It is often said while others eat to live, Bengalis live to eat. The heart and soul of Bengali cuisine are of course, fish and rice – two auspicious elements which are not only part of the daily fare but also of our lifecycle, from birth (annaprashan), marriage to death (niyambhanga). Fish is cast in the leading role not only in an array of dishes – jhol, jhal and ambol but every part including the head, tail and its roe are added to lentils and vegetables or simply fried and considered to be no less delicious. But the presence of widows in the family also ensured Bengal’s vegetarian fare, sans garlic and onion, was equally delectable; shukto, shuktuni, labra, chacchari, ghanta and dalnas ruled the roost in these kitchens. Bengal’s Muslim rulers and the Raj also left their indelible delectable imprint on its cuisine. Through the ages, the aristocracy in Bengal raised gastronomy to an art form, complete in its lavish spread, varied flavours and serving of the food during meals.
Bengal boasts of broadly two ethnic style of cuisine: Ghoti and Bangal, rooted in the distinct cultures of the Epaar Bangla and river crisscrossed Opaar Bangla or present-day Bangladesh. The cuisines of these two cultures, redolent in taste and variety, are completely diverse in style and flavour and share a bitter rivalry since time immemorial. When the families of East Bengal left their homes due to Partition they brought along their cuisine marked by the tanginess of green chilies and mustard. While Bangals jeers Ghotis for their sweet tooth and penchant for adding sugar to every dish, the former is said to leave out no part of the vegetable including the skin of green plantain to rustle up new dishes.
In elite households, you will find that even the simplest of meals are lavish and delectable. A typical lunch when people were not as calorie conscious as today, usually comprised pale golden luchis, snow-white rice, rich yellow dals, green vegetables and silvery hued fish nestling in aromatic gravy. The meal was laid out in multiple filigreed bowls around a silver thala (plate) with salt, lemon slices and green chilies; the golden hued ghee melted on the hot steaming rice -all added up to provide a feast for eyes and the taste buds. Non-vegetarian fare comprising mutton, chicken and egg preparations, often spicy and rich, were generally dinnertime treats.
The old zemindar households of Kolkata usually sported two kitchens. One was the English kitchen, headed by a Muslim khansama, serving Anglo-Indian and Muslim delights like broths, casseroles, cutlets, bakes, soufflés, biriyanis, kebabs, etc. It would be equipped with tandoors and ovens. The other, run by a Brahmin cook, usually of Oriya origin, would dish out the traditional Hindu Bengali delicacies, painstakingly cooked over a coal – fire choola. These kitchens never overlapped, each having separate quarters and utensils, and the head cooks treated each other with disdain and contempt, each zealously endeavoring to outdo the other. The Hindu kitchen dished out lunch, while the English one turned out the dinner items. Chopping vegetables was also an art considering the slicing of the same vegetable, suppose potato, would vary in case of shukto or dalna.
The range of cuisine is truly amazing. Pulao, Chholar Dal, Mochar Ghonto and Potoler Dolma jostle for pride of place with Shorshe Ilish, Daab Chingri, Bhetki Paturi and Kosha Mangsho. An assortment of sweet and sour chutneys completes the basic meal, before an array of desserts arrive to sweeten the palate. Rossogolla, Chitrakoot, Sandesh, Payesh, Mihidana, Sitabhog and Mishti Doi are Bengal’s international ambassadors and firmly ensconced across the globe. This exquisite feast is usually topped off by a delicious, digestive, glossy paan – the betel leaf with slaked lime and finely sliced areca nuts along with spices of your choice. Preparing paan was an important household task of the women of the family. My grandmother, who hailed from the Sen Family of Jabakusum fame spent many lazy afternoons gossiping with the women in the family and preparing her signature paan concoctions. She would add a teaspoon of sugar to each paan before folding it.
Lavish feasts were the order of the day, especially during weddings and festivals. On these occasions, freshly-caught fish and prawn treats would vie with spicy mutton and meat from other games to go with phulko luchis and deep fried parathas, fragrant pulaos and biriyanis.
