Roadside Revolution: The Deep Fried Snacks of Calcutta and Panjim
Words and photos by Supriya Roychoudhury
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At Jonathan’s Coffee Shop in the City of London, a penny would gain you admittance to the show: dishes of coffee beans stewed to the strength of treacle and the babble of chatter, discourse and philosophising, open to any man who could pay the penny fee. These 17th century institutions, including Lloyd’s Coffee Shop around the corner, were known as the Penny Universities. The point wasn’t the coffee as such, although it certainly lubricated things ─ in the days before the coffee houses you had three options: water (from the Thames and teeming with life), tea (recently introduced and too expensive) or beer. Most chose beer, so would technically be at least slightly drunk, in perpetuity. The introduction of coffee not only sanitised the water by boiling it, but sobered everyone up.
The coffee house has since been seen as the literary and political third space, with their iterative format of being able to order a stimulating drink every so often fomenting intellectual discussion and political manoevering. Unlike the tea houses of Japan, where political talk was and still is explicitly banned, the discussion of politics was encouraged at the coffee house and have had long-lasting political associations. Two hundred years later in Cafe Central in Vienna, in a story too good to actually be true, the Austrian politician Victor Adler objected to the notion that war in Europe would lead to revolution in Russia, asking “And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein sitting over there”. Mr Bronstein, whose seat you can still find at Cafe Central, was none other than a young Leon Trotsky.
In India, in the capitals of two separate Empires, they added a crucial item: the deep fried snack. In today’s newsletter, the writer and academic Supriya Roychoudhury looks at how the telebhaja of Calcutta and the teatime snack culture of Panjim were fuel for Bengali and Goan political movements and sites of anticolonial struggle. These shops have not just been preserved in time, but still admit those who need a space for discussion, over endless chai and the most comprehensive deep fried snack inventory the world has ever known. They stand in contrast to Europe where the grand coffee houses are little more than museums, and London, where all that countercultural energy became institutionalised in the most British way possible. At Jonathan’s, where the prices of stocks and commodities were posted daily, they did away with the coffee, privatised admission, and became the Stock Exchange. Lloyd’s did the same, and is now better known globally as an insurance marketplace of the same name.
Roadside Revolution: The Deep Fried Snacks of Calcutta and Panjim, by Supriya Roychoudhury
I’ve always felt there is more to the chop than meets the eye. Ensconced in its fine jacket of crumb, there is no telling what secrets lie in its plump belly. As a child, I discovered a whole universe of ingredients my mother used as stuffing: minced meat, fish, banana flower, beetroot, crabmeat and, occasionally, vegetables cleverly re-assembled from a previous meal. Brown paper packets lightly splotched with grease usually signalled a visit to the nearby confectionery and the promise of an evening with aunts, uncles and cousins; of laughter, gossip, life updates, amiable disagreements over local politics, and memories embellished to amuse and entertain.
Years later, when I relocated to Delhi, I discovered ‘Dadu (‘grandfather’ in Bengali) Cutlet Shop’ in my neighbourhood, its defining feature a giant metal kadhai, in which chops of various stages of oiliness swim, swirl and sizzle in an ominous-looking pool of recycled oil under the watchful gaze of the hungry. I sometimes stopped by at Dadu Cutlet Shop on my way home from work, paying the odd 50 rupees or so for a paper token that I could exchange for the prized ‘egg devil’ – a marvellous adaptation of the British scotch egg (and some also say, the Mughal nargisi kofta), in which minced meat and mashed potato are used to layer a hard-boiled egg before it is deep-fried. Armed with my paper plate, just large enough to hold chop, a side of stringy salad and a dollop of sauce, I would settle down to enjoy my pre-dinner, post-work snack in the market square, against the steady hum of adda – conversation usually but not always of a political nature, over tea and snacks – by myself, but hardly alone.
In her cookbook-memoir, Bong Mom’s Cookbook, Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta cheekily declares that ‘it is a bit difficult to emulate the taste of the roadside aloor [potato] chop at home because you lack basic ingredients like dust, grime and the blackened oil that every popular shop swears by’. Grime might today signal delicious authenticity, but its story is entangled in an uncomfortable one about race, empire and the civilising mission. In his essay, ‘Nation on a Platter’, Jayanta Sengupta reveals how colonial cookbook author Arthur Kenney-Herbert Wyvern (1885) expresses his deep revulsion for the kitchen in which Indian cooks laboured, describing it as ‘a wretchedly mean, carelessly constructed, go down [outbuilding]… open to every passer-by’. Other handbooks during this period, as Lizzie Collingham shows us in Curry, are full of advice warning the British against entering their own kitchens lest they catch the cook using the same instrument to both baste chicken and butter toast. To enjoy their high tea and burra khana (dinner), the British trained themselves to unsee the spaces and people that made their extravagant feasting possible. In some senses, today’s roadside snack shop is an open repudiation of this: the street vendor stands front and centre, sharing the same space as those whose stomachs are to be filled. Shame is nowhere in sight.
