Food is seldom an experience only of its flavours. The basis of life that which sustains our physical being, food though has always been harbouring of such multifaceted essence that endows upon it an identity branching into different alleys from within the realms of the gastronomic. The medley of flavours is vital indeed but no less rooted in necessity is the appeal of it to virtually every sense perceptible to the human awareness. And while the experience of food does indeed transcend the trails of taste to also sprawl along the allure of the aesthetics and its assertion upon the aromatic, food has also been as prominent a source of satiating the inexplicable cravings of the soul. An experience to dwell into beyond the means of what is the obvious is this peculiar charm held by the elements of what categorise as food that serves at once whiffs of nostalgia and smacks of belonginess churning up therefore an overall exploration of emotions from within that one singular strand stemming from the culinary horizon.
This amalgamation of a whole range of diverse experiences that food incorporates along its many nuances of taste and texture, flavours and aromas, emotions and sentiments is delivered in the most accurate representation of what it tends to be in its uniqueness for every individual awareness across a wide range of expressions. Everywhere in the world, every single existence has its own food story to relate to from which emanates a certain characteristic experience of taste exclusive to it. Sometimes this range of the feels that make up the serving of a platter of lip smacking and soul soothing indulgence caters instead to entire communities and is representative also of definite customs, being prominent enough to define even identities in its own worth and bearing. It is across one such parameter of existence that sums up the irresistible play of elements dishing out this one wholesome serving of nutrition and nostalgia in life and longings that a certain tradition of food sees unique expression in. Catering to an entire city of people who immensely love every aspect of their food is a certain lot of institutions that has been for decades now delivering tastes in just the way their patrons forever yearn for. Across the city of Kolkata, there exists still a handful of kitchens that bustle throughout each day in a manner as characteristic of the buoyant existence of its crowded lanes and streets vibrant with the teeming crowd that make the City of Joy the truly enticing enigma that it is. Known colloquially as pice hotels are these unpretentious, unassuming, no- frills attached hamlets of feeding prominence continuing since almost a century that lay bare at once their essence through means of a very eponymous identity.
Dating back to the time of the early 1900s and bursting forth in rather commonness sometime during the 1930s and the 1940s, these hotels assume their name from the word paisa which has been the lowest unit of denomination of the Indian currency. Based on this monetary unit of what was then equivalent to one quarter of an anna during the times of British India are these pice hotels spread throughout the entire length and breadth of the city which happened also to be the commercial capital of our country at that time. Steeped therefore in history, these institutions of repute amassed even through prominent assertions of their humbleness also have that element of the emotional as prominently doing their rounds.
Necessitated by the phenomenon of large scale migration of lower middle class and middle class youth, generally men from villages to cities for scourging out better life and livelihood opportunities to devise ways and means of feeding these additional mouths with meals that would be affordable and homely and nutritious all at once is the story of origin of these remarkable hotels that otherwise would pass off as ordinary eateries of not illustrious worth. Not only lower income migrant workers and daily wage earners though, these kitchens catered also to the survival need of the many a students and babus coming to live in the city in its many hostels and messes, away from the comfort of their homes not however in any unfamiliar land. Limited by their knowledge and expertise in cooking authentic Bengali delicacies otherwise lovingly served to them by mothers and wives back home were these folks who frequently, or rather daily ate out of these hotels that also were known by then, again rather unpretentiously as Bhaater hotel or Rice hotels or at times even as Hindu hotels. Beginning therefore as the kitchens of messbaris were a number of pice hotels that evolved soon to emerge as in fact the first ever commercial indigenous eateries of the city, attesting therefore to a heritage that explains their place of significance within the Kolkata context even in today’s time.
