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Do we eat to live or do we live to eat? The way out of this conundrum was easy in my teens. Of course, I lived to eat. Like most girls of my age, I was largely drawn to street food or junk, as some may prefer to say. No matter how much sense elders tried to drill in my head, my temptation always surpassed every word of caution. So began my journey of scrounging pocket money and sneaking away from my family (especially my grandpa) to treat myself to these roadside delicacies.
As an introvert, I’ve always found school boring but I was very regular. And the secret (no more a secret) behind that was the array of spicy, tangy, delicious pickles on offer outside the school gatepost school hours. There were a plethora of savouries to be picked from. Along with their aroma, their skilful display made us throng like children to a storyteller. The candyfloss was a big hit with everyone, also known as ‘burir chul’ (the hair of an old woman) in Bengali. The pink fluffy sticky balloon-like sweet was an integral part of those days. Then there were a smorgasbord of pickles – black, soft slices of dried mango; soft, gooey orangish tamarind and various types of jujubes. It was a big task to choose from. A beautiful friend of mine used to often quip, “It’s easier to choose a boyfriend”. A decision had to be arrived at because with our meagre resources we couldn’t afford to taste all. But alas, after all the decision making and the wait, the joyful part of savouring vanished in moments.
School days got over and college life opened up new avenues of exploration and experimentation. “The Sugar and Spice” was just a few steps away and our newly formed gang of girls would flock to the place once a week to dig into soft creamy pastries and burn our lips on crispy flaky patties, relish hot dogs and buttery buns. We were so headstrong that we always managed to wrangle discounts on special occasions like birthdays. We’ve always had our way with the manager. The big and the best table was always reserved for us and he never forgot to thank us for filling up his pastry den with giggles and gupshup.
And how can I forget the jhalmuri and chaat that were easily available through a tiny side gate of our huge college compound? A free period once in a while was all we needed. We would rush down and if we were lucky we would find the wiry old man waiting with all his paraphernalia. Happily, he would toss up puffed rice with mustard oil, chopped onion, green chilli, fresh coriander leaves and serve with a slice of coconut on top. The chaats had the capability of transferring me to another world. The crunchy papris with toppings and curd and colourful chutneys. Today, even after all these years, the thought is enough to make my mouth start watering.
On my way back home I’d get down from the bus and walk a certain distance to reach home. I always looked forward to that walk back home. Several eateries dotted the way and it was the thought of taking something home to share with my mom that gave me the utmost joy. There was an outlet retailing rolls of various definitions, cutlets, fish fingers, chicken lollipops and a smorgasbord of fries. Watching the rolls being made was a visual delight. My favourite was the egg roll. With a deft tap on the tawa, the egg was first broken and the contents poured on a round sheet of rolled out the dough and spread out evenly. Once nicely fried it was rolled up with chopped cucumber, onion, sauces etc. I used to lose myself in the taste it proffered.
Just next to it was a woman who had made the pavement her outlet to sell her fried stuff. She flipped slices of potato and brinjal coated with gram flour batter in and out of oil with deft moves. What yummy snacks it made with a cup of hot tea, a perfect combination for a rainy evening.
Last but not least was the puchka, widely known as panipuri. It has always topped the list of my favourites. Only we Indians know what magic lies therein. The crunchy puris, stuffed with mashed boiled potatoes and tamarind-flavoured water mixed with fresh herbs had the capability of stimulating all my taste buds all at once. Today also, my trips to Kolkata are incomplete without getting my fill of these.
New tastes have invaded the market. Pizzas, pastas and burgers have made their presence felt wide. But the tastes of those growing up days still linger.
Image via Pixabay
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