Introduction

The clink of wine glasses drowned under the roar of laughter that emerged from the dimly lit, yet cozy, room. The aroma of fish and chips, chicken tetrazzini, sizzling beef steak, intertwined in each other’s paths, sending out enticing invitations. It was complemented by the regular chatter of the silver, moving in perfect synchronization at every table. The etiquette with which the food was approached reminds one of the ambiences at The Savoy or Claridges in London. However, having finished a four course meal with utmost satisfaction, the customers are greeted with servings of “saunf”–a mouth freshener served at the end of a meal. The familiarity with which the “saunf” is consumed brings one back to a realization that this is not London. It is a street in the very heart of Calcutta, where one can find the pleasures of elaborate European dining in all its glory even today. Since its inception in European Calcutta, as has been described by a columnist, “Park Street has been an island of western elegance in the midst of Bengali chaos.”[1]

Being a product of the British Empire, Calcutta has developed as an urban area right from its inception. Therefore, the phenomena of a rise of an urban educated middle class and the emergence of an urban-centred public culture are not unlikely. It may be argued that such a public culture, that has its roots in the colonial era, has been shaping and will continue to shape the social and cultural landscape of the city. There is no denying with Conlon[2] that “nowhere is this more evident than in emergent changes in Indian foodways, most particularly in the growth and elaboration of the institution of the restaurant.”

In today’s multicultural urban setting, Calcutta still manages to celebrate and hold on to the food practices that Park Street once possessed during the days of the Raj. The colonial legacy of public dining still looms large on Park Street- a renowned food corridor passing through the nerve centre of the city. Focusing on Park Street as a “food destination,” this article makes a preliminary attempt to explore the evolution of public dining and the emergence of a colonial foodscape[3] in Calcutta—the first city of the British Empire in India and describes the city’s contemporary restaurant scenes as deeply rooted in and linked to its colonial past. The legacy of the colonial foodscape that existed during the days of the Raj has not only continued into the present but has fostered a sense of belonging among the native middle classes of today.

An attempt to study this scenario brings to mind the following questions: How have the European colonizers created a sense of “home”—a sense of familiarity through the public dining spaces of Calcutta? Did the restaurant spaces serve as a symbol of the larger racial and social differentiation between the colonizers and the natives? How did the dichotomies of belonging and othering within the natives emerge through the restaurant spaces?

This essay makes a preliminary attempt to grapple with such questions. Using the institution of the restaurant as a lens of study, this article revisits some of the old restaurants that came up in the colonial period, between 1830 and 1950, as sites of colonial culinary cultures—the meanings and practices attached to it that have eventually shaped up the contemporary foodscape of Park Street. This research draws on narratives based mainly on interviews, participant observations, magazine articles and newspaper archives.

Beginning with the emergence of public dining in Park Street, the essay goes on to describe how difference and distinction were charted in these sites of colonial dining during the heydays of the Raj in Calcutta. The author further goes on to show how the boundaries between the colonizers and Indian natives were blurred by drawing on narratives from her own field work. Finally an attempt has been made to understand how the colonial culture of public dining have been appropriated by the natives giving rise to a restaurant culture that operate as a field of distinction in terms of taste.

 

The Emergence of Public Dining in Park Street

By 1858, the year in which Calcutta was handed over to the British Crown by the East India Company, the area around Park Street remained relatively lose settled with magnificent houses located on big properties. The history of the street can be traced back to 1767 with the opening of a cemetery, now called the South Park Street cemetery. The street originally called “Badamtalla,” a name that it had received from the large number of almond trees in the area, began to serve as the Ghorustan ka rustah[4] or “Burial Ground Road” after the old burial ground (later St. John’s Church) was filled and closed in 1767. Situated right opposite the White town, the new Fort William, Park Street served as the route through which funeral processions would pass from the town to the Circular Road burial ground.

In the beginning of the twentieth century the big mansions started coming up on the western part of Park Street (towards Chowringhee Avenue), transforming the street to a “boulevard of western grandeur.” To add to this grandeur emerged restaurants catering to a European clientele whose horse-drawn gharries would wait outside transforming the boulevard into a landscape of English elegance.

