A peek into the famed Cabin restaurants of Kolkata

Braving the humidity of Kolkata at 4pm, streams of pedestrians gather in front of the tiny 93-year-old Anadi Cabin on bustling SN Banerjee Road.

What has caused this milling is the scent and sight of parathas being cooked on a monster tawa. Inside, it is a scene of delicious chaos, with waiters darting between cramped tables, expertly serving dishes under the watchful eye of their manager Sudhan Sukumar Datta. Regulars know the drill: to truly fit into the atmosphere of the food cabin, orders have to be made with loud declarations to the waiter. To truly survive the gastronomic adventure, it is best to be armed with Gelusil for later.

A peek into the famed Cabin restaurants of Kolkata

For tourists, locals and lovers

The cabins of Kolkata, locally touted as ‘kay-beens’, are known so for their divided compartments, sometimes made of plywood and heavy curtains. They date back to almost 150 years, to the time of the British Raj. Having its heyday in the 1960s and 70s, cabin culture came about in order to promote the concept of urban family dining — through the use of such structures the modern woman of the times could engage in a feast, while also enjoying her privacy.

With the onset of Independence and the later economic liberalisation, the once sophisticated cabins gave way to open-scheme eateries, though the name was retained. What’s also intact is the fame associated with this breed of eateries.

The food is still a huge draw. That explains why travellers armed with maps scour the streets of Kolkata (the northern part of the city especially) for cabin restaurants, or why NRIs want their first meal after landing in the City of Joy to be at one of these gems of the past.

The cabins have also always been a favourite hangout for couples. Even now, despite the actual cabins and curtains gone and the space bathed in grime, couples still catch up in these haunts and profess their love over plates of mutton chops and kasundi.

Deep-fried delicacies still remain a characteristic of cabins. These have been heavily influenced by the British, and the Portuguese. The dishes as they are known today, were most probably entirely different when conceptualised.

A hit menu

Calling for the devil in the middle of the afternoon is common in the watering holes of Kolkata. The ‘devil’ is none other than the hyper-local hybrid variety of the Scotch egg. The dimer devil has a warm crusty covering like the British Scotch egg, but on the inside the egg is used as a filling along with the minced meat.

Niranjan Agar, the cabin in Girish Park, uses duck eggs in their version. A sweet-and-spicy mix, their dimer devil is plated with a splatter of mustard and a finely-sliced salad of red onion, cucumber and beetroot. While versions may differ across cabins, the delightful mess of a plating remains constant.

A peek into the famed Cabin restaurants of Kolkata

Established in 1922, this cabin often loses out on attention due to its neighbouring and more popular Allen’s Kitchen, run by the fourth generation of founder Niranjan Hazra’s family. “Growing up, I have heard tales of my grandfather and father serving many famous personalities like Aparna Sen,” informs manager Bibekananda Pan. Niranjan Agar was also the catering hub for the Raj Bhavan in the 1980s.

Kolkata’s cabins are similar to the greasy spoon cafés of England, where you cannot expect a posh ambience. In fact, grease is the hallmark of excellence in cabins. Typifying this is Anadi Cabin. “With us, you get what you see,” says Datta. Priced at ₹60, their Mughlai parathas stuffed with duck eggs have been the talk of the city for decades. “For years, we have served cinema-goers and sports people of the nearby maidan, and their viewers. We gained popularity by word-of-mouth,” Datta adds.

A peek into the famed Cabin restaurants of Kolkata

For all its cheery air now, Anadi has a dark origin: it was established as a memorial in 1925 by Balaram Jana, after his son Anadi succumbed to pneumonia. Now under the command of Datta for the past 47 years, the cabin has seen many notable personalities like actors Uttam Kumar and Victor Banerjee

These restaurants have also had their fame on celluloid with movies being shot here. Fern Hotel and Restaurant on Rash Behari Avenue featured in Bengali films like Kaal Purush (starring Mithun Chakraborty) and more recently Saheb, Bibi, Golaam. In spite of the general death of the structure, Fern has still retained them, complete with tags above each which read ‘Ladies’. The establishment has been attracting customers since 1938 mainly because of their non-veg thaalis.

A peek into the famed Cabin restaurants of Kolkata

“While most other cabins no longer have them, we are proud to have held on to our booths. They were havens for ladies who lunched alone or with their other female friends in the 60s. Now, families who visit enjoy the privacy and can enjoy a meal away from the noise of Gariahat traffic,” says Jishu Dey, a fourth-generation manager of Fern.

Iconic status

Extremely forgiving on the pocket, cabins have always been a haunt for people from all walks of life, including budget-dictated college students.

Amal Banerjee, a regular at Anadi, has been visiting cabins since he was a student in the early 70s. For many like him, it’s an inseparable part of their lives. The 118-year-old Dilkhusa Cabin on College Street exemplifies the college haunt. Beloved for their chicken, fish and especially prawn kabirajis, the red-walled eatery holds a special place in the heart of the Calcuttan.

The kabiraji is yet another dish with an elusive history. Though it is believed to be the eventual transformation of the English ‘coverage’ cutlet that is breaded and fried, there is another narrative that claims the dish came into being due to a challenge taken up by the head chef of the blink-and-miss Basanta Cabin, who switched the biscuit coating with eggs after poet Rabindranath Tagore allegedly expressed his dislike for the original recipe.

A peek into the famed Cabin restaurants of Kolkata

Cabins have also become intrinsic to the popular culture of the city. So famed is the tiny-but-ageing Mitra Cafe in North Kolkata that in a tie-up with local TV channel Zee Bangla for a cooking show, the cabin now presents gift vouchers for free meals to its contestants. The place is packed most of the time and for good reason, what with most of the city flocking there for the gondhoraj lime chicken pakoras, while braver souls feast on brain chops. A deep-fried Bengali item that resembles a croquette. With transformation steadily sweeping through, the traditional cabin may be facing threats from glitzy cafés, but steadfast loyalty has kept them alive. Clearly, you can check out of these cabins but you can never leave.

Must order

Mughlai paratha

Mutton kasa curry

Fish fry

Chicken kabiraji, and if the place offers it, then prawn kabiraji

Dimer devil

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 2:29:43 AM |

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