Explorer Talk- a tete-a-tete with Explorer Ramanuj on the Pice Hotels of Calcutta

Explorer Ramanuj packs in more than a punch when you get him to discuss about Calcutta. His enthusiasm and profound love for this City is apparent in his eagerness to share his knowledge about it. That his walks are full of fun and conversation, is but a given.
Ramanuj had been requested to share his knowledge on some of the different aspects of the City by his friend Shreya Dalmia who is the proprietor of Curry, a magazine offering up a serving of the City in its pages.

Explorer Ramanuj


The following article was shared by Explorer Ramanuj and we are delighted to share it on our blog.
The article is about the Pice Hotels of the City- which takes an interesting view of the low priced meal based food joints serving uncountable people in the City.

Pice Hotels – Calcutta’s hidden culinary eco-system

About 15 years ago, while reading the iconic Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhay’s Adorsho Hindu hotel, I was introduced to the concept of the pice hotels. The novel reflects the journey of the male-protagonist, Hajari, from his beginning as a cook to running his own hotel, which becomes the most popular hotel in Ranaghat station area by serving authentic Bengali food at an amazing price.
Later, while working in a real estate firm, I experienced a pice hotel for the first time, in the form of Adorsho Hindu hotel at Gariahat. Coming from an East Bengali refugee family, I was brought up with fierce pride for authentic Bengali food, and this has more often caused me to choose authenticity over a fine dining experience.

These eating houses have been part of Calcutta for ages practising every day socialism regarding the price of the food, making it accessible for millions of hard-working lower-middle class and middle class Calcuttans.

These pice hotels have been established from anything between 50 to 100 years, and offer an oasis for office-goers and students who believe in authentic robust Bengali meals at eyebrow-raising cheap prices. Visiting these pice hotels will give you a feeling that the aroma of the past is still surviving inside their four walls.
The daily activities of a pice hotel include grinding the spices, washing the fresh catch of the day, stewing the goat-meat, and marinating the vegetables with paanch foron (that famous Bengali 5 spice blend of cumin,brown mustard, fenugreek, nigella, and fennel). Most of the pice hotels serve their milky white hot rice on banana leaves with earthen clay vessels for water.
Buddhadeb Dasgupta once wrote Bhojon-Shipli Bangali (Bengali Gastronomy) in 1971, stressing that Bengali food cannot be comercialised, but little did he know about the mushrooming growth of fine dining Bengali cuisine restaurants making people forget these hidden culinary jewels called pice hotels.
Through this article I will introduce you to a few of these hidden culinary treasures of Calcutta.
Tarun Niketan
Near kalighat Metro station
Entering through the door will straightaway give you a look at the menu written in chalk on the black board referring to the day’s offerings. The manager is looking after the daily affairs of the hotel sitting on the right, with a backdrop which includes framed pictures of Kali and Shiva. The beautiful aroma of the food and the hustle and bustle create excitement in your stomach, making you even more hungry. Once you take a seat in front of the marble top table, a friendly waiter will come by to take your order. You can’t go wrong choosing the day’s fish curry along with a set of rice, dal, fries and vegetable.

Adorsho Hindu Hotel
Gariahat Market
It is hard to miss this 60 year old pice hotel on the first floor of the Gariahat market, which still continues to write its daily menu on the black board in chalk, referring to the fresh catch of the day. The prices of expensive fish like ilish, chitol (clown knife fish), and chingri (tiger prawns) may vary according to the market rate, but the prices of daily Bengali household eating fish like katla (Bengal carp), parshe, and charapona (baby Bengal carp) are fixed. One of the distinct features of this hotel is gondhoraj lebu (caviar lime) with the usual Bengali fish, rice and dal. Egg and chicken tarka are served at dinner.
Young Bengal Hotel
If you ever happen to be in Kidderpore and ask any local for a good Bengali eating place, they will direct you to the 87 year old iconic pice hotel called Young Bengal hotel. This hotel might make you remember the renaissance man, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio. This hotel features lip-smacking food that uses very little spice and oil. Their cumin paste Bengal Carp curry is made with only one teaspoon of oil, and yet it’s delicious. In this age of health consciousness, they can promise to you that after having their food you will never complain about stomach cramps or indigestion.
Hotel Sidheshwari Ashram
Free School Street
You’ll have to wait outside for your turn to eat at this 90 year old Bengali establishment. Their popularity can be explained by the fact that they never compromise on the quality of ingredients used in their food. The vegetables, meat and fish are carefully bought daily and crafted skillfully into enviable flavours. Their loyal customer base is willing to wait for 15-20 min to have their turn to eat. A little bit of climbing the stairs leads you to the dining area, where the aromas of the freshly cooked curries heighten your appetite, and your waiter rapidly recites the menu. Despite its popularity, owners Sujit Sen and Umapodo Sen have taken special care to keep the prices affordable.

Jagannath Bhojanalay
SN Banerjee Road
This popular 60 year old eating destination is just opposite the Times of India office at SN Banerjee Road, serving rui-machher kabiraji jhol with fervour and gusto. The owner of the hotel, Paanchkori Ghosh, has kept his father’s tradition alive of buying fish, vegetables, and herbs by himself on a daily basis so that the quality of the food and variety of fish served is never compromised. The dinner menu is not as flamboyant as the lunch as it only serves roti, tarka daal and chicken at dinner.
Jogonmata Bhojonalay
Kailash Bose Street
This culinary giant is a 120 year old eating house in the northern part of Calcutta. Reconnect to your old eating traditions by enjoying your lunch on a kanshar thala (bell metal plate) while eating cross-legged on an asan (eating mat). Their loyal list of customers include college students from nearby hostels, doctors, and teachers from nearby areas. Two of the distinct features of this pice hotel which make it special are that the cooks and waiters are Oriya (people from Orissa are know for their cooking skills) and it serves crab-meat on specific days, thriving on a long-standing tradition.

A Summation of Pice Hotel Features :
• There is no menu card- the menu is either written on the black board or recited rapidly by the waiter.
• If possible, eat on a banana leaf as its more hygienic and healthy, and drink the water in an earthen cup (bhanr).
• Don’t be fussy if you have to share a table with 3 or more persons.
• The vegetable dishes are good but the outstanding dishes are the fish preparations which are based on the fresh catch of the day.
• After eating your lunch you need to get up and pay your bill at the counter and leave a little tip for the waiter.
So don’t miss this culinary experience of your own hometown.

This article appeared in the Taste section of the Curry Magazine.

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