Unearthing the history of Kolkata's most famous 'pice hotel'.
Kolkata has an unending love affair with the past but only a few flings with current times. A new flyover, a fancy park, a KFC in the North, a Hoppipola where a hookah place used to be, yet another invisible café in Vivekananda Park and that’s all the flings this city's ever had. It is in this past, and from it, that we get all our food and it has us yearning and whirling like mad men with withdrawal symptoms. We swear by the classics and choose authenticity over all else. Therefore, Hoppipola can never match up to Oly Pub’s footfalls in Kolkata, because Kolkattans take patronage seriously and perhaps, are more loyally committed to the food dynasties here than they are to their jobs.
The changing face of Kolkata
One of these indefinitely existing traditions finds place in the city’s many pice hotels serving simon-pure Bengali food since the colonial era. Tucked away in the depths of this ageing city, pice hotels began mushrooming almost a century ago. These joints served authentic home-cooked-style Bengali food and attracted hoards of office-goers and city merchants; which also explains why they are mostly located in the commercial areas of North Kolkata. Obtaining its name from the lowest denomination during the British rule, pice hotels came to be called so because they would serve an entire hearty meal for just a pice. Even today, the prices are astronomically low as they continue serving Bengal’s best kept gastronomical secrets.
Silk route to Sideshwari
Despite being Kolkattan, pice hotels were something I had only heard of, and a lot. So this time when I went back to the city to satisfy the yearning in my homesick heart, I set aside one day to unearth the mystery behind these conspicuous diners. I chose Kolkata’s most renowned pice hotel.
On a hot Friday afternoon I boarded a share auto near my house. As some newly added songs guided me through the busy streets, I finally got off near Lotus Cinema, at the crossing where Rafi Ahmed Kidwai makes a right into S.N. Banerjee road. I knew this locality like the back of my hand, courtesy the uncountable visits to New Market. Still, it took me a good twenty minutes to locate the place. I made my way through the cramped by-lanes, seeking shade from the plastic covers jutting out of an array of grocery stores. It felt fitting to be led by a road littered with shops protruding full of Indian spices, for I was about to arrive at a culinary heaven.
Entering Sidheswari restaurant
Finally, I noticed a tiny red board with ‘Sidheswari Hotel’ painted on it and a useless arrow directing you to the stairs. Useless because the strong whiff of prawns and garam masala being tempered in fresh mustard oil were already doing the job. As I climbed up the creaky stairs, I noticed the collection of dust in the corners of the walls, the paint and plaster peeling off. I could hear the clanking of utensils and a rumble that is typical only to Bengali restaurants. I had arrived considerably later than the usual lunch hour, and yet I found a healthy crowd chattering between loaded bites, trying to make the most of their lunch break.
I roamed around stunned to find such an expansive area after the restaurant’s humble, almost invisible entrance. I was wandering around, my camera hanging idly from my neck, when a woman approached me with a smile as bright as day. This was Rita Sen, the co-owner of Sidheswari who runs the place along with sister-in-law Debjani Sen; and she was going to help me unfold the place’s history.
Inside a Kolkata Pice Hotel. Image source: tripadvisor.com
Originally started by a native of Burdwan, Khudiram Sarkar built this iconic eatery in 1937 (or was it 38?) when he migrated to Kolkata. On his death soon after independence, the place was run by Umapada Sen and his cousins until he acquired complete ownership in 1972. It was only in 2015 after his and his son’s death, that the baton passed on to Rita and Debjani. “I work in the insurance field and my sister-in-law is a teacher. As such we were very skeptical in the beginning because this is a humongous task. We then decided to give it a shot and by god’s grace we are managing.”
Holding up the tradition. Image source: kitchenofdebjani.com
Sidheswari, unlike most new Bengali restaurants that only boast of their authenticity, practices it. I found out that tables and chairs were added as late as 1975. Even today, the food is served on fresh banana leaves, whereas water and sweets are served in earthen clay pots. For a place that was born during, and out of, the changes brought in by colonization, it has none of the hangovers or pretense of ‘table manners’.
Run by thirty workers and two chefs who work in three different shifts, the place sees an alarming footfall of close to 1000 a day; which was interrupted only for a short while during demonetization. What was most interesting was that the menu changed every day, both in terms of dishes and their respective prices. Mrs. Sen explained, “We make what we get at the bazaar and charge over what we pay for the ingredients there”. Mostly famous for their seafood, the place has a confusing, tantalizing list of dishes that range from the everyday Maacher Jhol (Fish Curry) to the more exquisite Daab Chingri (Prawns cooked with spices and tender coconut), Chingri Maacher Malai Curry (a thick gravy of coconut milk cooked with spices and prawns), Shorshe Eelish (Hilsa marinated in mustard paste and cooked in mustard oil to form a thin gravy) and their best known mango chutney that is sold for as low as Rs.12 and is available all year, irrespective of season.
Macher Jhol and Galda Chingri - tiger prawns
Hosting every kind of diner, Sidheswari also sees its fair share of tourists, primarily from Asia or the Middle East with an occasional European drifting in. Sidheswari was also where I understood why some people claim mathematics to have been born in India. For a place that serves a variety of races and accents, and attends to lunch and dinner orders from over 1000 people, it was mind-boggling for me to see the waiters use no pen or paper to write them down. They call out the orders from multiple tables in one uninterrupted breath. This is referred to as “the call”- another little ritual there.
Talking about the future, the restaurant’s caretaker Sumit Sinha said, “Zomato has not yet been a threat but we realize we need to catch up with present times”.
My super awesome second lunch
As a parting gift, Rita Sen treated me to my second lunch that day. I had agreed saying “only little,” until the waiter walked in with his aluminium bucket full of rice. Salivating at my plate of Shorshe Eelish l asked, albeit reservedly, for a little bit of Aalo’r Jhuri Bhaja (grated potato fries). Sticking to quintessential Bengali eating habits, I squeezed copious amounts of lime juice over my white and yellow mound of sin and dug in with both hands; a silent “fuck you” to the fork and knife of my Bandra cafe.
The ever changing menu
101 Pice Hotel
1. This concept started when things were available in paisa.
2. A full meal was available for a few paisa., which is why people called them paisa hotel - pais hotel - pice hotel.
3. The food is served on fresh banana leaves, water and sweets are served in earthen clay pots.
4. There's no menu card at the table. So, take a look at the menu board as you walk in.
5. Table sharing is common practice.
6. If you’re vegetarian, stay away!
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Suman Quazi
Photographs by Suman Quazi
Cover photo credit: whatsuplive.in