Touted as one of the last bastions of colonial Calcutta, cabin hotels have been feeding the City of Joy’s residents for over 150 years. Our contributor samples their sinful offerings. By Anubhuti Krishna
‘Sangu valley, Indian and Chinese Dishes’ announces the white signboard with teal lettering above a dilapidated doorway. Two letters, ‘h’ and ‘e’, have fallen off the signboard and the third is tilting, but no one seems to mind. A matching awning covers the large window on the left, and a wide door leads into a hall. Inside, the setting resembles that of a railway coach. Small wooden cabins line up on the left side; a narrow gallery runs on the right. Two ancient looking off-white fans hang from the ceiling; greasy CFLs glow over every section.
I have arrived in Kolkata on a sunny winter day, just in time for lunch. Visiting food joints in the city has been a tradition for me. Today, instead of my favourite spots, I have decided to go to offbeat places I have only heard of. Sangu Valley is one such joint. Located next to the abandoned Purna Cinema Hall on S P Mukherjee Road, filled with the din of the street, and frequented by the common man, it is the quintessential cabin hotel.
Cabin hotels, or simply ‘kay-bin’ for the locals, have been part of the city’s culinary landscape for centuries now. Started sometime in the 1800s to cater to the large population of the English settled here, they remained hotspots of social interaction for the sahibs and their families for decades. Even after the English left Calcutta (the city’s name until 2001), the cabins continued to live and thrive.
“Cabin culture is a peculiar dining culture that you find only in Kolkata,” says a local, who has volunteered to take me around, as we make our way inside Sangu Valley. Sitting in small train-like compartments to eat is definitely not something I have experienced anywhere else. “These curtained cabins seemed very intriguing to me as a kid,” she continues. “It was as though there were always secret meetings happening inside.”
We encounter some secret meetings too, but they seem mostly of the amorous sort.
TALES OF KOBIRAJI
Our ceremonial cabin lunch starts with the Sangu Valley specialty: Afghani cutlets and chicken kobiraji. Cutlet is perhaps the single most important item on the menu in cabin hotels. The menu, which lists around 100 dishes, has over 70 kinds of the breaded deep-fried meat. Married to a Bengali, I have had my share of deep-fried meat in and outside Kolkata, but the Afghani cutlet surprises me. Served on a vintage bone china plate and garnished with shiny green peas, it would look right at home in a North Indian multi-cuisine restaurant.
“The specialty of our Afghani cutlet is the gravy, madam,” says the waiter, who seems to have read my mind. Like many others in Kolkata, he takes his freedom to offer opinions very seriously. The cutlet is unlike any other I have eaten before. The sauce is rich without being greasy and is filled with diced carrot, potatoes, and more peas. The patty is large, and the chicken is perfectly seasoned and cooked. Both elements have their individual flavours, and yet, come together beautifully on the palate. I order a quarter loaf of charcoal-grilled bread to scoop up the sauce and chicken.
Most food served in the cabins of Kolkata traces its origins to the kitchens of white sahibs. The cabins were established to cater to the British, so the food was quintessentially British. But that was then. Today, hardly anything retains its original recipe, flavour, or even name. Chicken kobiraji, a large, flat, and fragrant batter-fried cutlet, is a classic example.
Believed to have been created in one of the oldest cabins in Calcutta, kobiraji was actually called ‘coverage cutlet’ after its crisp crumb cover. Years of tongue-twisting by the locals turned ‘coverage’ to kobiraji, and chicken, considered a useless precursor to the name, was mostly dropped. According to another story, Rabindranath Tagore, the kobiraj (a Bengali title given to poets) of Bengal, was a fan of this cutlet, so it was renamed after him. And in a third version, mostly propagated by the cabins themselves, the original English recipe was altered by Tagore’s favourite cabin to suit his taste, and as a tribute, it was named after him.
These historic cabins are linked to many legendary tales—famous writers who found their inspiration here, intellectuals who debated on world order behind these curtains, how the cabins located next to the Calcutta University became hotbeds of the Indian Independence movement and Calcutta’s Naxalite movement, and how, when the English, the elite, and the educated found better places, they became a safe refuge for the lovers in the city. Debating one such story, we arrive at our next destination.
PEEK INTO THE PAST
Tucked between nondescript shops and hidden behind long queues of black-and-yellow ambassador taxis, Mitra Cafe has been standing proudly in Sovabazar, North Kolkata, for over a century. It is, I am told, the most popular cabin in Kolkata, with branches across the city. “Everything you want to eat at Mitra runs out before you can get past the crazy traffic,” complains my friend, as we make a hasty entry through the narrow footpath on Jatindra Mohan Avenue. Thankfully, we are well in time.
The condition of Mitra Cafe seems a tad better than Sangu Valley; it is brighter too. The walls are covered in newspaper cuttings and picture frames, some of which date back to the 1900s. Pictures of famous Bengali actors and politicians smile from a soft board, and blue letters of the Bengali alphabet adorn the entrance. We ditch the cabin and sit in the hall. On a corner table, we order the most coveted items on the menu: brain chop, diamond cutlet, fish roll, and chocolate pudding. Since we have to hop over to Allen Kitchen—a 125-year-old cabin on the same avenue—I skip the popular mutton kobiraji.
Nostalgia comes free with everything in Kolkata. The cabin culture is reminiscent of the good old days of dining out. The waiters, mostly middle-aged men, are dressed in formals and follow strict service protocols. The food always comes on classic bone-china plates, some with little pink flowers and others wearing the logo of the place. There is always complimentary salad on the table, and everything is supposed to be eaten with knife and fork. It is evident that, like Kolkata, these cabins live in the past.
Our order arrives quickly. Covered in batter and fried in oil, it is typical cabin food. The cutlet is large and heavy, and shaped like a rough rhombus; the chop is massive, and the fish roll is perfectly fried with no trace of extra fat. Everything comes with cucumber, carrot, onion salad, and kasundi, the Bengali mustard that no local can live without. The tender fish rolls are devoured quickly; the diamond cutlet is thick and deliciously chewy; and the pudding is a cross between sondesh, ice cream, and old-fashioned pastry. But it is the brain chop that I consider twice. Having never eaten brain meat before, I am not sure if I want to tuck into it. “Khey dekhein, ekdom makhoner moton (Eat it, feels like butter),” says the gentleman on the next table, noticing my reluctance. I take a bite, and he looks satisfied.
If there is anything that binds people in these cabin hotels together, it is their love for food. And it is the love for food that takes us to our next cabin. Even though we are stuffed to the gills and can barely walk, the fragrance of ghee fried prawn cutlets wafting from Allen Kitchen is hard to resist. There is also the promise of egg devil, the cabin version of Scotch eggs, covered in minced meat and coated in breadcrumbs. When food from Kolkata’s cabin hotels call, how can you say no?