The first of the hotels to come up in the urban landscape of colonial Calcutta was in 1830 on Wellesley Street founded by Mr Spence to accommodate the English ladies and gentlemen who had just arrived in the city. The Great Eastern Hotel, initially started as a bakery soon towered high as the second hotel of British Calcutta by 1841.[5] For the well-to-do European visitors these hotels provided solutions for both food and lodging. But European Calcutta, as in case of European Bombay, had a slow “proliferation of independent dining establishments” intended for the expatriates residing in the city.” [6]

The Peliti’s was the first independent dining establishment that introduced the confectionery products in the foodscape of colonial Calcutta. The Rotary Club of Calcutta[7] notes:

Chevalier Federico Peliti was the greatest name in Calcutta, which had a great tradition of bakery and confectionery products. Peliti was a Manufacturing Confectioner and he was by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen Empress, a purveyor of cakes, chocolates etc. He started his restaurant and confectionery business in 1870 at 11 Government Place in the Dalhousie Square area of Calcutta…A great masterpiece of Peliti was a 12 (feet) high replica of the Eiffel Tower in sugar, crafted by the great man himself in December 1889.

The Queen’s need to appoint a confectioner in Calcutta reflects the need of the colonizers to (re)create a whiff of their own way of life, of their own cuisine–of a familiar taste in a faraway land. The 12 feet high replica of the Eiffel Tower crafted in sugar was a symbol of the European identity–an image that would immediately evoke the memory of their homeland, of their Europe. It is said that Peliti’s would draw the business fraternity of Clive Street for “traditional Friday lunches”—a three course meal first introduced into the foodscape of British Calcutta, since 1890.[8]

Expatriates who were separated from their friends and family made various attempts to recreate familiar home-like features in the alien land. Thus, “the evolution of eating places in colonial Calcutta followed the English pattern, from taverns and coffee houses to hotels and clubs, some more exclusive than the other.”[9]

There was a continuous attempt to create a sense of place and identity different from that of the natives living in the city. Kolkata is a city of contrasts and one that exists with one eye firmly turned towards the past. And Flury’s is one of those legendary establishments that has lived out its many decades as a coffee house and patisserie. It is one that is of great repute and character across the country…,” is how Bagchi describes the first tearoom in colonial Calcutta.

In 1927 Flury’s—the first tea-room on Park Street—was opened by a Swiss couple, Mr. and Mrs. J Flurys. Founded on the stylish food corridor of Calcutta, it was a meeting place to savour authentic Swiss and international delicacies and a place to indulge oneself with family and friends. It became immensely popular all over the country as the “only tearoom that evoked the feeling of far-away Europe.” This first venture paved the way for other eateries to open in the vicinity. The development was, however, slow and took almost another 15-20 years to progress.

Was the emergence of restaurants simply to feed people? Is food by itself enough to recreate a sense of place? David Bell and Gill Valentine argue that restaurant dining comes as “a total package—not just food and drink but a whole ‘experience.’”[10] Therefore the atmosphere including the design and style play an important role “in the promoting of restaurants as is the food itself”[11]. European restaurants opened in Calcutta were similarly not there merely to feed people. The architecture of the restaurants, the design, styles and cultural materials within the restaurant spaces that were in resemblance to the European way of life–all combined to (re)create a sense of place—“the feeling of far-away Europe.” Moulin Rouge in Park Street best exemplifies this argument. Built in resemblance of one of the oldest night clubs in Paris, the restaurant contained two giant-sized paintings covering two walls–one of chorus girls performing cancan—lifting their feet in the air in unison and the other of a dreamy, romantic landscape of the River Seine in the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. The windmill outside against a wall of red and white bricks was a visible attempt at replicating the Moulin Rouge in France-a way to reinstate the European identity on space.

