literary hero from the city. Hundreds of poems, short stories galore, mammoth novels, even national anthems – he did it all. And the people you meet will be happy to brag about it, probably because the rest of the world doesn’t bother to.

Wherever we stop along the winding streets of Kolkata we’re met with friendly greetings in Bengali dialect. Everyone seems to speak to each other as friends, regardless of how little they happen to know each other. On the street, in shops, or at cafes, people pick up conversation freely – a skill which has been lost in so many places across the globe.

Wandering along Park Street, if the weather were cooler, you could mistake it for London. The architecture practically yells, “Rule Britannia!” in your face, and the quaint restaurants and cafes have a distinctly English feel. For anyone who’s experience ‘Delhi belly’, these eating options will provide you some relief, with simple and familiar meals all readily available.

If you’re reading this and you’re planning a visit to India, make sure Kolkata is on your itinerary. If you live in the country and have never visited, hop on a train. And finally, if you’re from the city, thanks for being so friendly.