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Saturday, June 06, 2020

Why Kolkatans Love Sipping History at Paramount

The enduring charm of the 102-year-old sherbet maker in the City of Joy

Written by Neha Banka | Updated: March 28, 2020 9:43:49 am
kolkata sherbet, history of food, families in food, kolkata street food, sunday eye, eye 2020, indianexpress, paramount shop, Paramount has a 102-year-old history in Kolkata. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

In a rapidly-changing Kolkata that sees new restaurants open every month, Paramount has held its own for over a century. Just a stone’s throw away from some of the city’s oldest educational institutions in College Street, north Kolkata, this 102-year-old sherbet shop is a landmark in itself. It was opened in 1918 by Nihar Ranjan Majumder, from Barisal in present-day Bangladesh, who relocated to Kolkata to make a living.

Majumder was a member of the Barisal branch of the Anushilan Samiti, a revolutionary organisation that operated out of undivided Bengal, and after he moved to Kolkata, he continued his participation. Apart from selling glasses of cold sherbet, the shop also opened up its back rooms as meeting places for revolutionaries and freedom fighters. The history of this establishment is found in his diary, which details his participation in revolutionary activities and talks about the people who found refuge at Paramount. “My grandfather came to Calcutta for employment but the main purpose of this shop was to give shelter to revolutionaries,” says Partha Pratim Majumder, 51, who currently runs the shop along with his relatives.

Plots to overthrow the colonial government are no longer hatched in Paramount’s back rooms, but little else has changed here since it opened. The small space is crammed with marble-topped tables and wooden benches, compelling customers to sit close to each other. On the walls are framed black and white portraits of Bengal’s icons — Rabindranath Tagore and Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, many of whom were regular customers at Paramount themselves.

Paramount is one of the few shops in the city that still sells only sherbet, made with syrups that are created here. These recipes are well-kept family secrets. Not surprisingly, the shop is busiest in the long, hot and humid summer months, when people queue up outside for their turn at some refreshment.

kolkata sherbet, history of food, families in food, kolkata street food, sunday eye, eye 2020, indianexpress, (From left) Partha Pratim Majumder, Kakoli Lodh and Baishali Sen

While the menu reflects the change in seasons — Kesar Malai made of whole milk, sugar and kesar (saffron) is available in winter, for example — regulars prefer the classics. The most well-loved drink is the Daab Sherbet, developed by Ray, who was a noted chemist, educationist and philanthropist. The ice-cold sherbet made with coconut water comes with thick curls of sweet coconut flesh which is scooped out and eaten with a spoon. According to Paramount’s owners, Ray created the drink as an affordable option for the students who were the establishment’s most frequent customers.

kolkata sherbet, history of food, families in food, kolkata street food, sunday eye, eye 2020, indianexpress, Thirst Quencher: Green Mango Sherbet

In pre-Independence India, the sherbet would cost four annas, but today it costs Rs 70. The oldest drink in the shop is the Green Mango Sherbet, a thick lassi-like drink, made using fresh yogurt, sugar, salt and ice, along with one tablespoon of their special syrup that stains the liquid a fluorescent green.

The shop has operated at the same address on Bankim Chatterjee Street since it first opened and its sherbets are not available anywhere else in the city. “We try to keep the food value. We’ve been asked to open (the shop) elsewhere but we have no plans,” said Partha. The only modernisation that the owners have made allowances for is home delivery.

For now, the family is not concerned about developing tastes and preferences. “We are working generation by generation and we have customers who are bringing their children here to show them this place that they have frequented,” says Kakoli Lodh, 49, Majumder’s granddaughter. “There are some things that always remain the same. We rely on word-of-mouth and we don’t spend a rupee on advertising. Our grandfather said that if quality is good, people will come,” says Baishali Sen, 45, who has been sitting at the shop for a decade.

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