The promotion of restaurants in European Calcutta was not limited to its food and ambience but was also done through advertisements. On 18th January, 1931, a lunch menu advertised by Peliti’s included Becty Norwegienne, Steak and Kidney Pie, Cold Turkey and Ham, Pressed Beef, Pressed Tongue, Spices Hump Salade, Apple and Black Currents Pie and Coffee—items that would suit the more flat taste of European expatriates living in the city as compared to the spicy and rich taste of Indian food.

 

Sites of Colonial Dining: Charting Difference, Charting Distinction

These restaurants sought an exclusively European clientele “with a sparkling of expatriate ladies among them.”[12] A policy of racial exclusivity seemed to have been maintained which restricted Indians from entering the formalised spaces of the restaurants.

These restaurants built almost two hundred years after the British arrived in Calcutta were not simply a transplanted British foodscape. Though they did reflect the development of public dining in Europe, they were also expressive of broader nineteenth century views that set the colonial world apart from Europe. The spaces of public dining reflected and strengthened assumptions of social and racial difference and in doing so naturalized the separation of the colonizers from the colonized. This form of public dining was embedded in a larger system of colonial control and a general discourse on, what Said describes as, imperialism. As Kenny (1995) argues, “the imperialist discourse refers to the framework that shaped the imperialists” interpretation and representation of the non-western world via a system of meaning and a process that sustained relations of domination by representing them as legitimate.”[13]

These legitimate sites of colonial dining were then markers of European dominance that prohibited the natives from entering the space. This “othering” of the natives or the ruled is located in a larger project of “moral” and “spatial ordering” of colonial urban space[14] and were representative of other landscapes such as the British Hill Stations in colonial India.[15]

Current scholarships, focusing on the relationship between the colonizers and colonized in the context of foodways, including works of Nupur Chaudhuri, E.M. Collingham, Susan Zlotnick and Uma Narayan, argue that British colonizers followed a food regime that was different from that of the native Indians. The need of the colonizers to differentiate themselves from their subjects is located in a larger discourse of the Other—the non-European others against which the Europeans have defined themselves. The native Other is therefore excluded from the colonial Self and through this exclusion are thus, created the boundaries between the Self/Other, colonizer/colonized or the rulers/ruled. The colonial restaurants then came to represent sites that created the dichotomy between the colonizers/colonized, the rulers/ruled, the self/other that “operate(d) as a field of distinction marking boundaries of status through the display of taste.”[16]

However, Salobir (2011) depicts in her work on “Food Culture in Colonial Asia,” that the colonial cuisine continued “well beyond the end of colonial rule”[17] for both ex-colonizers and postcolonial societies and has survived in some of the clubs, hotels, restaurants and rest-houses in the colonies as well as in the homes of former colonials spread across the globe. This is also true in the case of Park Street restaurants. The following section explores how the dialectics of belonging and othering got reworked and how boundaries of taste created a new sense of distinction among the natives.

 

The Other amongst the “Other”: Middle Class Dining and Distinction

The beginning of the 1940s and the time thereafter witnessed a few changes in the pattern of public dining in Calcutta. The once colonial restaurants began to change hands as the European owners passed them down to the natives. What changed significantly was the profile of the clientele. A large number of the Indian natives were now allowed access into these restaurants spaces that at one point of time only catered to the European clientele.

Jatin Kothari,[18] a second-generation owner of a renowned Park Street restaurant who in the 1940s and ‘50s would assist his father in the restaurant business reminisces:

Indian ladies in sarees and foreign ladies with sun umbrellas would spend hours at the restaurant sipping Martini. Even the streets of Park Street exuded a European feel with its spotlessly clean boulevards. At that time customers had to be dressed in dinner jackets as it was mandatory and white used to be the dress code for the waiters.

While Indian ladies and foreign ladies were seen to have equal access to the restaurant spaces thereby blurring the boundaries between the colonizers and the colonized, what is most striking in the above narrative is the natives” appropriation of the European culture, particularly that of the English. The restaurants on Park Street emulated the European restaurants not only in terms of food but also terms of its ambience, dress code, table manners, body language and so on.

“We would sit on the sofa or chair with our backs straight and the napkins spread neatly on our laps. Until we finished chewing the last morsel of food in our mouth we barely spoke a word” recalls Michele, who is now in her seventies.

