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BENGAL
Sonar Bangla - our home state

Bengal

Links

The ABCs

Thanda Lagbe

The Europeans


Nalen_Gur
Shankar, TOI 28.11.200
9

 

BENGAL

Situated in the eastern region of India, and stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south is Bengal - the homeland of the Bengalis. Our mother tongue is Bengali. After India's independence, a portion carved out as East Bengal formed East Pakistan. In 1971 following a war of liberation, East Pakistan became the independent country of Bangladesh. The western half of Bengal remained with India and is now known as West Bengal. 

Click here for a map of Bengal.


LINKS ON BENGAL :

WEST BENGAL TOURISM www.wbtourism.com
WEST BENGAL GOVERNMENT www.westbengal.com
BENGAL ON THE NET www.bengalonthenet.com

THE ABC's OF BENGALIS

A is for Awpheesh (as in Office). This is where the average Kolkakattan goes and spends a day hard(ly) at work. And if he works for the West Bengal Gawrment, he will arrive at 10, wipe his forehead till 11, have a tea break at 12, throw around a few files at 12.30, break for lunch at 1, smoke an unfiltered cigarette at 2, break for tea at 3, sleep sitting down at 4 and go home at 4:30. It's a hard life!

B is for Bhision. For some reason many Bengalis don't have good bhision. In fact in Kolkata most people are wearing spectacles all the time.

C is for Chappell. Currently, this is the Bengali word for the Devil, for the worst form of evil. In the night mothers put their kids to sleep saying, "Na ghumaley Chappell eshey dhorey niye jabe".

D is for Debashish or any other name starting with Deb-. By an ancient law every fourth Bengali Child has to be named Debashish. So you have a Debashish everywhere and trying to get creative they are also called Deb, Debu, Deba with variations like Debanik, Deboprotim, Debojyoti, etc. thrown in at times.

E is for Eeesh. This is a very common Bengali exclamation made famous by Aishwarya Rai in the movie Devdas. It is estimated that on an average a Bengali, especially Bengali women, use eeesh 10,089 times every year. "Ei Morechhey" is a close second to Eeesh.

F is for Feeesh. These are creatures that swim in rivers and seas and are a favourite food of the Bengalis. Despite the fact that a fish market has such strong smells, with one sniff a Bengali knows if a fish is all right. If not he will say 'eeesh what feeesh is theesh!'

G is for Good name. Every Bengali boy will have a good name like Debashish or Deboprotim and a pet name like Motka, Bhombol, Thobla, etc. While every Bengali girls will have pet names like Tia, Tuktuki, Mishti, Khuku, etc.

H is for Harmonium. This the Bengali equivalent of a rock guitar. Take four Bengalis and a Harmonium and you have the successors to The Bheatles!

I is for lleesh. This is a feeesh with 10,000 bones which would kill any ordinary person, but which the Bengalis eat with releeesh!

J is for Jhola. No self respecting Bengali is complete without his Jhola. It is a shapeless cloth bag where he keeps all his belongings and he fits an amazing number of things in. Even as you read this there are 2 million jholas bobbling around Kolkata- and they all look exactly the same! Note that 'Jhol' as in Maachher Jhol is a close second

K is for Kee Kaando !. It used to be the favourite Bengali exclamation till eeesh took over because of Aishwarya Rai (now Kee Kando's agent is trying to hire Bipasha Basu).

L is for Lungi - the dress for all occasions. People in Kolkata manage to play football and cricket wearing it not to mention the daily trip in the morning to the local bajaar. Now there is talk of a lungi expedition to Mt. Everest.

M is for Minibus. These are dangerous half buses whose antics would effortlessly frighten the living daylights out of all James Bond stuntmen as well as Formula 1 race car drivers.

N is for Nangto. This is the Bengali word for Naked. It is the most interesting naked word in any language!

O is for Oil. The Bengalis believe that a touch of mustard oil will cure anything from cold (oil in the nose), to earache (oil in the ear), to cough (oil on the throat) to piles (oil you know where!)

P is for Phootball. This is always a phavourite phassion of the Kolkattan. Every Bengali is born an expert in this game. The two biggest clubs there are Mohunbagan and East Bengal and when they play the city comes to a stop.

Q is for Queen. This really has nothing to do with the Bengalis or Kolkata, but it's the only Q word I could think of at this moment. There's also Quilt but they never use them in Kolkata.