Beneath this tremendous repertoire of history and tradition that does up still some of the most popular eating places in the City of Joy, these pice hotels rest also in an emotion that comes across as rather evident through the manifestation of their very name. Beyond the soul connection of affording to its loyal regulars a sense of belonginess by serving them such food they identified with, the appeal of these pice hotels rested also in their affordability in terms of money, or more appropriately in units of paisa. This affordability translated also in terms of what these establishments had to offer as part of their setting. Food served in banana leaves that everyone would partake of while sitting on mats on the floor served as reminders of both simplicity and tradition. Equally pertaining to the realms of the traditional but spanning out as rather extravagant this time in terms of offering was the food served by these hotels that were always as fresh and ethnic and sumptuous and homely as could be. Served for 1/16th of a rupee (sholo anay ek taka) were these meals that allowed for options galore of ethnic Bengali delicacies through a 3 course serving steeped also in the traditional way of it. But despite the considerate, generous premises of affordability on which they rested, these pice hotels also attached as much importance to sustainability. In order to prevent wastage while also as a practical way to keep overhead costs low, a price was attached to every single item including the kola pata on which the food was served as well as the slices of lemon and the earthen vessel that held the water.
Other assertions of uniqueness that these pice hotels essentially came to be identified with were ‘enforced’ through a set of rules governing the working of these institutions of the culinary. From serving different menus every single day as per availability to pricing every single item individually even as further servings of rice and dal were generously offered for free in line with the aim of providing wholesome affordable meals, pice hotels really set the bar high in terms of its organisational and managerial structure. Also interesting would be the menu of them handwritten on blackboards and placed at the entrance for diners to know what exactly awaits them as part of their day’s meal, even as the same is recited in surprising fluency by the waiter despite the specials being exclusive daily affairs religiously subject to change, accompanied of course therefore by changing rates alongside. And while floor seating has been replaced today by humble still pairs of tables and chairs, it also is customary and even inevitable given the always packed scenario that characterise these places of curious aplomb that meals are partaken of across shared spaces. The bill of course is separate, drawn upon on also as surprising recitation of orders to the detail by the server, even as each seat itself bears a number that tallies with the bill that one goes and pays at the counter, and leaves with a bellyful of hearty dishes and a handful of the fennel mukhwas to relish in fact to the last morsel every bit of the sumptuous meal they just had.
It is through such plays of what can occur to any foreigner as eccentric but that which in fact sums up the traditional mode of dining in many a cultures of our country that this particular expression of food in its intangible essence corroborates to the notion of the gastronomic being as poignant a purveyor of customs. Allowing therefore for the ethnic essence to harbour its identity, steeping within the expanse of which emerges an indigenous expression representative of emotions that linger throughout along with the rich semblances of soulful taste find entrenches into the inner recluses of the being, this particular serving of food that characterise the continuity of many a pice hotels of Kolkata in its simple premises of authenticity and affordability is what the universality of food is all about. Digging into a hearty Bengali meal of the most relishing flavours, as you savor the experience of it through the humble working of your fingers that deliver truly a taste of divinity that no sophistication of the fancy cutlery can ever command, in such seatings that do not have the ambient decor to boast for a picture perfect display of modernity nor the vibe that you actively seek for that perfect lounging experience under a barrage of twinkling fairylights, even a single exploration of the charm of this assertion of the veritable Bengali identity holds in its awareness enough elements of the quaint and the different that is sure to resonate across all of your dining experiences ever.
Of its own distinctive mannerisms and along its very especial route of the culinary, this particular dimension of food that is so crucial to the way of life in many a cultures including the exuberant existence of the Bengali lifestyle is what makes all matters pertaining to the world of flavours and tastes a more concrete assertion of life than is perhaps afforded by its sublime essence as being the basis of all life on earth. And by continuing to uphold this simple but profound significance of food based not on any gourmet derivations but rather on the most indigenous of preparations that however are as diverse and as interesting as possible, the century old heritage of Kolkata’s pice hotels that continue to thrive on its grounds of affordability despite struggling in the face of a rampantly commercialised world of today speak indeed of the power of sustenance that food comes enriched with. As a legacy worth more in its realisation to resolutely pursue than to allow to fall to the shameless farce of modernisation, pice hotels are a treasure of culinary wisdom in recipes as well as in reality that truly stand up to its benevolent pride in utmost humility.