Placing the spoon and fork parallel to each other on the plate facing upwards and lightly dabbing the lips with the napkin after finishing the meal, Michele remarked that what draws her to Park Street even today is the old-world charm that these restaurants offer. What is striking is that Michele’s placement of the spoon and fork at the end of the meal and other eating habits of today are not mere a reflection of cultural appropriation–or a simple act of emulation–but a long embedded habit that has been normalised and internalised by her.

Even though Park Street restaurants were accessible by the natives by the latter part of the 20th century, the main clientele that Park Street drew were those who were aspiring to become and being the middle class. These urban educated middle classes appropriated the colonial culinary culture in a manner such that, even after the British departed from India, the norms and etiquettes of the restaurants were still maintained. Incivility and failure to observe norms were despised.

As Sanjay Joshi describes “being middle class in colonial India was a project undertaken by a social elite which deployed a category consciously picked up from the history of their rulers, the British. Taking a cue from the enlightened, progressive role attributed to the middle class in British history, western educated elites of colonial India found little trouble in representing themselves in the same way.”[19]

Drawing on the works of a number of scholars, Utsa Ray rightly points out that “consumption practices have played a strong role in the constitution of South Asian society, culture, and economy since the 18th century.”[20] She argues that the same scholars have sought to problematize the category of the middle-class itself. All these scholarships argue that the category of the Indian middle-class is neither singular nor uniform, but constitutes

‘a varied set of actors characterized by anxieties that reflected often-straitened material circumstances, ambivalences steeped in their own contradictory strivings for new identities, and ethical conceptions that frowned upon the embrace of material goods.’ These scholars find that economic positions could never be a single analytical tool defining the middle-class. Some people who described themselves as the middle-class were quite wealthy, while others had limited access to resources making them resemble the upper ranks of the working-class. Being middle-class implied embracing such patterns of consumption that would distinguish them from Indian princes and rural magnates on the one hand, and from workers, artisans, and villagers on the other. As Sumit Sarkar rightly observed, this middle-class distanced themselves from what they considered luxury and corruption of the aristocracy as well as from the ways of those who soiled their hands with manual labor.

This emergence of the middle class, what Utsa Ray describes as the “self-fashoning of the middle class” led to the practices of compulsory dinner jackets, the use of the silver cutlery, the etiquette of the waiters- all of which grappled to hold on to the colonial legacy.

Sky Room, known as the city’s most elegant restaurant tried conspicuously to preserve its past. A lady who was growing up in Calcutta at that time recalls:

The silver cutlery, the ambience, the perfect service and the etiquette of the waiters–all went along to build a formidable reputation of the place and visibilised the conspicuous effort to preserve its colonial past. It had amazing gastronomic delights such as prawn cocktail served in pretty goblets, mixed grilled with bacon, egg, ham and sausages, smoked hilsa and black forest cake.

These English educated middle class were highly colonized in their taste. Taste forms a marker of social recognition and therefore charts distinction. Pierre Bourdieu’s theorization of taste is immensely insightful in the study of any ‘self-fashioning of the middle-class.”

In their book Food and Cultural Studies, Ashley, Hollows, Jones and Taylor mention that “food consumption, like other forms of consumption, is a site of class struggle in which the middle classes have a better opportunity to capitalize on their assets.” Just as profit is produced by investing in economic capital, similarly, possessing cultural capital yields “a profit in distinction . . . and a profit in legitimacy”[21]. “This sense of legitimacy is based on both a refusal of, and a sense of distinction from, those who appear only “natural” in their tastes.”[22] Driven by this “profit in legitimacy,” which in Bordieu’s words “consists in the fact of feeling justified in being (what one is) , being what it is right to be,” the self-fashioned middle class immediately distinguish the colonized Self from not-so-colonized Other there by reinstating the Self/Other dichotomy through the rhetoric of taste.

Thus, the practices of serving the food to the ladies first, the use of cutlery during the meal, the washing of fingers in warm water after the meal, are all markers of distinction.