R is for Robi Thakur. Many nany years ago Rabindranath got the Nobel Prize. This has given the right to all Bengalis no matter where they are to frame their acceptance speeches as if they were directly related to the great poet and walk with their head held high. This also gives Bengalis the birthright to look down at Delhi and Mumbai and of course 'all non-Bengawlees'! Note that 'Rawshogolla' comes a close second !

S is for Shourav. Now that they finally produced a genuine cricketer and a captain, Bengalis think that he should be allowed to play until he is 70 years old. Of course they will see to it that he stays in good form by doing a little bit of "joggo" and "maanot".

T is for Trams. Hundred years later there are still trams in Kolkata. Of course if you are in a hurry it's faster to walk.

U is for Aambrela. When a Bengali baby is born they are handed one.

V is for Bhaayolence. Bengalis are the most non-violent violent people around. When an accident happens they will fold up their sleeves, shout and scream and curse and abuse, "Chherey De Bolchhi" but the last time someone actually hit someone was in 1979.

W is for Water. For three months of the year the city is underwater and every year for the last 200 years the authorities are taken by surprise by this!

X is for X'mas. It's very big in Kolkata, with Park Street fully lit up and all Bengalis agreeing that they must eat cake that day.

Y is for Yesshtaarday. Which is always better than today for a Bengali
(see R for Robi Thakur).

Z is for Jebra, Joo, Jipper and Jylophone.


"We are like that only..."

THANDA LEGE JABEY

By Subir Ghosh
Printed in the Hindusthan Times of 19Nov2005

One phrase every Bengali worth his sweater has grown up with is " thanda lege jabey". It is the ultimate warning of impending doom, an unadulterated form of existentialist advice. "Thanda lege jabey". Thou shalt 'catch the cold'.

'Catching the cold' comes easy to Bengalis. It's a skill that's acquired almost immediately after birth. Watch a Bengali baby and you would know. Wrapped in layers of warm clothing even if the sun is boiling the mercury, the baby learns quickly that his chances of survival in a Bengali household depend on how tightly he can wrap himself in cotton, linen and wool. Bengalis have almost romanticised warm clothing, so much so that Bengali art has found eloquent expression in a form of quilt-stitchwork called kantha. I'm sure wool-shearers even in faraway Australia say a silent prayer to Bengalis before the shearing season (if there's any such season). I'm also sure the very thought of Bengalis sends a chill down the spine of many a sheep.

In winter, the quintessential Bengali's outfit puts the polar bear to shame. Packaged in at least seven layers of clothing and the head snugly packed inside the queerest headgear, the monkey cap, he takes the chill head on. Easy lies the head that wears the monkey cap. With a pom-pom at the top, it's not just a fashion statement; it's a complete fashion paragraph.

I remember strolling down the Walk of Fame in Hollywood on a pleasant May evening. My eyes scanned the glittering stars on the asphalt - each an ode to a Hollywood heavyweight. Suddenly, my ears caught the unmistakable Doomsday warning - 'thanda lege jabey'. I stood transfixed. The Hollywood Walk of Fame is probably the last place one would like to get caught 'catching the cold'. I turned around. There was this Bengali family braving the American chill. The young brat of the family was adamant that he didn't want any more clothing but mom wouldn't have any of it - "sweater porey nao, thanda lege jabey." I need not translate that. Mom won, and the family - sweaters et al - posed for a photograph.

For a race that is perpetually running scared of cold weather, Bengalis have a surprising affinity for hill stations.

Probably, warmth of heart is best preserved in shawls, pullovers and cardigans. In an age when you are judged by how cool or uncool you are, the warmth that the kakus, jethus and mashimas exude can melt icebergs. I wouldn't trade that warmth for any amount of cool. However, the monkey-cap may look cool without the pom-pom.


EUROPEANS IN BENGAL

Based on The Calcutta Cookbook (Penguin) by M Dasgupta, J Chaliha and B Gupta.
My thanks to Pratap Gupta for the information.

The Firinghees came from the Iberian Peninsula, northern Europe, France,
Greece, the British Isles and Asia Minor. They came over land and sea. The
came to trade, to colonise and to convert to Christianity. In the beginning many
died young as a result of disease and overindulgence. Some chose to remain
while others were guided by destinies of their countries.

On the opposite bank of the River Hooghly from Calcutta, a brick and mortar
legacy of Governors' residences, churches and court houses tell the broken
tale of a mini Europe.