But even within those reviled kitchens, Indian cooks discovered ways to assert themselves and subvert power – even if unintentionally. As the Raj became more racialised after 1857, the sahib and memsahib living in India grew increasingly fixated with displaying their Britishness. Cookbooks of this period provided detailed instructions on how to recreate vintage British tea-time snacks, such as cheese crumb croquettes and various kinds of cutlets, within the kitchens of British India. Having never had first-hand experience of either cooking or eating any of these snacks, Indian cooks often improvised, bringing their own bodies and lives into the meats they marinated and the spices they grinded. They turned dishes upside down and inside out, coating meat with coriander, cumin and pepper, instead of stuffing it with herbs and breadcrumbs – the British way. They took cold, devilled eggs and turned them into sizzling hot, deep-fried chops. They infused uninspired mixtures of mashed potato and minced meat with masalas reminiscent of home. They refused to use the table provided in the kitchen, preferring instead to do their dicing, mincing and grinding while squatting on the floor. They expanded the repertoire of British tea-time snacks, introducing fritters of eggplant and pumpkin flower. They fiddled with phonetics; verbalising the typically silent ‘t’ in ‘fillet’. From the despised disorderliness and squalor of the colonial kitchen emerged a delicious script for anti-colonial protest, imperceptible yet potent. Indian cooks had discovered how to make themselves visible again. And they did this with the help of a little deep-fried something.
By the late nineteenth century, the more sophisticated kitchens of the bhadralok (Bengali bourgeoisie) in Calcutta emerged as thriving new spaces for political self-expression. As Jayanta Sengupta argues, the bhadralok enrolled the grihini (‘mistress of the household’) to re-create classic British snacks, including chops and cutlets, to project Bengali competence to the British. As the nationalist movement gained momentum, a number of public eateries serving tea, cutlets, chops and fritters popped up across the city. ‘Cabin restaurants’ became especially popular in the early twentieth century, their closed-off cubicles allowing writers, poets and revolutionaries to meet in private and debate the future of the world. In ‘Much Ado Over Coffee: Indian Coffee House Then and Now’, Bhaswati Bhattacharya reveals how cabin restaurants tried to re-create the lively adda sessions of the chandimandaps (small hall-like structures) of pre-colonial, rural Bengal. Bengali writer Achintya Kumar Sengupta whom Bhattacharya cites in her work, reflects on the hospitality of ‘Favourite Cabin’, whose reception was ‘so generous that it would send no signal that it was over when the cups were emptied. You could carry on adda as long as you wanted… [it] saw the birth of many debates, bragging, vows and plans for the future.’ As revolutionaries devised grand stratagems to overthrow their political masters, and literary icons gathered to determine the future of Bengal literature, it was tea, toast, and very often the cutlet, that offered fuel and nourishment.
Two years ago, I relocated from Delhi to Panjim, the capital city of Goa. As the former administrative capital for Portuguese India, Panjim has – like the former capital of British India, Calcutta – been shaped by multiple cultural influences both from within and outside India. With a spectacular variety of fried snacks, from the mirchibhaji (chilli dipped in gram flour and deep-fried), the crispy beef croquette, the creamy prawn rissois, the batatavada (potato fritter) and the potato chop, I quickly realised that Panjim shares Calcutta’s love for the telebhaja (deep-fried snack) and a good cup of tea. Its snack culture, like Calcutta’s, is steeped in a history of political agitation and cultural effervescence.
Like jalkhabar (Bengali for the non-mealtime snack), teatime is today firmly embedded in Goan culture. As writer Fatima Gracias shows us in Cozinha de Goa, an entire lexicon grew out of the Goan love for tea and a snack: hora de cha (afternoon tea), cha das cinca (high tea) and merenda (sweets and savouries to accompany tea). Although teatime was a privilege historically enjoyed by affluent Goan Christians within the privacy of their homes, by the early twentieth century a number of tea shops and cafés had begun to pop up across Goa’s towns and cities. ‘Teatime has always been an extremely important part of our day’ Coralie D’Lima tells me. ‘At 4pm sharp, my grandparents would gather us all around to have tea, often with biscuits, cake, or alle belle’, which she explains is apancake stuffed with coconut and jaggery. I ask her if she has a favourite café. ‘Café Central’ she says, in a heartbeat.
