Text by Shahwar Kibra | Photos by Tanumay Naskar
IT'S A HEADY RIOT of colours and aromas from the moment you step in, and yet, you can’t possibly miss its old world charm, dating back to a black-and-white time. Tucked away in the shadows of Kolkata’s biggest mosque — Nakhoda Masjid, Zakaria Street is the lesser known cousin of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road, and Hyderabad’s old quarters.
You can’t hold its dinginess against it, neither the fact that ancient structures canopying over your head threaten to come crashing down in case you miss a step and knock one of them over. It’s how most old places are — teetering on the edge of collapse, and yet, lying on a delicate balance with the help of some unmistakable sorcery.
For Zakaria Street, the magic lies in its almost tangible smellscape, especially in the month of Ramzan, when the lanes are awash with food for the gods.
On Zakaria Street, the carnival commences soon after Shab-e-Barat, or the day of forgiveness for one’s sins in the Islamic calendar. The neighbourhood, along with the adjoining Kolutola Market, Phears Lane, Chitpur and Rabindra Sarani, form the erstwhile colonial ‘Black Town’, with its ‘White’ counterpart in Dalhousie Square (renamed BBD Baag). While the ‘Black Town’ housed natives, the ‘White Town’ doubled up as political and bureaucratic corridors for the British.
Modernities overlying the remains of the red brick architecture in the area is a palimpsest of the past that boasts of the ‘Jorasanko’ home of Tagore, the ‘Salim Manzil’ residence of Gauhar Jaan, and the home of Raja Rammohan Roy, among others. The "cultural capital of India" might just have been birthed in the vicinity of these alleys, of which Zakaria Street continues to receive generations of loyalists, who find their way back to it in search of familiar flavours this time of the year.
From musical instruments to Chinese shoes, ittar (perfume) to addhi (fine cotton) kurtas, dry fruits to shimmery bangles, the time worn, myriad shops melt into each other, making the rare new establishment look like an eye sore. What strings them together is the enchanting smell of Mughlai food round the year, more so during Ramzan, when the door to culinary heaven is thrown open.
During the holy month, Zakaria Street pulsates with devoted crowds of fasters and feasters, congregating at food stalls after the evening tarawih prayers. The buzz refuses to die down until sehri, or the pre-dawn meal.
Besides the makeshift stands selling their ‘festive’ delicacies, the traditional eateries here serve “Ramzan Specials” through the month too. The gastronomic extravagance here may find stiff competition in other parts of the country, but Zakaria Street remains unbeatable in terms of pocket pinch even today. Having grown up on a Ramzan diet of naans, kebabs, fried meat, haleem, firni, falooda, shahi tukda and other delicacies in Kolkata, these lanes feel as good as home.
For meat lovers, this corner in Kolkata is nothing short of paradise. Taskeen’s ‘Changezi chicken’ and ‘Mahi Akbari’ (fried fish) are sold by the kilo; Adam’s ‘Suta kebab’ — so soft that it cuts with a thread or ‘suta’ — melts in your mouth before you know. Rows of rohu, katla and pomfret, bathed in the choicest marinades, hang from angry red skewers.
The sumptuous ‘Kolkata biryani’ (complete with a helping of potato) from Aminia or Royal India Restaurant waits right around the corner, only a few feet away from all the bustle. The haleem at Sufia is a dream made of meat, wheat and pulses, frothing in a bed of ghee. The delicacy is served with koftas.
As you slip into one of the sidewalks, you land up in the breadmakers’ alley selling crispy baqarkhani (studded with poppy seeds, traditionally paired with haleem) and the mildly sweet, saffron-flavoured sheermal (had with stew or tea). The Roghani naan and meetha naan find space on the shelves too.
The occasional flaky, white lachcha (shredded flour vermicelli fried in ghee) and khajla (flaky flour disks fried in ghee) can also be spotted being dunked in a bowl of hot milk at sehri meals.
Finally, Bengal’s ‘sweet-tooth’ is tended to with the century-old Haji Allauddin Sweets serving mawa laddoos (dipped in pure ghee), cottony gulab jamuns and sugary halwas — all of which qualify as manna. A few steps down the lane, and you reach ME Karodia Sweets famous for its Muscat halwa — a local variant of the legendary Turkish Delight, topped off with a helping of aflatoons, baloo-shahi. However, the iftaar remains largely incomplete without a cup of sweet tea, served with a dollop of milk, in these ancient lanes of India’s eastern capital (counting calories here is sacrilegious).
The serpentine lanes of Zakaria Street demand more than just a day or two of perfunctory strolling and exploring. It’s a universe steeped in visual, olfactory, and historic riches — pure decadence, one might say, in a largely mechanised world.
As the sun sets to the accompaniment of the evening azaan, kitchens begin to flood with devotees and pessimists alike. In this part of the world, being a lover of all things food is mostly good enough.
Shahwar Kibria is a PhD research scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests include sufism and film, music and global audio visual cultures
Tanumay Naskar is a Kolkata-based photographer