Pice Hotels: Decoding The Long History Of The Kolkata Phenomenon

Bangladeshi-Australian chef and grand finalist of MasterChef Australia S13 Kishwar Chowdhury recently posted about a long-standing part of Kolkata’s heritage, the ‘Pice’ hotels. Actor-vlogger Ashish Vidyarthi too visited the 109-year-old South Kolkata pice hotel Tarun Niketan recently to explore this famed cultural phenomenon. These modest eateries are still a big part of Kolkata’s cityscape and can usually be found in bustling parts of the city. 

The term "pice" originates from the Bengali word "poisha," referring to a small denomination of currency. Pice hotels emerged in Kolkata during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and these were low-cost, eateries that offered Bengali-style meals at affordable prices.

During the colonial era, Kolkata (then Calcutta) was a bustling metropolis and a hub of trade and commerce in British India. The city attracted people from various parts of the country, seeking livelihoods and opportunities. The influx of migrants, coupled with rapid industrialization, created a demand for inexpensive dining options. Pice hotels filled this gap, offering meals that were economical yet hearty, often featuring traditional Bengali dishes.

Pice hotels quickly became integral to Kolkata's social fabric, serving as meeting points for people from diverse backgrounds. Workers, traders, students, and even intellectuals frequented these establishments, drawn not only by the affordability but also by the communal atmosphere they fostered. Many pice hotels were located near markets, factories, and educational institutions, ensuring they remained accessible to their target clientele.

A typical pice hotel meal would consist of rice, dal, at least two kinds of curries, a bhaji and fish. The price and menu would change daily, depending on what was available in the market and many pice hotels would use banana leaves back then to keep the overhead costs low.

These eateries played a crucial role in democratising access to healthy home-style food, providing a taste of Bengali cuisine to a broader demographic. Despite their humble settings, pice hotels were renowned for their flavourful options, which is why they are still quite functional and never went defunct in spite of going through some changes.

As Kolkata evolved, so did the concept of pice hotels. While their fundamental ethos of affordability remained unchanged, these eateries expanded their menus to include regional Indian dishes beyond Bengali cuisine, reflecting the city's cosmopolitan character. Others introduced snacks and beverages to attract a wider customer base throughout the day.

The architecture and ambience of pice hotels also evolved as some of them grew into larger establishments with more comfortable seating arrangements. However, the essence of providing wholesome meals at reasonable prices remained intact, ensuring that they continued to serve budget-conscious patrons.

Some pic hotels like Esplanade’s Hotel Sidheshwari Ashram started as a ‘mess’ or hosel for workers who came from nearby towns in the early 1900s. Today the eatery has an air-conditioned segment for its customers and its spread has also expanded substantially, though it still serves some of its earlier signatures like the Kobhiraji jhol, a light fish curry with a medley of vegetables and a tangy, seasonal delicacy featuring raw mangoes, called aam shol machch. 

Rash Behari’s Tarun Niketan is another example of a pice hotel which has remained in business. It was established in 1915 and it attracts foodies who are looking for a taste of authentic Bengali cuisine at reasonable rates. Some of their bestsellers include kochi pathar mangsho, kochu shaak ilisher matha, kumro pholler bora and kochu shaak chingri.