Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Chopshop at Professorpada (and that lovely Ambassador car) - I

I am not sure how Cuttack's Professorpada locality got its name. Maybe faculty members from the nearby Ravenshaw College (now University) were allocated land there. Or maybe a whole bunch of them decided to settle down in the vicinity. I don't suppose too many academics would care to stay there today. Due to its central location it commands high property prices, even though Cuttack's largest, filthiest, and most malodorous open sewage drain flows (or stagnates, usually) right past it. For some strange reason the locallity has acquired a reputation for chop shops.

Right, then. What is a chop? Specifically what do we Indians mean by it? This second question is most relevant, because 'chop' is a textbook example of an English term acquiring in India a meaning completely removed from what it carries in its parent tongue. In standard English, according to Wikipedia, a chop is a  'cut of meat cut perpendicularly to the spine, and usually containing a rib or riblet part of a vertebra.'  The same article defines a cutlet as a 'thin boneless chop, or one with only the rib bone', though it admits the difference 'is not always clear'. In Indian cuisine a cutlet is typically a rib cut, spiced, breaded, and then deep fried. Please note that 'cutlet' refers specifically to the preparation; the cut of meat itself is known as either Seena (sīnā) (lit. 'breast') or Chaap (cāp) (sometimes pronounced with a slight nasal intonation as 'chaa(m)p'). The word certainly appears to be a corruption of the English 'chop'. I was unable to find any source that bears out this conjecture, barring an online glossary that defines chaap as 'rib chop'. The resemblance across the two words, however, is manifest.

In addition to 'chaap', several Indian languages also feature a word called 'chop' whose meaning bears no resemblance to its standard English counterpart. I have no idea where this version came from. It has at its core some sort of savoury filling, either meaty or veggie (Bengalis tend to make a mean chop out of Mocha or banana-blossom). It is then spiced, encased in mashed potato, breaded (typically with fine-textured breadcrumbs), then deep-fried. Hence it is much closer in spirit to the croquette, except that our chops tend to be more oblong or rounded than strictly cylindrical in shape.  (NB: The section on India in the wikipedia article is heavily misleading, please do not pay much attention to it). This is not a strict definition. The Alu Chop purveyed in streetside shops all over Bengal and Odisha conforms to few of its parameters. It comprises simply of sliced potato dipped in gram-flour batter and then deep-fried. No mashed potato casing, no breadcrumbs. At times it's not even spiced beforehand - just before handing the customer the plateful, the purveyor sprinkles salt, pepper, chilli powder and stuff.

The chop you get at Professorpada is of the croquette type - encased in mash, breaded, then deep fried. It marks a celebrated high-point in the Cuttack foodie scene. Rocky and Mayur, NDTV's food-honchos, have done a spot on it (the chop bit starts at about 7.18) and also reviewed it in their book (the review claims that the chops are batter-fried, ouch!). It has also featured on Indian Express. I've been hearing about it since 2010, particularly from friend and colleague Debasis, who used to live there back then. Even though I visited him at his house on countless occaisions, I never got the chance to try the chops, one reason being that he never let me know the shops were located right adjacent to the apartment he lived in. Then he moved out, my reasons to go there diminished, and I forgot about it. Till last night, once again on a whim.

This time round, apart from usuals Ramakrishna and Bishwa Kallyan, we had two students come along with us. Raja and Satyaprakash are in the final year, and thoroughly nice guys both of them. In Satya's case this is all the more notable because his father happens to be a prominent local politician. However, the gentleman is very much of the old school who has brought up his son with an iron hand to ensure he absorbed none of the brashness and arrogance so prevalent in political progeny in India. In this I am glad to say he succeeded most satisfactorily.