The Portuguese

The first Europeans to navigate the dangerous creeks and channels
of the Sunderbans were the Portuguese. Driven out of their native
land for one reason or another, they turned to piracy and were feared by the
local inhabitants for their cruel ways. Others like Pedro Tavares, came in
the name of their God and in 1579 the Mughal Emperor Akbar granted a firman to
Tavares to build a church and a town. He chose the salt port of Ogli because
it was a good harbour and named it Bandel, from the Persian word Bandar meaning
a wharf.

By the end of the century, the Portuguese had settled down as merchants
and lived in great luxury. They dressed in nawabi style and ate their duck
buffalo and prawn temperdo and "made merry with dancing slave girls,
seamstresses, cooks and confectioners" They plundered the Chittagong Hill
Tracts and took away the tribal Mogs as galley salves and servants, who
quickly learnt the culinary arts of their masters. The ship biscuits, hard as stone,
were the beginning of a long line of baking with flour, water and salt,
later sweetened as shortbread and flaky millefeuilles, filled and flavoured for
every season. The small discs of salted, smoked Bandel cheese were probably made
by Mog cooks under Portuguese supervision. The cheese is now made in Calcutta
and sold as Bandel cheese in two shops in the famous and not so new New Market.

When the English were ready for housekeeping, the progeny of Portuguese
intermarriage rowed across the river to seize opportunities of employment.
Portuguese merchants from west coast of India came hotfoot to Calcutta to
make their fortunes. A God fearing people, they built and endowed churches in the
grey quarter of the town adjoining the English tank Square settlement, the
pukka white quarter. Many of them came from Goa anal Goan cooking added zest
to the culinary fare of Calcutta.

Sorpotel¸ a highly spiced mixture of meats, is a must at Christmas or a
marriage feast in the Goan community. A Goan chicken curry eaten with sadam,
a light puffy rice cake, is unforgettable and who can say no to a vindaloo or
a spiced sausage.

The Dutch

A very different shipload, the Dutch, arrived in Chinsurah, a few kilometres
upstream in 1625. This stolid breed of merchants brought with them wine and
cheese. They happily integrated with the local people and their gifts to the
Sandeshwar Temple are used for puja on festival days.

Baranagar, a few kilometres, North of Calcutta and on the same side of the
river, was ones the haunt of the Dutch mynheers. H.E.A. Cotton writes in
Calcutta Old and New that Streynsham Master, who visited the village in
1676, found a "Hogg factory where they kill 3000 hog a year and salt them" to
preserve the meat for re-victualing their outgoing ships. Baranagar, some
say, derived its name from baraha (boar) and nagar (town).

Fluctuating with the political climate in the West, the socialising on both
banks of the Hooghly, waxed and waned. In "peaceable times", wrote one Mr
Price, "the European inhabitants of the English, French and Dutch
settlements mingle together like a patriarchal family of old. Their plays, their
Freemason Clubs, their public halls on the birthday of their several sovereigns are
open to the three settlements. Everywhere you are regaled with a tankard of
English beer, a bottle of French wine and a slice of Dutch cheese."

In 1824, the British exchanged Sumatra for Chinsurah and it was goodbye to
the Dutchman's' bicentennial sojourn.

The French

Next to arrive was the French East India Company. They set up Fort d'Orleans
at Chandannaggore, a few kilometres away from Dutch Chinsurah, in 1688. They
brought with them the loaf of bread, feathery flaky millefuilles pastry,
sauces and dressings. The many layer khaja and Daccai paratha were already were
already here in the homes of the Nawabs of Bengal. The native cooks learnt
to make it a la Français and called his work of art as milly filly.

The most significant contribution of the French to Calcutta's table is pauroti (loaf of bread), the universal breakfast and Tiffin food of today's Indian. Pau is said to be the corruption of pain, the French word for bread.

Pau, however, is the Hindi word for feet which leads others to believe that,
as with the grapes in the vineyard of France, the huge quantities of dough
were kneaded by stamping feet.

The gastronome sought out the Hotel de France on Chandannaggore's Strand,
lined with stately mahogany trees. The menu for dinner read something like
this: Soupe aux Moules, Oeufs a la Toulonnaise, Filet de beckti, Pomme de
Terre et Petits Pois, Tarte de Pommes, Cafe© au Lait. The revels of yesteryear
have been tempered by law, for the Hotel de France is now a sub-judiciary
court. But we shall see how these very same courses reappeared on Calcutta
tables.

Back to Burrabazar in Calcutta. The hub of business activity was a veritable
Tower of Babel in the eighteenth century as Armenian, Jewish, Greek and Arab traders wagged fingers, shook capped heads and clinched deals.

