Its a fresh, beautiful dawn, almost spring, and I start my walk towards Shiraz, Park Street from Park Circus. This place is actually located beside the Shiraz Golden Restaurant on Mallik Bajar and is called “Shiraz”. The time’s five past five, and I know I am slightly early, but its nice because I can feel the wind touch my face gently, reminding me that the season of mists is nearly over, and the hot summer months are just around the corner. But although April would be a cruel month, March is still bearable in Kolkata.
The road is deserted. I’m supposed to meet R here, but R is late. I wait for a few seconds before the lights and the familiar sounds of cups tinkling draw me in. Shiraz, my old, faithful darling. I started visiting this place when I started college – I’d come around 7 am in the morning, start the day with a dose of meat, then go to my college, and study (read: quietly snoring in a corner) in the library till my history class started. At that point, the waiter would try to intimidate a wide-eyed young girl who would be charmed by his Urdu and the way he would casually mention terns like “zabaan” and “magaz” in the same line as “keema” and “kaleeja“. My eyes would gleam with anticipation, but money was a constraint, and so, I’d eat whatever I could afford. It was Shiraz where I ate “Paya” for the first time, sitting alone on a bench, dipping bread chunks into the broth.
Years went by, and I discovered other new places for breakfast. I went back, on and off, like a long-forgotten ex who you suddenly meet for a one-night stand, mostly forgotten except for fond memories which you gently fold away inside a secret compartment of your soul, but at times, their edges poke out, and when your obsessive compulsive soul determinedly walks to fold it back, every bit of it comes tumbling out, and with it brings that insane craving to revisit the place again.
I went back to Shiraz on my birthday last year. It was an incredible morning, I was slightly high after the previous night’s shenanigans, and the three of us were desperately hungry. We entered the premises – my friends had never been there before – and the smiling server looked at me, nodded, and walked off, like nothing had changed, and I felt a desperate sense of familiarity and relief, I don’t know, maybe its the reason why I love food so much – the familiarity of it all, of a place, the people who accept you, and the food – it all feels so comfortable and calming. I ordered three of the five dishes he mentioned that day – the Kaleeja (liver), the special stew (this is the white stew), and the keema (mince), cooked with tiny bits of diced potatoes. After the food hit the table, for the next ten minutes, there wasn’t a single sound apart from rough demands and our busy mouth gulping down the fragrant gravy with bits of tandoori roti dunked in it from time to time.
To be fair, the paaya here, which is a winter favorite for many, is not what I come here for. I’ve met plenty of people who “swear” by it. I don’t. Its way too underseasoned for me, together with the fact that I am not a very big fan of paaya in general, because I don’t really enjoy the gelatinous bits from trotters that much. My poison here is the liver, which is essentially one of the first things I ordered here.
The liver is served in a onion-laced gravy, perfectly cooked, and topped with a generous helping of flavoured oil. Virtually every dish comes with an extra helping of oil, but you can cut it down by specifically instructing the server not to make it too oily. They would frown at you, but they’ll do your bidding.
The Special Stew is a white gravy which is considerably yogurt-laden and quite heavy for the constitution. They run out of it pretty quickly, and occasionally doesn’t make it. However, come here often, and you’ll get a taste of it. I like their regular stew with tomatoes in it, but it is a bit too sour for me to like it early morning, although I have seen many tuck into a bowl of it early morning because its a favourite of many.
The other favourite of the house is daal gosht. The concept of lentils cooked with meat might remind you of the making of haleem in Kolkata, but this is far from it. In fact, this is quite similar, in many ways, to the dal gosht I have had in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. They make a decent keema which is quite like what I get in home, so I tend to skip this, going straight for gold, or at least, it is for me.
The two things I tend to order at Shiraz are not made everyday. They are made only if the ingredients are fresh, and/or available. “Zaban” or tongue is cooked in a rather thick gravy and served, and the texture of the meat is slightly chewy, which might put some people off. The other one is “Magaz”, and I’d tell you a secret – they serve the entire brain, without mashing it up, here, and one of my favourite things to do is to bash the brain up and mix with its cumin and coriander laden gravy, and then top with some green chilli slices, lemon juice and coriander (they supply with these if you ask nicely. After mixing, I sit back, order a cup of tea, and eat this, one teaspoon at a time smeared on pieces of the roti, the brain a creamy delight on my tongue.
I don’t drink tea, but the tea made at Shiraz, a thick, creamy, orange concoction, is what you would need to counter the gastronomic decadence you just indulged in. If kept for long, a skin will form, and I tend to use the back of my spoon to carefully skim it off before taking a sip of the hot drink. Today, as I walk in, I see my favourite server, whom I’ve always addressed as “Chacha”, sipping on a cup of tea. He asks if I want some, and I nod my assent. He sits down and drinks his tea while another server brings me my cup. I’m early, and not everything is ready, but its a beautiful dawn which assures me that the best things in life come if I wait a little longer, or try a little harder, and that’s the wonder of it all.