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Like the way Kolkata can get divided over its politics, football, and its cinema and songs; it gets divided over its phuchka too. For the unknown, the phuchka is Kolkata’s version of paani puri but just such as the famous Chinese dishes in Kolkata got its Kolkata touch, the phuchka is unique to the city for stuffing of spicy mashed potato enhanced with gondhoraj lime juice and tangy tamarind water. There is rarely a situation where the mashed potato is not customised as per the buyers taste. While the Mumbai or the western version is called pani puri where the stuffing is primarily the white peas or the ragdas and the various types of paani or water that go as filling (also includes a variant which is little sweet), the gol gappas are primarily in Northern India and just like the pani puri, the filling is focussed more on chickpeas rather than aloo.
Like the presence of roadside Chinese stalls and roll corners are now synonymous with Kolkata streets, the phuchka vendor is not far behind. It is almost like a sure shot recipe of success. The sellers have become legendary and most of the time, the personal connection in addition to the taste that makes a customer loyal to a particular place. It is not only phuchka that one can find within these stalls. Although it all started with phuchkas but innovation has no end. One can find churmur or the crushed phuckhas mashed with the same aloo stuffing with some additional spices, the dahi phuchka where instead of the tamarind water, dahi with a sweet jaggery sauce is used as filler and some sewai sprinkled from the top. Some sellers such as the ones which adorn Vivekananda Park go to an extent of selling a very spicy alur dom also.
It will be a futile exercise to pin down one particular phuchka wala who sells the best phuchka of the town. Everyone has their own preferences and a battle line can be easily drawn on who is the best. There are many good ones who can be the best on their day, however there are certain areas and certain phuchkawalas who have earned their name and reputation for being the best. The phuchkawala in front of Vardaan Market at Camac Street and the ones in front of Victoria Memorial are extremely popular amongst office goers and people in the vicinity. However, many from South Kolkata will vouch for the phuchkas in front of Lake Kalibari and Vivekananda Park. Although in both these areas, the founding father is the same person, except for the famous Dilip da at Vivekananda Park; now his sons and son in laws have opened their own stalls. Vivekananda Park perhaps boasts of the first woman phuchkawala or wali. Late Durga Pandit carried so much pride on her shoulder that she had become a household name in the locality and it is known that there were many people in South Kolkata who would sometimes travel quite a distance to enjoy the phuchkas and alu dum made by Durga Pandit, more so since her imli paani was made with purified water. Today she is no more; however her husband and son are carrying on her legacy.
The phuchkawala at Dakshinapan Shopping Complex has a special type called the alur dom phuchka which is something available only here. There is a Jain phuchka available at Triangular Park made with mashed bananas instead of potatoes. Salt Lake has many pockets of good phuchkas as well as New Alipore area. I could go on and on.
The puffed up dough filled with customised aloo as per your taste and then the tangy tamarind water has been like the silent workhorse of the street food team of Kolkata. While the roll and chowmien take away all the limelight when it comes to street food of Kolkata, phuchka is like the Mr. Dependable who never fails to win the heart on any occasion.