When it is about food, often I am accused of clinging onto my past and getting involved in evoking my childhood associations. It must be so and I am quite happy about it; rather re-igniting those memories while penning them down, in an attempt to relate to current experiences, is probably what excited me into blogging. But, from there on, writing about experiences not related to my early days, also took off.
Pice hotels (or as they are called locally in Bengal Bhaat er hotel) are places which has no association with my earlier days. Rather, they were well outside the radar of any possible culinary exploration or experience that I had even ever thought of in those days. Those weren’t the places where I would have cherished a meal as I felt then. Those were apparently run-down eateries which will be having their own clientele with their own compulsions – that was a thought that came up even till recent years. And why will I sweat out in a dingy corner for food that I have anyway at home.
It was early 70s when urbanization in India started happening at a faster pace. Men left their traditional livelihoods of agrarian economy and took up jobs in cities in factories. The seeds of nuclear families were getting sown. With grandmothers around, and in some cases their culinary practices passed onto the next generation, traditional Bengali delicacies were a regular affair at home, though starting to fade off slowly. Hence to have the same food in apparently unhygienic set up (that’s what the perception was then), never crossed the mind. And I am sure it never crosses the mind of most of our children today. But it does cross our thoughts at times that I miss that classical basanti pulao of my grand-mother or a simple Aloor dum of hers which could negate need for any additional attraction on the plate.
And that’s the reason probably in the last couple of decades, Bengali Restaurants and some fine dining options therein, have come up and are quite successful in their ventures, especially the ones who have kept a consistent standard or the ones, who have brought in a neo-classical style on top of that. They may give the palate a satisfaction, but still the soul craves for that home-style food in an environment that the subconscious is used to.
At home, elders never asked, “want one more plate of rice?” The question was “some more rice?” Just that bit of rice is left and mother or aunt used to help with a spoonful of gravy. But in these fine dining places, you hold yourself back since there won’t be a spoon of gravy; one needs to order one more plate of curry. Familiar food with unfamiliar experience. Hence, often, as I walked out from such places after a meal, the feeling of stomach being full didn’t align with fulfillment of soul.
Did we sprinkle salt on the gravy from a salt dispenser at home? Or was it that forefinger reached out to the salt, kept at the corner of the plate? We used to press the finger on the small mound of salt at the corner and then gently weave the fingers to uniformly mix the salt. Your taste bud would tell your forefinger, how much salt needs to be pressed in and brought back to be mixed with the rice & gravy. But, there aren’t any such connection as yet, between your taste bud and a dispenser.
Bengali food is a wonderful musical medley of rice and various forms of gravies. In places of fine dining one mixes them with fork and spoon. However adept one maybe at that, the weaving of fingers to mix the rice with that fish/ mutton curry or with dal, can never be replicated by a fork and spoon. Neither can a spoon, touching your lips with that rice mixed with gravy, give you the same warmth as that of your fingers touching the lips; an experience that is intricately embedded in you from your childhood. Moreover, this practice is also linked to the belief that one should feel the texture of the food one is having with their fingers before directing it to the tongue. Also, with various types of mashed preparations and ones with fish bones, fingers are probably the most dependable mechanism to ensure safe and proper food enter the mouth.
Not that all these above thoughts surfaced as blatantly while cherishing tastefully done dishes in air-conditioned environment in fine dining (as some say) restaurants. But the differences became stark when I forced myself into one of those pice hotels, when I was at Gariahat Crossing a couple of years back during lunch hour, and was before time by almost 30 minutes for an appointment.
With Adarsha Hindu Hotel board temptingly hanging in front of a hungry soul, I ventured into it, completely unaware on what my mannerisms will be once I am inside.
Pretending to be confident, I occupy a table (in pice hotels, a table isn’t dedicated to you; it is only the chair which is dedicated to you) and confidently ask “Ki ache” (what is there today). It took hardly 30 secs for that layer of confidence to shatter when the smiling person rattled off at least 5 plus vegetable options, close to 5 fried items options, and about 6-8 variants of fish/meat dishes. My ordering was simple – first item of each category that he rattled off.
