Kolkatans swear by Chinese cuisine and I am no exception to this rule nurturing a fetish for authentic Chinese delicacies since my college days. It was this passion that led me one fine Sunday morning through the bylanes of Calcutta to Sunyat Sen Street (Chhatawala Gully) near Tiretta Bazaar and Poddar Court. For every generation that has grown up in Calcutta, indulging in this Chinese breakfast is almost like a rite of passage.
The Chinese settlement of Calcutta dates back to the late 18th century when a Chinese trader, Tong Achew came to Calcutta and settled near present day, Budge Budge. The then Governor General of India, Warren Hastings offered Achew a plot of land where he set up a sugar mill along with a sugar plantation. Achew soon brought a band of Chinese workers from China to work in his sugar mill. Unfortunately, Achew died soon after and his mill was abandoned. His Chinese workers also deserted the place, which later came to be known as Achipur, named after Achew.
They then moved to a more central location of Calcutta, where they settled close to Tiretta Bazaar – a market place designed by the Italian architect Edward Tiretta. It was at this very place that Calcutta’s first China Town came up. Later, of course, a large section of Calcutta’s Chinese moved to the eastern part of the city to Tangra, to set up the New China Town.
The Chinese who initially settled near Tiretta Bazaar were an immigrant community which down the generations stayed true to tradition, leading a Mainland lifestyle infused with Indian flavours. This sparkling mélange of local and foreign has dwindled and diluted, acquiring a new connotation, but its lingering essence can still be felt when you visit this place.
In fact at Sunyat Sen Street it is only the early birds who get this treat. It comes alive around five in the morning and all the activities wind up by nine since located at the commercial part of the town the area has to be cleared to accommodate office hours rush and parking of vehicles. But before the office crowd descends, for about four hours at a stretch, this place is a page out of the age-old live street food tradition seen across the Far East, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Fires are stoked up every morning and stalls set up on the sidewalks by the local Chinese who sell straight-off-the-wok breakfast, bursting with authentic flavours. There are several stalls selling a variety of breakfast delicacies. I personally recommend starting the Chinese breakfast with a bowl of fish and meat ball soup. This is a light broth which is gentle on the stomach so early in the morning and prepares you well for the gastronomic experience to follow.
Once you have savoured the soup, it is time to move on to the steamed pao – soft Chinese bread stuffed with a variety of fillings, usually comprising of minced pork and a mix of vegetables. It is tender in texture, yet again light on your tummy and yummy in taste. And then there are the melt-in-the-mouth fish dumplings – the best you will find in the city and a must try over here. Don’t forget to dig into some pork pancake, pork chop, pork roll and chicken or pork momos served with a tangy homemade chili garlic sauce that is sure to leave you craving for more.
You could also buy ready-to-fry prawn chips, dried greens, blocks of soup stock, a variety of homemade sauces and lapchong (Chinese sausages) which are only available between the months of November and February. The nearby Hap Hing provisional store also sells a myriad of Chinese goods. Sometimes, an interesting conversation or an anecdote would come as complimentary along with the purchase. And it is these moments which are always worth treasuring. The prices of items at Sunyat Sen Street are a major draw. You could literally eat yourself sick and still have some change left from a hundred rupees.
“I have been coming here every morning since the last 40 years. I have my breakfast and then buy the regular supplies for my restaurant from the market. There are a steady flow of people who drop by for their morning fill every day. Most are regulars, the local Chinese and Bengalis accounting for that majority, while the others comprise mainly of tourists. But on Sundays there’s a swarm of people who bee line for their share of Chinese delicacies,” remarks Samsung Yeh, owner of the New Embassy Restaurant on Chowringhree Road.
The entire setting is pretty humble and the surrounding is not at all picturesque to say the least. The ‘stalls’ are very basic in nature with some of the vendors needing nothing more than a mere wooden stool and utensils to display their ware. If you are too high nosed and finicky about eating from roadside stalls, then this place will perhaps fail to impress you. But the atmosphere is lovely, especially on a Sunday morning and is well worth the visit. The place hustles and bustles with activity. It is also a great place to interact with the local Chinese people and find out about their culture, tradition, history and way of life.
“I was born and brought up here. Later I migrated to Bangladesh for professional reasons. I still have my relatives in Calcutta and try to visit the city every year. And during my visits I make it a point to come here for my breakfast every morning. Most of my friends and relatives are regulars over here and it feels good to share the first meal of the day with my near and dear ones”, says Young Chan Tung.
Tiretta Bazaar was once a sprawling, self-sufficient area where blue and red Mao or Mandarin suits outnumbered saris and dhotis. But over the years, the Chinese presence in Calcutta had dwindled. The younger generation left first, for Australia, Canada or the US, and now their parents are migrating too. Most of the women with their stockpots and woks migrated abroad with the hope to earn a few extra bucks. But some, like Bobby Young have stayed back for a different reason altogether. “My grandmother’s recipe,” she said while serving the fish ball soup. She is here because her mother had been here for years, at this very corner, selling fish and meat ball soup every morning. “This is to share our food and to remind everyone of what real Chinese food is like”, said Bobby.