Honestly, I am not a Summer-friendly person at all. I avoid all kind of outdoor or non-AC activities including food adventures during the very inconveniently long summer in Kolkata. But pice hotels had certain attractions for me. I had been hearing about them for some time now and never had the chance to visit one. So when a lunch opportunity at one such place opened up with fellow foodies in mid-March, I couldn’t resist.
So there I was at 120+-year-old Oriya establishment in North Kolkata, some 25 km ride from my home (the Uber driver cribbed, so I know) – Jagantmata Bhojonalaya. For the uninitiated, pice hotels were the nutrition replenishment centres for thousands of students and office babus who stayed in Kolkata messes (shared homes) away from their hometowns. These hotels did thriving business a century back because of their home-style Bengali food. They helped homesick sons get their daily nutrition in exchange for a few paise (pice). Jaganmata was set up by Bikol Chandra Das who hailed from Odisha. Today it is run by third generation family member Gangadhar Mishra.
There were two signboards on the façade of the dilapidated ancient building- the Bengali signage claimed it was Jaganmata while the English name was Jagatmata. Since Jaganmata makes sense grammatically, I am going to stick to it. The entrance to the eatery was through a narrow alley on the left side of the building. Inside, there were two small (and rather ill-maintained) rooms – one had the arrangement to sit on the floor while the other had basic chairs and tables. The rooms had high ceilings that were adorned with korrikath (wooden planks supporting the roof) reminding me of my ancestral house. For centuries, Bengali writers, poets and filmmakers have romanticised korrikath. Also, people back then used to commit suicide by hanging themselves from Korrikath. Of course, there was no metro rail at that time (No apologies for the dark humour).
Running successfully since the pre-independence era, this tiny ‘bhater hotel’ is a great social leveller. Here hip and posh happily shares a table with a cabbie or a labourer. Freshest ingredients are cooked with hand ground spices and on wood ‘n’ coal stove. The result leaves you licking your fingers. Well, you have to lick them anyway because you eat here with your fingers, on a banana leaf that has been laid on a heavy as hell Kansha (bell metal) plate. Water is served in bhNaarr (Earthen cup).
A large red board on the wall announces the menu. Everything is priced separately, even the banana leaf. The prices were of the bygone era and you would have to try really hard to cross Rs 250 for a meal. Do not expect a bill and remain prepared to pay by cash. Varieties of fish are made available daily as per the local market’s offerings of the day– Pabda, Tyangra, Pomfret, Tilapia, Koi, Bhetki, Ilish (during monsoons), Rohu, Katla, Parshe and more. You will also get goat meat and crabs. However, keeping the traditions alive, it is a no poultry place and no meat on Thursdays.
I had rice, lentils, potato fries, cabbage with fish head, Parshe (Mullet-fresh water fish) and goat meat curry. These were the kind of food any true-blooded Bengali grew up eating. Eighties kids were well-acquainted with Unoon (earthen stove) and shile bata moshla (hand ground spices) that made food tastier and healthier. The jhurjhure aloo bhaja was reminiscent of Bengali biye bari bhoj (wedding feasts) during my childhood. Crispy and matchstick thin slices of potatoes deep fried with just the right quantity of salt. The ideal partner to the simple non-spicy daal. The duo worked better with a dash of lime and occasional bites of raw onions. Cabbage was with fish head thought at 1 pm the fish head had done the vanishing act from the curry. I wasn’t complaining as I was not really into fish. But I was glad that I had ordered the Parshe for experience’s sake. It was a big and super fresh fish that was a bit over-fried (just the way I like) before cooking it with a thick pungent mustard paste. The fleshy fish was just too delicious and I finished a large quantity of rice with it. A very strange incident as I neither like fish nor rice. The goat meat curry was again a simple non-spicy affair. The meat pieces were not too healthy yet were tasty nonetheless. It was the typical panthar jhol that usually completed every Bengali’s Sunday lunch. There was tomato chutney too and it served as a good palate cleanser cum dessert as no mishti (sweets) was available.
Meat is surely a very popular item and it gets over pretty fast. One of the friends had arrived late and she did not get any. The servers were seasoned and could easily distinguish between who had come to fill the stomach and who were tourist kinds. The latter would be offered kolapata on plates and help with selecting food. They were also well practised in ‘calling’ which was passing on orders to the kitchen by shouting the food item/s. You may ask for repeats, though that too will be priced separately. The person who is at the cash point do not keep track of orders and the server tells him the bill amount for each customer.
Before ending must mention the cute little well and the tiny iron bucket that were outside at the alley for the purpose of hand washing. The cuteness ends there though, as the alley was rather unclean with food waste heaped on one side. Though I may not consider a repeat visit as environmental hygiene is a thing with me, but food wise the place really scored high on my good food report card.
Address: 40, Kailash Bose Street, Simla, Machhuabazar, Kolkata 700006
Near Vivekananda Road and Bidhan Sarani Crossing