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A Cup of Adda: Food trail for the soul

Updated: May 11, 2023

By Indrani Banerjee




What if Kolkata wasn’t called Kolkata?


Have you ever wondered that if Kolkata wasn't called Kolkata, what might have been its

name? An old city where people from all walks of life bond over food, music, art, literature,

travel, intense political debates, deep soulful discussions, and all of it over a steaming cup of

tea ('cha' or 'chai') held in an earthen cup called 'bhaanr'. Yes, it would quietly possibly

been called Chai-town.


I am 40; a single, queer, feminist woman from the city, who loves to write, paint, art journal,

dance, and go for solo backpacking trips around the world. Also, as a member of Chaitown

Community, and as I write this article for the 1st publication of A Cup of Adda: A Chaitown Stories Magazine , I cannot but marvel at how Chaitown community is a microcosm of this old wise city itself – a bunch of marvellous people bonding over a cup of marvellous chai! As a solo traveller and a backpacker I am fascinated by communities that come together and bond over their food and drinks. Staying at quaint little homestays with local families, strolling

down narrow village lanes nestled in remote mountains, sitting around a bonfire hearing

about old bygone days from the village folks, sharing food, cheering over local liquor,

laughing over incidents that make us so different yet unite us as humans having the same

emotions, is perhaps the best way to feel, and let the true culture and essence of a place

flow in you, through you, and evolve you as a person. My heart then carries a bit of that food

and its history, and my soul, a bit of that place and its people forever, in my overall bigger

journey called life.


So out of all my travel tales, if you ask me which are my favourites in terms of communities

that bond over food and festivities, my top three picks would be these:


Ziro Valley – The land of the tribe that make their own salt!


Ziro Music Festival (ZFM) is one of the most unique outdoor music festivals in the north-

eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, India, and also happens to be the first ever solo trip of

my life! Ziro is one of India’s mysterious tribal lands, a very distant and remote valley tucked

away amidst rolling blue hills and surrounded by the Apatani tribal villages. Till then, I had

only seen photographs of the Apatanis on travel magazines, with their extensively tattooed

faces sporting huge nose plugs. But living in that valley and walking down nearby Apatani

villages back in that year, provided a fascinating sneak-peak into who they are as a

community, and how their food is central to who they are.


Apatani women. Source: www.edtimes.in


Rice, fish, pork, and vegetables form their staple diet, but their extraordinary ways of

sourcing and cooking food, and preserving the ecology has in fact found a place on the

tentative list for UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. But what I found most interesting was their

legendary home-based salt making process! It is said that in old times, due to the scarcity of

salt, the Apatanis were forced to figure out an alternative way to maintain their bodily iodine

requirements. This resulted in each and every family or home making a home-made

brownish salt called ‘tapyo’ using local herbs and grass. This century-old legendary salt-making making process is a crucial part of the Apatani food culture and even now many families in the valley prefer taking ‘tapyo’ separately while eating instead of adding it to the food while cooking.


Apatani women making herbal black salt. Source: www.arunachallivingheritage.com


And so there I was, a year after my separation, 10 months after starting therapy, sitting along

the slopes of Ziro valley, listening to the incredible north-eastern rock and folk music,

exploring the amazing local dishes of the region, learning about ‘tapyo’, making new friends,

eating and drinking together, hiking to nearby villages post the festival hours, getting sloshed

and being carried to my tent in the middle of the night – all together marking the beginning of

an era of figuring out and living my life, by myself, for myself, and in my own way!


Ziro Music Festival, Donyi (Day) Stage. September 2017


Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, India, September 2017


Having local rice beer in a bamboo glass. Cheers to the start of a new life!


Kyrgyzstan - The land of the 40 tribes and their national dish - the Beshbarmak (five

fingers)!


Last year I went on a road trip to Kyrgyzstan, the picturesque mountainous nation of

incredible scenic beauty and proud nomadic traditions, located on the old historic silk route

in Central Asia. Through winding routes across the majestic Tien Shan, its pristine valleys

and enigmatic gorges dotted with wild horses and nomadic shepherd yurts, across the

largest and most scenic alpine lakes in the world, in my 8 days of travel, I was in love with

the Kyrgyz – the landscape, the people, the music, the culture, and of course the food!

Specifically, the national dish of the nation, as well as my personal favourite – the horse

beshbarmak!


Central Asian cuisine is rooted in its traditional nomadic past and hence is rich in meat and

dairy products. The word ‘Beshbarmak’ means ‘five fingers’ since nomadic tribes traditionally

eat this meal using hands, from communal platters, shared between several people, usually

in a ceremonial setting. Beshbarmak is made from finely chopped boiled meat (usually

horse, sheep, or mutton), mixed with noodles (usually egg, and handmade), and an onion

sauce called ‘chyk’. I tried all these three variations and was usually served in a bowl at yurt-

restaurants, with a Kyrgyz artist singing traditional songs playing their ancient three-stringed

fretless instrument the ‘komuz’.


Traditional Kyrgyz nomadic yurts at Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan, August 2022.


Sitting down to eat inside a nomadic yurt. Kyrgyzstan, August, 2022.


