Pice hotels offered both familiarity and food to these nostalgic young men
It’s easy to miss the narrow entrance to the Sidheshwari Ashram Hotel, tucked away in the alley behind Kolkata’s St Hogg Market, but it’s the fragrant smell of fish caught in mustard oil that directs patrons to the door. It’s rush hour and the restaurant, one of the last hotels in Calcutta, is packed: waiters in bright orange livery come in and out of the kitchen; bowls of vegetable, fish and meat preparations accompany mounds of rice arranged on banana leaf plates. An accountant perched between the stairs and the dining room accounts for each service. The seats lining the marble tables fill up quickly as hungry office workers take a lunch break.
Rita Sen, the fourth generation owner of this hotel room, is quick to manage the floor. “We have been running the place for 93 years and our flow of customers has not stopped. Even the former mayor of Kolkata used to have lunch at our hotel,” she said.
Pice hotels take their name from the Hindi word “paisa“- the lowest value of the Indian rupee. Named for their ability to provide healthy, home-like meals on the cheap, dozens of roomy hotels littered the Kolkata cityscape in the early 1900s, when the city was a bustling metropolis, teeming with migrants coming here These workers were mostly middle-class single men who couldn’t cook and lacked the comforts of their family kitchens Pice hotels offered both familiarity and food to these nostalgic young men.
Pice hotels are unique in their service; meals were served on banana leaf plates to customers sitting on mats on the floor. The recipes were strictly traditional and often included dishes such as alu posto with poppy seed paste, kumro phool bhaja made from pumpkin blossoms and lightly spiced prawns malai chingri macher curry with coconut milk. The price and menu changed daily, depending on what was available in the market that morning. To reduce overhead and avoid waste, everything down to the last lemon wedge (and including the banana leaf) was billed individually.
Although tables and chairs have replaced the floor mats, the service at these hotels has not changed. Visitors can still revel in the usual experience of eating on banana leaf plates, and a regular three-course meal is always inexpensive at around Rs 200 (just over 2). Even today, anyone from Indian workers to international tourists can walk into these traditional restaurants that follow age-old rules and recipes to savor what is arguably Kolkata’s most authentic Bengali cuisine.
“There is now a lot of urban romance attached to pice hotels, but for almost a century their place in Kolkata’s gastronomic universe has been to provide low-cost, balanced meals to a low-income population,” he said. said food historian Tanushree Bhowmik. Cafes for UK residents were the first retail restaurants in India. But the pice hotels stand out as “the city’s first commercial native restaurants,” Bhowmik added. “People moved from rural to urban areas as the economy shifted from agriculture to industry, and these hotels have sprung up to meet its needs.”
Many pice hotels started out as the kitchens of messbaris, inexpensive boarding houses for students and office workers. Sandeep Dutta, who inherited the Mahal Hotel from his grandfather, Nandalal Dutta, spoke about the beginnings of his quality hotel as part of the famous Presidency Pension on Ramnath Majumdar Street in North Kolkata. “In 1917 my grandfather opened this boarding house for students who came to study at the best institutions nearby,” he said. “When the pension finally closed, I turned the kitchen into a restaurant.”
The Sidheshwari Ashram Hotel also began as a messbari for workers from nearby towns and rural areas in the early 1900s. “In 1936 my father decided to open his doors to foreigners also to increase his activity during the hours. lunch, ”Sen said. “When we established the menu, we decided to include options for office workers who were looking for something not too heavy. Kobhiraji jhol – our specialty – is a light fish curry with a mixture of vegetables. In summer we serve aam shol machch, a fish curry with mango and spicy mustard and low in spices. “
Pice hotels are known for the amazing range of food they serve for lunch and dinner. Tucked away in a picturesque corner of the Rashbehari junction in southern Calcutta is the 106-year-old Tarun Niketan Hotel, which serves 15 different fish dishes daily, including bhetki paturisteamed, marinated fish fillets in banana leaves; chitol koshaa spicy, clown knife fish curry; and the famous Bengali delicacy Ilish macher jhol, hilsa fish cooked in a soft mustard sauce. Arun Dev, who has run the establishment for 42 years, says the fish and egg fritters are particularly popular.
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Eating in a roomy hotel is different from most Kolkata dining experiences. A list of items and their prices for the day are neatly written on a blackboard at the entrance to each hotel – and the waiters can compile the entire list from memory. Tables are usually shared, but each seat has a separate bill. Most hotels only accept cash.
Pice’s menus give you the option of continuing to add dishes according to your own tastes
Bengali meals are an elaborate affair with at least seven courses. “The food here is eaten in the courtyards – you are served rice first with shukto, which is a bitter vegetable curry. Next come the leafy vegetables. Next comes a lentil curry to which you can add extras like donuts and a simple vegetable. Next is the fish, then the meat and finally a sweet chutney to clean the palette and get you to your dessert, ”Bhowmik said. According to her, dishes range from light to heavy curries, smaller to larger fish preparations, and from bitter to sweet tastes. To a visitor, these choices may seem intimidating, but a little help from the waiters can help you find the right combination. “The menus give you the flexibility to keep adding dishes to suit your own tastes, while keeping the cost friendly,” Bhowmik noted.
During India’s independence movement in the 1940s, pice hotels offered more than just cheap subsistence. Gautam Basu, history buff and regular at the Young Bengal Hotel in Kolkata’s Kidderpore district, explained how these hotels contributed to the cause of freedom by providing cheap or free meals to freedom fighters during this time. A stone’s throw from the busy College Street intersection, the Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel, originally known as the Hindu Hotel, was both a hiding place and an underground meeting place.
“The hotel at the front was a ruse. The interior room had a rear exit that led to a secret passage outside,” said Vivek Kumar Singh, who now runs his grandfather’s establishment. Pillars of the movement, including Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, were regular visitors.
Some owners have even named their hotels to show their political leanings. After independence, Singh’s grandfather, MN Panda, added “Swadhin Bharat”, or “Free India”, to the name of the hotel. And Tarapada Guha named his hotel Young Bengal Hotel after a radical movement of Bengali free thinkers who contributed to social reform.
Although steeped in history, most of the pice hotels have been unable to keep up with the rising food prices and the changing demands of the modern city. Many have closed, and with them has gone an important part of Kolkata’s culinary history. Guha once ran three hotels in the city – only the Young Bengal Hotel has survived. Guha’s granddaughter, Pritha Ray Bardhan, told me about the challenges of keeping things going at a time when food and overhead costs are skyrocketing. “We have had to increase our prices to make sure that the quality of our food is not compromised and that we can stay afloat,” she said.
For Sen, who runs the Sidheshwari Ashram hotel with his sister-in-law Debjani, the road has not been easy either. “The office crowd has shrunk over the years as several government offices have been moved to the outskirts of town… We used to have twice as many clients – things are different now,” she said. declared. While some have tried to switch to digital food delivery platforms, especially during pandemic months, the commissions charged by these services are often unprofitable.
Despite the setbacks, most of the remaining hotel owners remain determined. Sen still hopes that his daughter and niece will carry on this matrilineal legacy. And Singh of the Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel explained, with a mixture of determination and sorrow, “Even though we are running at a loss, we wish to carry on my grandfather’s legacy. There are some things that are priceless.”
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