Ahead of the Durga Puja, Kumartuli buzzes with artisans, puja organisers, and photographers. In 2021, Durga Puja gets UNESCO Heritage tag. About 300 years before, a community of “kumar”, meaning potter, built up their community in the alleys of North Kolkata. Kumartuli or Kumortuli houses 550 workshops of the best clay modellers. For Bongs, Durga Puja is the biggest festival and gorging or peth puja is one of our cultural traits. Tough Kumartuli got limited food options but enough to relish on a day outing.
Our Sunday started at 5 am, all geared up for a day outing at Kumartuli. The excitement of upcoming festivity, eagerness to witness the best craftsmanship and dig into some legendary cuisine pumped up our adrenaline. We parked our car at Kashi Mitra Ghat, close to a crowd gathering. The aroma of morning breakfast filled up the air.
Lalu Bhulur Ghugni
At Kashi Mitra Ghat, a shanty tea shack doing business for 17 years. On Sunday morning, the stall gets all the attention for their Yellow Peas Curry (ghugni) with Mutton Fat. Yellow peas cooked with quintessential spices, potato cubes and slow-cooked with mutton fat.
The ghugni is available only for a couple of hours. The yellow curry is topped with chopped onions and green chilli. The big craze among the morning walkers for its taste and price is only at INR 18 per plate. Pretty impressive overall! One may opt for coal grill toasted bread that goes so well runny yolk of half-boiled duck egg, served in a sal leaf bowl. Finally, wash it down with exquisite Darjeeling tea. Fueled up with carbs, we started towards Kumartuli’s potter lane. A perfect start to the Kumartuli food trail.
Skilled mud sculptors who have been in the clay idol-making profession for several generations. The community in Kumartuli is firmly guarding their heritage amidst the digital transformation. However, many recent generations of potters are moving to different domains to earn a better living.
But first thing first, photographers need to get an INR 50 ticket from the Mritshilpi Samitee office for clicking shots, and the office uses the collected amounts for various social causes. As the formality got sorted, my heart skipped a beat on smelling the fragrance of boiling milk tea from a local tea shop.
Tram Tea Shop
The owner began the distinctive tram design tea shop in Kumartuli about two years back. The shop is an epicentre and a default meeting point for entering the labyrinth. Tram and tea – a concept is to keep our heritage and culture alive. A bhaanr cha (tea served in clay cup) will cost you around INR 15. There are numerous options for biscuits to relish with tea. However, the tea is not extraordinary, but it’s more hype created in social media. However, the kochuri and runny potato curry in the morning is something to look forward to.
Kumartuli studios are working round the clock before Durga Puja. I prefer to explore the area during the first half of the day. The narrow alleys will have fewer over-enthusiastic photographers, and the potters are less irritated and less tired.
Studios inside the labyrinth of alleys and by-lanes house some biggest idol-making studios. Export idols to all parts of the world. These studios barely get sunlight and lives without any fan or proper ventilation. Hardly a few trampolines to protect idols during monsoon.
Before entering a studio, always recommend seeking their permission. I sat next to few potters to watch the masters closely at work. My patience paid as I shall share soon one of the secrets shared by the potters. But now it’s time for our lunch and potters need a break too.
Bhoothnath Litti Chokha
At the stroke of noon took a lazy walk from Kumartuli towards Ahiritola Ghat for the lunch food stop. Next to Bhootnath Temple lies a 65 years old unnamed shop with expertise on Litti Chokha. The shopkeeper sits on an elevated red cement floor with an embedded charcoal grill for roasting cute little dough of sattu filled litti. Roasting on charcoal adds earthiness and rustic flavour. Moreover, the shop is a makeshift arrangement under an old tree that looks like a temple itself. Hence locals call it is as Bhootnath Litti Chokha. The ghee drenched litti size served of sal leaves plate is much smaller than usual.
Chokha is mashed potato with spices, onion, green chilli and coriander leaves. One can amp of the flavour of chokha with an accompaniment of pudina chutney. The littis have a smoky grill flavour, but the stuffing is very minimal with thick dough crust. At INR 40 for five pieces in a portion is decent pricing. However, not the best littis I ever had.
The adjoining tea shop under same brand known for its tea. They became famous for gulabi and kesari tea. But these days, they are only focusing on masala tea. If you are there before the shop starts operation, witness an elaborate process about offering prayers to god. Dedicates the first tea batch to fire god – pour over clay oven. The masala tea worth INR 20 is excellent but beware of the tea stall owner who may behave erratically to the cameras. We spent an eventful couple of hours at the river bank, and now time to witness the final attraction of the Kumartuli.
Attraction of Kumartuli
Usually, on the last day of the Bengali year, “Chaitra Sankranti”, the potters observe the ritual of putting hands on dry bamboo sticks used to make the framework of the idol. Potters have no fancy equipment but basic raw materials like clay and straw, coconut fibre ropes and bamboo sticks. With pair of skilful hands give life and shape to clay mould and sun-dried or burnt in the flames of fire.
The penultimate moment is on the auspicious day of Mahalaya that marks the beginning of “Devipaksha”. The artists invoke the powers of the female goddess by painting the eyes of Maa Durga, famously known as “Chokkhudaan”. Otherwise, the potters informed that the face moulding and painting work takes utmost patience, and this happens after lunch – this is the secret I mentioned earlier.
The wristwatch says it is 4 pm and the sun will set soon. The North Kolkata dwellers take their tea time snacks very seriously. British Raj era introduced fries and cutlets, and Bongs instantly joined the bandwagon to devour these newly-discovered delicacies. The locality around Kumartuli hosts legendary cabin and food stalls serving hot savouries, cutlets, chops – a gastronomic delight. These shops open around 5 pm.
A curbside fast-food pickup joint was established in 1984. Ringo is known for its affordable evening tea time snacks and savouries. One of the specialities of Ringmo is Mutton Pantheras. In Kolkata, aside from them, only Barua & Dey still prepare the same. British introduced the dish as part of their evening snacks and trained the mog cooks from the Chittagong region to prepare. There is still evident Anglo influence from the British Raj era around Kumartuli area food.
Without mixing it with cutlet, the Mutton Pantheras got minced meat filled inside a thin crepe. Coated with breadcrumbs and fried till golden brown. The outer shell is crunchy but not impressive mutton filling. However, priced at only INR 30, one must not expect much. They prepare Chicken Pantheras only on Thursday.
An iconic 84 years quaint little eatery Dhiren Cabin stands still in its own time. I settled inside one of two cabins in the outer room – cabins are without any door or curtain. The marble top tables are proof of the bygone era. As evening descends, the shop gets crowded, with each customer waiting patiently to reach the counter and place orders.
The cabin specialises in Mutton Braised Cutlet – a delicacy during British Raj slowly altered its name and is today known as Mutton Breast Cutlet. A perfectly crunch breadcrumb coating and stuffed with well-marinated and succulent mutton breast fillet. Similarly, the Fish Cutlet got a thick fillet of bhetki.
The last attraction of the day was the live Mughlai Paratha or Moghlai Porota counter. Battered egg with mutton keema, chopped onion, ginger and green chillies stuffed inside delicate thin maida dough envelope and deep-fried till crunchy and crispy. The paratha is cut into little rectangles and served with potato curry, cucumber and onion salad on the side. The behaviour and hospitality of Dhiren Cabin will be etched long in my Kumartuli food memory.
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