It may not be uncommon for a British tourist to try jhaal muri on the streets of Kolkata, but it is quite rare when a British hawker deftly prepares the popular Bengali snack for the people of Kolkata.
On Valentine’s Day, Angus Denoon stationed himself outside a restaurant called Ekdalia Rd in south Kolkata, attracting customers throughout the evening. Many of them were already familiar with him: widely-shared YouTube videos showing him selling jhaal muri on the streets of London have already earned him minor celebrity status.
He set up the shop, even though only for an evening, on the invitation of restaurant owner Surojit Rout, who met Mr. Denoon in London back in 2015 and had remained in touch with him ever since. This is the first time that the Briton sold his wares in India, even though it was in India where it all began for him.
“I came to Kolkata by chance, in 2004, on a stopover from Australia. The cheapest flight had a stopover in Kolkata. I came in the morning and left in the evening, when I took a train to Darjeeling. It was the last day of Durga Puja and I saw people drumming (playing the dhaak) outside the Sealdah station — that cast a spell on me,” recalled Mr. Denoon, now 59.
The next year, Mr. Denoon, who had been a chef until that time, returned to the subcontinent to learn massage therapy in Nepal, and once he was done with his course, found himself staring at two choices. One was to return to Britain as a healer, the other was to return to Kolkata to make a documentary on life on its streets. It didn’t take him long to decide: Kolkata had already cast a spell on him.
Armed with a camera he bought in Nepal, he arrived in the city and stayed on for about three months, shooting the bustle on its streets. Back in London, he showed the footages to friends who were film-makers. One of them happened to be making a film on street food, and she decided to shoot Mr. Denoon demonstrating the preparation of jhaal muri.
“I went to the Indian market there and bought the rough ingredients. What I prepared that day was the very basic version of what I make now, but the shoot was happening in the middle of the Friday market, and I actually had people coming and buying the stuff,” he recalled. And thus, from playing a jhaal muri seller, he became a real jhaal muri seller.
Life, however, remained harder for him than it is for a jhaal muri seller in India: he had no home and lived practically on the road. What helped was that he had no family. Whatever little he earned was spent on funding his trips to Kolkata — he returned every year until 2014 — to make the documentary.
The turning point came in 2010, when he was invited to set up a stall at News International’s Christmas party in London. The very next year, he was handing out jhaal muri to celebrity guests at the wedding of singer Lily Allen.
Today, he has a home, “but I continue to live simply.” The documentary he had set out to make in 2005 is yet to be completed. “I am writing a book at the moment — about my experiences. I will release the documentary along with the book,” Mr. Denoon said.
The jhaal muri, according to him, is one of the healthiest snacks in the world. “It’s spicy, yes, but spicy doesn’t necessarily mean hot,” he said.