The Quest for Chili Garlic Prawns

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Jetu and I. Kolkata, 2008

Tomorrow I’m heading to India for some much needed R&R and some even more necessary Bengali food.* India, especially to Kolkata, is one of my favorite destinations. Now to be clear, I don’t love traveling to India for some misguided “eat.pray.love” type situation— aside from the fact that I “love” to “eat” and always “pray” that there will be more food. I love going there because it’s the one time of the year that I get to spend some quality time with the family that still resides there.**

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I didn’t have family nearby while growing up. I prefer to think about it as the “next-door” family and my “far-away” family. My “next door” family consists of everything from first generation blood related Indian doctors to third-generation Irish-Italian dentists, Jewish, Muslim, Catholics, Vegans to Extreme Meat-eaters. We have the same appreciation of education, and of course, excessive eating.

Anyways, my time in India mainly consists of two things: eating food and sharing stories. Sometimes about sharing stories about food adventures. The dishes and topics will always range- ripe mangos to fresh luchi, contemporary Bengali politics to tales of rogue monkeys— but there is always an unlimited amount of unconditional love.

Can you tell that I haven’t been back in a while?

In honor of my trip, I thought I’d share one of my now-rituals upon arriving or departing Kolkata. It involves my Jetu (uncle). A little disclaimer: there is no good way to introduce him— other than he is the magical “young at heart” person who doesn’t think twice about smoldering a grill to a protruding air conditioner on the eighth floor flat on the busiest street in all of Kolkata. I could probably write a whole book on his adventures, but I’m starting with the story of the chili garlic prawns.

Enjoy.

– A

P.S. To avoid some odd time lag posts, I’ll be posting in Wednesday for the next couple of weeks!

Kolkata, India. 2009
In the weeks leading up to our annual trip to Kolkata, Jetu sent me some cryptic emails mentioning a new type of grilled prawn that he had discovered in Tangra (the historic chinese-indian neighborhood in Kolkata). I wasn’t sure if I understood his subtle references:

Ghurni,
Do not eat any of the rubbish plane food. We are stopping at Tangra to pick up some garlic chilli prawns. Don’t tell Jeti. (my aunt, his wife).
Love,
Jetu

Now my aunt, Jetima– the Jeti in the email– has been married to Jetu for over forty years, and is well versed with his antics. She sensibly informed the drivers not to make any detours between the airport and the house, in anticipation that my Jetu would favor deep fried prawns over her sensible, diabetes friendly meal.

As it turns out, Jetu and I never managed to carve out enough time to go back to Tangra during my two week trip. Days in Kol are often spent over extensive five course, home-cooked, made with love meals. Squeezing in enough time to make the hour long journey to the historic Chinese-Indian neighborhood and not being full from the previous was nearly impossible. I could see that this was stressing my uncle out that he could not share his new found food obsession with his favorite niece. I wasn’t worried though. My uncle is a dedicated gastronome. There are no aunts, wives, or policemen that could ever stop him from satisfying his tastebuds.

On our last day, hours before our flight back to NYC, Jetu finally reveled his plan. At the lunch table no less. He had told the cars to come an hour early. We would pick up two orders of garlic chili prawns, find a nice shaded tree off the side of the road, have a quick picnic and then he would drop us off at the airport.

It was a daring statement given that my aunt had put together yet another healthy, delicious and appropriately pre-flight lunch. Severe objections were raised to eating “roadside food” moments before a 22 hour flight. But the plan was set in motion. Pepto bismal (the cure all medicine) in tow, we set off for the windy roads of Tangra. Driving through, you could see the vestiges of the old tanneries and smells of the infamous hakka-chinese Indian-Chinese food. We got our chili-garlic prawns, and set off to find a tree. Now about ten years ago, the journey from the city part of Kolkata to Netaji-Subhash Chndra Bose International Airport was very scenic. There is a long parkway, lined by salt lakes, copious fields, and general lush vegetation. However, in the past five years, this has been a prime construction site. We drove and we drove, and not a single lone tree could be seen. Okay there were trees, but they were usually in front of a new building, and not ideal for a impromptu picnic.

We were only minutes away from the airport, when I saw that Jetu had a glint in his eye. Now, for those of you who have meet Jetu, you know that the glint indicates that you must immediately lock up all your gadgets and hide the shutki-mach. I wondered vaguely if the two packets were purchased in anticipation that I might be sent into the Emirates flight, carrying a package of prawns.

We proceeded along to the airport entrance, where he paid the 40 rupees to park in the visitors parking lot. An interesting choice given that he could just drop us off in front of the airport. We pulled in, and that’s when I saw it. Trees. Lots of them. We drove up to the most vibrant tree available, stepped out of the car. And well, you can see the result below:

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Jetu and the Chili Garlic Prawns
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Success: Chili Garlic Prawns and a Tree
And so we did. On the way back from the airport, our two SUVs (one filled with humans, the other with our luggage) stopped in the windy streets of Tangra. It was amazing. It prompted at least two more visits within a
*The dregs of NYC winter have made me even less inclined to cook nice meals. What can I say?
**and any other relatives that had also come to visit from their respective parts of the world. We span four generations, six continents, multiple religions and languages.

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