You can read about my experience at Adarsha Hindu Hotel by clicking on the link below.
Being the administrative headquarters during colonial era, Calcutta, attracted people from not only neighbouring zones, but from across the country. People used to come over here even for commercial objectives, to set up business or get into trading. And often the male member used to come alone, leaving the family in the native places. They used to stay in hostels for men (popularly called mess-bari) and needed pocket-friendly homely food to sustain themselves. That is believed to be the reason for the emergence of what became Pice Hotels. Simple food, the way it is prepared at home, bereft of any additional ornamentation to keep costs down, these were the places that fueled the people working in the metropolis away from home. And hence, such Pice hotels came up in the central and north Calcutta (as per current map) since those were the hub of administrative, commercial and educational activities.
Many such Pice Hotels have perished over time – some lost their clients who moved on; for some, the man behind the hotel passed away and succeeding generations either failed to run it efficiently or didn’t find enough reason to sustain them; and yet there are some, who stood the onslaught of time and changed social-economic-cultural-historical landscape in these 100 years and still continue to delight their clientele. As I list some such famed places which still holds fort, do remember, before you venture out, the essence of such places is not for relaxation or taking a break – these are places where the buzzword is necessity.
Since I started off from Gariahat (Adarsha Hindu Hotel), my obvious next stop is Lake Market area. I found it unusual that the oldest surviving Pice Hotel of the city is neither in Central, nor in North Kolkata but it is here in Lake Market.
As you walk along the left-side pavement towards Rashbehari crossing from Lake Mall, keep an eye for a board “Tarun Niketan” just before Raja Basanta Roy Road crossing. Surviving for more than 100 years, the only thing that has changed here is that it now has tables and chairs and people no longer sit on the floor to have their meals. Don’t miss the blackboard as you enter the place to take a glance at the items of the day. Everything here is separately priced excluding the standard steel plate and glass, and salt. Even the banana leaf and earthen water glass (in case you choose to have the food in banana leaf instead of regular utensil) are priced separately. The blackboard at the entrance will also highlight the fact that items cooked here are without onion and garlic (except egg curry, fish kalia and meat items).
Onion has been associated with tamasic food and garlic, because of its heating properties has always been considered as rajasic food. So, ones, who want to restrict themselves to satvic food, may feel quite at home at Tarun Niketan. The dishes with shrimps namely Kochu Chingri or Kochu pata chingri are great way to flag off the meal.
If egg curry is a weakness for you, try one here. Their egg curry is strictly with duck eggs. Everyday 9 types of fish are cooked here. The prawn malaicurry won my heart with its subtlety, guess it purged off the onion pulp and just retained the juice, beautifully blended with mild coconut milk. While the Ilish Shorshe was mediocre, don’t leave the place without having the bowlful mutton curry poured into a mound of steamed rice. It is heavenly.
Green Café Hotel:
Close to Tarun Niketan is another lesser known and smaller place which has not got prominence as much as many of the more famous Pice Hotels of Kolkata. The name indicates the fact that it started off as a café in the 1950s. Somewhere early 1970s, it chose to convert itself into a Rice (Pice) hotel. And that’s when Green café became Green café hotel.
This small place accommodates only 18 people and even today food is cooked in coal oven. The curry prepared with fish bones and the light yet enticing rui curry left lasting impression in me. I wondered how, this small place feeds more than 200 hungry souls for lunch everyday
While North and Central Calcutta has a long history of heritage and culture, the same can be said of the Bhawanipur-Hazra-Kalighat zone in today’s South Kolkata. And hence, an old Pice Hotel here is natural. Started by Jaidev Kundu few months before independence, this eatery, tucked inside a small lane few metres north of the famed Girish Ch Dey Sweet shop is difficult to locate.
The usual combo of rice, dal, and aloo bhaja is default. You are asked what subzi (vegetable preparation) you will take. They generally make two and you can choose one. Mind it, even a fish head curry, in some of these places, come under subzi category. I was given a choice of Dhokar Dalna and Mulo r (raddish) ghonto. Opted for the later. What came to my table was a semi dry fish head curry. Gosh! what they meant as “Muro” (fish head). i heard “mulo”.
