The taste of Bengal
Alu-dum, Bhaja, Bhapa, Bhorta, Chorchori, Chop, Cutlet, Ghonto, Kosha, Paturi, Poshto, Shukto … rings a bell? Drooling already?
These names are enough to make us miss home no matter which part of the world we are in. The immense love that we Kolkatans have towards food, has gained us many a gastronomical titles. But what is so special about our culinary. What makes us the ‘happy people’?
A true Bengali would choose a traditional Bengali platter with mishti any day over the various global cuisines that are at the tip of our fingers. We love our land of ‘Mach aar Bhaat’.
Bengalis, like the French, spend not only the great deal of time thinking about the food but also on its preparation and eating. Quips like “Bengalis live to eat” and “Bengalis spend most of their income on food” are not exactly exaggerated.
Bengali cuisine is one of the finest blends of non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes. It also has the only traditionally developed multi-course tradition from the subcontinent that is similar in structure to the modern service à la russe style of French cuisine, with food served course-wise rather than all at once.
History behind our cuisine.
After the Nawabs left Bengal their cooks remained and found out that using beef would not be very popular as they set up food carts, hence they used mutton or lamb as a substitute and this spread into the roots of some of Bengal’s famous recipes such as “Kosha Mangsho”, Maach Dhakai style which is popular even today. The chinese population in Kolkata introduced the taste maker monosodium glutamate which later got infused into what is widely popular as “Bengali Chinese”. Chops and cutlets, once British in origin but now firmly Bengali, are served every day in every little shack. Marwaris have influenced the sweet shops (e.g. Ganguram’s) and street foods of Kolkata. Even widows had a huge impact on the Bengal Cuisine. While most Bengali castes ate meat and fish, this was barred for widows. Widows also did not use “heating” foods such as shallot and garlic, but ginger was allowed—this found a core place in Bengali curries, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. In spite of all these restrictions, the food evolved in such a way that its deceptively simple preparations drew upon Bengal’s vast larder of vegetable options.
Characteristics of Bengali Cuisine
- There are six different tastes to which the Bengali palate caters to, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot and
- Shorsher tel(mustard oil) is the primary cooking medium in Bengali cuisine.
- Almost all vegetables are used in this culinary. Bitter vegetables like bitter melon/gourd (“uchhe” or “korola”) andnim leaves are also used.
- Bengalis are particularly fond of using leftover bits of vegetables. Peels, roots, stems and other bits that are usually disposed of are eaten in Bengal. Bengalis also excel in the cooking of regional vegetables. They prepare a variety of the dishes using the many types of vegetables that grow there year round. They can make ambrosial dishes out of the oftentimes rejected peels, stalks and leaves of vegetables.
- They also use fuel-efficient methods, such as steaming fish or vegetables in a small covered bowl nestled at the top of the rice pot.
- Rice is the staple diet since it is grown widely. It is eaten in various forms as well—puffed, beaten, boiled and fried depending on the meal. Lightly fermented rice is also used as breakfast in rural communities (panta bhat).
- Milk is an important source of nutrition, and also a key ingredient in Bengal’s desserts. Most sweets are made from chenna. Sweets occupy an important place in the diet of Bengalis and at their social ceremonies. The most popular among the Bengali sweets are the Roshogolla, Shondesh, Pantua and Mishti Doi.
- Nearly every Bengali community eats meat or fish. In most parts of the Indian subcontinent, individual castes and communities have their own food habits; this is not true of Bengal. Fish, goat, mutton and chicken are commonly eaten across social strata. Bengal’s rivers, ponds and lakes contain varieties of fish such as roui, ilish, koi or pabda. Prawns, shrimp and crabs also abound. Almost every village in Bengal has ponds used for pisciculture, and at least one meal a day is certain to have a fish course. Almost every part of the fish (except scales, fins, and innards) is eaten; unlike other regions, the head is particularly preferred. Other spare bits of the fish are usually used to flavour curries and dals.
- The use of spices for both fish and vegetable dishes is quite extensive and includes many combinations not found in other parts of India. Examples are the onion-flavoured kalonji (nigella or black onion seeds), radhuni (wild celery seeds), and five-spice or panch phoron (a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, kalonji, and black mustard seeds). Bengali cooking includes the phoron of a combination of whole spices, fried and added at the start or finish of cooking as a flavouring special to each dish. Bengalis share their use of whole black mustard seeds with South Indians, but unique to Bengal is the extensive use of freshly ground mustard paste. A pungent mustard paste called Kashundi is a dipping sauce popular in Bengal.
Bengalis are very particular about the way and the order in which the food should be served. Each dish is to be eaten separately with a little rice so that the individual flavours can be enjoyed. The first item served may be a little ghee which is poured over a small portion of rice and eaten with a pinch of salt. Then come the bitter preparation, shukto, followed by dals, together with roasted or fried vegetables (bhaja or bharta). Next comes the vegetable dishes, the lightly spiced vegetables, chenchki, chokka, followed by the most heavily spiced dalna, ghonto and those cooked with fish. Finally, the chicken or mutton, if this being served at all. Chaatni comes to clear the palate together with crisp savoury wafers, papor. Dessert is usually mishti doi. The meal is finally concluded with the handing out of betel leaf (paan), which is considered to be an aid to digestion and an astringent.
“Bengali cuisine is fascinating as it caters to a range of flavours. Not only is it tasty but also provides a balanced diet which is obtained even through the intake of mishti.” – Indrajit Lahiri- Moha Mushkil.com