Bengali cuisine also comes with customs or “aachar-bichar” concerning cooking and serving of food. These rules were strictly followed by the zamindari families, till urbanisation and the nuclear-family took their toll. My grandmother taught us that talking while eating would hamper the digestive process. Food was not to touch the fingers beyond the second joints, and picking up morsels from another person’s plate was an absolute taboo. The children and men in the family ate first. Servants did not appear in front of the head of the family while he ate, and the ladies, with pallus covering their heads, would serve the meal, often a long and leisurely affair. They sat down to eat the leftovers only after the men had their fill.
The ingredients in Bengali cooking are valued not only for taste, but also for their nutritional and curative properties. The right balance of flavours – bitter, sweet, sour, salty and astringent – is vital, as is the order in which food is served.
Here are a few gems that my grandmother’s kitchen turned out. They are simple preparations, yet delicious.
Bati Chorchori: lau [bottle gourd]-½ kg, alu-¼ kg, prawns-¼ kg, 2 tsp- turmeric powder, 3-tbsp mustard seeds ground with salt, 4-green chilies, 4-tbsp oil. Dice the lau and potato finely. Fry the potatoes lightly and add all other ingredients. Cook on a low flame, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Do not add water. When oil floats to the surface remove from flame. Serve with steaming hot rice.
Murgi Dal: Garam masala, bay leaves, sour curd-2 tbsp, ghee-1 tbsp, onions-5, ginger, turmeric powder, red chillies, water- 4 cups, chicken-1, chholar dal-125 gm. Make a paste of the spices and curd, and marinate chicken pieces in it. Heat ghee and fry the garam masala and some onions. Add chicken and salt. Add little water and cook, covered, till chicken is done. Boil the dal in ½ litre water for 20 minutes. Add to the cooked chicken. When the gravy thickens, take off fire and serve.
Rui Machher Dim Bora: roe of the Rohu- ¼ kg, red chillies-2, white flour- 1 tbsp, salt-1 tsp, oil-¾ cup. Wash the roe lightly and drain. Mix in all ingredients and fry in hot oil.
Machher Kochuri: Bhekti 125 gm, potatoes and onions, turmeric powder, green chilies, salt, ghee. Fry the fish well and debone. In hot ghee, fry fish, onions and boiled and mashed potatoes, along with haldi, salt and chillies. Take off fire. Make tight dough of flour, water, ghee and salt, and roll out roundels. Put some filling and cover with another roundel. Twist the edges into whorls. Fry in ghee and serve with sweet chutney.
Kolapata Machh: bhetki pieces/ prawn ½ kg, paste of [½ grated coconut + 4 chilies + 2 tbsp mustard paste], plantain leaf, container of hot boiled rice. Smear fish with paste and keep for 2 hours. Wrap individually in the leaf or foil and bury deep in the hot rice for ½ hour. Serve.
Shorshe Ilish: Make a paste of turmeric powder, green chilies and mustard seeds. Heat oil and pour the mixture in it. As it boils, add raw fish pieces and green chillies. Add a little water. When gravy thickens, take off fire and serve.
Murgi Jhalfrezi: 1 kg-boneless chicken, 2 onions chopped, 3green chilies, 3 tsp ginger-garlic paste, ½ kg diced tomatoes, 2 tsps coriander powder,1 tsp cumin powder, 2 tsps garam masala, 1/2 tsp turmeric powder, salt, 3 tbsp oil. Heat the oil. Add onions and fry. Add green chillies, ginger- garlic paste and fry. Add all powdered spices. Fry till oil separates from the masala. Add chicken and tomatoes and fry well. Add 1 cup water, salt, cover and cook till gravy thickens. Serve with pulao.
Masala Mutton Steak: 1 kg boneless mutton, 2 onions, 2 potatoes, 2cups water, salt, 3 tbsp oil, paste of ginger, garlic and onion, powdered spices of coriander, cumin, turmeric, pepper and mustard seeds. Dice mutton. Slice onions and potatoes. Heat oil. Add mutton and stir-fry for 10- 15 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Add paste and spice powders. Add water and simmer, covered for 45 minutes. Add onion, potatoes and salt. Cook for another 15-20 minutes. Serve with rice or rotis.
Aam Luchi: My grandmother introduced the recipe of this sinful summer delight into the household of Rai Bahadur F N Gooptu- her in-laws. Tear 8 – 10 luchis into bite-sized pieces. Squeeze out the pulp of 3 ripe sweet mangoes. Mix it all, along with a couple of spoonfuls of sugar. Chill in the refrigerator. Serve with dollops of fresh malai.