Yet again, freak on various fish options here. The quality of fish is amazing and so is the cooking – especially the shorshe bata and the gravy of Katla Kalia. I haven’t had a more fresh and tasty Boyal for a long time, and the Koi jhal was hypnotizing.
For the first time i opted for a chicken curry in a Pice Hotel. Don’t know how they make that soulfully attractive color of the gravy. i had to order for repeat serving of rice.
Young Bengal Hotel:
The thought of Khidderpore evokes yearning for choicest Mughlai dishes. But tucked in a lane called Monilal Banerjee Road just beside Fancy Market is a place which makes Bengali dishes with very little oil and spices. The cleanly kept courtyard with a few plants will present cool environs to you just like their food does to its consumers.
The Rui curry with ginger paste and a flowing consistency is what pulls a large part of their 200-300 customers everyday. It not only helps satisfy your hunger during hot and humid days, but also helps avoid the body heat up during the hot and humid summer days. The Tangra curry (tel jhol as they say) is another key attraction here. Fried lumps of grounded pulses (namely Dhoka, Motor Dal er Bora) are known to be soulful here. The light mango chutney in the summer heat is a welcome way to bid adieu to this cool pice hotel which will soon be 100 years old in another 6 years.
Moving on from Southern part of the city to the Central zone, Siddeswari Ashram is located right at the heart of Calcutta in those days. Located on Rani Rashmoni road in Dharmotolla, the Sen Family has been running this for close to seven decades. Apart from being in a busy location, the quality of their food and consistency therein will offer you with a sight that isn’t very usual – people queuing up for their lunch. It’s the range of options that this place offers, which makes so many queue up as well.
While Malai-curry is popular across most Pice hotels with prawns, this place also makes an onion & red chilly based gravy of prawn (Chingri r jhal). The options of shrimps with potatoes or various other vegetables, Bhetki and its variety and Ilish during season with multiple curries are options not many places offers. Fish head used to a delicacy in Bengali household, reserved for the head of the family or growing children. You can order one here too.
And to top it all their Kabiraji jhol of Rui with a piece each of papaya, raw banana and bottle gourd, each of which are known for their nutritive qualities, is a dish that gets over quite early. Price of fish items vary depending on the size of the fish that day.
And for those, who can’t gulp or digest food unless the temperature is conditioned and hence could never visit a pice hotel, Siddehswari Ashram may be a solution – it has A/c section as well.
This maybe a lesser shining star to many than its illustrious neighbor Siddeshwari Ashram, but unfortunately, during lunchtime, this small place, which accommodates about 24 people, may need you to queue up for food.
Shaak Bhaja (fried greens) is an omnipresent item here along with the usual fare of daal and vegetables of the day and fried options like in any other pice hotel. And same is the case with fish, a plethora of options. The ilish I had there was the best in this season so far, moderately rich in it s fat, soft in its feel. The Shorshe Bata was a bigger hit – can’t say anything could have been better. Right consistency, it had that feeble kick that will just about tickle your nose yet won’t overpower to hide the taste of the mustard – both paste & oil.
And in terms of quality of fish, the bhetki too deserves as much accolades as ilish. Not only was the freshness and taste of the fish praiseworthy, but the fact that it was from a large sized one.
Pice hotel and serving fish kebab or Moghlai is unusual. And that tempted me to come over another day for the same (they don’t make it everyday). Ordered daal with fries since I have ordered fish kebab. And then came a bowl with a curry. A bemused me was lost. “kebab dao” (Give me kebab). “dilam toh” (gave you) was smiling reply. He reiterated this is kebab. Clueless as to why, I tasted it. Aroma of garam masala and taste of poppy seeds in a gravy tighter than usual curries was what the kebab was. My conclusion is that since it is prepared with more than usual garam masalas, poppy seeds and charmagaz, it is called kebab, something similar to ways some Mughlai dishes are made.
