The Pice Hotel trail: Tarun Niketan in South Kolkata

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.

Lake Market locality – the typical Kolkata post card.

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.

A typical meal served at Tarun Niketan

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.

Entrance to Tarun Niketan
The narrow alley that leads upto the Pice Hotel.

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.

Hand written rate chart
Walls adorned with newspaper cuttings

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.

The half eaten Paturi
Kolmi Shaak bhaja
The half eaten Chingrir Bora
Aamer Chutney

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.

Khaike Paan Banaras wala!

 

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La Dolce Vita – The magical Amalfi Coast!

Two summers back, I had spent a memorable  time in Italy, Europe. While the rest of Italy remains well charted out in the Indian travel scene (that includes the bus full of people doing Europe darshan), Amalfi and the beautiful coastline of Southern Italy was quite a chance discovery for me.

We were staying in Germany and I used to switch on to German television channels to learn Deutsch. It was a trick that my “lehrerin” (teacher in Deutsch) from language school had suggested. Germans are known for their wanderlust and it is during one of those binge watching of travel shows on television, that I discovered the dreamily romantic and the holiday hot spot for the rich and famous – Amalfi Coast.

Continue reading “La Dolce Vita – The magical Amalfi Coast!”

Of cities, short stories and memories of a lifetime – Paris

Prologue:

Every city has a tale to tell of her own. Some are rather bland, some colloquial enough to hold your attention, some refuse to leave your mind long after its all over and some are just timeless…just like Waheeda Rehman. I cannot imagine any city to be a man. In my mind every city is distinctly a woman – with a scent of her own.

Continue reading “Of cities, short stories and memories of a lifetime – Paris”

Good food that makes you think.

A deferred conversation which many people prefer calling email in the pedantic sense of the term, made me crave about home food…bong food…ghar ka khana…maa er hater ranna!!!!! Jyotika at the same time shared this awesome blogpost with me were a fellow blogger rants about her love for all things good about food…and no prizes for guessing…that essentially related to bong food :P. 

It’s not a fact anymore but common knowledge that I love eating. Listing out favourites will be a cardinal sin, but yet I will go ahead with a few for which I have perennial craving for. and a few suggestion here and there.
1. Phuchka- This had to top the list. Panipuri, golgappas etc. etc. please take a backseat because nothing and i repeat NOTHING makes you ga ga about street food as authentic Calcutta Phuchka does. 
My picks- a) Rajender phuchka near Dakshinapon. b) CR Park Market No 1 phuchkawallah in New Delhi c) Sindhi Colony in Hyderabad (I located that one!)
2. Chitol Macher muithya- Uff!!! I am really going weak on my knees imagining those fishballs in that temting gravy. 
My pick- nobody makes it as good as my didun. Period. Already have the recipe with me, will learn it form her directly soon. I wish I could cook like her though.
3. Ilish mach- I love this one…prepared anyways. While the bangal way of preparing it on Sarswati pujo (light gravy with eggpants and kalojeerey) remians a favourite, I love the bhapa, bhaja and all other known varieties.
My pick- My pishimoni and Ma’s kitchen.
4. Kochur shaak/bata/koura, Karkone bata, dhoney pata bata- Traditional ghotis can smirk at this one, but trust me, it tastes like heaven…of course you need good cooks at helm. My experience tells that true blue blooded ghotis also have enjoyed this fare at one of my relative’s place…and needless to say they were always asking for more. In case you have a thing for spicy food and good food in general…do try!!
My picks- Again my Ma and Pishimoni’s kitchen.
5. Vada/ Sambhar/ Crispy Dosa- I have to agree that this is an acquired taste and thankfully I wa slucky enough to discover this one. Tuesday morning breakfast in the mess means yumm Sambhar and Vada. Me and my friend tavishi have this alltime craving for the sambhar prepared Tuesdays and Sunday mornings. They taste so good and better than the other days. 
My picks- NALSAR university mess and Minerva Coffee shop in Hyderabad.
6. Fried Rice/Noodles/Bekti and Chilly/Schezuan/Lemon/pepper chicken..anything Chinese- I adore. Simply. Can have Chinese anytime of the day. 
My picks- quite a long list actually- a) Mainland China, Calcutta (Hyd one is not that good), b) China Town in Calcutta (any restaurant is good enough though my vote goes for Beijing and Bigg Boss) c) Ten Downing street in Hyderabad d) A newly opened eatery near my place…near the golfgreen more (forgot the name) e) Chungwa in New Delhi and e) Nan King in Hyderabad (obviously!!)
7. Mutton Kosha/Biriyani- Quite a tie. And i love them both. Acquired a taste for biriyani after coming to Hyderabad. 
My picks- For Mutton Kosha, has to be my mom’s kitchen. I will try out Golbaari for sure sometime soon in Calcutta. For Briyani- Paradise in Hyderabad. Iconic and the winner all the way. In case you cant manage a seat at the upstairs restaurant, go for the take away. you will not rue it. Arsalan in Calcutta.
8. Subway- I love subway. It changed my perception about breads and sandwiches in general. Frankly speaking, before trying Subway I never thought that my taste buds can be friendly to breads also, since I am quite a rice person. But healthy eating at Subway makes me feel good. Love the Salads, cookies and of course the sandwich there.
9. Chocolate fudge from Nahoum’s- That explains it all. 70 years and counting..threats of closure and change of ownership notwithstanding, the charm of Nahoum’s continues..just like good old Calcutta and New market.
10. Nolen gurer sondesh and mishti doi- I am not a sweet dish fan and that’s very hard to gulp down for some  of my non bong friends. But my bong sweet tooth makes an appearance here and there even when I have a preference for everything ‘jhaal’. Give me nolen gurer sondesh from Balaram or Kalpana near my house and I will die for you.
And mishti doi!!! I love!! more than ice cream….in fact I respect houses which serve mishti doi as the dessert instead of ice cream. It’s not a popular choice so many people don’t serve it on occasions anymore. High on calorie, dalda and blah blah…but who cares. Kalpana’s mishti doi…and I keep on dreaming!!!
In case you are counting calories after reading this…can’t help it dear. who cares about calories when you can dream about the creamy and delicious mishti doi?

