“Isn’t it to die for?” My friend gushed breathlessly between bites of Kati Roll.
I was meeting her after 10 long years smack dab in the middle of rain-infested New York City, and she’d dragged me to Greenwich Village to taste a popular Bengali import (or export? Import, if you’re anywhere out of West Bengal).
The chicken roll.
Versions — diluted, exaggerated and almost always awful — of the quintessential roll in various parts of India, do actually go by that name, so I can’t blame them.
Gujarat (and the Indian West Coast in general) has a version, inexplicably known as a Frankie, where the chicken is tomato red in color and amount of spice will produce a hole in your chest. Delhi’s back alleys produce “rolls” that are made of succulent kebabs wrapped in flimsy rumaali roti. Note how the word “roll” is within quotes.
I once also had a Bengali cook at an Indian food stall on Portobello Street make me chicken roll that had a white yogurt-based sauce that brought forth the same kind of emotions that underwear stuck in your butt-crack brings.
“Isn’t this the best chicken roll you’ve had outside of Kolkata?” She gushed again, this time looking directly at me. I nodded vigorously, making sure my mouth was too full to speak and hoped she couldn’t make out how much I wanted to dump that roll on her head.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the Greenwich Village shop makes bad kati rolls. In fact, if you’ve never actually had a Kolkata Chicken Roll, their Unda Chicken (roti bread wrapped around fried, flowery omelet and succulent chunks of chicken tikka, all halaal), is bound to make you slobber down the collar of your trench.
Apart from the spongy, syrup-soaked rosogolla, the roll is undoubtedly one of Kolkata’s best international culinary players. But outside of hometown, it’s a foreigner. A bred-in-USA, American-accented, brown desi who makes obligatory weekly Skype calls to her relatives in India, in an attempt to forge some sort of connection with her roots. Only a ghost of her true Bengali cousin.
I don’t like the word ‘foodie’. It has become a word that describes everyone. Apparently you’re a foodie even if you like to survive on only bread and water. So, at the cost of sounding like a food-snob, I’ve stopped calling myself one. Instead, I choose to be known as a glutton. Basic and vulgar.
And the glutton in me would happily take off to Sichuan for a steaming, mouth-numbing bowl of dan dan mian or to Naples for a Neopolitan (or maybe even Finland for a plate of sauteed reindeer and mash). The same way, I would haul my backside to Kolkata over and over for an Egg Chicken Roll from the legend that is Nizam’s.
Kolkatans adore Nizam’s with the same fervor as I imagine Americans do Chipotle, or the British do Gregg’s.
At Nizam’s, you’ll be greeted by the side of the busy city road with a tawa, a cast iron flat-pan, easily a meter in diameter and at least 60 years old, sitting on a roaring fire. It’s been rendered non-sticky and shiny black with decades of use.
And as you wait for the next motorist to drive over you, the cook uses the tawato fry a paratha in oil. The layers of kneaded flour flakes in concentric rings and crisps in the hot oil. Before they get a chance to reach full fluff, he cracks an egg right in the center of all the hullabaloo. Once the egg has sufficiently melded into the paratha, he then proceeds to stuff it with thinly, thinly sliced onions, chopped green chilies and fat, juicy lumps of meat that have had their time in the tandoor and have ended up with caramelized spots and a slick coat of ghee. He trickles rusty red sauce down the meat and gets ready to roll.
This is where he’d like you to watch his hands, as he, with the mythical speed of a ninja, wraps the paratha around the meat and encases the roll in cheap, white paper and shoves it at your face before you’ve had the chance to photograph him.
The onions and chilies and sauce that coats the smoky meat is sweet music. For a moment the busy-ness of the chaotic street, the heat from the open fire, the sweltering weather, all mellows when you sink your teeth into the roll. The heat from the chilies will get you, but then the twang from the egg calms it down.
Note the absence of frivolous veggies like capsicum or carrots. Ask for ketchup or green chili sauce at your own risk. You’ll get eyed from head to toe, marked as an outsider, and reluctantly served bottles of sauce. You can ask for lamb instead of chicken. You can ask for a double helping of meat or egg. Badshah’standoori fish roll is also a big hit among champion shoppers dotting Hogg Market.
You can also ask for a vegetarian version — just make sure you give the cook a moment to finish laughing at you.
A roll, when we were in school, was almost always an evening treat. A Bengali tea break. A meal by itself or a prelude to a light dinner.
A roll, when we were home from college, was a gift from the boys we left behind. To be shared under a temporary plastic shed, over shy stolen looks, during a sweater-less Indian winter.
A roll, is now a showpiece on the shelf. A rare encounter to notice and relish every time I go to Kolkata to visit my folks. One of those things you can’t forget, like blueberry stained fingers in summer, or the struggle with mosquito nets, or the porch swing that broke and was never used again.
But that’s besides the point, since you never want to forget anyway.
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Best places to eat:
Nizam’s, Hogg Market
Badshah, Hogg Market
Arsalan, Park Circus
Ok, let’s be honest, every neighborhood in Kolkata sort of have their own famous roll shop.
The Kati Roll Co, Poland St
In New York
The Kati Roll Co, Greenwich Village
Biryani Cart, 49th St & 6th Ave