The Armenians

Amusing the foreign communities who first made Calcutta their home were the Armenians from New Julfa in Persia (Iran). Before all else they built a wooden chapel in Old China Bazaar Street, which was replaced in 1722 by the Holy Church of Nazareth on Armenian Street.

Calcutta also has an Armenian Ghat, both the ghat and street are tributes to
their philanthropy and business acumen.
The British accepted the Armenians, perhaps remembering that it was one of
them who negotiated the important trading rights with Emperor Farrukhshuyar in
1715.

The Armenians have always maintained their identity and even as a very small
group today, they celebrate Christmas on January 6 with a solemn service at
their Church. A lunch follows at the Burra Club, as the Armenian Club on
Park Street is called, with a mixed menu of Armenian and Indian dishes. Serving
bowls of cabbage dolma sit comfortably besides fish kalia and cauliflower
bhaji. The priest blesses the food on the buffet table, says the grace and
the first spoonful of samit pilaf is served. Old Armenia lives on in the dolma.

Once upon a time, a grape vine grew on bamboo trellis in Armenian gardens
for a taste of the real thing: minced meat and rice wrapped in the vine leaf.
Today cabbage leaf makes a good substitute. Friends, invited to share the
Christmas lunch, also exchange recipes. The Armenians are a hospitable and
generous people. They owned and managed boarding houses and, later, hostels
on the city.

Arathoon Stephen, like many other Armenian boys and young men, was
sent to Calcutta in the last quarter of the 19th century almost penniless.
Stephen worked hard as a jeweller's assistant in a shop situated on a property which he eventually purchased, plot by plot, and built the Grand Hotel, a landmark in the city, and in the history of hoteliering in India.

Despite their dwindling numbers, two Armenian ladies still run hostels in
the good old boarding house tradition.

The Jews

Shalom Cohen was the first resident Jew in Calcutta, although by no means
the first to visit this great commercial entrepot. He arrived from Allepo via
Bombay and Surat in 1799 and felt at home near the Armenian and Portuguese
settlements around Moorgihatta. The area around the Roman Catholic Cathedral
on Portuguese Church Street is still called Moorgihatta, literally means the
"market for chickens", a favorite meat for the new settlers. They later immigrants
were from Baghdad and they steadily increased in numbers.

The Calcutta Jewry prospered. A third synagogue in the city, the magnificent
Maghen David was built by Elia David Joseph Ezra in 1884. When India became
independent, many Jews emigrated to Israel and other countries. The hundred
strong community today regard themselves as a part of the Shepardic Group.
Their kosher kitchen contribute some additions to gourmand Calcutta.

Beside the great bazaar where they traded, another colourful colonnaded
market - Tiretta Bazaar - spread out its exotic wares.

Edward Tiretta, a friend of Casanova, was exiled from his native Venice and
came to seek his fortunes in Calcutta's Ali Baba caves. He was a City Civil
Architect, a prosperous post no doubt for in 1783 he acquired the market.
The Portuguese, Armenian, Jewish and Greek residents of the villas around this
grey quarter of the city shopped for canaries in cages or leopard cubs as their
fancy chose. Here all the ingredients for their mahasash, vindaloo and pilaf
were available, and of the best quality, for the Ihudis as the Jews were
called settled for nothing but the best.

At Nahoum's on a Saturday in Calcutta's New Market, Norman Nahoum has the
time of the day for everyone and a fresh cheese cake for his friends. Nahoum
and Sons is the only shop where Jewish cheese, plaited or in blocks and
unleavened bread has gentile patronage. The cheese makes a delicious
addition to a salad or can be eaten on a piece of toast. His shop is always full of
people: old customers, visitors from up country and tourists from abroad
living in the small hotels around the market.

Jewish kitchens functioned under the eagle eye of an elderly lady. The
admonition from the Old Testament: "Thou shalt not cook the kid in its
mother's milk", was strictly adhered to and utensils were kept completely
separate for dairy and meat foods. Aloo makallah, a potato preparation, is
perhaps their best known and most appreciated dish in Calcutta. The potato
is coated with turmeric (an addition by the Indian cook) salt and pepper and
deep fried to a crisp. The Armenian dolma is the Jewish mahashas: tomatoes,
brinjal and capsicum stuffed with rice, minced meat and herbs of which mint
is essential. The links in the culinary chain across the trading posts from
London to Shanghai connect the meat filled pastry samusak of the Muslim feasts to
the Jewish samusak, a cheese filled pastry. Indians have adopted this and
converted it into the samosa in North India and the three cornered Bengali shingara.

