The flavour of Kolkata

The flavour of Kolkata
The city is known for its old alleys. One such is shot by Atanu Pal.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Happy Birthday, Ms Honeybee!

Here’s wishing Ms Honeybee many happy returns of the day from the core of my heart! She has been helluva fun and a steady source of weekly entertainment. I am fond of her sharp wit.

Well, Ms Honeybee is officially a weekly cinema gossip column featured on the backpage of Calcutta Times, the daily supplement of the Times of India, on Sundays. It is one wicked pleasure that I am sure many don’t wish to miss in the daily dope of entertainment news. Now, as any reader of the column  knows what is mostly seen in the column is actually insider information of the Bangla cinema industry that is not fit to be published in byline news/ features. So, it’s dope for those seeking interesting trivia and juicy, intimate nuggets of information from the industry. It sometimes breaks news too. Like it has informed of a star kid who would possibly be cast in the lead role in a big period piece helmed by a leading director and scheduled to release next Puja.

So, you get to know about projects before the media brings it to you, the real picture of the box office of big movies, the show of might of a big producer, how warm the vibes of Bengal’s hottest star pair actually are etc apart from the familiar dose of industry romances.

What the readers surely enjoy is the straightforwardness of Ms Honeybee. She doesn't hint at persons but takes names, unlike other gossip columns where the readers keep figuring out, often with struggle, who is what from the hints. There is one exception but, a mighty industry mogul, whom she refers to as ‘He who must not be named’.

I once shocked a friend of mine who runs a leading theatre in Behala with the precise information of which show of a new Bengali release was cancelled in his theatre, gathered from you know where.

Ms Honeybee has been wished by big stars on her special day and you know what? Reading that was as much fun as reading the column. The wishes separates the men from the boys and women from the girls. Ms Honeybee hardly spares anyone, so all have had a taste of her sting. Now, some have taken it in their stride and wished her well, like Birsa, Srijit, Jeet and Rituparna. But some have made it apparent that they have found her sting a bit too much to handle at times by requesting her to check facts before writing or that her gossip was baseless at times. They include Dev, Raj Chakraborty, Nusrat and Mimi. To me, Birsa’s quip takes the cake, which states, “Bob like a beetle, tittle to the tee/ Oh my quirky, zany Honeybee.” Also liked the pun-loving Srijit saying “Honeybee ‘hani karok’ noy, borong mishti. In months to come, I wish to read more interesting trivia from her.”

Before signing off, let me put down which wish made for a ROFL moment for me. It’s Dev’s, who has requested her to check the ‘authenticity’ of the ‘news’ as “Not every gossip is true”.

#MsHoneybee #BanglaCinema #Tollygunge

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Kolkata pice hotel trail part 1- Hotel Sidheshwari Ashram

Love on a banana leaf!

In the age where we indulge in the choicest Bengali food in fancy Bengali cuisine restaurants, some eateries, tucked into the lanes and alleys of the old Kolkata, have been silently serving lipsmacking traditional food for ages. Known as pice hotels, they serve good old basic meals, minus any frills, to the common man at honest prices in a humble ambience.

According to Arun Deb who runs Tarun Niketan, the popular pice hotel near Rashbehari, which is more than hundred years old, ‘Pice hotel’ means a customer needs to pay for everything other than the steel plate, the salt served on it and the water in stainless steel tumbler. Even a piece of banana leaf, if a customer demands getting the food served on it (as it is done traditionally), has a small price. ‘Paisa’ or ‘Pice’ in English was the smallest currency in the British era when such eateries possibly started. So, it meant, one had to pay in pice for everything in those eateries and thus these places started being known as ‘Pice hotel’.

Without this kind of eateries, one’s search for Bengali food in Kolkata will remain incomplete and if a visitor wants to eat Bengali food in real local style, the destination is a pice hotel, not a fancy Bengali cuisine restaurant. Also, pice hotels are part of the soul of Kolkata. So if you wish to feel it, you may go to one.

I first read about Hotel Sidheshwari Ashram in my Facebook food group Calcutta Foodies Club in an extensive post, then in friends’ blog posts and Instagram posts. So, it was on the wishlist for a long time. Finally it got ticked as I visited this ninety two-year old popular pice hotel on a recent Saturday for lunch with two enthusiastic colleagues. What I felt after the meal is encapsulated in the opening line.

It’s located in Janbazar in central Kolkata. If you walk down SN Banerjee from from KMC/ Elite cinema bus stop towards Sealdah, after a few minutes, you shall see Hotel Aura on the right in a four-point crossing. Turn right and keep an eye on the left. After a few shops, mostly selling spices (it’s a spice market), you shall find its narrow entrance. Go straight to the first floor.

What will welcome you, much to your surprise (if you aren’t familiar to a pice hotel), is the menu board. Yes, prices are written in chalk as per availability of dishes which is dependent on the availability of the main ingredients and their prices on a given day. It means if a particular fish wasn’t available in the market that day, or its price had shot up much, the price of its dish would ke kept blank on the board. So, don’t make the mistake of asking for the menu card. It’s all there on the board only. It’s a place for the common man on the road. Customers sit on benches, not chairs, and share tables with rank strangers. Don’t be surprised if you find a cat staring at your fish from the window and don’t bother either.

I much preferred to sit right there as for me it was not just the food but the ambience to soak in, but on that day we had a lady among us and she wasn’t feeling comfortable sharing the table with a stranger, so we moved to the small AC section (seating ten people) which they have started in recent years for ‘sophisticated’ customers.They charge 20% extra on the bill for dining there, which we found to be fair given the down-to-earth prices.

We ordered fine rice, thick dal (they have basic versions of both at lower prices but don’t go for them), jhuri alubhaja (fried, crunchy potato slivers) and Rui Kawsha (Rohu fish curry in thick gravy) for all. Mocha Chingdi and mango chutney were also ordered which we shared. The food was served on a banana leaf in traditional Bengali style and water was served in ‘bhnaars’ (earthen cup).

The food was finger-licking good! Prices were down-to-earth and some items were surprisingly cheap, like the dal and alu bhaja. The portion sizes were good- the alu bhaja will suffice for two, so will be the Mocha Chingdi. The fish was a ‘peti’ for me (stomach- the most covetable serving of fish) and man, it was a jaw-dropping size (see the picture below). The common order (Rice, dal, alubhaja and the fish dish) cost just Rs 91 each approximately (other than the 20% load for AC section).

The giant portion of fish

After the meal is over, don’t ask for the bill. Head for the cash counter where the waiting staff will recall the dishes ordered and the cashier will put the prices of each in boxes on a sheet of paper on a clipboard, then sum up and tell you the amount. You can tip the service staff right there.

Unlike a pice hotel, it is open in the evening too. And it’s open all days a year.

It's surely a hidden gem and I have to go back there to explore more. Certainly for the mutton curry which fetches many good words.

I hope to visit some more pice hotels on my wishlist soon which will see the 'The Kolkata pice hotel trail' going.

#PiceHotel #BengaliCuisine #BengaliMeal #BengaliFood #BengaliFoodKolkata

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