Crispy Bites Of Joy

Joydip Sur

Since time immemorial telebhaja has been an irresistible part of Calcutta’s culinary taste, compared to only French fries which incidentally is not French but Belgian in origin. Telebhaja was also once synonymous with adda; munching on to hot aloor chop, peyaji or beguni with muri and gorom cha was no less attraction for its participants. In recent years though chowmein, roll, momo, pizza and burger have usurped its position at the top but every quintessential Calcuttan still savour the taste of telebhaja on a lazy, rain-soaked evening. Crisscrossing the lanes and bylanes of old Calcutta, we rediscover its crispy appeal.

In good old days, just as the sun became low, almost at every neighbourhood in north Calcutta, a man would sit with a small oven, heat a soot covered oily kadai and deep fry delectable aloor chop, beguni, phuluri and peyaji. His customers would stand impatiently outside ignoring the mosquito bites or the heat generated by the oven, mesmerised by the sight of the fritters turning a mellowed golden yellow as if by magic.

At home, khichudi is complimented by beguni- long strips of eggplant (begun) dipped in a batter of besan or peyaji – onions dipped in a similar batter and then deep fried. The women in the household may often debate whether adding kalo jire (black cumin) to the batter makes it more crispy or not but there is no doubt about the universal appeal of telebhaja.

However, with the advent of roadside food joints selling chowmein, roll and momo as evening snacks, telebhaja somewhat lost its popularity. But even today if you are willing to prepare a gastronomical map of Calcutta, you simply cannot leave out Kalika at Surya Sen Street or Lakshmi Narayan Shaw on Bidhan Sarani, both of which have attained legendary fame as the sellers of mouthwatering telebhajas.

Kalika surprises you with its humble looks which are a contrast to its reputation among the foodies.

Established in 1960s, the shop not only sells the usual variety comprising beguni, alur chop but has also introduced innovations in the form of mochar chop, potol er chop and tomator chop.

The telebhajas sold here are not only distinct in size but also has a unique flavour that is hard to find anywhere else. The three Dutta brothers who own this joint say that they owe their success to the recipes handed down to them by their father, Sukumar Dutta, who started the venture. Over the decades the Duttas has perfected the recipe along with their karigars who have come from Nadia.

At Luxmi Narayan Shaw, a picture of Netaji, who once patronized the joint, still hangs on the wall and every year on his birth anniversary, telebhaja is distributed free of cost to everyone. “There is no parallel to Shaw’s telebhaja. I can’t imagine an adda session in our para without crispy begunis or peyajis. It is almost a ritual”, said Rajat Sen, a resident of Bidhan Sarani. “You must try the peyaji sold here. It is known as Netajir peyaji. It is by far the best you will ever come across in the city.” he adds pointing at the wicker basket which stores the golden brown fritters.

Roadside shops selling telebhaja is no longer limited to north Calcutta though the more finicky among us may turn up his nose if the upper coating is too thick or the base too thin. The aloor chops and begunis sold at the bus stand in Dalhousie or at Sealdah station sell like hot cakes in the evening (it is always considered to be an evening snack. You will never get telebhaja at the early hours of the day). Hari Mohanty who has been selling telebhaja near Sealdah’s Baitakhana Bazar for the last two decades starts selling his wares from 4.30 PM in the evening and when he calls it a day at 8 PM there are generally no leftovers.

Lately, there have been several innovations in the recipes. Shops in Bhawanipore area in particular are famous for churning out the most lip smacking daler bora, phuluri and lonkar chop.

So, for once fritter away your health issues and celebrate the delayed monsoon with crispy and tasty telebhajas.

Fast Facts:
Telebhaja is a deep fried fritter, sold mostly in roadside stalls across Calcutta. The main ingredients are sliced into thin pieces or boiled, mashed and marinated with a mixture of spices. Then it is coated with a batter of chickpea flour and deep fried. The most popular varieties of telebhaja are beguni, peyaji, phuluri, dal bora, mochhar chop, phulkopir bora, chingrir chop, tomator chop, lonkar chop, capsicumer chop and pata bhaja.

The Off-beat Ones

  • Daler Bora: Spiced dal [lentil] balls.
  • Phulkopir Bora: Copped cauliflower coated in batter.
  • Mochar Chop- Mashed mocha [plantain] in batter and flour balls.
  • Tomator Chop- Mashed tomato mixed with other vegetable mash or spiced batter.
  • Lonkar Chop- Dried, medium sized hot chillies coated in batter.
  • Capsicumer Chop- Sliced or mashed capsicum filled with mash, coated in batter.
  • Chingrir Chop- Shrimp in spicy potato balls, coated in batter.
  • Machcher Chop- Shredded fish mixed with spiced mashed potatos or vegetable.
  • Keemar Chop- Minced mutton made into balls with spiced potato mash.
  • Pata Bhaja – Flat palak saag (spinach) leaf coated with light sweet batter.