When I returned to India after a couple of decades in the U.S., I expected strange adventures trying to find tastes I missed from my American life – like guacamole and bagels. But I never imagined that I'd be sitting in a ramshackle yellow taxi cab in Kolkata, clutching a plastic bag with a dead turkey in it, its clawed feet waggling in the air every time we went over a bump.
Turkeys are not commonplace in India. Growing up in Kolkata in the 1970s and '80s, I only saw them during winter in the city's poshest hotels and gentlemen's clubs, served to the elite as part of Christmas special feasts – a relic of the city's colonial past.
Now, it's no longer as rare here. As I discovered on my recent quest to find a turkey for a holiday meal, the birds are not imported – they're raised on farms around Kolkata. But trying to cook a whole turkey however can be quite a surreal adventure.
I began my search at Hogg market, a 19th century red Victorian shopping arcade in the heart of the city. They say you can find everything, from smoked local cheeses to Christmas trees to champagne flutes, in its maze of 2000-plus stalls. It seemed a good place for a turkey hunt.
Amid baskets of chickens and ducks in the poultry section, I met Palan Lashkar, who assured me he could get me a bird. I just needed to pay an advance. Lashkar's shop had no name and he offered no receipts. My co-conspirator in this adventure, Milena Chilla-Markhoff, a friend who splits her time between Berlin and Kolkata, said we should trust the universe. So we paid him 400 rupees (about $6) and returned five days later to claim our dinner meat with the remaining payment of about $30.
I had expected to find a dead, skinned and cleaned bird waiting for me. Instead, sitting next to squawking chickens, was a big, 11-pound, snow-white bird with a red wattle – nothing like the Butterball in an American supermarket.
My turkey seller seemed to expect me to put a leash around its neck and take it home. When I insisted I need it dressed, he called a nearby butcher and marched off with the turkey down a busy market street, dodging taxis, motorbikes and pushcarts laden with vegetables. As I trotted behind, looking guiltily at the doomed Snow White, I realized I'd stumbled upon a farm to fork story here that even most Indians are unaware of.
Lashkar had brought this bird on a local train, all the way from his village, 30 miles outside of Kolkata. Days later, I learned that it is in villages like his, that farmers are raising turkey in their backyards.
At Tona village, an hour's drive from Kolkata, there's an old wooden mill to press mustard oil, a fish pond and rows of medicinal plants and vegetables on an organic farm. Co-founder Uday Bhanu Roy (no relation) also raises turkeys. When they first started in 2003, he only had a few birds. "They were like dogs," he says, laughing. "They would roam around the farm and come running when they saw you. What a racket! And if they saw strangers they would chase them to the gate."
Now though, he has more than a hundred in a big cage, clucking and preening. That's a lot of eggs but his hatchery-born turkeys seem to have lost their motherly instincts, says Roy. So he recruits his chickens to incubate some turkey eggs, leading to a few situations like in the movie Kung Fu Panda, where the panda is raised by a goose. "The hens don't realize they are raising turkeys," says Roy. "(So) we have to remove the hatchlings quickly."
The weeks leading up to Christmas are busy at the farm. Come mid-December, it's so backlogged with orders – from hotels, the American consulate and gastronomically adventurous Indians –that it has to turn customers away. But these days, there's a turkey market all year around, says agricultural scientist Sonali Sengupta, as she shows me around the farm. "Once turkey meat would come back unsold," she says. "Now we can't keep up with demand."
This new openness to eating this exotic bird may stem from Indians' growing appetite for meat, which has followed a recent rise in incomes. Here in my home state of West Bengal, the state government has been marketing turkey as "non-conventional meat" alongside quails and rabbit. The government's poultry farm sells chicks and buys back full-grown turkeys from farmers. Gouri Shankar Koner, the managing director of West Bengal Livestock Development Corporation Ltd (WBLDCL), a state-owned company, tells me they sold three metric tons last year. "This year we want to hit five," he says.
A whole turkey may still need to be special ordered, but they sell packages of "curry-cut" turkey, pre-cut to be cooked like a chicken curry at their frozen meat outlets. Their cooking suggestion: "Marinade with brine solution and turmeric powder, sauce, vinegar, black pepper, chili paste and a little oil."
Turkey is even getting an Indian makeover at their restaurant, Kaviar, just outside their office in Kolkata. Kebabs have become popular, says Tapas Ghosh, an official with WBLDC, as is a turkey curry, flavored with gandharaj lime (a local relative of kaffir lime). The company's slogan promises "Meet Ultimate Meat." He offers me colorful little brochures extolling "low cholesterol and delicious" turkey.
Of course, I knew none of this when I dealt with poor Snow White at Hogg Market, where I grappled with a host of unforeseen problems just trying to cook a whole turkey.
On the bumpy cab ride home with the dead bird, I realized I'd forgotten to get the butcher to lop off its feet. And so, off we went to our local meat market to find a second butcher. It was afternoon siesta time but the sight of a "big chicken" woke everyone up. A small conference ensued, an industrial chopping knife was brought out and the deed was done.
But there were more hurdles to jump. We had the perfect pomegranate tandoori marinade recipe sent all the way from California by cookbook author Laxmi Hiremath, but our toaster oven, roasting pans and mixing bowls were too small for our big bird. Milena sourced a full-sized oven in a friend's apartment. One of my Hefty trash bags imported from the U.S., became a makeshift marinade bag for the turkey. Milena went to her neighborhood tandoori chicken restaurant searching for a big roasting pan.
The next day, we Uber-ed over to the oven, the turkey in the trash bag, sloshing around in its pomegranate marinade. Then we Uber-ed back home with the roasted turkey, wrapped in foil, balanced carefully on my lap, hoping the driver would not brake suddenly in Kolkata's unpredictable traffic. We stopped at Milena's local tandoori restaurant so the cook could run out to admire the now famous "big chicken."
By the time this turkey was carved, it had ridden on a train, a yellow taxi, and two Uber cabs. It had been to three different markets and seen three different kitchens. We were wiped out, but Mission Turkey was accomplished.
"I'm already thinking about Kwanzaa," quipped Milena the next day, as I served a batch of turkey soup. "Are you ready?"
"How about a pumpkin?" I replied. "I saw a lovely recipe for a pumpkin stuffed with tamarind rice."
At least it would need fewer steps than our grand turkey adventure.
Based in Kolkata, Sandip Roy is the author of the novel Don't Let Him Know.