A First Taste of Kolkata

A First Taste of Kolkata
A First Taste of Kolkata

KOLKATA, India — Following a quick flight from Kuala Lumpur and quite possibly the world’s noisiest taxi ride from the airport into the city, I was ready for my first meal in India.

Well-worn warnings about “Delhi belly” greet travelers long before they think of applying for a visa to the subcontinent. Aware that the phrase is a catchall term for diarrhea and general stomach maladies, I also did not think myself immune simply by virtue of having flown into another city.

Just as I had sought to minimize risk from unknown factors by reserving a room via Skype from a Starbucks in Malaysia, I asked the desk clerk at my hotel for a dinner recommendation within walking distance of the green-walled oasis on Sudder Street.

“Good Bengali food,” I added.

Not being able to understand the clerk’s explanation clearly, I nevertheless headed off in the general direction he had suggested and promptly got lost.

There were plenty of food stalls lining the streets, the smell of curries and chai wafting across my path. Soon enough, I figured, there would be time to check them out and perhaps suffer whatever gastrointestinal ailment would be my price of admission to this foreign land. (More than a decade earlier, I visited family in Peru, trekked around the country and ate to my heart’s content — not only avoiding intestinal stress but actually gaining seven pounds in the process.)

Yes, but this night I would play it safe, maybe at a restaurant that accepted credit cards.

Calcutta Telephone
Calcutta Telephone: I took this picture to help me remember street names, futilely.
The street names seemed easy enough to navigate at first. There was a Hartford Lane and a Marquis Street, a Chowringhee Lane and a Mizra Ghalib Street, named for the 19th century poet. Sidewalks occasionally gave way to swaths of dusty ground, where cows and goats foraged for food in alleys. Larger thoroughfares brought more of the ear-splitting vehicular sounds to which I was becoming accustomed.

I passed more food stalls, and the smell made me increasingly hungry. A bar down one street was called, unironically, Someplace Else. Too Western-sounding, I thought, and booze-oriented, which was not a priority. Another place appeared full of Westerners, which made it feel like a tourist trap and unattractive. The McDonald’s would have to wait, no matter how intrigued I was by their version of chicken vindaloo.

After maybe an hour of walking around and dismissing one eatery after another, I finally settled on the curiously named Kwality restaurant. Peeking inside, I saw that Indian families were seated throughout, and the waiters were dressed in smoking jackets.

Though not exactly my preference, it felt good to sit and have a menu handed to me. As I examined it, I was amused that the meal I was drawn to — and would order — was one I’d eaten countless times back home in the East Village: tandoori chicken, sag paneer, naan and Kingfisher beer. Punjabi cuisine.

Had I come this far to find the familiar?

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