Food blogger Kalyan Karmakar’s favourite eatery in Lucknow doesn’t serve biryani or kebabs. It isn’t even a restaurant. Traveling through the city, Karmakar happened to chance upon the Vajpayee Kachori Bhandar, a small store that sold kachoris – a deep fried Indian snack. His curiosity tickled by the long queue of customers he saw outside, Karmakar stood in line, waiting for his turn to try the perfectly flaky or khasta kachoris.
“A man from the shop called out to me and gestured that I could move up to the front,” Karmakar recalled. The man later introduced himself as Manish, inheritor of the family kachori-business, and as it turned out, a distant relative of India’s ex-prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
One bite later, Karmakar said, he knew he was experiencing the defining culinary moment of his trip through Lucknow. The crisp kachoris were served on a plate of sal leaves, accompanied by a tangy chickpea curry,
“Everything was perfect. Right from the consistency of the crust, the seasoning and the wholesomeness.”
This meal, and meeting Vajpayee’s relative, form one of the anecdotes in Karmakar’s recently published book, The Travelling Belly, about the street food of various Indian cities and restaurants where one can sample their local cuisine.
A food blogger since 2007, Karmakar’s blog, Finely Chopped, is a delicious and detailed directory of the food stalls and eateries in every city he has travelled to. Reading the posts he has published over the years, his evolution from a mere food blogger to a food writer is evident.
The difference between the two may not seem like much anymore: Diners Instagram every plate they eat, captioning each picture with expertise borrowed from the judges on Master Chef. But with each entry, Karmakar’s descriptions on Finely Chopped reveal a nuance and refinement of palate, a willingness to engage with food not just in restaurants, but also in every day life.
“I began to write not just about the eateries I went to and the dishes I ate there, but also the people I met, the places I travelled to, the dishes I cooked,” he writes in the introduction to his book. “What started out as a place to vent became a place for me to celebrate my love for food instead.”
The Travelling Belly begins in Kolkata and ends in Mumbai, the two cities closest to the writer’s heart. The first speaks of nostalgia – sneaking a mutton roll after school at the paarar dokaan, or neighbourhood shop; splitting a single plate of mutton biryani with four or more college friends. In Mumbai, the writing is filled with food adventures experienced as an adult – dates with his then girlfriend (now wife) at the Leopold Café’ over beef chili and prawn fried rice; dunking the deep-fried savoury snack, chakli, into a bowl of schezwan sauce to munch on with drinks at Gokul bar. Karmakar’s familiarity with Mumbai is clear in the space he gives to the city in his book.
“I’m a Bengali at heart, but I think my love for Bombay is overtaking that,” said Karmakar. “Almost 25% of the book is on Mumbai. Within the city you’ll find different communities with their own set of specific food traditions co-existing and that reflects in their eating out culture. One is exposed to a variety of cuisines. I mean, it was here that I sort of realized that there is more to South Indian food than just idli and dosa.”
Some of the other cities that make it to the book include, Lucknow, Jaipur, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Delhi and Amritsar. One section devotes itself to the state of Goa. “The book is more about my personal experiences of going and eating in these places, rather than a directory of where to eat what,” said Karmakar. But The Travelling Belly is a little of both: Karmakar has the ability to summarise the distinct flavour of a city in words while providing convenient options for foodies looking to get their money’s worth. It is a handy little book to carry along when travelling through the country.
Every chapter also includes recommendations for food walk trails and tips to improve your dining experience, like: “Never drink a cola while having a mustard-based curry as it might make your tongue sore”, or “Try to enjoy a bit of the biryani by itself before adding the dahi chutney and the salan.”
The book is filled with anecdotes about encounters with the locals, servers, cooks and proprietors of establishments, regardless of whether they are well-known or hidden gems that Karmakar stumbled upon on one of his many excavations for life-altering street food.
One such example is Dolly’s tea shop, a favourite with Karmakar’s wife and unlike any of the usual tea stalls which dot Kolkata’s streets.
“Dolly Roy began her tea shop in 1988 as a tribute to her love for tea,” Karmakar said. “She is India’s first female tea taster and the world’s first female tea auctioneer.”
Roy’s first words to Karmakar’s wife, (“What will you have, my dear?”, delivered in a kind and husky voice) were the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the two. Roy suggested some lovely iced teas, since the Karmakars weren’t fond of hot tea. In the conversation that followed, the Karmakars told Roy about their lives in Mumbai. By the time they left the establishment, they were converts to tea – or at least, to Dolly Roy’s teas.
“Since then we have returned to Dolly’s every time we go to Kolkata.”
In Hyderabad, guntur idlis, steamed rice cakes covered in a fiery spice mix, were a “food epiphany” for the writer. In the book he mentions that it was in Hyderabad that he finally lost his idli ennui.
“Growing up, the idlis we ate in Kolkata or the ones eaten at Udupi restaurants in Mumbai, were these tasteless, hard, rubbery discs over which we always preferred the more satisfying dosa,” he said. “Guntur idlis were a revelation in how an idli can be a meal in itself. It elevated the status of idli for me.”
After the numerous soul and belly satisfying encounters, it is difficult for Karmakar to pick a favourite dish. “They change with every city,” he said. “In Amritsar it would probably be the kada prasad or wheat halwa served at 4 am, to devotees at the Golden Temple. In Jaipur, it’s Junglee maas or wild meat. In New Delhi, the ghughni, a spicy lentil stew with mutton served at Chittaranjan Park, and the list for Mumbai would be even longer,” said Karmakar.
While writing the book, Karmakar had one simple rule when it came down to whether a dish should be included or not:
“If I don’t remember a dish then it is not worth mentioning in the book,” said Karmakar. “I have a pretty sharp memory when it comes to food, so I didn’t revisit the eateries and stalls, but I did constantly return to my blog.”
These days, the writer is taking a break from dining outside. “I’m increasingly finding myself enjoying home-cooked food,” he said. On the day he spoke to Scroll.in, the writer had just finished a lunch of home-made Bengali style khichuri, a lentil and rice dish.
“Growing up I didn’t appreciate Bengali home food the way I do now. My comfort food evolves with me. As a kid it was all about Chinese food, noodles and pasta. As I grow older, I’m beginning to appreciate Bengali dishes like aloo posto or potatoes cooked with poppy seeds, a basic khichuri, or even just the way we cook cabbage,” he said.