The concept of a Bengali ‘bhaater hotel’ was never unknown to me, considering I grew up in Kolkata of 90’s. These hotels were meant for people who lived without families or could not afford to bring their own ‘tiffin’ at workplaces. During those days, you would have been surely considered a lunatic if anybody thought about ‘Bengali food’ as an eating out/fine dining option. In fact, I remember distinct opinions like – “Poisha diye keu maach bhaat khetey jaay naki?” (Who goes and eats and fish rice by paying for it) when places like ‘Oh! Calcutta’ or ‘Bhojohori Manna’ first came up.
Fish and rice are Bengali staple food and the concept of a Bengali restaurant in Kolkata then sounded alien, at least for middle class Bengalis like me and my family. Then I left Kolkata for attending law school and my first job, got married, lived abroad and when I returned after a span of some good 7-8 years, I found that not only these Bengali joints were popular, but they had captured the fancy of my middle class Bengali parents also. The primary reason being easy availability of age old traditional recipes at these kitchens, which were increasingly difficult to source and prepare at our nuclear homes. We did not have the time or patience to spend an entire day in the kitchen to make that perfect ‘chitol maacher muithya’ at our homes, like our grandmothers did. Plus, the generation who could make it perfectly, were growing old. So the buffet at a fancy Bengali fine dining restaurant sounded the perfect saviour. BUT! and the biggest ‘but’ was and is that these places are quite expensive. The fine china and the air conditioning makes it comfortable but does not quite translate to the comfort of home cooked food where the ‘Noli’ of a simple ‘kochi pathar jhol’ (the Mutton piece with the bone marrow inside the goat meat bone tube served with simple curry) could be enjoyed while nobody gave you glances. For the uninitiated, the ‘Nolir’ piece remains the most coveted one, and it takes some exercise including some indulgent hitting on the plate for the Noli to come out and melt in your mouth. Now imagine doing that at a fine dining restaurant.
My foodie heart wanted to taste some ‘chyachra’ (bengali vegetable mishmash often cooked with a fish head) or ‘borar torkari (lentil cakes cooked in a light curry), without some fancy fusion taste, just like we used to do at home, without burning a hole into my pocket. I was researching about Kolkata and the history Bengali food chains when I came across some blog posts by The Calcutta Girl and Indrajit Lahiri. This is when I re-discovered the ‘Pice hotels of Kolkata’ or ‘Bhaater hotel’. The concept behind some of these century old hotels was often to serve simple, authentice, homely meals to people coming to Kolkata/Calcutta when the city was a bustling commercial capital or the second city of the empire during the days of the British Raj. These hotels were cheap and were often attached with boarding houses or ‘mess baris’ where working middle class gentlemen used to live and eat. Now most of these ‘mess baris’ are gone, but the Pice hotels have remained – Pice being the cost of the meal (1 Pice being a former monetary unit of British India, equal to one quarter of an anna, as per Google Baba). I also found some useful information about them on some popular YouTube channels like KolkataTalkJhalMisti and Foodka. Apart from these, some of my favourite city bloggers and friends like Poorna Banerjee and Anirban Halder, threw in some great suggestions on Facebook.
Most of the information about Pice Hotels that I found where about hotels located in North and Central Kolkata, considering they are the older parts of the city. I must agree that it did hurt my ‘born and brought up in South Kolkata’ sentiments a bit. As a result, I decided to start off my Pice Hotel trail in Kolkata from the most famous South Kolkata Pice hotel – ‘Tarun Niketan’ located near the good old Lake Market.
How to get there?
The place is equally accessible from Gariahat or Rahsbehari, through public buses. It can also be reached by Metro, by getting down at Kalighat Metro station and walking towards Triangualr Park/Gariahat and the place will be on your right had side. The nearest landmark is Lake Mall and the distance is walkable and will fall on your left, if you are facing Rashbehari bus stop/Kalight metro. For getting there by Uber, put the location as “Tarun Niketan” with the address -88/1B Rashbehari Avenue, Kolkata 700 026, but be mindful, the area is quite crowded and you might just miss the board or the lane.