But in the case of communal ceremonial meals, there is an elaborate serving ritual for this

national dish of the nation. The first course or serving is called ‘shorpo’ which is a rich meat

broth served in traditional small ceramic bowls called the ‘kese’. Traditionally, the animal

head was roasted and served among the honoured guests next. Now, the shorpo is often

followed by a broth called the ‘ak-serke’ which is the shorpo mixed with a fermented dairy

product made from mare milk called the ‘kymyz’. Festive beshbarmak can also be cooked with the dry and spicy traditional sausages called ‘qazi’ or ‘sujuk’. Next, the majority of the meat is served and distributed amongst guests, who receive a cut of meat according to their age, gender, and status in society. This is known as the ‘ustukan’ where the oldest and the most honoured guests are served the prime cuts of the meat. Lastly, the remaining meat is shredded into small pieces and mixed with noodles and a little broth, which is served in a communal bowl and eaten with the hands by the rest of the people– the besh-barmak.


A plate of Hors-meat Beshbarmak! Kyrgyzstan, August 2022.


Apart from trying out beshbarmak, pilaf, and all other central Asian dishes that I could lay my

hands and eyes on, another memorable part of the trip was randomly stopping mid-way in

valleys, meeting shepherds, watching them milk their mares, being invited to their nomadic yurts, sitting on the floor and sharing tales of life and travel over their traditional summer drink ‘kumys’ made of fermented mare milk or a bowl of mare milk itself. Needless to say, that this road trip to this Central Asian paradise was a life-changing one. It was the first international solo trip for me after three years of the ravaging pandemic. Three years of thinking that perhaps life as we know it will end, and the world will end. And I guess the

pandemic changed all our lives and each one of us at a fundamental level. I saw Las Vegas

getting replaced from my bucket list with Central Asia. And little moments like the one shared

with the shepherd drinking kumys on that Kyrgyz valley perhaps sums up the phase that my life is in right now – the phase of healing and finding not happiness, but peace.


Meeting a Kyrgyz shepherd on the way to Song-Kul lake and having conversations over a cup of tea and kumys!


Kolkata – The land where food is the main religion!


After having travelled the remote valleys of my country in my 1st solo trip, to the mountains of Central Asia in my last one, and a whole lot of incredible places in between, I finally come

back home – to my own city, Kolkata. There is practically no way I can write an article about

communities bonding over food and music and not mention my own tribe! People say that for

Kolkata, or the Bengalis in particular, the primary religion is food. Everything else comes

later. I cannot really disagree to this stereotype! However, if you are stuck on Kolkata being

just the land of the ‘Rosogolla’, and ‘Durga Pujo’, and the ‘Mishti Doi’, or even the ‘cha’, you

are grossly mistaken.


I often solo-travel around my city as well, exploring nook and corners, lanes and bylanes, old

book shops and new cafes, and it is safe to say that the best way to explore this city is not

via its historic building sight-seeing, but via its food trails. One of the things I find interesting

about Kolkata is that it used to be the British capital when the empire stretched from

Afghanistan in the west to Burma in the east, and as a result this city is like a pot of melting

cultures. Or should I say, a pot of melting diverse dishes?! So the heart of the city is not just

in its ‘Rosogolla’ but also in the lacs of myriad eateries and stalls scattered all over the city

around the ‘pandals’ during the Durga Pujo and thousands of people thronging them 24X7

on those 5 festive days; it is in the home-made cakes and wines brought out on the lanes of

the Bow-Barracks by the Anglo-Indian community during Christmas; it is in the lavish

continental dinners on Park Street all lighted up during the Christmas and New Year week; it

is in the Armenian delicacies found on Armenian Street and in the Armenian cakes, snacks,

and home-made fruit wines made by the few Armenian families during the Armenian

Christmas on 6th of January; it is in the Jewish bakeries in New Market;, it is in the early

morning Chinese breakfast made by traditional Chinese families and brought out on the

lanes of Tiretti Bazar in the wee hours of the morning, or in the Chinese dishes in

‘Chinatown’ part of the city during the Chinese New Year in February; it is also in the Bengali

cuisine during the Bengali new year ‘poila boishakh’ amidst the perpetual fight between

people from West Bengal and East Bengal (Bangladesh) over whose cuisine is better

tasting; and of course it is in the year-long, daily ritual of ‘adda’ – or getting together after a

hard day’s work, over the cup of hot tea or ‘cha’!


Christmas at Bow Barracks, Kolkata. Source: www.outlookindia.com


Chinese Breakfast at Tiretti Bazaar, Kolkata. Source: www.pressreader.com


Jewish Bakery at New Market, Kolkata. Source: www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com


As an early 80’s kid, and like everyone else from my era, I have a love-hate relationship with

this city. I grew up and witnessed most other India cities zoom past us in terms of job

opportunities and GDP growth. Many of us left the city. Many of us stayed back. Many of us

returned. Many of us didn’t. So for me, at 40, with the priorities that I have in my life, I finally

realise why Kolkata is called ‘The City of Joy.’. I am glad I never left. Because this

community has soul. And this community feels like home.


In the world famous book, ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the fox says to the

prince – “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the

eye. That is what the city of Kolkata is about. These are the things that fascinate me when I

travel all over the world. And finally, that is what lies at the centre of Chaitown Community’s

soul.


To many more years of building communities and bonding over ‘the essentials’ that might be

invisible to the eye, Chaitown Community, wish you a very happy 1st anniversary!



About the Author

Indrani Banerjee is a non-conforming, non-normative, single, atheist, queer feminist, and a child-free by choice woman. An instructional designer by profession, she is also an activist and a member of Sappho for Equality. Apart from work and activism, Indrani is a backpacker and a solo traveller, an artist and a poet, and uses different mediums of art and performance art (poetry) to express herself and to provoke and rebel against the rigid oppressive structures of society.

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