A place with a formidable reputation immediately limits its consumers through a display of taste. The formalised space of the restaurants on Park Street, informed by western ideals, norms and practices are only accessible to and inclusive of the privileged–the middle class who have naturalised and appropriated the colonial culture as one’s own, the middle class by creating a sense of belonging to the colonial thereby making the othering inevitable.

 

Conclusion

Since its birth as a colonial child, consumption in Park Street has always revolved around the coordinates of access and privilege. The politics of access to the restaurant spaces of Park Street can be divided into two phases: the colonial period and the late colonial to post-colonial period. During the era of the British Raj access to the restaurant spaces was on the basis of race which led to the othering of the natives. Post-independence the already blurring boundaries of status between the rulers and the ruled began to manifest itself in terms of more suitable access of natives to the restaurants spaces–as has been apparent in the above narratives. However, this did not mean an access for all natives. This access was class-based. A section of the natives trained in the English way of life–who were cultivated in the English taste–began to control and dominate the foodscape of Park Street. These English educated middle class, the so-called brown sahibs, felt a sense of belonging to the colonial. They not only carried the legacy of colonial dining in Calcutta, but appropriated the culture of colonial dining in a manner such that in today’s restaurant spaces they are still apparent. The restaurants of Park Street reek of the celebration of the colonial not merely in terms of their food but the ambience, design, eating habits, etiquette and so on. Important in this context is the everyday practice of consumption by the middle class, whose discursive formation revolves around “taste” and whose culture of consumption keeps the spirit of Park Street alive, earning for it the name—“The Street that Never Sleeps.”

 

Notes

[1] “Sky Room: Elegy for Elegance,” The Telegraph, 31st December, 1993.

[2] Conlon, F. F. (1995). Dining Out in Bombay (Vol. Consuming modernity: public culture in a South Asian world). (C. A. Breckenridge, Ed.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[3] See Adema, P. (2007). Images of foodscapes: Introduction to foodscape studies and their application in the study of healthy eating out-of-home environments. London: Sage

[4] Mentioned in the Agra Directory of 1850, p. 493. In Nair, T. P. (1987). A History of Calcutta’s Streets (Vol. A Tercentenary History of Calcutta). Firma KLM Pvt. Ltd.

[5] Dasgupta, M., Gupta, B., & Jaya, C. (1995). The Calcutta Cook Book: A Treasury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace. New Delhi: Penguin.

[6] Conlon, F. F. (1995). Dining Out in Bombay (Vol. Consuming modernity: public culture in a South Asian world). (C. A. Breckenridge, Ed.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[7] Taken from the official website of The Rotary Club of Calcutta

[8] In Dasgupta, Gupta & Chaliha.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bell, D., & Valentine, G. (1997). Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat. London: Routledge.

[11] Ashley, B., Hollows, J., Jones, S., & Taylor, B. (2004). Food and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.

[12] “An English Taste of Good Life,” The Telegraph, 23 September, 1995

[13] Kenny, J. T. (1995, December). “Climate, Race and Imperial Authority: The Symbolic Landscape of the British Hill Station in India.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85(4), 694-714.

[14] Kumar, S. M. (2002). The Evolution of the Spatial Ordering of Colonial Madras (Vol. Postcolonial Geographies). (A. B. McEwan, Ed.) London: Continuum.

[15] Kenny.

[16] Warde, A. & Martens, L. (2000). Eating Out: Social Differentiation, Consumption and Pleasure, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[17] Salobir, C. L. (2011). Food Culture in Colonial Asia: A Taste of Empire. London: Routledge.

[18] Name changed on request

[19] Joshi, S. (2010). The Middle Class in Colonial India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

[20] Ray, U. (2014). Consumption and the Making of the Middle-Class in South Asia. History Compass, 12(1): 11-19.

[21] Bordieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[22] Ashley, B., Hollows, J., Jones, S., & Taylor, B. (2004). Food and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.

 

 

This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol I., as part of the Coldnoon journal.

 

Aditi Das

Aditi Das

Aditi Das is currently pursuing MPhil in the Department of Geography at the University of Delhi.

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