Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Buying Beef in Kolkata

There is a place in Kolkata called Beck Began, where you can purchase meat and fresh produce near Park Circus. Beck Began is located in a mostly Muslim area and it was rumored to sell beef there. I visited this place last weekend after work Saturday. We grabbed a cab as it was getting dark and headed over there. The traffic was crazy. Everything was stopped and every space between cars was filled with pedestrians, rickshaws, carts, and dogs. Each time a light would change, no one seemed to move and there was very little movement. Some of the lights would take ten minutes to change, so cars are turned off, and people open doors, and walk around trying to see up ahead. When the light finally turns green, all the drivers scramble back to their vehicles and turn them on. If the car doesn't immediately start, the horns start up and don't stop until you move.

We finally made the left turn toward the market. The smell of meat was quite strong, mixed in with assorted other odors, including some you didn't want to acknowledge. We entered the maze of stalls making a left here and a right there, passing large piles of artfully arranged vegetables, some I've never seen before. Gorgeous, plump pomegranates, citrus fruits, tiny little green grapes, and bananas the size of your fingers were everywhere. Lights were bare bulbs strung along live wires strung along the tops of the wood posts from stall to stall. The floor was sometimes dirt, stone, cobbles or bricks. Newspapers and trash floated by like tumbleweeds. You had to watch for holes and high spots that could trip you.

"Yes, Madam"?"

"Madam, look at my freshest vegetables."

"What can you be wanting, Madam?" There was a barrage of people asking for my attention. I just followed my friend forward.

We walked through until we reached a smaller enclosure where a group of men were seated on a bench. There was a small portion of beef hanging from a hook on the ceiling. My friend asked in Hindi for a half kilo. One gentleman looked as us, then stood up pulling a sharp knife off the stone counter. There was dirt and other detritus covering the blade and the counter itself. He cut large chunks off the slab and threw them toward another man behind the counter, coating the meat in the dirt. It was wrapped in newspaper, we paid him then moved to the chickens. (Later, we scrubbed and washed the meat carefully as part of our cooking prep.)

"Yes, madam?" The chickens were small and were kept in a basket, still alive. My friends asked me how much chicken I wanted. I looked at the chickens clucking away and said just one, and I told her I couldn't watch this. It was one thing to select a block of meat off a hook, but seeing live chickens, made me so sad. I walked toward the fish market where there were many small cats roaming. Dogs were sleeping on some of the stone slabs where the fishmongers weren't set up. I approached one vendor with large shallow pans of fish and prawns. They were very fresh. I hadn't seen fish this fresh since purchasing them off the docks in Gloucester MA at 4:30 in the morning. I selected a kilo of tiger prawns for 250 rupees. They used a large sickle type blade to strip the shells and a second person removed the head. One of the men threw fish entrails to the cats.

It's quite a symbiotic relationship between the strays and the fishwallas. It's not like you see them petting the animals or treating them like pets, it's more like they serve a purpose of taking care of the parts of the fish that could not be sold.

My friends came back with a very warm package wrapped in newspaper. I was a bit nauseated about the chicken because it was the only creature that I had seen alive. Americans are so used to seeing their meat in a plastic wrapped foam package, carefully trimmed and appointed that it doesn't seem like an animal. Here, that mental divide isn't available. I think if I'd lived on a farm and had to prepare my own animals growing up, it would have been different.

After that, we went back to the produce area where we selected all sorts of fruit and vegetables. My friend showed me how to clean the veggies with salt and water to get them cleaned up. This market had very fresh produce. Comparing it to the U.S., I much preferred the quality here. The grapes I purchased in the U.S. came from Chile had no flavor compared to the ones from Beck Bagan. The tiny limes gave out much more juice. The herbs were spotless and lasted much longer than the "fresh" ones I'd purchase from the supermarket back home. The basics, onions, potatoes, garlic and ginger, were plentiful and in great condition. That day, we discovered beautiful oyster mushrooms, milky mushrooms and button mushrooms that were practically perfect. I hadn't seen this level of freshness anywhere in the U.S. except for when Chanterelle season hit in Washington State. We picked our own mushrooms off the forest floor and these seemed just as firm and fresh.

All in all, the entire trip to Beck Began cost around 20 U.S. dollars, including around a pound each of prawns, chicken and beef, plus a weeks worth of fruits and veggies. I was really pleasantly surprised because everyone kept sending me to food malls, where you find the prepackaged stuff and Pringles, Tang and Ragu. The food at Beck Began was far better quality at a tenth of the price.


Unknown said...

Hi Jeanne,
I started to your read your blog a few days ago, it's really great,lots of information, and useful telephone numbers.
My name is Arlene, i'm Irish. I'm married to a sweet Bengali Man, and we are currently living in London.