It is shortly after 5pm, and I join the socially-distanced line that has formed organically outside Café Central. Although it is today a bakery and confectionary, Café Central was established as a sit-down restaurant in the 1930s, where its signature dish, the bhaji pao, was relished by a largely upper-class clientele comprising both Goans and Portuguese officials. Today it is a bustling confectionery serving a range of delectable treats including mushroom samosas, onion biscuits and cheese rissois to a largely middle-class crowd in need of a snack after work. Introduced only three years ago, the cheese rissois is a reinterpretation of the classic Portuguese rissois de camarao (prawn puffs),itself a derivative of the French rissole. Café Central has swapped out the traditional shrimp and bechamel sauce filling for a creamy blend of cheese and spiced vegetables, giving this European snack a contemporary and uniquely local twist. While the café quietly acknowledges its origins – the words ‘since 1933’ are etched in small print on the main signboard – its refusal to be stifled by it is clear.
Around the corner from Café Central are the sprawling, grassy grounds of Azad Maidan (Freedom Park). A brass urn and plaque professing to contain the mortal remains of Dr. Tristao de Braganza Cunha, widely considered to be the father of the Goan liberation movement, stands under the dome of a white and gold pillared monument, where the statue of the Portuguese general Afonso de Albuquerque once did. Next to the monument is a memorial honouring the ‘martyrs of the freedom struggle against Portuguese colonial rule’, their names inscribed on stone pillars standing on either side of it. Today the park is a meeting ground for public meetings, protests, demonstrations and candlelight vigils, a space where people come together to exercise their democratic right to freedom of expression and dissent. Just a few weeks ago, a small group of people gathered here to peacefully protest the recent horrific gang rape of young Dalit woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. In December of last year, hundreds of people came together at the Maidan to condemn the Citizenship Amendment Act.
From the maidan, I can see the entrance to Café Prakash, a seventy-year old café that today stands somewhat awkwardly next to a plush, high-end designer boutique. It is fitting that this café should have once been the meeting place for politicians, journalists and activists in a newly independent Goa struggling to find its political voice. Prakash Sakhalkar, after whom the café has been named, tells me about its illustrious patrons, including Goa’s first Chief Minister, Dayanand Bandodkar, who often stopped by to chat with his father. In a video created by Goan journalist Frederick Noronha, one of the café’s patrons, we hear from Nagesh Karmali, a freedom fighter who had been imprisoned by the Portuguese at Fort Aguada shortly before Goa’s liberation in 1961. He tells us that when prisoners needed medical attention, they were escorted by the Portuguese to a hospital close to Café Prakash, and were often taken to the café itself.
After his release, Karmali returned to Café Prakash, under wildly different circumstances. Amidst growing agitation to elevate the status of the local Konkani language in postcolonial Goa, which suffered deeply under Portuguese rule, Karmali got together with allies of the Konkani movement at Café Prakash, where I imagine bold strategies, plans and decisions were sealed over hot cups of Café Prakash’s ‘special tea’, and perhaps a side of its puri bhaji. About three months ago, a portion of the eighty-year-old building in which Café Prakash sits collapsed in the middle of the night. Having just reopened in the peak of the pandemic in Goa, I can’t help but wonder what its future holds. ‘You can meet your peers in any restaurant... [why Café Prakash?]’ presses the interviewer to one of its regulars, a Goan journalist. ‘It is the only one that allows us to sit for hours together… tolerating our noise’, he says with a laugh.
What is it about the deep-fried snack that makes it uniquely suited to self-expression and conversation? Inside the kitchens of colonial India, it was often the act of re-inventing British-derived tea-time savoury snacks that allowed Indian cooks to express themselves and come into their own. Perhaps the secret lies in the versatility of its form: there is, theoretically, no vegetable (or meaty ingredient) that cannot be dipped into batter of gram flour and alchemised into a fritter or pakora; no sliver of meat or fish that cannot be coated in breadcrumb and transformed into a bounteous chop. With a surprising number of possibilities, the deep-fried snack is the perfect culinary idiom for creative self-expression. At the same time, inside cafés, teashops and roadside eateries, the bhaji or cutlet has created community, catalysed ideas and sparked protest. Even within our own homes, it is often teatime that nudges us to come together with family and friends for pause, conversation and connection. Not quite a complete meal, the deep-fried snack leaves its devourer with an abstract sense of closure: no matter how full we think we are, there seems always to be room for one more chop, one more cup of tea, as one debate or anecdote fizzles out, and another begins.
Supriya Roychoudhury is a consultant for the Margaret Anstee Centre for Global Studies at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in how art, culture and politics intersect in the city and loves to write about it whenever she can.
All photos taken in Panjim and credited to Supriya Roychoudhury.
With thanks to Alice D'Cruz and Divya Shanu Gawade for their help with translation.
I fell in love with deep fried snacks in India. From Lanka Pakora (the same as the chilli snacks you describe) to battered eggs in Kolkata.
One thing I noticed was the essential importance of getting the timing right - especially with street vendors. What was a joy at 5 pm yesterday may well be a flabby disaster at 5.15 today!