Calcutta often tends to catapult you back in time. That is just what happened when I went on the Cabin Food Walk around North Calcutta’s College Square neighbourhood with Ramanuj Ghosh from Calcutta Walks.
Old Calcutta, which is primarily the north of the city, had a generous bulk of “cabins” in the early 1900s. These restaurants flourished in a conservative society when couples needed privacy while eating out and women were hardly seen in public; wooden partitions or silk curtains were used to create private booths, or cabins. By the 1970s, communities were more liberal and while most places removed the partitions, they kept the names. Now, “cabin” refers to any café or restaurant from that era serving old-school Bengali snacks such as fish fry and cutlets. They typically rustled up inexpensive deep-fried food for the students of nearby Presidency and Calcutta Universities. Later, additions like chow mein were made because, why not? The food in some places might be hit-and-miss and the presentation is far from spiffy, but these cabins are a testament to a forgotten time.
A leisurely five-hour affair, the food walk starts at Dilkusha Cabin, a 116-year old establishment where singer Manna Dey and yesteryear’s Bengali star actor Uttam Kumar often stopped by. Their famous devilled eggs and kosha mangsho (a spicy Bengali mutton curry) aside, a large Belgian mirror on the far left of the entrance, as old as the restaurant itself, is among Dilkusha’s most prized possessions. The wooden partitions, which existed until the early 2000s, were done away with because couples romancing over one dish for hours were doing little for the business. We sample a Dilkusha bestseller, their kabiraji, a mutton cutlet wrapped in fluffy deep-fried egg batter served with the pungent mustard sauce, kasundi, before heading to our next stop.
The ever-so-popular Indian Coffee House, a two-minute walk from Dilkusha, isn’t a cabin but it would be unfair to skip this spot. The space, all high ceiling and old long fans, used to be a ballroom known as Albert Hall and spectators would watch dances from a balcony. This balcony now is a seating space at the café that is crowded even on a Monday afternoon. Many detest their strong cold coffee but I have always loved it. Their chicken Afghani, a meaty chicken cutlet soaked in sweet-and-spicy date syrup served with a fried potato is proof of the influence of Central-Asian flavours in Calcutta’s food. The colonial hangover still lingers here with a huge no-smoking board that remains largely ignored and bearers dressed in white achkans and pagdis.
We then walk about two minutes to Basanta Cabin as Ramanuj tells me stories of the city I have never heard before. Despite having lived in the city nearly all my life, I’ve spent most of my time close to home in South Calcutta. The northern part of the city has remain largely unexplored. Basanta, a slightly rundown setup, is one of the few places that still has cabins on its upper floor. While I’m chomping on my succulent bhetki fish fry, I notice couples old and young, both outside and emerging from behind the crimson silk curtains of one of the eight cabins. Later, I’m told by one of the staff that the cabins can be booked at Rs270 an hour and guests are served complimentary soft drinks and a dish they choose. For many young—possibly college-going—couples looking for a cosy lunch-date on a budget, Basanta though off beat is the venue of choice.
For a breather, we stop next at Paramount. This 100-year-old establishment that sells nothing but sherbets is perfect for sultry Calcutta afternoons. There are about 30 different flavours but my heart is stuck on the daab or tender coconut sherbet, a sweet concoction topped with velvety coconut flesh. Their sharp, tangy tamarind sherbet is to be tried at least once, and guests often buy bottles to take home.
My favourite is our next stop, not surprisingly called Favourite Cabin. The century-old spot, featured in recent Bengali films such as Iti Mrinalini and Ashchorjyo Prodeep, is run by Saikat Barua, the third generation of a Buddhist family from Chittagong, and has no menu. They serve only four items: cha (tea), toast, muffin, and sliced cake. Favourite didn’t exactly fit into the category of the conventional cabin, its three wooden partitions creating three separate sections as opposed to smaller booths. Barua tells me that Indian-Bangladeshi poet Kazi Nazrul Islam loved spending time here—his favourite table, No. 4, still exists—and often found himself in the company of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose who came to hear him sing and recite poetry. Favourite was also where many freedom fighters gathered for hush-hush meetings and Barua’s grandfather would regularly sneak them out a backdoor when the cops arrived.
Sipping my cha, I hear an old man crooning old Hemant Kumar classics next to us and watch endless cups of tea being downed at other tables. Still far from our final destination, I, for one, feel like I need a catnap before we can proceed.
The walk, which is as much about food as it is about Calcutta culture, includes a few other corner shops and canteens loaded with history. Kalika, a tiny shop selling chops was started by freedom fighter Sukumar Dutta and is known for its mango chop, a green mango twist on the classic Bengali vegetable chop. While a few minutes away, Guest Snacks Bar has only four tables in the mezzanine floor between the basement and ground floors, and serves delicious mutton kababs. While many such cabins dot Calcutta’s streets, the cluster in College Square can be easily explored on foot. Plus, Ramanuj’s articulate dose of yesteryears is a great condiment with these Calcutta delicacies. And at 30, I’m suddenly a tourist in my own city.
Calcutta Walks; calcuttawalks.com; Rs4000 for one person and Rs3000 for two or more.
Chandni Doulatramani is trying to hide somewhere on the fringe, swapping between the roles of an independent journalist and a writer. These days she can be found loitering around the streets of Calcutta, eating jhaal muri and thinking up stories to tell.
Manjit Singh Hoonjan is an internationally published photographer, living and creating in Calcutta, India. He dedicates his photography to the city and its inhabitants.