Delicacies from Purbo Bongo

I have been following quite a few food blogs off late. and am quite amazed at the kind of publicity that bengali cuisine gets on the world wide web with a very decent fan following (and that includes a tam iyer friend of mine who is just ga ga over chingri :P). But I do have an objection about the fact that whatever is being publicised as authentic “Bengali” cuisine (and i agree its one yummy effort) more or less consist of what we bangals (people traditionally from east bengal) prefer to call as ghoti (traditional west bengal) culinary delights. Needless to say am completely ga ga over that bit of aloo-poshto.

But the Bangal maiya (Dhaka-Bikrampur) in me cannot take that lying down. I quite enjoy the fact that we are tagged as the people who have earned it (jeebonsongram as they say). This post of mine is an effort to enlist out a few of my favourite dishes which belong exclusively to the Bangal kitchen. Bangal cooking in general is dominated by its prefernce for everything spicy and hot. I guess that’s were we have our outspoken origin and if a fellow rajasthani (mind it! they are known for their preference of the Laal mirch) called me a Teekhi Mirach for my now well known big mouth, I couldn’t agree more.
So here I go and I begin with the mouth watering- Shutki Maach. I guess many of the Bangals also cannot fathom this foul smelling fish while its being cooked in the neighbourhood. But once done, you can gorge on to this piece of culinary magic.
One remarkable thing is that while Ilish remains the favourite of Bengalis across the ghoti-bangal divide, the fish traditionally is ours i-e, we bangals. We associate it with our favourite football club and not too long ago when a certain sourav ganguly had not changed the statistics and demography of the Kolkata maidan and the sporting scene in general, east bengal supporters used to celebrate their victory (and that includes the famous 5 goals) by sending properly cooked ilish to the houses of their friends supporting mohunbagan. (its very true! my father has done it often. needless to say it was reciprocated with chingri when mohunbagan won against their traditional rivals). Football, food and matrimony still keeps the old ghoti-bangal rivalry alive. Ask me! am a true blue calcutta girl, but when it comes to food or football, i owe my allegiance to my bangal genes. about the other I have no prefernce, only that I won’t prefer eating sugar laden ghoti delicacies day in and day out. I want my share of spice 😉
But coming back to Ilish, the bhapa variety is well known and quite savoured among my non bengali friends but there is one style of cooking the ilish known only to us. and for those diet conscious people out there who want to have it the low calorie way can definitely try it out. the kalojeerey phoron-kancha lonka recipe which my mom turns into a delicacy that every time i go back home, I want more of it. By now, you must have understood I am a big foodie. In fact, I have lately realised food is the only thing that keeps me going!
Chitol macher muithha is another Bangal favourite, though I must admit ghotis also have taken a fascination for this dish in recent years. and I trust my didun to cook it absolutely amazingly. That’s one recipe I want to learn from her, because my mom also can’t make it that good.
Lotey mach (Loitya or Lotiya as you prefer to call it) has immense medical value. My father alwys emphasised that its necessary for a healthy eyesight…but I fondly think about the fish because of its Jhuri and chochchori varieties which only we are aware of. I sometime so pity those friends of mine who had only the luck to taste the jhol (the syrupy variety), tyaltyaley at that. Trust a true Bangal like me to suggest that itsno match for the other two varieties and add a bit of Lonka bata (mashed red chillies, if i can put it that way), voila! you are in culinary heaven!
And then coming to the eternal Bangal favourite kochu. yeah! the kochu which ghotis (all of them included, and most of them are not snobs) twitch their nose at. My vegetarian friends often complain that bengali cuisine doesn’t offer them the variety to choose from for their platter. I sincerely disagree with them. This year’s bong food festival was an eye openeer for some of them. But you can trust Bangals to make a thousand mouth watering vegetarian delicacies out of this lesser vegetable (evidently as ghotis still consider it to be some zombie from outer space-their loss!! missing out on something). From the coconut laden warmth of the kochu bata to the spicy tiltilation of the kohur koura, its heaven on earth…those who have tasted it, knows. and Kochur shaak is yummyy in both its vegetarian (when cooked with coconut and nuts) and non vegetarian (ilish macher matha diye) forms.
And about the Bata(mashed) variety of anything and everything possible on earth, trust Bangals to rustle up a storm. It might be the seemingly innocent cauliflower leave (kopipata), dhoney pata or the potatao peels (aloor khosha)…..trust any bangal to turn them into one spicy hot bongshell of a dish! 😛
and here i conclude the post, not because i ran out of fuel but because i am sincerely missing home cooked food now(pishimoni’s cooking!!!). but dont worry, i might just be back with a part 2 because picture abhi baaki hain mere dost. the world needs to know about the sweets!
p.s. whoever visits the blog, in case you are a bong, ghoti bangal nirbisheshey, atleast leave a comment on this piece, i sincerely want your opinion on this and a ghoti bangaler juddho on my blog won’t be a that bad idea after all. 😛
Also, if anyone wants to add to the list, you are most welcome to do so.