Cabin Chromosome: Kolkata Cabins and the city's love for food.
Cabins were places of dining that emerged in the 1940s in Bengal. Frequented by poets and revolutionaries alike. These cabins hold within themselves the songs of Kazi Nazrul Islam, the visits of Subsash Chandra Bosh. Cabins, as they were called because of the floor plan were also hubs of new innovations in food.
Cabins, locally touted as ‘Kay-beens’, started coming up around 19th century in the city. Cabins are suggested to be the first of its kind of outside eateries in the country.
Kolkata, a city that owes its origin to the British, East India company administrator Job Charnock, has an elaborate relation with food. Its identity is deeply entwined with the food culture; the city holds several stories of invention and evolution of food recipes. Known hugely for the street food and sweet, at some quaint corner one can come across Cabins in the city.
Cabins, locally touted as ‘Kay-beens’, started coming up around 19th century in the city. Cabins are suggested to be the first of its kind of outside eateries in the country. Quite similar to the greasy spoon cafes of England, one cannot expect posh ambiance. The grease is described colloquially as a marker of excellence. They came to promote the concept of urban fine dining in the country. In the time and country where there were strict eating codes and practices at home, one can eat and experiment in the Cabins with food that was non-vegetarian, without polluting their homes.
In the 1940s, the cabins started targeting the students, snacks and foods were cheaper, for the access of the students, mostly college going. The Cabins served quick bites, tea, coffees and toasts. These eateries were called cabins because of the floor plan that they had. The whole area was divided into wooden cubicles, with curtains or wooden salon style doors. These places were haven for privacy. Cabin much in accordance with the culture of ‘adda’, provided the required place, privacy and pocket friendly food. Hence, such cabins became the ground for literary and political discussions.
These cabins were often used as places to discuss minutes of the freedom struggle and later on the ‘Naxalite movement’ by the students.
Tables were filled with students and members of three sides of the left during the hot days of the Naxalbari movement. One such cabin was the ‘Favourite cabin’, now run by the third generation of the Barua family, Saikat Barua. It was started in 1918, a resident of Chittagong, Natunba Barua, moved to Kolkata and opened a rectangular restaurant, with the cashier’s counter in the middle. The making was such that the café had two parts to itself, one on the outside and an inner courtyard.
During the days of non-cooperation movement, Anushilan Samiti ,Jugantar and Bengal Volunteers found a safe haven at this café. The café became a safe space for many such freedom fighters in the later days. It was on the tables of the inner courtyard that the young revolutionaries of Jugantor (one of the two main secret revolutionary trend operating in Bengal for Indian Independence) used to sit. The place was constantly watched by
the British officials. As the story goes that the then owner, fondly called as Natunbabu would make noise on the cash counter table with a plate, whenever raided by the British officials. A tunnel that is placed beside the kitchen was used as the escape route by these young freedom fighters.
The cabins have been associated with icons such as Prafulla Chandra Ray, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Surya Sen.
These spaces were used to hatch plans against the British government. A black and white photo of Kazi Nazrul Islam, hangs just above the seat he regularly sat at the ‘Favourite Cabin’, table number four by the long window. It was on this table that the renowned writer and singer would sing songs after songs often at the request of Subhash Chandra Bose, then, a young nationalist leader Owner Saikat Barua, shows that a kitchen gate was use to escape the British authorities. During the ‘Kallol Movement’ of 1923-35 other Bengali writers like, Premendra Mitra, Author Shibram Chakraborty frequented the cabin placed in College Street . Achintyakumar Sengupta suggests that the Kallol movement was imminently associated with the ‘Favourite Cabin’. Kallol movement was one of most influential literary movements of Bengal that happened during the period of 1923-1935. This movement gave way to the modernist wave of writing, where writers such as Kazi Nazul Islam influenced by the happening of First World War and the ongoing non-cooperation movement started expressing themselves through Journals, which was new to the literary circles of Bengal. As a movement, it gave birth to several other writers such as Jibananda Das, Premendra Mitra, Sivram Chakraborty, Manik Bandhopadhyay and many more.
These cabins were also places where women could come and eat avoiding the prying eyes of others. Especially in the pre-independence era, where women did not move much outside, let alone eat outside.
Cabins were also places were experiments with food were done. Several famous dishes have emerged out of these experiments.
One of them is ‘Kabiraji’, a combination of the European and Indian cuisines. It is believed that this dish was developed in ‘Dilkusha Cabin’. Some stories suggest that it was originally named as ‘coverage cutlet’. And now ‘Kabiraji’ is the local transgression of the term. The other suggests that it was named after Kabi-Guru Rabindranath Tagore.
‘Dilkusha Cabin’ claims to have come up with several iconic dishes such as Doi Chicken, Egg Devil, and Meat Potato Chop. Other popular dishes include Gondhoraj Lime chicken pakodas, a deep fried Bengali item resembling croquettes.
Losing their popularity to the blitz and fine dine restaurants, Cabins are not attracting much crowd now. Now on the brink of extinction, these cabins are somewhat holding on the nostalgia of glorious days within the greases of the walls.