Sometimes people assume I know Kolkata a lot better than I actually do. It is utterly embarrassing to be considered a connoisseur, only to be stumped by a moderately simple question about the city – where is Hogg Market? This is what happened. An English colleague called me yesterday. She is working on an extremely interesting memoir of her departed grandmother, based on a 90-year-old diary. The lady in question was born in the ’20s in Colonial Calcutta, to an officer of the British Army. My colleague is planning a trip to the City of Joy, to visit the places her grandmother had chronicled. One spot that featured prominently amidst her rich memories was the Hogg Market, a marketplace that according to the diary ‘reminded Mother of home.’ As we started discussing her project, my colleague casually asked me, “So, how do I get to Hogg Market from my hotel?” In that moment, without access to the internet, I just couldn’t place where I had heard that name. Or, if I had ever been there! That’s when she added tentatively, “The internet calls it the New Market? Has it been remodeled?” Ahhh, our very own, very old, New Market Kolkata it is! “No, not entirely anyway,” I said. And, obviously, that sent me down a very nostalgic trip into the past, and present of New Market.
The Snooty Past
More than a century back, a shabby, old market called Fenwick Bazaar stood where New Market stands today.
The British, back then, loved India. But they had only one issue with the place – it had Indians.
By mid 19th century, the British elite residing in Dalhousie Square, Terreti Bazaar, and Lal Bazaar found it beneath them to be hobnobbing with the brown natives in the market. A special committee was formed by the Calcutta Corporation in 1871 that made the proposal for an exclusively ‘white’ market in place of Fenwick Bazaar. They bought Lindsay Street, commissioned East India Railway Company architect, Richard Roskell Bayne, to design a Victorian Gothic market complex, for 1000 Rupees, a whopping sum at the time.
On January 1, 1874, New Market Kolkata, built by Mackintosh Burn (read its history here), opened its gates to the Anglo gentry in the city. Wondering in the dark and dusty alleys of the Market today, it is hard to imagine the glamour of the freshly minted market of yonder years. Horse-drawn carriages were parked neatly outside the gleaming, red, Victorian facade. Brits from all over India visited Calcutta to shop at exclusive retailers like Ranken and Company (dressmakers), Cuthbertson and Harper (shoe-merchants) and R.W. Newman or Thacker Spink (famous stationers and book-dealers) from England.
Becoming Hogg Saheber Bajaar
Sir Stuart Hogg, a man who held many positions in Indian Civil Services, including The Commissioner of Police, was the Chairman of Calcutta Municipal Corporation for many years. He was pivotal in spearheading the construction of New Market. In 1903, the market was named in his honor as Sir Stuart Hogg Market. To the indigenous population, it came to be known as Hogg Saheber Bajaar. While it is still referred to occasionally as Hogg Market, the name New Market (because it replaced the old Fenwick Bazaar) has stuck through the ages. The market kept expanding as the city grew in importance over the years. The vegetable and fish markets were added in the early 20th Century. The famous clock tower, that stands proud to the day, was imported from Huddersfield, and put up in the ’30s.
Kolkata’s Favorite Old, Old New Market
The British left Calcutta seventy years back, but Colonialism lingered. Calcutta reluctantly became Kolkata in 2001. Even today, when the glitzy monsters of globalization have consumed most of urban India, Kolkata clings back grumpily to an eroding past. Yes, Kolkata now has glass-faced shopping malls housing the Gucci, and Pradas of the world. But, it is very proud of its centuries-old New Market Kolkata, selling everything from Hermes hand-bag knock-offs to saffron, lamb, and exotic flowers. Whether one is looking for Galangal from Thailand or a cheap i-phone clone from China, you will get it here. The architecture of the market is actually pretty neat – straight lines intersecting at right angles. However, the market is so huge and often, so crowded, that it feels a bit like a maze.
The bustle spills out of the building, as hawkers line the streets surrounding the market. Essentially, short of the big, global brands, you can get everything in the New Market. Couple of things that Kolkatans can’t get enough of in the New Market are Nahoum’s Bakery items and Bandel Cheese.
The Eternal Nahoum’s
Nahoum Israel Mordacel came to Calcutta from Iraq in 1870. He brought with him his ancestral trade of baking and earned a living by selling home-made pastries door-to-door. Kolkata’s famous Nahoum’s bakery opened its doors to a ravenous Calcutta in 1902, right outside New Market. In 1916, the store moved to its current location – F20, New Market Kolkata. The grandiose store stood out, even back in the time, with its centenary wooden cabinets, glass-paneled displays, and zinc-paneled decorative ceiling. The classic wooden cash register, behind which the legendary David Nahoum was always seen serving Calcuttians with a smile, was imported almost 90 years ago from Oregon, USA.
A Calcutta Christmas is incomplete without the rich plum cakes of Nahoum’s. But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Nahoum’s Jewish Cheese Samosa and Patties, Almond Pastry, and a bite of their Marzipan, can make your day. If you still want to be blown away, you have to dig into their Ginger Cookies, Chocolate Swirls, Macaroons, and Fish Puffs. Nahoum’s is run today by the youngest brother – Isaac, who lives outside the country. He depends solely on the expertise of Jagadish Halder, a man who has staffed the confectionary for 36 years. We hope that the alleys of New Market Kolkata are forever made delectable by the aroma of Nahoum’s bakes.
The Unique Bandel Cheese
The Bandel cheese, also known as topli nu paneer, smoked and unsmoked, sold in New Market to this day, is a piece of Bengal’s Portuguese legacy. There are only a couple of shops in the market that still sell this old recipe – S. Panja and Johnson’s. The Portuguese entered Bengal on the west bank of Hooghly and named the place Bandel (a distortion of Bandar, meaning port in Portuguese). They brought their secret recipe for a cheese, made with Rennet tablets, that had to be quickly strained and kneaded for a perfectly chewy, stretchy texture, that makes Bandel cheese a delicacy.
It is believed in the dwindling Jewish community in Kolkata that Johar, the cook at Nahoum’s, was an artist in making the cheese. After Johar passed away in 2003, Sadim, his son, took over seamlessly.
Even today, you can order the cheese at Nahoum’s at 600 bucks a kg, and enjoy the beautiful flavor of the moist, crumbly cheese that bubbles over a grilled toast, like lava on land.
You can even enjoy the cheese as is – crumble into a salad, and heaven. If you want to bite into a slice of this divine recipe, try visiting Sienna’s Cafe, many of whose recipes center around this cheese.
Legends Live Forever
New Market Kolkata is not a place. It is a legend. It is a part of Kolkata’s DNA, wrapped in the vestiges of a dilapidated market. It is the knick-knacks it sells, the lives of the hawkers, and buyers, all meshed into a living organism. It is the history of Calcutta, and that of the many people that brightened its past with their cultures, food, and lives. New Market is a feeling that a traveler anchoring in the City of Joy must experience. For in its dusty labyrinth housing 2000 shops, one can unexpectedly meet the soul of the city.