“Over the last few decades, Kolkatan taste buds have changed and gone considerably up and east. Where a quick evening snack would mean “chaa aar muri,” in the past, today a young executive would look past his old provider and have “half plate chowmein” from the stall which has cropped up right next to the tea stall.
Arguably the credit for this shift to the East goes to India’s only flourishing Chinatown, Tangra and its chain of restaurants owned by the last few Chinese settlements in Kolkata.
A plate of chowmein with golden fried prawns from any of these restaurants can easily feed two hungry adults looking for something familiar yet oriental. And if you want to titillate the palate a little more, a full plate of red pepper and garlic chicken can go a long way towards drowning your hunger in a cauldron of fire, especially if you go to a place like Golden Joy near Gobinda Khatick Post Office.
For an extravagant meal at a very sensible price, Tangra is today the most preferred Chinese food location for most Kolkatans and of course for those visiting and wanting an authentic Chinese experience.
Out of the many Tangran restaurants, the most famous is the one called Beijing and unlike its namesake, it isn’t at all crowded and noisy. Instead, it is a calm, peaceful sanctuary where you can rest your weary feet and be treated to Lut Me, Manchow Soup and the exquisite Drums of Heaven.
If you don’t feel like going to a typical restaurant and instead desire a far cosier and smaller place, the family-owned, not so fancy, but neat and tidy Kimfa is the place to be, and their Hakka noodles are legendary.
The food in Tangra is of a distinct variety of traditional Hakka Chinese merged with a bit of Bengali spices to suit the temperamental Bengali palate. Most are usually light on the tongue and totally suitable for children as well (Since the Bengalis trip to the restaurants is usually a whole family affair).
It all started when the first few families started emigrating to Kolkata from China in search of safety and refuge.
“We fled away from China as World War II broke out. As Japanese aggression started, many of us somehow reached Kolkata and others scattered all over the globe. However, that’s history. Today we are Indian by heart, Chinese by origin,” says Monica Liu, the owner of Beijing.
The residents primarily used to operate tanneries there. But in the recent past, due to environmental concerns, the tanneries have been shifted away from Tangra.
The families, finding their livelihood taken away from them and eager Bengali bellies taking increasing interest in Chinese cooking, started selling their home-cooked Chinese noodles and soups.
Talking to G&B, Mr. Anjan Gupta, a senior marketing head in a Kolkata based FMCG company, revealed his decade-old fascination for Tangra – “I really have no idea if in India we have any other Chinatown apart from the one in Kolkata but I just love the food and ambience here. It’s like, no passport, no visa – just straight from Chingrighata to China.”
Being a permanent resident of South Kolkata, since his childhood, Tangra has always been a favourite weekend destination for him as well as for many other Bengalis.
But when asked whether Tangra has changed with the City of Joy or whether it has remained untouched, he shook his head and said, “How can it be yaar! After all, ours is a city of paribartan (change). One of the major changes that can easily be identified is that, when it comes to ambience the entire area is no longer a cluster of tanneries and dingy lanes.”
“Rather, now it’s more like any other posh location such as Park Street or Esplanade. But the price has also increased quarter fold, while the quantity has become half.”
Earlier, because of the location and due to lack of proper transportation, Tangra used to be accessible only to those with cars.
But now the commute is as easy and smooth as the noodles themselves.
So, next time you are in the city, let the bell peppers mixed with delicate spices, tossed around in a high flaming wok, pamper your taste buds and take you to a high place in downtown China. The “chaa aar muri” can wait.