Kolkata received the sobriquet, the City of Joy, from a French author Dominique Lapierre, and it's not hard to comprehend why. The city is a melting pot of cultures, traditions and values, and the people are always warm and welcoming! It is also the street food capital of India, boasting an eclectic array of dishes. And as a Kolkata native and a foodie, I must introduce you to one of the city's most famous street foods, the kathi roll, and its birthplace, the legendary Nizam's Restaurant. Raza Hassan Saheb set up Nizam's in 1932, in the bustling New Market area. Back then, Kolkata was known as Calcutta. Nizam's was the ultimate destination for all the connoisseurs who couldn't have enough of the scrumptious beef, khiri (cow udders) and mutton kebabs. And then one fine day, the same roasted, succulent kebabs were wrapped in fried, flaky flatbreads called parathas and the kathi roll came into being. Today, it is famous and ubiquitous the world over. And yet, the old-world charm and whiff of nostalgia add a special hard-to-replicate flavour to the Nizam's kathi roll.
In colonial Calcutta, Indian natives and British expats devoured the palatable kebabs - grilled on iron skewers till smoked and charred - at Nizam's alike. However, the British patrons found it somewhat messy and troublesome to dig into the greasy kebabs with their hands. It was especially inconvenient for those on the go, including the babus and sahibs (the British bureaucrats) making the daily commute to the adjacent business district of Dalhousie Square. To make their lives easier, someone at Nizam's started wrapping the wildly popular kebabs in crispy parathas and further wrapping the paratha roll in wax paper to make sure no gravy dripped from the kebabs. The ingenious idea was a hit! Everyone was guzzling the rolls happily. In 1964, Nizam's discarded the heavy and expensive iron skewers in favour of bamboo skewers (known as 'kathi' in the native Bengali language, meaning 'stick') and that is how the famous kathi roll came into being!
Ask anyone in Kolkata, and they will tell you that the trick to a great kathi roll lies in the paratha! The flatbread is cooked twice on a flat tawa (a large frying pan made of cast iron); it is first roasted on low heat and then fried with a bit more oil than what is usually required. The wax paper wrapped around the roll soaks the excess oil. The parathas must be flaky but not so crispy that they break away under the pressure of the generous kebab stuffing. Oh, the kebabs! The soft, juicy and slightly charred kebabs add not only the wholesome goodness of Indian masalas but also the smokey aroma of charcoal.
Today, the Nizam's Restaurant doesn't serve beef anymore. But the mutton and chicken kathi rolls more than make up for that with their delectable taste and mouth-watering flavour! The restaurant stands tall on Hogg's Street right behind the Kolkata Municipal Corporation building. Even after being in business for almost 9 decades and making indelible marks on the culinary map of not just Kolkata but also the world, Nizam's is still the place that values the authenticity of food far more than the frills of modern decor! So, from a distance, the Nizam's Restaurant might look like another non-descript food joint. But as you keep getting nearer, the smokey aroma of the kebabs will awaken your senses and set you up for a memorable gastronomic experience!
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