For many Kolkatans it’s almost a rite of passage – the Sunday morning Chinese breakfast at Tiretta Bazar – an experience that gets passed on from generation to generation. It is actually a part of Kolkata’s fetish for Chinese delicacies – authentic or otherwise! Chowmein and momo stalls at every nook and corner of the city compete for the people’s affection with the omnipresent jhalmuri and puchka stalls, and more than hold their own.
The Chinese settlement of Kolkata dates back to the late 18th century when a Chinese trader, Tong Achew came to Kolkata and settled near present-day Budge Budge. The then Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings offered Achew a plot of land where he set up a sugar mill along with a sugar plantation. Achew soon brought a band of Chinese workers from China to work in his sugar mill. Unfortunately, Achew died soon after and his mill was abandoned. His Chinese workers also deserted the place, which later came to be known as Achipur, after Achew.
They then moved to a more central location of Kolkata, and settled close to Tiretta Bazaar – a marketplace designed by the Italian architect Edward Tiretta. It was at this very place that Kolkata's first Chinatown came up. Later, of course, a large section of the city’s Chinese moved to the eastern part of the city, to Tangra, to set up the New Chinatown, the Chinatown we are all familiar with now.
Tung Nam Eating House at Tiretta Bazaar, one of the oldest Chinese joints (Cha na Coffee?)
The Chinese who initially settled near Tiretta Bazaar were an immigrant community which down the generations stayed true to tradition, leading a Chinese lifestyle infused with Indian flavours. This sparkling mélange of local and foreign has dwindled and diluted, but its lingering essence can still be felt when one visits the old and new Chinatowns.
This infusion of Indian flavours into the Chinese lifestyle also found its way into the food. The Chinese food we have in Kolkata is mostly not authentic Chinese (there are a few places though which serve authentic cuisine) but what can be termed as Kolkatan Chinese.
The Chinese spread
At Sun Yat Sen Street it is only the early birds who get this treat. It comes alive around five in the morning and all the activities wind up by nine since, being located in the commercial part of the city, the area has to be cleared to accommodate the office hours rush and parking of vehicles. But before the office crowd descends, for about four hours at a stretch, this place is a page out of the age-old live street food tradition seen across the Far East, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Fires are stoked up every morning and stalls set up on the sidewalks by the local Chinese who sell straight-off-the-wok breakfast, bursting with authentic flavours. There are several stalls selling a variety of breakfast delicacies. I personally recommend starting the Chinese breakfast with a bowl of fish and meat ball soup. This is a light broth which is gentle on the stomach so early in the morning and prepares you well for the gastronomic experience to follow.
Once you have savoured the soup, it is time to move on to the steamed pao – soft Chinese bread stuffed with a variety of fillings, usually comprising of minced pork and a mix of vegetables. It is tender in texture, yet again light on your tummy and yummy in taste. And then there are the melt-in-the-mouth fish dumplings – the best you will find in the city and a must-try over here. Don’t forget to dig into some pork pancake, pork chop, pork roll and chicken or pork momos served with a tangy homemade chili garlic sauce that is sure to leave you craving for more.
You could also buy ready-to-fry prawn chips, dried greens, blocks of soup stock, a variety of homemade sauces and lap cheong (Chinese sausages) which are only available between the months of November and February.
The entire setting is pretty humble and the surrounding is not at all picturesque to say the least. The ‘stalls’ are very basic in nature with some of the vendors needing nothing more than a mere wooden stool and utensils to display their ware. If you are too high-nosed and finicky about eating from roadside stalls, then this place will perhaps fail to impress you.
What works in favour of the experience, though, is not merely what you get to savour at the spot, but what you get to carry away from it. For gourmands, Tiretti Bazaar is a treasure house when it comes to stocking up on Chinese kitchen provisions. Oil sticks (to go with soup), rice noodles, stringy pork sausages, dehydrated soup stock, sun-dried fish, shiitake mushrooms, pink-edged shrimp wafers, even the potent Chinese therapeutic balm—the provision stores in the market have it all.
Sing Ho Stores, in Chhatawala Gully, is reputed to be one of the best places in town to shop for a range of delectable homemade sauces. Then there is Hap Hing Co. Dating back to the pre-independence era, its dark, heavily wooded interiors smoky with age, Hap Hing is a classic repository of Far Eastern provisions.
A vanishing tradition?
Things are changing, though – they are quite different from what they used to be, as old-timers would vouch for. With the advent of opportunities, several families have chosen to move out of Chinatown and settle elsewhere, if not emigrate to other countries.
But there is still a lot left. The atmosphere is lovely, especially on a Sunday morning, and is well worth the visit. The place hustles and bustles with activity. It is also a great place to interact with the local Chinese people and find out about their culture, tradition, history and way of life. Kolkata’s romance with Chinese cuisine is perhaps here to stay, in some way or the other.
Dimsums at Tiretta Bazaar (Yummraj)
- Pau (large steamed dumplings stuffed with minced meat or vegetables)
- Rice pudding seasoned with sesame seeds
- Fish-ball soup
- Momos, the Tibetan kind, steamed or fried
- Shrimp puris, if you fancy an extemporised local touch to your platter
Delicious morning spread at Tiretti Bazaar
Lead image: Wikipedia