“Our Hungarian sausages were inimitable,” said Joy Narayan Ghosh, the former manager and face of Kalman Cold Storage, a Kolkata institution with a cult following that recently shut down after an illustrious run spanning over seven decades. The recipe was as old as the shop, Ghosh said. “It was a cumbersome process. “The pork would be meticulously cleaned, chopped into small pieces, soaked in pickle water and refrigerated for at least two days.”
Spiced simply with black pepper, garlic and only a hint of salt, and smoked for seven to eight hours over a hearth fuelled with charcoal and wood chips in a closed smoking chamber, the Hungarian sausages were among Kalman’s most popular items. But that was not all. People flocked to this sliver of a shop on Mirza Ghalib Street (previously known as Free School Street) near New Market for a surprisingly affordable assortment of cured meats and cold cuts – everything from pork collar and ham to salami and smoked ox tongue.
“Their ham was especially good,” said Ayan Ghosh, a management consultant and a seasoned culinary enthusiast. When he returned to Kolkata 11 years ago, after having travelled the world, Kalman seemed like one of the few vestiges of the city’s inclusive, cosmopolitan past. His shopping expeditions to New Market involved picking up his monthly stock of beef, collar and ham from Kalman, followed by some cheese at Johnson’s, before making a final stop at Nahoum’s, the city’s iconic Jewish bakery. “The fact that they were the only place that sold beef and pork under the same roof made Kalman an embodiment of the city’s secular ethos,” he said.
Squashed between bigger shopfronts, Kalman Cold Storage occupied a passage-like space, which was crammed with two large freezers, two plastic chairs, a chopping table and some other equipment. “For a first-time visitor,” as city-based author Aryani Banerjee wrote in her book Shadows of Solitude, “it can be pretty confusing – one can even walk up and down the pavement four or five times and still fail to locate it.” A couple of framed newspaper articles, written about the shop and its history, hung on the opposite wall.
According to one of the articles, published by The Statesman in the year 2000, the shop was started by Kalman Kohary, a Hungarian trapeze artist who had come to Kolkata with a travelling circus. Unable to return to his native Hungary after it slid behind the Iron Curtain, Kohary settled down in the city, married a Burmese woman and started a charcuterie on Elliot Road, before moving his shop to its Free School Street address. It is this story of Kalman’s origins that has become a part of the city’s collective memory.
Back in the day, Free School Street and its surrounding areas, including Ripon Street and Elliot Road, comprised the heartland of Kolkata’s Anglo-Indian community. Some of the city’s Muslim, Jewish and Armenian residents inhabited the area too. This multi-cultural setting reflected in Kalman’s diverse clientele and cosmopolitan ethos.
Helen Thakur, nee Meyer, a retired school librarian, fondly remembers her childhood expeditions to Kalman during the time Kohary ran the show. Though “the memory has faded with time,” the 73-year-old Thakur remembers Kohary as a “cheerful, friendly gentleman” who greeted and served his customers with a lot of enthusiasm. “For us and most of our Anglo-Indian neighbours, Kalman’s cold cuts and cured meats were winter musts. People would wait in long queues for their share of salt meat, sausages and salami.”
Many Bengalis joined these queues and Kohary would speak “to them in fluent Bangla,” said Thakur. The wait would be worth the while. As Banerjee, who waited in queues to pick up her meaty Christmas treats, wrote, Kalman sold “the best Hungarian sausages, salamis, smoked bacon and meatloaf in town”.
After Kohary’s death, his family decided to leave the country. The ownership of the shop was handed to Kohary’s right-hand man, Bishnupada Dhar. After Dhar’s death, his wife Ruma and daughter Agomoni took over. But, in recent times, it was Ghosh who effectively ran the establishment.
For years, Ghosh, a resident of Agarpara, woke up at the crack of dawn, six days a week, took a train to the Sealdah station and then a bus to the shop. After a hard day’s work – personally attending to customers at the shop, taking orders on the phone, deftly slicing meat and supervising the other workers – he returned home late in the evening. “The shop was my life until a few days ago,” said Ghosh. “I have hardly been able to stop my tears.”
It was Ghosh’s personal touch that made buying meats from Kalman a memorable experience for many. “In case an old client would request, I would open the shop even on an off day to deliver an urgent order, even if it was for as little as 100 grams,” said Ghosh.
“Sometimes Joy [Ghosh] would dissuade you from buying a particular item, simply because he thought it was not up to the mark,” said Angona Paul, an advocacy and communications specialist and home chef, who would regularly visit Kalman to buy collar and ox tongue.
Ghosh blames labour problems for the sudden closure of the iconic shop. “The old karigars are all aged now and were unable to continue to put in the hard work and long hours,” he lamented. “The new ones lacked the commitment.” It is also true that Kalman, in recent years, rode on the strength of nostalgia to a great extent.
Paul, though a longtime customer, was no blind fan. “While some of their items were good, not everything was up to the mark,” she said. “Besides, nowadays, there are more options, and thanks to social media, people are all always discovering new, lesser-known places across the city.”
“But I will miss their salami in my sandwiches,” said Thakur. Just a few days before the business shut down, Thakur picked up a fresh stock of spiced beef and chicken salami, unaware that it would be her last visit to 18 Mirza Ghalib Street. Now, like many of her friends and acquaintances, she is left without a trusted meat shop.
Banerjee went to Kalman for the last time on November 24. “I was in the area to attend an awards function at the Armenian College and dropped in to pick up my order,” she said. “I had presented them with a miniature copy of the cover of my book. I wish I had carried the book along that day.”
Ayan Ghosh, Ghosh babu to Kalman’s staff, is more practical about Kalman’s demise. “If you cannot keep pace with changing times, nature will take its course,” he said. “But what I will miss most is Kalman’s ethos, the unique space accessible to people from all walks of life, where they could come, shop and mingle.”