Ambience/Vibe of the place
Tarun Niketan is a 103 year old Pice hotel which still serves food on Kolapata (Banana leaves). As with the rules of all pice hotels, everything from the leaf to the lemon slice served is charged. The walls, the marble top tables, rickety old chairs or the hand written rate chart/menu card with white chalk will give you an idea of the antiquity of the place. The long queue of people awaiting for their turns to sit on the table and have food will give you an idea of the popularity of the place. In fact, be prepared to share your table with strangers during rush hours and indulge in some chitchat (one Kolkata speciality), about the rising prices or state of the economy while having food. The place has some very regular customers, who eat here on daily basis and the waiters know their liking and what exactly needs to be served. Customer loyalty is unquestionable here. Not to forget, do not miss checking out the numerous newspaper and magazine cutouts which have been framed and now adorn the wall, which mention the history and speciality of the place.
Most importantly, Food!
Once you enter the hotel and find a place for yourself, one person comes and puts on the banana leaf, the salt and the ‘gondhoraj’ lemon slice. Next, the person taking your order will rattle out whatever is available for the day. Reach early, as most of the day’s speaclities are over by 2’o clock in the afternoon. The menu also keeps on changing so, paying attention to the star waiter is necessary. We ordered- Bhaat (rice), Kolmi shaak bhaja (a kind of leafy greens/water spinach as starters), Daal (lentils), Chalkumro r pur bhaja (Stuffed Ash gourd fritters), Chingrir Bora (a fried preparation with Prawns), Paanchmishali Torkari (Vegetable mishmash), Bhetki Paturi (Bhetki fish preparation in a banana leaf), Bhetki maacher jhol (Bhetki fish curry) and Aamer chutney (Mango chutney).
The rice served at first go was quite a bit for our city bred ways and in case you need second helping you can ask for some more, for a nominal cost. I found all the food served, apart form the watery daal, to be amazingly good. I ate Kolmi shaak after long, and even though it could have been sliced a bit more finely, I found the taste to be just perfect. The Chingrir Bora, Chalkumror pur bhaja and Paanchmishali torkari were superb! But the fish preparations take the cake and the crown here. The Bhetki Paturi that I had was one of the best I have ever had in my life. The fish fillet was big enough, and the coating/paste was not at all rich with spices and oil – in fact, it was quite dry and had a beautiful sweet taste. The fish for the jhol was quite large in size and the jhol was very simply made with all the tastes of the spices retained. In fact, both me and my husband loved the food so much that we forgot to take decent photos of the food. That translates to actual ‘foodgasm’ in the era of Instagram. The ‘Aamer chutney’ was decent too.
Also, all the food preparations cooked at Tarun Niketan are made without onion and garlic, apart from the Fish, Meat and Egg preparations. The place also does not serve Chicken eggs and the egg curry served is made with Duck eggs.
Guess, what the pocket pinch for this entire meal for 2 was? I asked some of my friends and they guessed it to be above 1000 going by a conservative estimate.
But the actual price for the meal was only INR 354/- Only!
Surprised, are you? so was I. But then again, Kolkata remains the city of surprises and it is quite plausible to find such amazing places serving such nice, simple food at such throwaway prices. The food quality is never compromised and if you can give away the comfort of AC fine dining restaurants for a day and game for some interesting tit bits of history – these old Pice hotels, which are a part of Kolkata’s culinary history, will welcome you with open arms. So are you ready for your date with history and culinary simplicity of Bengal and Kolkata?
Hat Tip: A complete Bengali meal is finished off with some nice paan and you can walk till Lake Mall to have some nice Benarasi paan from ‘Benarasi Pan Shop’ situated at the right hand corner of the mall.