It is the winter of 2017 in Kolkata, and the clock has just struck 8. Thoroughly exhausted after a night shift, I walk out of the of Gate 2 of Medical College, half-staggering. I cross the road, walk over to Surya Sen Street, and into my favourite sweetshop. I order the usual: kochuri, aloor torkari, and one gulab jamun.
Putiram has a self-serve system so you have to wait as the man at the counter hastily places three pieces of puffy kochuri on a paper plate, adds a ladle of dry potato curry at its side, and finishes off with a gulab jamun in whatever empty space is left on the plate, and hands it over for me to carry it to the nearest empty table. And the first bite of the kochuri and spicy aloo is all it takes to rejuvenate me.
Sweet shops in Kolkata sell a lot more than just sweets, and their array of savoury treats have always been a real favourite of mine. These dishes aren’t sold all through the day but usually during limited hours in the mornings and early evenings. Of course, this isn’t an exclusively Bengali thing. Even here in Rohtak and all over North India, sweet shops sell a variety of savoury items like samosa, pyaaz ki kachori, an array of delectable chaats and of course, chole bhature, my idea of a perfect brunch on a lazy Sunday morning.
Although the sweet shops sell their savoury fare all around the year, for me there has always been a certain wintry connotation when it comes to these dishes. Piping hot kochuris served with a spicy curry don’t resonate as strongly in the sweltering summer as it does in the pleasant Kolkata winter. People line up at sweet shops all over the city eagerly awaiting their turn to get a taste of this simple yet heartwarming breakfast.
The kochuri, as we’ve already described, is a kind of flatbread, similar to the loochi, with the optional addition of some kind of filling. A common favourite is the hing-er kochuri, accented with a lentil filling scented with the potent flavour of asafoetida, among other things. The accompanying potato curry can be completely dry like the Putiram version or, as is usually the case, accompanied with a bit of gravy, ideal for mopping up with the kochuri.
The torkari can sometimes be accented with the addition of motor or pigeon peas, which adds another dimension of texture to this simple yet beautiful curry. One of my absolute favourite recipes of Bong Eats is their take on the mishtir dokaner aloor torkari (sweet shop potato curry). I’ve tried it out at home and it is kinda freaky just how close to original the flavour is.
Moving on now to another sweet shop favourite, and this one for me goes back all the way to my childhood. I still remember my childhood obsession with the triangular hand-pie that Bengalis fondly refer to as the shingara. Even today, the charm of a perfectly made shingara never fails to entice, and when Amal from Charulata goes on a poetic rant on this “trikonbishisto khadyosamogri”, only to be overwhelmed by the piping hot filling, the feeling resonates.
Although the kochuri-torkari duo and the shingara both feature the pairing of a maida based component paired with a spiced potato concoction, that is where the resemblance ends. The ingredients might be almost identical, but the textural experiences are worlds apart. The potato mix of a shingara is obviously drier, and in many cases, accented with bits of pea, or peanuts, and in the winters, tiny florets of cauliflower or phulkopi. Phulkopir shingara isn’t a food, it is an emotion.
Which brings us to the all-important casing. While a kochuri is obviously pliable, the casing of the ideal shingara needs to be crisp or khasta, an attribute achieved by rubbing together flour and some fat. You could go with vegetable oil and cheap joints could use dalda, but you get the best results, in my opinion, with Bengali gawa ghee, the brown, nutty concoction which is so very different from the pallid yellow ghee of North India.
The colour of Bengali ghee is attained by not straining out the milk solids as is done in ghee elsewhere, and instead allowing it to brown, which develops a gorgeous nutty flavour, like brown butter in the West. Rubbing the flour with ghee in a ratio as high as 4:1 before adding in the water results in a dough that scented with ghee and wonderfully brittle, since the fat coats the flour grains and arrests gluten development, like in a crumbly shortcrust pastry.
This crisp, ghee-scented casing contrasts wonderfully with the mushy potato filling, which in Bengal is always flavoured with panchforon, the mix of five whole spices namely jeere (cumin), kalojeere (nigella), methi (fenugreek), mouri (fennel) and radhuni (a uniquely Bengali spice). The potatoes aren’t mashed but cut into small chunks for texture. The bite of cauliflower and the crunch of the peanut adds another dimension of texture, not to mention another subtle note of flavour. And it is this addition of cauliflower and peanut, the flavour of panchforon, the scent of ghee and the super flaky crust that sets our shingara apart from the North Indian samosa.
And where there is shingara, there is chutney, the sweet and sour mélange of jaggery and tamarind, spiked with spices like chilli and cumin. I could never get enough of this condiment almost always end up asking for second helpings. Whether this is an import from the North Indian meethi chutney which adds flair to dhoklas and dahi bhallas, I don’t know, but it definitely elevates the shingara to a whole new level. Ketchup doesn’t even come close.
And where there is shingara, there is jilipi. India’s answer to the funnel cake, there is a certain magic to this bright orange, spiral sweet that is hard to describe. Bite into it unceremoniously and you could end up shattering the architecture, resulting in disintegrated sugary tubes. Slightly warm, crunchy on the outside and slightly soft on the inside, all coated in a sticky syrup that gets your hands messy, eating a jilipi is a different experience altogether. Sometimes the jilipi may be substituted with warm spheres of syrupy bonde or boondi, but there is something about the shingara-jilipi combination which I absolutely love.
It is hard to explain why shingara and jilipi feels like a match made in heaven to me. Although you find samosas and jalebis elsewhere in India too, they usually do not come in a pair. Yet, it works. The piping hot shingara and the warm jilipi, the brittle crunch and the syrupy bite, the spicy potato filling and the sticky sweetness of the syrup; it makes sense. Maybe it’s because I’ve always grown up eating the two together, but I don’t know. But for me, it definitely works.
Kochuri with aloor torkari and singara with jilipi are sweet shop staples that every Bengali adores. The urgency to reach the shop early lest they run out, the mad rush at the counter, the sense of ecstasy as you take the first bite; these are emotions that are hard to articulate. If you’re a Bengali, you know exactly what I mean. And if you’re not, I do hope you get to experience it at least once.