Thursday, April 3, 2014

Jhalmuri is a hit in London

I was lucky to meet Angus two months back while going to a tribal village. His love for Bengali food is infectious. Please read the article here . I am now taking him to hidden food treasures of Kolkata. He has made an amazing documentary on street food of Kolkata. Without any doubt it is the best I have ever seen in this category - it is unique in its own way. If you want a copy, you can contact me.He is also writing a book on street foods of Kolkata. According to him in Kolkata you get the best street food anywhere in the world taking everything into consideration. 

click the link for the documentary in Fox Travel and Living in "Eat Street"

Jhalmuri man
A humble newspaper cone of jhalmuri from the streets of Calcutta changed the life of Angus Denoon. Selling his house, the Englishman moved into a van from which he started selling jhalmuri across London, wrote a book, and made a film. Denoon tells t2 how it all started and why Calcutta continues to fascinate him.

How did your love affair with Calcutta street food begin?

 I first came to Calcutta eight years ago, only for a day. But that day was the last day of Durga Puja and the city was very open and friendly. At Sealdah, I saw all the drummers (dhakis) and I remember thinking “this is unbelievable!”

I came back for longer the next year. I noticed the hand movements of the street-food sellers — like a dance, fluid and precise, with no wasted energy. The way they run their kitchens, their set-up, with really efficient ways of chopping... was totally inspiring. I loved it.

Which street food did you try first?

puri breakfast. I was initially sceptical... but you know what happens when you eat really good food. You lose the worry and suddenly the pleasure takes over.

But how did you end up selling Calcutta street food in England?

Before I came back to Calcutta six years ago, I had a shop, a girlfriend, a dog, and a cottage in Devon. Then the relationship ended, the shop I sold, my dog died and I decided to see where this project took me. Back in England, I started working at festivals, selling jhalmuri and doing a bit of catering....

But why jhalmuri?

I used to watch a muriwala a lot in Calcutta, so when I was asked to make something from Calcutta in England, I thought I’d try that. I went to Southall, got a few tins, murisevand other things. It was a very odd version of jhalmuri...

I started making it at a Friday market in Devon — a hippie market but also with lots of old people, conservative customers. Everyone, from the hippies to the conservatives, loved it. I continued simply because of their reaction! Rich, poor, Jamaicans, Africans, Chinese, English — the whole cross-section of society. When they see it being made, they’re like little babies with their eyes wide open, and when they taste it, they’re like ‘WOW!’ Never before have I seen that reaction for a dish.

One is always adapting, just like with the muri. I’ve now got better sources for my ingredients — Wembley, Tooting, Southall, you learn where is good for what. I can chop very fast now, I have a little way of cutting a cucumber and a tomato and I know how to play the crowd.

So you’re a performer too?

Oh yes. Like all these guys [the street-food sellers of Calcutta]. They’re doing little shows. I’ve watched the customers — maybe they eat from the same man almost every day, but when it’s being made, they watch. Eating street food is a private but public experience. You’re on the level playing field of the streets, where everyone, if they’ve got a little money, can have it.

That’s why Calcutta is so incredible. When you’re on the street, being bombarded with traffic, noise, people, and you put that food in your mouth, you are transported. You get re-energised, you’re given this boost and then off you go.
I think that’s why Calcutta is special. It’s a hard city in many ways — the pollution, the traffic. But this? It’s affordable, good, fresh food. It doesn’t get much better than this! The taste of the food doesn’t have to correlate with the price — that’s the most extraordinary thing for me.

What about your book and film?

The book is a street-food guide for tourists but I want to re-do it. I’ve seen that you can adapt this style of cooking to anything... I want to see how you can adapt it to western cooking.
As for the film, I came to Calcutta and filmed for a month. I had never used a camera before and knew nothing — I just filmed. Back in England, some filmmaker friends taught me how to edit. That’s how the film happened.

I would like my film to be an interactive experience — sounds of Calcutta playing in the background and the film broken up into a day in Calcutta. So, start by passing cups of chai around, pause and put a spotlight on, for example, ghugni being made. Then pass that around, the film begins again and so on.

You said Londoners were initially wary — has that changed?

People are opening up. The whole street food thing in London is really taking off... it’s become a bit of a fad. So that’s good, although obviously a fad has its downside.

Your favourite street food?

I love batata puri. And chhatu — both in the solid form with onion and green chilli as well as the paste with water. I’ve just bought three packs, breakfast is sorted for ages!

Tell us about a memorable reaction to your jhalmuri

There was this mela in Acton, a big affair — 20,000 people, mostly Indian. I was nervous because it was my first time selling to Indians. People started coming to me as soon as I arrived, asking: ‘What are you doing? Selling jhalmuri!’

There were three old ladies, tiny and grey-haired, who started singing and clapping as I went about making the muri. Suddenly there were hundreds of people around me, singing and clapping! It was amazing — I got choked up.
The way people react is the main thing and when you see that happen, it’s very powerful. When you’re working in the kitchen of a restaurant, no matter how good the food is or how much you’re paid, you just don’t get to see that.

When I look at my accounts, I don’t really make much, and I work very hard. It’s a labour of love, but you keep going... The food is so good, and that’s when you think you need to keep it going, somehow.

Chronological order