Inside Kolkata’s pice hotels: Serving wholesome and tasty Bengali meals
The pice hotels have stood the test of time and continue to provide tasty Bengali meals at dirt cheap prices
Scattered in the deep alleys of the bustling metropolis of Kolkata, pice hotels (the no-frills neighbourhood restaurants mostly serving migrant workers and office-goers) offer a peep into a long-forgotten history of the city’s past.
Fish and rice are Bengali staple foods and the concept of a Bengali “bhaater’ hotel then sounded alien. These heritage pice hotels were set up in the early 1900s as the kitchens of messbaris (cheap boarding houses for students and office workers). The word pice hotel was derived from the word, ‘paisa’, which is considered the lowest denomination in Indian currency. Unpretentious in their decor, these low-cost eateries provided simple, home-cooked meals for a few paisas to satiate the hunger of thousands of migrant workers who moved to the city in search of a livelihood. A handful of these eateries even hosted a few revolutionaries and activists in the early 1900s who held clandestine meetings.
Today, most of these ‘mess baris’ are gone, but the pice hotels have remained. Although tables and chairs have now replaced the floor mats, earlier, the meals were served on banana leaves and customers traditionally sat on straw mats on the floor. The day’s menu and prices were written on the chalkboard. With the passage of time, many such joints shut shop owing to the rising costs and changing lifestyle choices.
The menu was strictly traditional consisting of rice, aloo posto (potatoes cooked in poppy seed paste), kumrophoolbhaja (pumpkin flower fritters), and chingrimachermalai curry (prawns cooked in thick coconut milk), to name a few. The price and menu would change daily, depending on what was available in the market that morning. As with the rules of all pice hotels, everything from the banana leaf to the lemon slices served wascharged.
And with the resurgence of regional and micro cuisines, as predicted by the Godrej Food Trends Report 2022, there’s a newfound enthusiasm for reviving lost flavours from across the country.
So, here’s looking at the smattering of pice hotels that continue to serve authentic Bengali meals.
Hotel Siddheswari Ashram
Established in 1928 by Khudiram Sarkar, this eatery is tucked away in an alley behind Kolkata’s iconic New Market. Its signature dishes include special KobirajiJhol, which is a light fish curry preparation with a medley of vegetables like raw banana, potato, papaya and very little oil. While fish is a constant in their menu, other items like mocha (banana blossom) and kanchaamer chutney (raw mango chutney) are still popular. In summer, theyserve aamsholmachch, a tangy mango and mustard curry fish that is low on spices.
This restaurant started its journey in pre-Independent India, and even after a century, has stuck to its original quintessential Bengali menu. Not to forget an array of fish items from pabda to bhetki to chitol, rohu, katla, hilsa, and many more. The food quality is never compromised. All the food items cooked here are made without onion and garlic, apart from the fish, meat, and egg (duck eggs only) preparations.
Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel
Located on College Street, near the Presidency College, this eatery (also known as the Hindu Hotel) was set up in 1927 by Man GobindoPonda. It stands out from the rest for serving authentic vegetarian Bengali dishes. The fish curries are equally unique that includes rare freshwater fish like magurmaach, koi maach, etc. The hotsellers include chitolmachermuitha (fish balls cooked in spicy tomato onion gravy) and macher dimer bora (fish egg pakoras).
It was a go-to joint for students and office-goers in 1952 in College Street. Their light and runny mutton curry and rice for lunch are still the bestsellers.
Have you eaten at these pice hotels? Tell us in the comment section below.