Muslim cooks from Midnapore worked in affluent Jewish homes and learnt the
customs and cuisine earning their clan the title of "Jewish cooks". In turn, their sons inherited the cooking skills which were sometimes better than the memsahib's! They are now, like the Mogs, a vanishing breed.

The Jewish calendar had its movable High Holy days. Yom Kippur, the Sabbath
of Sabbaths and a Day of Atonement, is observed with prayers. April is a month
of festivals in Calcutta: Easter for the Christians, Poila Baishak, the first
day of the year for Bengalis, Baisakhi for the Punjabis, Bohag Bihu for the
Assamese and Passover for the Jews, commemorating their deliverance from
bondage. The women have a busy time spring cleaning the house and the Jewish
women are particular that every surface in the kitchen is scrubbed clean of
all traces of leaven. A senior member who lived in Calcutta described the baking
of mussa by Jewish women in the Beth El Synagogue before the feast. Mussa,
wafer thin flat, unleavened bread, is eaten dipped in halek made from date juice
"boiled, thickened and garnished with almonds and walnuts", a nostalgic link
with the land from where they came. Mussa appeared in the Calcutta wayside
shops around the Beth El Synagogue and other communities discovered that
this crisp bread went well with soorwa or stew.

Armenian and Jewish residents of Calcutta had a similar social life. The
Galstauns, the Stephens, the Ezras and the Cohens owned racehorses, kept
lavish tables at which ladies in frills and flounces, jewels and Saris, enjoyed
their hospitality. What is more is that they gave of their bounty most generously
to the poor in the country of their domicile. In every hospital there is at
least one ward donated by a Sassoon, an Ezra or a Galstaun. Calcutta's Zoological
Garden has an Ezra House and a Gubbay House. And so it was with the earlier
Portuguese merchants, the Barettos and the D'Souzas, who built Churches,
endowed orphanages, homes for the aged and served on committees of
educational institutions. The flavours of their foods are reminiscent of a time when
Calcutta was truly cosmopolitan, a home for world trade and commerce.

The British

Meanwhile the East Indiamen unloaded cargoes and ships' cooks. They taught
the bawarchees and the Mog cooks to boil, to bake and to fry as the sahibs
would like it. The quality and choice of the ingredients was not always in
their favour. Often the ingenuity of the Indian apprentices saved the day.
One excellent example is the Worcestershire Sauce, its Indian-ness disguised
only by its name for it is a pungent mixture of spices and vinegar used to mask
the taste and smell of meats that had risen higher than they should have.

The life of the British community in the early days was symbolised in
messing at the East India Company's general table. The main consideration was
economy. This was found contrary to the findings because the expenses of the
table were three times that incurred by individual board wages to the
Company servants. The "wicked native servants" were blamed but unmentioned to
Leadenhall Street was the fact that the dinner (lunch) and supper had 15
courses which included "kishmishes, Bengal goat, Sugar Candy, Almonds,
Brahminy Bull, Turkeys, Geese, Sheep, Rabbits and Lime" and of course wine
flowed like the Hooghly. The prescribed mess menu was an abstemious "salt
fish, rice for supper and nine course dinner"!

There was a saying that when the Portuguese settled down in a new place,
their first priority was a church; for the Dutch, it was a fort and for the
English, a tavern. And punch houses and taverns sprouted like beans in 18th century
Calcutta. Major Harry Hobbs gives a very readable account of old taverns in
India in John Barleycorn Bahadur.

Apollo Tavern, full of lies, was set up in Lall Bazaar in 1758, just beyond
the Old Fort. Buntings strung across the street leading to eating houses, grog
shops and brothels earned the street the nickname "Flag Street". Today, it
is the HQ of the Calcutta Police.

Taverns
Twenty years later, when refrigeration was still unheard of and ice a far
cry on the Tropic of Cancer, Mr J Tresham advertised that besides supplying
"Dinners, Suppers or Cold Collations on the shortest notice" he also
prepared "biscuits of all kinds; tart and tartlets fresh every day" and for
"up country" and long sea voyages "Potted Beef, Veal, Mutton, Ducks,
Geese and Pigeons, Collar Beef, Mutton, Pork and small Pigs, Fish, Coreach,
Mince Meat, Plum Cakes, Jams and Marmalades of all kinds" guaranteed for
six months.

