6 am on a Sunday morning is a flurry of activities in this Kolkata neighborhood called Tiretti Bazaar. A loud cacophony of sights and sound will greet any visitor at this tiny piece of road called Sunyet Sen Street. For the unversed, Sunyet Sen Street is located near Poddar Court behind Lal Bazar Police Headquarters and near the Central Metro Station in Bowbazar, Kolkata. But why is it so special?
Well, Tiretti, or the Chinese market, as it is called by locals, is one of the last remnants of a bygone era. Once home to 20,000 ethnic Chinese Indian nationals, Kolkata’s Chinese population has dropped noticeably since its inception. First having settled in the city as early as the 1780s, the Chinese have played a definitive role in shaping the cuisine of Kolkata.
The Place For Die-Hard Foodies
And Tiretti is one of the last remnants of authentic Chinese cuisine in the city. Every die-hard foodie worth his penny has been to Tiretti at least once to savor the best home-made Chinese food and breakfast.
We rode out one early morning to try out the array of delicacies this place is known for. The best way to reach Tiretti is to either take a bus, get down in front of Central Metro Station and walk a few steps. If one drives, they can get parking in front of Poddar Court. However, reaching early is important. The fresh, aromatic fare is available only until the street is not turned into a parking lot for vehicles of office goers. Going on a Sunday morning, however, gives one a bit more time to try out the delicacies as the offices in the area are closed.
The best way to identify if you have reached Tiretti is the wafting aroma. Makeshift hawkers line the street selling their wares. They range from fish ball soup (delicate steamed fish dumplings served in a bowl full of broth) to sui mais (steamed dumplings in a paper thin cover usually made with either fish or prawns) to fried wontons and even spring rolls.
Who Was Edward Tiretta?
Another amazing thing found at Tiretti are the steamed closed baos – wonderful soft fluffy Chinese steamed buns that are stuffed with either chicken or pork. There is a larger bao available as well, which contains an egg. You can differentiate the pork ones from the chicken with an identifying red mark on the bao. You can also get preserved chicken and meat balls to cook up a storm at home. Until a few years back, the street also had an old lady selling coconut balls, rice and sesame seed sweet balls, and sticky rice, but sadly, it seems she has closed shop.
Tiretta Bazaar, as the place is officially named, first finds mention in Upjohn’s map of Calcutta in 1790. Historical records indicate that the bazaar got its name after Edward Tiretta, an Italian living in Calcutta who owned the bazaar and several plots of land in the city. And while ownership of the place changed hands, the name remained.
Indo-China Maritime Trade Route
However, Chinese food from Kolkata has evolved into its own cuisine over the years. It all traces back to the Chinese neighbourhood which developed around the area in the mid-19th century when Chinese sailors who had been on the Indo-China maritime trade route, made stops in Calcutta and stayed back in the city instead of returning home. This, along with Hakka families, many of whom since then shifted to Tangra make up for the basics of the wonderful fare found at this quaint morning bazaar in Kolkata.
As we reached Tiretti, we were in for a shock! The place was filled with vendors and buyers from all walks of life, from aged Chinese residents who were out for their morning with grandkids in tow, to youngsters having a quick snack following a bout of morning jog to Bengalis, Punjabis and other Calcutta residents out to experience South-East Asian breakfast in all its glory.
Piping Hot Sui Mais
We approached a Chinese Aunty selling piping hot sui mais (four pieces a plate) – ever smiling and affable, she served us the steaming dumplings on a paper plate along with a dollop of spicy Chinese chutney. A bite or two later, we were off to a small conversation, where she revealed she has been selling her ware for the last 30 years.
“As a kid when I came to Tiretti, it was a sprawling market, much larger than what it is now. Most of the people I knew have long since left the business, moved out of the city, or are not interested in selling their wares at all.” The aunty, dressed in a simple floral printed black dress said she wakes up early each morning to make each dumpling by hand before coming to the market to set up shop.
A second shop beside her sells chicken pies. The aromatic chicken pies have a soft flaky crust and the smell of butter wafting through. The gentleman at the store, all business-like, already fatigued from the early morning crowd noted there are only a handful of families left selling their wares, while the rest have been taken up by locals who learned the trade from them.
But how does Tiretti add to the pages of culinary history? A closer look at Tiretti will offer you a glimpse at how the Chinese have generously lent their influence to Kolkata’s cuisine. Dishes like Indo-Chinese Hakka Noodles and Chilli Chicken inundate the market. While that has, in the process, added a dimension to what is considered to be Chinese culinary influence in the world, Tiretti manages to showcase that they have been able to preserve a selection of original recipes that are innately reminiscent of their culture and heritage mixed with complex Kolkata aromas and tastes that epitomize the pedigree of their culinary heritage.