Bengali food that cuts across borders

Till the 1990s, Bengali food – cooked just like home – was sold by restaurants that were all located in north Kolkata.
These restaurants were small (15-40 seaters), close to medical or general colleges (which traditionally attract outstation students or visitors who prefer home style food) or had informal tie-ups with hostels or mess establishments occupied by students, professionals, ‘babus’ and the like. Casual diners were also welcome.

These were called ‘pice’ hotels – many pundits claim this was because when you had a meal of rice, dal, vegetables and a fish here, the bill may be to less than a rupee (i.e., in paisa).
Well, that must have been many many years ago! In the 1980s, a meal would cost Rs.3.50 to Rs.15 depending on the fish ordered. As a student of Presidency College, I was an occasional diner! The meals were great.
Other pundits claim that this category was called ‘rice’ hotels and this had been corrupted to ‘pice’ by the ignorant.
The debates – and explanations for the names – go on but the ‘pice’ label is more popular. And the food was and is light and delicious!
Many of them were – and are – famous like Mini Hotel on College Square; others have vanished under pressure from real estate developers and changing lifestyles. “Dada, everybody these days ask for chowmien and chilly chicken”, lamented the waiter at one of the most popular eateries on College Square.
In all this, south Kolkata lagged far behind, for while it had colleges, mess and hostels, Bengali food restaurants never came up. To be fair, there were very few restaurants of any type in south Kolkata till the 1990s.
South was a residential area and outstation residents resigned themselves to eating out of tiffin boxes from meal delivery restaurants. The only type of restaurant serving meals were the Tamil food establishments like Komala Vilas.
One exception was Suruchi, the lunch room operated by a ladies’ welfare society on Elliot Road close to Park Street. It was patronized by office workers and visitors who loved Bengali cuisine and occasional family groups. It does so even today.
What we are now witnessing is a new type of ‘pice’ hotels in central Kolkata and I refer to the half dozen or so situated around the Free School Street area of Park Street.
Many will immediately argue that these are not pice hotels but ‘Bangladeshi’ hotels but I differ. While visitors from Bangladesh do frequent these hotels and co-own some of them, they represent only half or so sales on a given day.
If the cuisine served here reminds many of Dhaka style food, we must remember that millions crossed over from the eastern districts of Bengal during Partition and it is their cuisine that we are tasting there, not a foreign cuisine.
Also, they have all the admirable quality of pice hotels of yore—modest price, meal service, close proximity to modest hostels, hotels and rental rooms and typical Bengali delicacies. The days of ‘pice’ dining, as explained before, are over in terms of cost but they represent great value for money.
These restaurants – the names Kasturi, Prince, Radhuni, Chittaging and Bhoj Company spring to mind – are located close to each other.
A rice-dal-vegetarian curry and fries will set you back around Rs.100. Non-vegetarian helpings are prices between Rs.70 and Rs.100. The chitol fish kofta is half the price of a full side of fish – fact that may surprise many diners!
Prawns, hilsa and bhetki prices are higher, between Rs.150 to Rs.250, as the price of these have soared.
Mutton and chicken delicacies range from biryanis to ‘bhuna’ and ‘bharta’ – the last two are typically east Bengal cooking styles that our older generations remember.
While Suruchi is the old vanguard in the not-so-upscale list, the new ones offer a different ambience and experience.

Occasionally, you may get delicacies like banana stem, banana blossom, chalta and green jackfruit alongside drumsticks (shojne daanta) or ridged gourd (jhinge). You could also get sheem (flatbeans), ‘kochu’, or ‘karela’ and ‘echor’
The selection of fish is impressive but depends on the season. “The ignorant hardly know that fish, like vegetables, vary in quality and availability according to season”, says Saha Babu of Kasturi.
All of the names mentioned serve memorable helpings of Beckti Paturi, Mocha Chingri or Ilish Bhapa but also recommended is the Hilsa Paturi or the Hilsa Biryani.
Memorable at Prince are the Chitol Muithya and Topse Fry but you may also venture to try the breakfast offering of chiken liver or mutton bhuna khichuri.
Bhoj Company also serves Bhuna Khichuri with mutton and Lau Ghonto with fish head and bones and the ever popular Bhetki Paturi.
Restaurant owners like Ranajit Dey converted his snack shop (called Cafe 48) to Chattogram hotel as the foreigners who used to patronize the Free School Street area were supplemented with Bangladeshi visitors and locals both seeking home style Bengali food.
These restaurants also have delivery services and offices at times tie up with them for lunch service. The most popular name in the delivery service appears to be Prince (judging by the number of men I saw leaving with parcels) but Radhuni and Kasturi are not far behind.
Kasturi has a separate takeaway section on the ground floor and is the most convenient. The brainchild of the Saha family, it was the first to be set up in that area and claims to have insprired the others. Try the Chital Kalia.
The Bhowmicks of Radhuni had earlier invested in Prince as a co-owner before investing in their second venture. Both the eateries have a justified reputation for items like the Bhuna Khichuri, Chittalpeti and Dhakai Murog Pulao.
They also sell sweets, particularly a delicious Anglo-Indian (or should I say Anglo-Bengali) style pudding to round off the meal.

One top tip: Lunchtime has much more on offer as stock tend to get fully sold out by the evening. Going late – beyond 9pm or so – will lead to disappointment as early birds would have consumed most of the delicacies.

Another top tip: The ambience is simple and spartan, and air-conditioned dining areas are small. Being popular restaurants, these tend to be crowded and be prepared to accept that. Go early to avoid the crowds.
In conclusion, these eateries have completed the full circle in the revival of Bengali food restaurant sector in Kolkata. The situation started to change when the Peerless Hotel set up its Bengali restaurant Aheli in its top end property next to the Oberoi Grand on J L Nehru Road in the 1990s.
This set a trend and was then followed in quick succession by several small Bengali food restaurants in south Kolkata.
Some of these have survived – like Bhojohori Manna, Kewpie’s, 6 Ballygunj Place. More have come up and appear to be doing well, like Tero Parbon or FishFish. Between them, these represent the middle to top end of Bengali food dining.

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