Fresh oysters are not seen in Calcutta anymore but two hundred years ago,
the booming oyster business brought these delicacies to the table almost every
meal. Mr Robert Rishton offered in 1781, "oysters every week". The Harmonic
Tavern had a well to keep the oysters fresh. Shipment of "pearl oysters"
came to Calcutta from Ceylon and were put up for auction in lots of 12,000.
The successful bidders kept them in the sun to open and eagerly searched for
pearls.

The centre of social life in Calcutta, the Harmonic in Lall Bazaar, boasted
the "handsome most house in the Settlement" Humorous Hobbs adds: ".... And one
of the advantages of the pub over a club is that you never know who may come
into it. In a club you often know only too well." Those were the days of
"eating, drinking to excess, gambling and shouting" and the tamasha at the
tavern lasted till three in the morning.

Monsieur Le Gallais had a tavern near the famous Harmonic frequented by
Richard Barwell, a member of the Governor's Council. Le Gallais was much in demand.
The second Masonic Lodge of Bengal "Lodge Industry and Perseverance" was
installed at Brother Le Gallais's on the second Friday of every month. He
catered for a New Year's Dinner hosted by "His Lordship" at the Old Court
House. The numerous guests dined on turtle, turkeys and other "good things"
and drank twenty four "loyal toasts" to an accompaniment by the Grenadiers
who fired a blank a cartridge out of the window after each toast. The first
St Andrew's Dinner was held at Le Gallais and it is not improbable that haggis
was on the menu as it was till recently flown in from bonny Scotland to the
residence of the British Deputy High Commissioner.

Newspapers
James Augustus Hickey's Bengal Gazette has a pride of place as Calcutta's
first newspaper but was more like the tabloids of in Britain that soak up
every piece of gossip. It was not royalty this time but the "Topsi Mutchees"
(mango fish) that got caught in its black and white nets. We read that at
meetings in the late 18th Century the eating of mango fish was a priority on
the agenda! One retired Colonel swore it was worth a journey to Calcutta
just to eat "Topsi Mutchees lightly crumbed and fried".

In 1830 business in Calcutta suffered a depression and many firms declared
insolvency. With recovery around 1845, small traders opened shop. Wine
Merchants head the list followed by "Bakers and Confectioners, Tailors,
Habit Makers, Boot, Shoe and Harness Makers, Nil liners and Dressmakers and a
dozen Genial Shopkeepers".

About this time the Moravian missionaries brought not only their trades but
Spartan foods like German bread. These traders found temporary homes in many
boarding houses, one of them, O'Brien's Chop House, in Radha Bazaar, the
watch and clock market today, but nothing more is said about O'Brian or
his chops.

Caviar was an accompaniment to drinks at Calcutta's bars and food poisoning
was not uncommon after eating meals in "doubtful places" -- even "the
best". A rhyme made up by a victim in the 'koi hai' style is worth a
mention.

You're quite all right inside the bar
But Khubburdar, the caviar.


Hotels
John Spence is, according to Hobbs, the originator of hotels in Bengal. The
earliest mention of Spence's Hotel is in 1830. After a long sea voyage
around the Cape, on a diet of salt beef and hard biscuits, with "one tablecloth to
last the voyage", the weary traveller guided to the Spence's beholds a
snow-white tablecloth and its "beautiful array of ham, eggs (fresh for a
change), a superb kind of fish from the salt water lakes called becktee or
cockup fried, boiled rice, muffins, tea, coffee etc. Plantains, radish,
small prints of butter in a handsome cut glass vessel of cold water and a bouquet
of flowers."

Its situation was well placed, just a stone's throw from the Government
House now Raj Bhavan. It had an almost unbroken tradition of excellent managers,
barmen and stewards from the P&O shipping Lines who kept the flag flying
till 1970s. The hotel doors were finally closed and later reopened to admit a
bank.

Ice
A break came unexpectedly for the Calcuttans on board the SS Tuscany making
1833 a memorably cool and comfortable year. It was ice. The reader may relax
with a taken-for-granted iced drink and enjoy the believe-it-or-not anecdotes
that circulated when this luxury arrived in Calcutta.

