"If you told me five years back I was going to have a restaurant, I'd have laughed," says 27-year-old Shrimoyee Chakraborty. And yet here we are, in her newly opened restaurant Calcutta Street, situated—somewhat ironically—on Tottenham Street, slap bang in Central London.
And actually, she is still laughing—with good reason. A career in food was never really the plan says Shrim (as she is known to most), as we stand in the restaurant's small but perfectly formed kitchen preparing to make puchkas—puffs of crispy semolina filled with a spicy mix of crushed potato and black chickpeas.
It was only after moving to Manchester to study back in 2010 that, starved of decent Bengali food and her mum's home cooking, Chakraborty started to recreate the dishes she grew up with. A few dinners for friends, a blog, and some well-received pop ups later and Chakraborty found herself kicking her job at an economic think tank to the curb for a life as a full-time restaurateur. With a growing number of glowing reviews under her apron, it's pretty clear that giving up the day job was a good call.
The onus at Calcutta Street is on home—rather than fine—dining, and Chakraborty is undoubtedly the hostess with the mostest. It's barely 5 PM and she's disappointed that I won't allow a shot or two of vodka in my spiced apple and ginger cocktail (although half an hour and several puchkas later, and it doesn't take much to convince me to try a Bengal Rose: a mix of East London Liquor Company vodka, prosecco, ginger, and rose essence, or to stay for dinner).
The food is authentic Calcuttan cuisine, inspired by the street food Chakraborty would eat after school, as well as her mother's home cooking.
"I've eaten this food for 27 years of my life—it's food I definitely know I'm going to do justice to," she says, adding that she gets frustrated with the UK's perception of Indian food.
"There's no such thing as Indian food," she tells me, as she mashes potato with just a pinch of chili powder and Calcutta Street's in-house dry fried spice—a blend of cumin, black salt, coriander, and red chili flakes. "You only need to look at the array of different dishes you can have from just one region. I can add all of the Indian restaurant menus in England together and they cover about 2 percent of what India really is."
It's one of the reasons Chakraborty is determined not to stray far from her roots. Although that's not to say that she won't experiment a little.
"My mum didn't just stick to purely Bengali food, she cooked all kinds of things," she remembers. "She used to watch a lot of Nigella Lawson, which is how I got into Nigella."
After making small holes and stuffing the semolina balls with the savoury filling, Chakraborty makes the sauce to go with them: a tamarind water mixed with a hefty squeeze of lemon, torn coriander, and a fresh green chili. With the seeds too, naturally. A spoonful of the water is then poured into the puchka and they are eaten whole. On Shrim's menu, puchkas are served as a starter but in Calcutta they are munched on the roadside throughout the day, and especially popular amongst those who like their snacks to come with a challenge.
"Usually people have competitions to see how many they can eat and how hot and how spicy they can be," Chakraborty explains. "People crowd round one guy who serves them on big leaves. We would eat 50 in one go."
I eat one, slightly intimidated at its size and the down-in-one rule. Humiliatingly and inevitably, just like the first drag of a cigarette taken in a playground, and I splutter as the chili slides down my throat on a wave of tangy tamarind juice. The kitchen stifles giggles.
The second one is easier, Chakraborty assures me. I eat two more, my competitive streak already kicking in. Still, I'm a total rookie at the puchka game, especially next to Shrim whose highest score is 100 in a single session.
"I had a really bad time afterwards though," she says. "I didn't go to school for four or five days. My mum was not pleased. And I didn't even win—my friend ate 102."
No-one's suggesting you try and beat Chakraborty's friend, but if you're looking for a delicious way to kick off your dinner party, with perhaps a drinking game thrown in, puchkas are definitely the ones for you.