Canteen, not cafeteria!


Canteens are outdated in a world of office cafeterias, but they remain useful and have their unique charm. Available especially in government offices, the canteens have their own tale to tell.

A few weeks ago, I went to a government office for a meeting. Arriving much before time, I walked up to the information counter and asked if they had a cafeteria. “No Sir, we do not have a cafeteria. We have a canteen. Go straight down the corridor.”

That was an important life lesson. A canteen is a canteen. Not to be confused with a cafeteria. The former takes its name from the French ‘cantine’ while the latter is a Spanish word for the coffee house. Never ever make the mistake of expecting a cafeteria in a government office. They have canteens.

The internet says that the word has come from the French ‘cantine’ which is further derived from the Italian ‘cantina’ which is an outcome of the Latin ‘canto’ which means a corner. The concept started in the military barracks and garrison towns as a refreshment room. Basically, a spartan layout of counters with food items at one end and a room full of the most basic chairs and tables. The concept then got carried over to educational institutions, hospitals and government offices.

The cafeteria, starting as a coffee house/room, evolved into a self-serve food/dining area, typically larger than a canteen. It is also known by relatively less stylish names such as lunchroom, dining hall or simply food hall. The shorter form café is what we popularly use.

The canteen has been an integral part of every phase in our lives, from school to college, university, office, railway station, hospital, court, and the government department. It is a very proletarian concept. Airports do not have canteens unless for staff. They have food courts, cafes, and lounges. That’s typically bourgeoisie.

Government offices in KolkataSwasthya BhavanPoura BhavanMayukh BhawanPurta BhavanNagarayan 
LocationThe ground floor of Swasthya Bhavan.Previously in the garage space of FD Block headquarters of the Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation. Now at a separate enclosure on the ground floor.Ground floor of the DF Block building, at the landing of the staircaseThe basement of DF Block buildingThe ground floor of the DF Block building (urban development department). It has a separate entrance and two zones — one for tea and coffee, the other for meals. 
Timing11.30 am to 5 pm11.30 am to 5 pm11:30 am to 5 pm11.30 am to 5 pm11.30 am to 5 pm
Pop picksFish thali comprising rice, dal, a vegetable, and a piece of Katla fish with gravy is very popular and it costs Rs 70. Ilish thali is Rs 90 too does well. Mutton is served with four pieces of mutton and potato. For dessert, there is lyangcha and rosogolla at Rs 10. Khir Chomchom is famous too.Apart from thalis, Chicken Chop (Rs 20), Dimer Chop (Rs 15), Paratha-Alur Dum (Rs 20) and Mango Doi (Rs 15) always fly off the shelves.Kochuri-ghughni is served for Rs 20 a plate in the evenings, sometimes if pre-ordered. Fish thali is the best seller. Comprising rice, dal, vegetable and a piece of Katla fish, it costs Rs 60. Ilish thali, where the fish is prepared with mustard paste, costs Rs 80. Mutton Curry is served with four pieces of mutton and potato, and many opt for half plate mutton with two parathas at Rs 90. Rice and roti are served straight off the brick oven. For dessert, there is lyangcha, rosogolla and diabetic Sandesh for Rs 10 a piece.  Luchi-Alur dum is sometimes served in the mornings and evenings. A Rs 70 combo meal of khichuri, fired potato, and fried ilish fish fast flies off the counter. This khichuri is more of the dry bhuna variety. They also make chowmein and chilli chicken. The chowmein is served with gravy and three pieces of chicken and gravy. It costs Rs 60 a plate.Fried Rice with Alur Dum and chicken is the most sought. It costs Rs 70. Fish meal at Rs 40 and chicken meal at Rs 75 are also popular. 

True to its DNA, the canteen menu needs to cater to the masses. Samosa, bread pakoda, vada, aloo bonda, vegetable patties, bread-omelette and chai, make up the typical fare. Regional additions like idli, vada pav and besan laddoo bring variety to the fare. Also, regional deviations mark one canteen from the other like ones in Kolkata will serve you ‘shingara’ and not samosa. Also, ‘likaar cha’ stands head and shoulders over ‘dudh cha’ [black tea versus tea with milk]. The aloo bonda will take a beating before the ‘aloor chop’.

I have had the best aloo bondas and besan laddoos from the canteen of the Defence Accounts Department that my father used to treat me to occasionally. I was introduced to the bread pakoda in the college canteen as a staple. A full piece at the start of the month and sharing one with two friends as the month was getting over.

The Medanta Hospital in Gurgaon has a sprawling food court on the ground floor but also a canteen in the basement which is perennially packed. The same is the case with most other ‘premium’ hospitals. The government hospitals have no airs of food courts…the canteens rule. The snacks menu is the mainstay of a canteen right across the time it is open. Meals are typically aimed at the employees and ‘staff’. There is the flexibility of bringing your own lunchbox into the canteen during mealtimes, no questions asked. The simplicity of the menu is crucial to a canteen’s success. Also, there must be one or two ‘special’ items that ensure the good word spreads by word of mouth to generate regulars who come to the building only for the food and nothing more pressing.

That does not stop a canteen from offering more than Indian ‘fast’ food. Meals at lunchtime are part of the offering in most canteens. The meals are typical local fare, catering to those who need cheap and nutritious food. I spent a good amount of time living off meals from the Oriental Bank of Commerce canteen for dinner in Mumbai. Some also innovate with evening menus for those going back home. MTR as a brand started off in the 1920s as a canteen, called ‘tiffin room’ in the south with ‘Karnatic Brahmin’ food. Even though owned by a Norwegian company called Orkla ASA since 2007, the DNA has remained intact. Even the ready-to-eat takeaway packs are reminiscent of the tiffin room where it all started!

The humble canteen might seem pedestrian to most of us, but it has been the place where revolutions have been hatched and insurrections foiled. In its humility of ambience lies the power to attract and accommodate people of all types and purposes. Anybody dressed in whichever style can simply walk into a canteen, take a seat, order a tea and have a good time just observing the others. Some of my older friends tell me that both Naxals, as well as undercover police officers, used to run their operations in Kolkata from canteens in the early days of the movement. In fact, they might as well be sitting across each other in the same canteen plotting their next moves. This can happen only in a canteen. A cafeteria is just too elitist for such activities.

What India needs is an “All-India Canteen Index” that captures all the canteens across the country rates them on various parameters and makes special recommendations. There can be a national contest planned for the same. It will be one of the most impactful democratic innovations on the nation’s 75th birth anniversary!

Also Read: Indian food: Five bites, for the world!

(Avik Chattopadhyay is co-creator of Expereal India. Also, he is the former head of marketing, product planning, and PR at Volkswagen India. He was associated with Maruti Suzuki, Apollo Tyres, and Groupe PSA as well.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)


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