Presumably it's this old-school perspective that led the gentleman to buy an Ambassador car instead of some swankier new model. The Ambassador has become an icon of sorts today, loved and reviled in equal measure. It started life in 1957-58 as a direct clone of the Morris Oxford III,  underwent several modifications through successive iterations, and finally ended production as recently as 2014. Satya's version features an Isuzu-derived 2-litre diesel engine, a five-speed floor-shift gearbox of similar provenance, front disk brakes and bucket seats, power steering, and a retro-inspired centre-mounted instrument panel. It doesn't even call itself an Ambassador any more - for some unfathomable reason it now bears the name Avigo instead. Beneath the changes, though, the bodyshell remains largely unchanged from 1957, which establishes its Ambassadorial lineage no matter how comprehensively it is rechristened. Now I started driving at a time when pre-liberalisation cars like the Amby and the Premier Padmini (colloquially known as the 'Fiat') were common. I learnt to drive on a Fiat we sold as late as 1999, and I'm pretty sure a 1962 version replete with suicide doors (which also I have driven) still remains somewhere in the family. But somehow the chance to drive an Amby always eluded me. Till Satya readily agreed to bring his car along for the chop jaunt.

The drive was a revelation in many ways. Driving a piece of history was a thrilling experience. Yet I couldn't help but grieve a little over what the car stood for in its present iteration: a misbegotten modernisation exercise inevitably doomed to failure. The gearshift was flaccid. It was also positioned inconveniently forward, and the stumpy lever had a very wide throw. Which meant you had to reach out and flail your left arm around a good deal before it slotted into gear. The brakes were barely adequate. The power steering was soggy, didn't give you a feel of the road. I didn't much like the engine either. Particularly the feeble pick-up - you needed to really rev the engine to get any kind of acceleration out of the car. Nevertheless, the drive was in general a pleasant one, largely attributable to features left unmolested from circa 1957. Seating remains as roomy as ever, particularly for rear-seat passengers. And the suspension's ability to soak up potholes is something to be cherished.

When starting off I assumed we'd proceed to Professorpada directly, and so set a course accordingly. But no, it turned we had to take a little detour. A little while ago the conversation had turned to chicken Pakodas served at a place called DFC (more on it later). This had whetted Satya's cravings so badly that, as we were cheerfully bowling down the Kathjodi Ring Road, he unobtrusively went and called up DFC and asked for a few plates to be served the moment we arrived. Had I known about it earlier, I would have hit the Mahanadi Ring Road, kept to the river's edge till about Barabati Stadium, and then prised the car into the YMCA Road. It was too late to do that now, unless I doubled back from Satichaura all the way to Chahata. The alternative was to head straight from Satichaura and then cut through the town's denser pockets. I was not too keen to do that, what with an unfamiliar car and all, but once I realised I didn't have much of a choice, what the hell! The car behaved magnificently, especially in the most thickly-populated bits where riding the clutch was a necessity.

[Continued in Part II]


Aditi Roy Ghatak said...

keep these coming kiddo!

Abhik Majumdar said...

@Aditi Roy Ghatak

Many, many thanks, will certainly keep writing posts of this type. Did you see my earlier post on that Dhaba near Naraj? And of course on Cuttack's singular speciality, Autonson soup?

Shahana said...

Abhik, your writing is adorable, evokes an era when people had the time and patience to go on a rambling journey, with unquestioning faith in the author... probably similar to going on an Amby ride :-)

Abhik Majumdar said...

This is just the kind of comment that makes my day :) You're right, life today's simply too hectic, especially for people in the teaching line like you and me. In fact, I write about these rambling foodie binges primarily to de-stress myself. And a pretty effective method it is too, if you see the number of posts in the last couple of months. Of course, what really helps de-stress are nice comments like the one you added :D

Naina Choudhury said...

The doctors (especially the Proffessors) from the SCB Medical College (Sriramchandra Bhanja Medical College) are the oldest residents of that area and the reason being its vicinity to the hospital. This is the possible logic behind the nomenclature of Proffessor Pada.
This is what I heard from one of my neighbours who is 90 years old. Moreover, from my personal experience, I have seen most of the doctors still being the resident of that area.
By the way, the blog is commendable.