Kolkata once had a thriving population of people from southern India. But where’s the food to reflect this?

A thought had been troubling me for a while. How was it, I asked a few friends, that Kolkata, which had a thriving population of people from southern India once, hardly had any restaurants serving food from the region? I had eaten some good Kerala food at a place called Ammini several years ago, but always wondered why there were very few such eateries serving different kinds of southern Indian cuisine.

That was when I heard about the Calcutta South India Club. Situated in the heart of the city, near Hazra, it was once a remarkably popular place for people who liked to have a bowl of piping hot sambar with their idlis or vadas —or more —after a day’s shopping.

It was quite an institution, my friend from the city told me. The club – along with its canteen — was a part of the Kolkatan’s life, but, she added, the canteen had just given way to a new restaurant called the Roastery.

I heard that the Nobel Laureate, Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, used to stay in the club when he was in the city. The scientist was the club’s first president (1926-28) and was followed by S. Radhakrishnan, who took over from 1928, for a year, and later went on to become the second President of India.

The club is still there, but the canteen, alas, is not. But, for old time’s sake, I went with friends. The Roastery Coffee House (70 B Hindustan Park Road, Gariahat), I learnt, is a southern Indian chain which offers various kinds of coffee.

We went there one Sunday afternoon, and were enveloped by the aroma of coffee being brewed. The place was also humming with life. Truth be told, it was humming a bit too much me. I like to hear myself think when I am eating. But the Roastery — clearly a hot favourite in Kolkata now — was not just splitting at the seams with people, but I think also had a problem with its acoustics, which amplified the sounds.

We placed our orders. One friend asked for a Prawn Salad, and the other, Lamb-Meat Scotch Eggs. I asked for a piece of Chicken Breast stuffed with Prawns. The Grilled Prawn Salad with a Caesar Salad dressing was crunchy (thanks, also, to the nachos in the dish) and the friend said she enjoyed it. The fried Minced-Lamb-Coated Boiled Egg was covered with a mushroom sauce, which was not a good idea as it took away its crunchiness. The Chicken Breast in my dish had been marinated with olive oil, garlic and basil leaves, and then baked after being stuffed with grilled prawns. Even though I had opted for it, I thought, in retrospect, the combination didn’t really work. The chicken was also a bit too hard, though I enjoyed the creamy mashed potatoes that came with it.

What disappointed one of the friends — a coffee connoisseur — was the brew. It lacked punch and flavour, he complained — and went back to his favoured club in central Kolkata for a cup of hot filter coffee, which he said he really relished.

I am glad I went to the Roastery — if for nothing else the rich history of the Calcutta South India Club. I could imagine Sir Chandrashekhara, in his trademark white headgear, sipping his coffee after eating a fluffy white idli. The times have changed, but it’s nice to furl the pages of history.

The writer is a seasoned food critic

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