But before I could conclude as above, I did ask the foolish question if they make fish Moghlai by using a stuffing of fish in Moghlai paratha. The person would have surely dropped all the bowls in the tray had the tray not been empty. Yet again, the naming convention followed that of Kebab. The gravy is made with Cholar Dal (Bengal Gram), egg with spices which weren’t disclosed.
Pice Hotels, generally aren’t branded for any specific dish. Each one do have certain types of preparations that are more popular. But this place is one rare Pice Hotel, which had developed a branding for one specific dish – Posto Rui. As I walked into the place (few hundred metres north of Rajabazaar crossing on the left hand pathway) around 12-30 pm, my confident self ordered for a Posto Rui thali even before I have settled down.
“Not available sir” was a polite reply from the smiling waiter. “Why, don’t you make it everyday?” “We have Rui Jhol, Rui Shorshe, steamed Rui”. “What happened to Posto Rui”. “Stopped it sir, some years back. We weren’t able to sustain it. People used to keep asking for the gravy. How much of that gravy we can provide at a fixed price of Rui plate”.
What he was saying was such a harsh reality. They were famous for a dish which they were famous for, yet they discontinued it for excessive demand, constrained by the need to maintain a certain price point.
This reality has the seeds to grow into a wholesome marketing theory in IIMs.
I asked him, now that I am here, what can minimize by disappointment of not getting Posto Rui. He suggested Steamed Rui and truly it was one of the most delicious Rui preparation I have ever had. Dominated by Posto (Poppy seeds and onion paste), the gravy was rich and subtle in its taste with a large fresh piece of Rui dominating my plate. Kochu Chingri was thoroughly delectable and the I must say that the dal here was thicker than most of the other Pice Hotels.
“Sir: Want to taste the gravy that we make in place of Rui Posto nowadays?” He got the gravy in a bowl. I said to myself, steamed Rui was surely a far delicious option.
Fish is the fruit of water and hence always an intrinsic part of Bengali cuisine including that of Brahmins (while in many other parts of the country, Brahmins were mostly vegetarian). Sacrificing goat used to be a ritual in Kali Puja and the meat, cooked without onion and garlic, was considered to be a prasad. Hence mutton became an integral part of Bengali cuisine across castes. While nature helped erode the boundary between fish and vegetarian diet supposedly to be followed by so called upper castes and Brahmins, religion helped retain the lust for meat, but only mutton. Chicken was a wonderful savior and was avoided by Brahmins and upper castes, as those are meat options for the less privileged who have to hunt for food rather than have the resources to buy the food. Birds are easy preys and hence, they allege, less privileged will survive on meat of birds, and rabbits and so on.
While all that demarcation has dissolved over time (for good), and chicken has emerged as the most common form of meat, ordering chicken or egg in Jagatmata Bhojonalya will remind you of those days of severe demarcation. The Brahmin waiter will almost avoid hearing you, though he will retain the smile and tell you “only mutton”. Don’t be disappointed. The cook from Orissa (and since the beginning the cook here is from Orissa, and known for their culinary abilities), delivers a mutton curry, that will not only satiate your tongue, but will leave a lasting impression in your soul. Just the curry will entice you to consume loads of rice, mixed with the curry. And hence it is known as “kochi pathar dildaria jhol” (Apologies for my inability to translate this). But in your zest for this curry, don’t overlook some of the small fish chochhori options like their Mourola with potato dry curry. Freak out on the other fish options available.
Noone can specifically state when it started, but this is one place which still retains a zone for people, who sit on the floor and have their meals. But for those, who have never known the art of sitting on floor and having a meal, this eatery in Kailash Bose Street also has the zone for dining the way we are used to.
New Kamala Hotel:
When Nalini Ranjan Das and Dhirendra Chandra Nandi thought of starting thought of opening an eatery of regular Bengali food more than 70 years back at BK Pal crossing primarily for the artisans of Kumortuli on one side and the actors and workers of the famed Jatra groups on another side, little did they envisage that someday the subsequent generations will struggle to run it. Probably they also didn’t know that they will have such committed and passionate workers who will take over the reins and run it from a place just adjacent to where they existed for more than six decades.