J Stocqueier, a colourful journalist and editor of The Englishman, the
leading daily newspaper in Calcutta, was rudely awakened by his old faithful who
could not wait to give him the news that burruf (ice) had arrived from America.
"There it lay", wrote Stocqueier latter "in a square mass of purest
crystal, packed in felt and fragrant pine dust. A quantity of rosy American
Baldwin apples reposed upon the surface of this glacier". Back in his
office, the facile editorial pen wrote on, "How many Calcutta tables
glittered that morning with lumps of ice. The butter dishes were filled; the
goblets of water were converted into miniature artic seas with icebergs
floating on the surface. All business was suspended till noon, that people
might rush about to pay each other congratulatory visits and device means
for perpetuating the supply. Everybody invited everybody to dinner to taste
claret and beer cooled by the American importation."

Another story related that a lady reclining on her veranda noticed something
large and white shining on her grass tennis court. She put on her topi (hat)
and went out to investigate. To her dismay, she discovered a lump of
precious ice. The khitmatgar (house steward) was sent for and scolded for throwing
away such a precious commodity. Surprised at his memsahib's outburst, he replied
in bewilderment, "But huzoor that is stale ice of yesterday."

The American captain of the Tuscany was presented a gold cup by the Governor
General. Lord Bentinck, and the romance of American ice was listed as an
achievement of his government. A subscription was raised for the erection of
an Ice House. And anyone who could afford and icebox invested in one of those
zinc line wooden contraptions.

Calcutta's banqueting tables took on an artic hue with peaks of ice and
ornately sculpted swans bearing caviar, Cold souffles, aspics, mousses and
gelatines were washed down with plenty of chilled loll shrubs [red wines].

The Great Eastern Hotel opened in 1841 on Old Court House Street leading to
St Andrew's Church and was the second oldest hotel in the British Empire. David
Wilson, affectionately known as Dainty David, was the owner of this hotel
with a "Multiple Shop" on the ground floor -- forerunner of the departmental
store. In 1883 'it was said, a man could walk in at one end, buy a complete
outfit, a wedding present, or seeds for the garden, have an excellent meal,
a burra peg (double) and if the barmaid was agreeable, walk out at the other
end engaged to be married.'

The climate of Calcutta was conducive to ease and coupled with Calcutta's
definitions of food as "what is eaten between meals", prompted the Great
Eastern Hotel to offer service to customers in their horse drawn gharries.
They would pull up for a Tiffin at a rupee a plate of "steak or chop, bread and
vegetable" and of course, a burra peg.

When Tremearne was managiing the Hotel, he would preside at a Sunday Tiffin for his friends. The Tiffin served was "half a dozen choice spirits, hors d'oeuvres, turtle soup, pa¢te de foie gras, asparagus and ices washed down with extra dry champagne". A similar meal reads today, consomme royale, chicken liver or prawn, asparagus
from Bhutan and green mango washed down with excellent Indian Marquise De
Pompadour sparkling champagne.

Monsieur Boscolo started his catering career in Calcutta as a chef in the
great Eastern Hotel. He took over the Continental Hotel in Chowringhee in 1894.
Two year later Mark twain was a guest here for three days. Calcutta was all set
to wine and dine the American whose reputation as a storyteller had preceded
him. Unfortunately, he was confined to his room with bronchitis for the greater
part of his stay and was unable to enjoy the excellent French cuisine, for which
the Hotel was well known till 1920. Sine 1993, Quality Inn stands in place of
the old Continental. Among the multi cuisine served, we are glad to note that
Bangla ranna (Bengali cuisine) has climbed the 5 star heights here, at last.

The evolution of eating places in colonial Calcutta followed the English
pattern, from taverns and coffee houses to hotels and clubs, some more
exclusive than others.

Clubs
The club culture of Calcutta was essentially British and singularly
masculine. Expatriates, separated from family and friends, recreated some of the
familiar features of life back home in their clubs. The Bengal Club (1827) is the
oldest in the subcontinent and was very much the burra sahib's club till near a
decade after Indian independence. In the old days, ladies were admitted on
sufferance on rare occasions so much so that a member, who was obviously a
lady's man, suggested a bibikihana in 1939. A generation later, ladies enjoy
all the club facilities. In the Reynold's Room they confer over a cup of
coffee with the Steward, PK Dutta, on the recipe for the club's special
Apple Pie or the choice of Beckti Normandie or steak and kidney pie or a cooked
leg of ham in pineapple and cherry sauce. Two weeks before Christmas, Dutta's
little office is invaded by the members eager to be the early birds for his
mince pies and roast turkey. Christmas lunch is an institution, with all the
Club's specials on the buffet table in the main dining room.

