The Tantalizing Spicy Sourness of Potato Mash Dipped in Tamarind Water
Phuchka in Kolkata
The underground metro train surfaced and came to a screeching halt before heaving out exhausted, sweating passengers from its air-conditioned interiors. In less than a moment, the ball of humanity poured into the staircases and escalators, molten lava-like, and was eventually thrown out into the open. The momentary relief from the stale, enclosed space doesn’t really last. Calcutta (or Kolkata) summers are usually hot, humid, and stinking of sweat, and this day was not much different from the ones I spent here growing up, sixteen years back.
Sixteen years ago, my friends and I would be returning from our college, and there would be a hurry to reach home, seize something to eat, and go on for evening classes or hobby courses. The enormous crowd from the metro station would be pushing us in the general direction like a great stream of water, just like today. We would keep going, until suddenly a thought would strike. Phuchka!
Phuchka stalls are found all over Kolkata, in every nook and corner. Years ago, the stalls would open in the late afternoons and go on, undeterred, until the last customer went home content. Today, it is also a late breakfast item. From the streets of Kolkata, phuchka have made their way into boutique restaurants and five star ones, and are served at all times.
I spread out my limbs to find balance and then elbow away from the homeward mass, towards a less-used outlet. The cobbled square just outside the gateway is lined with huge glass boxes containing crisp, yellowish balls the size of lemons. Phuchka.
The man on the other side of the box, the phuchkawalla, is almost hidden by his cart load of goodies. He is not the same man who served me and my friends sixteen years back, but I go ahead and watch him work. Like the typical phuchkawalla, he is smashing potatoes in a large, ancient aluminum plate, adding to it coarsely powdered black salt, tangy spices, chopped coriander, and finely sliced chilies with singular concentration. The crowd is still thin, so he takes his time kneading the mass of smashed potato in, say, 32 different ways. Finally, he scrapes his hand on the sides of the plate and looks up at the faces collected around him with pride and satisfaction, almost like a ringmaster before presenting his best act to the crowd. Then starts his magic.
“How many will you have?” My childhood phuchka seller would almost throw a challenge with a glint in his eyes and a sideways smile. This seller hands over tiny, disposable bowls to the motley audience circling his cart and I notice it’s not plastic. In swift movements, he reaches inside the glass box, takes out one phuchka at a time, deftly makes a hole in it with his left thumb, takes a small round of the carefully prepared potato mash, and shoves it into the irregular opening. Finally, he dips the whole thing in a clay pot containing tamarind water and serves the dripping, still-crisp round of endless flavors to the first customer. The act has not changed at all. The whole process takes him 15 seconds.
Sixteen years back, the taste of phuchka was always that of freedom and recklessness, considering family elders forbade us to have this unhygienic roadside snack. The crispness of the flour shell and the tantalizing spicy sourness of the potato mash dipped in tamarind water cannot completely define the taste of this simple dish. It was the characteristic aftertaste that remained on the tongue long after, the aroma of the bowl made of dried sal (shorea robusta) leaves, the way one’s mouth started watering when remembering them much later, as well as the familiarity that developed gradually with the phuchkawalla, establishing a lifelong bond.
One will find at least one or two stalls selling Kolkata or Bengali phuchka in almost every Indian city. This particular variety is much different than its distant variants, panipuri or golgappa, which are made of durum wheat, have grams for filling, and are accompanied with sweet sauces. Kolkata phuchka tastes of chilli, of tamarind, of full-bodied potato mash, corianders, and of reminiscence. I look at my septuagenarian neighbor relishing a mouthful, and smile happily.