Durga Puja, the biggest festival of all Bengalis living anywhere on this planet. Well, it is not a festival; it is more of a carnival, especially in Kolkata. The city starts preparing for it from months. Just as monsoon arrives, every community starts to plan their local pujo celebration and soon, the markets are crowded with shoppers buying clothes for themselves, friends and family, roads start getting blocked with the skeleton pandal structures, whoever is involved in the puja organizing committee are all rushing back home after work, singing and dancing practices in literally all neighborhood for the festivities; and the countdown begins from Mahalaya. Now, any person who has not experienced Durga Puja, would think that it is all about prayers and keeping fast etc. Contrary to that, Durga Puja is also synonymous with celebration with food with all the near and dear ones. People visit their relative’s house, friends go out for pandal hopping, community lunches and dinners together, everything leading towards food. And it is not satvik food. During pujas, all restaurants are dishing out special Puja buffets and menus and the streets are lined with vendors selling a myriad of street food. The options are many; however, there is always a debate whether to go out in the crowd or to stay within the community and have a nice meal.
Coming back to pandal hopping, it is meant for the brave hearted, especially in today’s day and age when one has to que up and walk miles to do the same. There is no fixed time for pandal hopping. At any point of the day or night, one can see groups of young and old people queuing up while the crowd slowly meanders towards a pandal. While pandal hopping means admiring and encouraging the creativity of the artisans, watching as many Durga idols as possible, it also means exploring food options at the various pandals. Every pandal, be it big or small, is dotted with food stalls dishing out superb street food. At some of the pandals, there are separate food courts set up while others have a few stalls in and around the area. One is easily overcome by the aromas of fresh fish getting fried or a huge handi of mutton biryani, or simply the phuchka wallas doing a mammoth task of catering to ten different people at the same time while keeping a count. Perhaps the options for vegetarians are not many. They usually tend to be kachuri or radha ballavi with alur dum or ghughni (white peas stew) or vegetable chops, maybe some vegetable chow chow or a South Indian counter. However, the options for the meat lovers are in plenty. While mutton and chicken biryani in large handis covered in red cloth along with chicken chaap are sold at almost all pandals, some of the pandals have a stall of freshly fried chicken cutlet, fish fry, fish kabiraji, chicken pakodas, fish fingers, mutton chops, egg devils; you name it and they have it.
Kolkata kathi rolls or simply rolls are one of the most popular quick bite available at the food stalls. Chicken roll, double chicken roll, single egg double chicken, double egg double chicken, the same for mutton and alu anda; the combinations are so many that one can easily get flabbergasted. And then there is the mighty Mughlai paratha. Stuffed with chicken or mutton, coated in egg, this paratha is deep fried and is a hot favourite amongst pandal hoppers. Chowmein or commonly known as chow chow is the very Kolkata street version of hakka noodles and is made with masalas unheard of in Chinese cuisine; however, finds its way to many people’s hearts and stomachs. This is usually accompanied with a very spicy chilly chicken, yes, it is chilly or chilli chicken. And the one food which is super popular and perhaps the healthiest amongst all is momos. These Tibetan dumplings made with chicken and vegetable stuffing are outrageously favoured even though some of them barely have any real stuffing other than onions and ginger garlic in abundance.
Although most of the pandals have food counters, a few of them do an outstanding job and one can spend a long time there and sample everything over dinner or a lunch. While there will always be a debate over which pujo is better in terms of pandals or food, in South Kolkata, Jodhpur Park, Ballygunge Cultural, Desapriya Park, Northern Park and Maddox Square are perhaps the most popular hunting grounds for good food. North and Central Kolkata boasts of few of the oldest pujos around with a lot of history and tradition and a few of the pandals where one can feast on food are Baghbajar, Kumortuli, Laha colony, College Square, Santosh Mitra Square and many more. The list is endless, perhaps it is wiser to hop to various pandals to experience this gala fair.