Anyway to make a long story short, we are planning to move to Kolkata, we have brought a 3 bedroom apartment in Park Circus.
We plan to move in the next 3 years. I'm currently working as a ER nurse, i would like to work as a nurse in Kolkata, but i have to learn how to speak Hindi and Bengali, i can understand Bengali more, but i cannot speak it. How is your son getting on with his new school?
How are you both finding the weather and pollution?
Well i just wanted to say, good job on the blog, keep it up. We are going to Kolkata this jan 2008. Hopefully you will have more tips for us to use. Take care Mrs A Paul.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeanne,
I started to read your blog a few days ago, I think its really good, lots of useful telephone numbers, plus lots of information.
Thanks a Million. Well my name is Arlene, i'm Irish.
I'm married to a sweet Bengali man and we are currently living in London.
Well to make a long story short, we have brought a 3 bedroom apartment in Park Circus.
We are planning to move to kolkata in 3 years time, we want our children to have all their schooling in Kolkata.
How is your son finding his new school? Plus how do both cope with weather and the pollution?
I was in Kolkata last sept 2006, i found it hard to meet ex-pats, i met an Italian executive Chef, David from "Park Hotel", we was really nice, and he gave me a few tips, he advised me to hold my tempter, and count to 100. It's very much a mans world. I did notice when i went to see my bank manager, i asked the questions and he answered to my husband.
Anyway, keep up the good work, good luck ..I will going to Kolkata again in jan 2008..We will be looking forward to read your new tips about the city. Take Care Arlene

Kumudha said...

So many interesting news from Calcutta!
I would love to visit calcutta sometime.

Anonymous said...

You see, thats the difference - You(from US) did not see fresh stuff and liked the fresh stuff..but people in India see fresh stuff all the time but they wanted it in a clean and nice place. Thats why they kept redirecting you to the malls..

Human perception..:)

Pls keep writing more..


Unknown said...

I find it hard to meet expats, too, but that's also my personality. I find it hard to meet people from anywhere. :-)

I can allay your frustrations regarding the way women are treated. I had expected to be stared at and ignored at the same time, but it really isn't always the case. I will strongly recommend to you to maintain the boundaries of the culture here. It's very easy for men here to mistake your casual remarks and easy smile to mean something much more than intended, because it is the way we typically interact with men at home.

It usually is not meant as a slight to you when you ask a question and they answer to your husband. This happens a lot - they talk to my son when I ask the questions. It is out of respect of the man that they address him. Yeah, it's weird, but I found being direct works best.

"I would feel more comfortable if you could talk to me directly," works most of the time, especially with a smile. There is an intimidation factor or there could be some insecurity regarding their ability to speak English well (I find some folks lapse into Bangla or Hindi because they know a word that fits better than their vocabulary of English).

And India is used to women in power, more so than many western cultures. West Bengal is also devoted to Hindu goddesses, so there are strong and dynamic women ingrained in their beliefs.

I have also heard that the Apollo Bunder hospitals are really good here and there are some medical centers that cater directly to expats. You may find it easier than you thought to find something. :-) Take care!

Anonymous said...

Jeanne, Mom here -
The killing of a chicken wouldn't have bothered me because my Aunt & Uncle had chickens when I was young (before your grandpa & the rest of us moved to NYC). He used to be out chopping their heads off and letting them go so their bodies used to run around - this was their 7 kids' entertainment! That was until my Aunt complained of the bruising on the chickens' bodies. They also had a dog "Blinkie" who used to chase the headless bodies around.

Anonymous said...

Well, with your little shopping excursion you've seen firsthand why grocery shopping in India is not for the fainthearted, although the rewards are wonderful. I remember being appalled in Delhi with the dreadful squawking that would result from our order at the chicken store. My mother sometimes shops at Lake Market in Kolkatta(another fresh fruits and vegetables hub) and every time it's as if she's going to do battle. The sari gets hitched up so that there is no trailing of garments on the filthy floor. She gets this serious, determined look on her face too. :) You do need to watch where you put your feet though. You don't want to step on doggy poo or worse, get your ankle broken by stepping in one of Kolkatta's famous potholes. As we are not a beef-eating family I don't think my mom has ever shopped in Beck Bagan.
And you're right, I don't know why people keep directing you to the flabby, stale prepackaged junk in the supermarkets. Maybe they think that since you're American you won't be able to deal with the filth and the muck of the typical Indian street market. But the produce is so much better, that's it is absolutely worth the struggle to wade through the dogs, cats and the sentenced-to-death chickens.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeanne,

U r staying at Ekta Heights so Gariahat Market is the nearest market. Try this place, this market is the best in Calcutta. U may not get beef there but fish & other meat items are plentiful.

A word of caution: Do not use ur car during Durga Puja nights, if u have to go out, walk or take Metro.

Anonymous said...

loved reading your posts. I am from Kolkata, and have been working around the world for the past 10 years. Looking forward to reading some work culture related stuff, though I guess you have to be careful? Is it very different, not so much?

Lyndsey said...

Hi there. I've been reading your posts and they're great. I know what you mean about feeling sad about the chickens. I live in China and fish are always sold alive to show that they're fresh. You choose the one you want, then the salesman clubs it on the ground to kill it for you. They do this at markets and even in restaurants. Chickens are sold the same way here as in the market you went to. I can't bare to hang around when they do that.

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