The bouquet of items is similar to many other similar places but what left a lasting impression in my mind are two things – their Rui kobiraji jhol and the recitation by the waiter of items that a consumer had while preparing the bill. It is said that every other person comes here and inquires about their Kabiraji jhol, and once you have this, you will know why it is so. It is a light whitish stew of the fish with one piece of raw banana and a piece of potato. The heavenly taste of the curry is also partly due the fantastic quality of the fish they serve. Fresh and cut from a large sized rui, the fish piece itself not only will take care of part of your hunger but also will make you realize why Rui was such a coveted fish at one time, in Bengali households. I am sure, the same person, who revolts at home for such a simple fish curry will ask for a repeat of the same out here. For someone like me, who is satiated with a decent piece of fish in a curry for a meal, I was tempted to order yet one more plate of Rui, though this one was Posto Rui. Pankaj Roy, the famous Indian cricketer, who lives a couple of lanes down, used to frequent this place for this item. Maybe this stew energized him for the next Test match.
Once you finish your meal, be back near the waiter to listen to pure recital of whatever you had, in an accent, where you can hardly make out a few words. Once he is through with his recitation, the person at the Cash-Counter will tell how much you need to pay. This place still uses all spices which are grounded in their kitchen, and do inquire about their dish of the day with fish egg in it. I missed the pumpkin curry with fish egg just by a whisker though managed to grab a piece of fried fish egg.
Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel:
Many of these pice hotels has a rich legacy of historical events or presence of famed personalities from various walks of life. This particular place, as the name suggest, had some glorious connections to India’s freedom struggle. The stories this pace has been a witness to adds memorable aroma to the lasting taste of the food they prepare. You may want to read about this place in my bloglink below.
Mahal Restaurant & Hotel
As you get down the Sealdah Flyover towards MG Road, you need to keep moving ahead till you chance upon Presidency Boarding House. For aficionados of Bengali detective stories, this name is familiar. It is where Byomkesh Bakshi was born. And author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay chose this as birthplace of Byomkesh Bakshi since he himself used to stay here when he was staying alone in Calcutta. But he never dined at Mahal, which is on the other side of the same building since Mahal became operational only in 1991 according to its owner Sandeep Dutta.
A small place which can accommodate about 16 people, it has a menu like most other similar places. While the multi-course meal should start off with a bitter item, neem-begun or shukto is a always prepared. Unlike some places, it has a choice of Dal (pulses), moong or masoor, and with that you can choose your favorite fried item. Posto r bora (Can loosely be called poppy seed cutlet) is always irresistible. Gave the fish roe bora a miss and moved onto Topshe (a type of fish) fry.
Dhokar dalna or phulkopi was the choice in vegetables. Never expected a soulful gravy without onions or garlic in summer made of cauliflower. As in most such pice hotels, next comes the most confusing part, which fish and what variety of its curry to choose from. Generally rohu, katla, prawns (though not a fish) and in season ilish has more than one gravy options. But one thing one shouldn’t miss ordering here is the Rosha preparation of whichever fish is available. I had options for Tyangra and prawn. I went for tyangra rosha. It is something I haven’t had in any of the other pice hotels. Slightly tangy, the wonderful medley of red chili, cumin and ginger will make it delightfully different with stripes of potato to be broken and mixed with the rice and gravy everytime you take a mouthful.
Chingri (prawn) malaicurry was as smooth as it can be, a flowing gravy, not rich in taste yet so subtly invigorating. And like most other similar pice hotels, the mutton curry they make, is so temptingly light in its taste yet leaves a lasting taste in your tongue.
Often I avoid spoiling such finale with chutney but here they make awesome khejur-aamsotto r (Khejur is date and aamsotto is made from mango pulp) chutney. Nice square pieces of aamsotto dipped in that sugary syrup is a delight with occasional interference of khejur. They temptingly kept a bowl with papad beside it.