The Chhota Sahibs not to be left out cavorted at the Saturday Club and the
not so pukka sahibs decided to star the 300 Club admitting Indians. In Boris
Lissanevich, a cabaret artiste and an ex cadet of the Russian Imperial navy,
an ideal secretary was found. The Club opened its doors on the ground floor of
an art deco extravaganza known as "Philip's Folly". As night wore on, couple
spilled out on to the wooden dance floor in the garden. The musician and the
chef were Russian. Not surprisingly shahslik and Chicken a la Kiev were the
specialty of the house.

The Calcutta Club was started in 1907 to fulfill the growing need of a
meeting place for like minded people overcoming the barriers of races and religion.
Banquets were a regular feature of this Club in its early days when Calcutta
was the capital of British India.

The Platinum Jubilee book of the Club waxes eloquent on the excellence of
its food heightened by a philosophy; that makes the Bekty served here different
from the fish on any other table. "The culinary treasures are described as
'both liberals and conservative'... a famous collection of Indian and
Western dishes - stewed Turtle soup presented in a tureen of appropriate design and
Minced Partridge Pie garnished with assorted liquored cherries". Calcuttans
dining on a surfeit of turtles and partridges may have been responsible for
endangering the species and the current ban!

A very senior member ecstatically remembers one old time favourite, Steak
Romain: A fairly thin slice of grilled beef, on top of that grilled ham, on
top of that mushrooms and on top of that a good appetite."

The 200 year old Neel Kuthi of indigo planter, Richard Johnson, has been the
Tollygunge Club house for a century. Set amidst 95 acres, it retains the
ambience of a country club. On one of those rare occasions when the Club was
all white, a prominent Indian member of the Calcutta Bar was invited to a
Golightly Ball and remembered the barbecue fork dinner wilt spits turning
whole sheep and suckling pigs with apples stuck in their mouths on the table. Hot
drop scones liberally spread with jam or pate are still served after a game
of golf or a cross country ride at the Tolly.

In order of vintage, The Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC) is the oldest [it
is the second oldest golf club in the world] and at one time staked a claim
with the Calcutta Rowing Club for the best steaks East of Suez. Christmas Tiffin
in 1931 was Rs 3 and sixty years later members paid sixty times as much for a
similar menu indicating the rise in the cost of living. Products of the Club
Kitchen are taken home sometimes, no doubt as a peace offering for a
prolonged 19th hole round, which brings to mind that from the Cocktail Bar of the RCGC the scene of the 19th hole) where members were "soothed with the clucking
contend hens" belonging to the then Secretary, and many a time his Black
Orpingtons would be taken home for the Sunday curry lunch, a colonial
hangover. Club culture dies hard in Calcutta.

Peliti's and Firpo's are synonymous with the "good old days". "By appointment to the Viceroy of India, HRH The Price of Wales, HRH The Duke of Connaught", Peliti's was the best appointed of the "By Appointment" institutions of the time. It was to Peliti's that the business fraternity of Clive Street has been turning for the traditional Friday lunches since 1890.

Chevalier Frederico Peliti was himself a great confectioner and won an award
at the Calcutta International Exhibition for his twelve foot tall Eiffel Tower,
"a miniature marvel in sugar". The building on Old Court House Street on
the eastern side of BBD Bagh, where the marble staircase leads up to a
newspaper office, was once Peliti's.

Angelo Firpo opened a restaurant on Chowringhee after World War I. For the
next half century, the glitterati of Calcutta entertained themselves and their
friends at Firpo's. A lunch of minestrone soup, chicken vol au vent and
vanilla ice cream topped with hot chocolate sauce and a wafer of biscotti
was served for a princely sum of Rs One and eight annas only. A festive menu of
the Fifties saved as a souvenir reads: Hors d'oeuvres varies --- chilled
asparagus, chilled artichoke bottoms, pate de foie gras, followed by Turtle
Soup, Homard Thermido, Roast Stuffed Turkey and Ham, Plum Pudding. The
pudding was generously doused with Brady and set alight by Mr Firpo himself. A
bottle of Scotch and a tin of Firpo's chocolates nestled among the paper hats,
crackers and bugles set on immaculate white damask table linen. A good old
Calcuttan remarks that when Firpo's closed its doors in the 1960s, it was
goodbye to good eating in Calcutta.
 

 

Author's Name: Dr. Dipak R. Sarbadhikari
Contact address:
Click here
URL of pagewww.sarbadhikari.com/bengal.htm
Updated: 28 Nov 2009

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