Bengalis or Bongs as they are now called are a food loving lot. It has become an art form and is a ‘culture’ in its own right.
On a lighter side, we Bongs love to ‘eat’ so much, that other than food, we eat a lot of other things. We don’t ‘drink’ water but we ‘eat’ it. ‘Khai’ in Bengali means “to eat”. So we don’t get scolded but we express it as ‘eat ‘it (bokuni meaning scolding khai). We don’t trip and fall, but we ‘eat ’that too ( hochot khai), a child’s ears when boxed will say ‘kan mola khai’ and there are so many more….
So, in essence we love our palette. Being blessed with rich cultivable land and rivers flowing through, a Bengali is never in want for food. Rice that is cultivated in abundance and the availability of fish have earned a Bong the name ‘bhate mache bangalee’ meaning rice and fish defines a Bengali.
But this should not lead one to conclude that non-vegetarian is the only defining criteria for a Bengali menu. Vegetarian dishes are equally eaten and with joyous abandon.
Ghee and moshla
The use of spices, whether whole, a mix individually or as a paste is very much in vogue. The magic of preparation lends the same ingredients to be either bland or very rich – but both equally enjoyable. Whether it is fish or any vegetable, the same can be turned into a daily meal or a special one, by the addition or deduction of spices – called ‘moshla’ in Bengali.
To start with clarified butter, which is ‘ghee’ in Bengali, has a character of its own – it is deep, grainy and the fragrance is fantastic.
What to eat on a rainy day?
“Phena Bhaat” (rice with the starchy water in it), ‘aloo sheddho’ (mashed potato with mustard oil), a ‘dim sheddho’ (boiled egg) – to it all add a spoonful of the lovely ghee and it would make us drool over lunch on a rainy day. ‘Khichuri’ (rice and lentil porridge), accompanied by ilish mach bhaja (fried hilsa), begun bhaja, (eggplant fritters), aloo bhaja (fried potato sticks) and the ghee again is divine – again a much loved lunch on a rainy day. Sometimes it is even dinner!
A favourite snack on a rainy afternoon would be ‘moori’ (puffed rice) and ‘tele bhaja’ (essentially either potato or onion or eggplant deep fried in oil, after being dipped in a batter). Summers being hot and humid, Bongs tend to go a little light on the spices. But the resulting curries, whether it is a vegetable or a fish would take one by surprise. That something could taste so sublime gives a thumbs up to the art of cooking on a low fire with a lot of time of course, not excluding patience!
The winters see a totally different layout on our bong table. Date jaggery is a very relished item in Bengal. ‘Nolen gur’ (the molasses like date jaggery) and ‘Patali Gur’ (the solidified date jaggery) dominate the sweets in Bengal in winter. Vegetables and fish are cooked in a richer form, as digestion is presumed to be easier in winter than in summer.
Durga Puja and all things sweet
With Durga Puja or Pujo, our festival that celebrates the legend of a deity returning to her parental home, it transforms into a food event of mega levels. Sweets, different kinds of them, fried or baked, or simply boiled down, form endless trays in sweet shops. Roshogolla, Pantua (known as gulab jamun to the rest of India), Sondesh, Dorbesh … the list is endless.
One thing that must be mentioned that all the above sweets (except for Dorbesh) are prepared all the year round. But it is only in winter with the availability of Khejur Gur or date jiggery that they take up a sublime form.
Coconut is mixed in with date jaggery over a low fire and then stuffed into crepes called ‘patishapta’ in Bengali — and believe me having one or two just does not fill your heart.
And then comes the ‘kheer’. Now, here, what must be said, is that kheer in Bengal is different from ‘Payesh’ (rice pudding). Kheer is prepared with milk and sugar and it is boiled till it almost becomes grainy and paste-like. It takes a lot of patience and culinary skill to cook it perfectly and believe me, with ‘Phulko luchi’ (fried puri) it takes minutes to vanish from the plate.
On the contrary, ‘Payesh’ is also a delicacy cooked with rice, milk, and sugar or date jaggery and garnished with ghee. This also takes hours to cook and is a delicacy by its own right, to be had with Phulko luchi or just like that. It would be similar to a rice pudding.
Breakfast and snacks
Having concentrated only on lunch and dinner does not do justice to Bengali cuisine. Breakfast and snacks are as varied as lunch and dinner. Nowadays with lack of time and health consciousness, which is a good thing, we tend to reduce our calorie count. But luchi, Radhabollobhi, (flat bread stuffed with urad dal and deep fried), Kochuri (again a stuffed luchi, with green peas or lentil), different kinds of paratha, aloo dum (potato curry), a sweet at the end were quite in the play not so long ago. What a blissful way to start the morning!
And now for the snack part. Bengali Shingara, vegetable chop, fish fry, eggs devilled, jhal moori (a spicy puff rice mixture), puchka (gol gappas) or pani puri, egg rolls, chicken rolls, ghugni (a preparation using legumes) are the authentic ‘us’.
For the love of fish…
One thing that must be said is that though Bongs love fish, they are equally enthusiastic about mutton and eggs and recently, chicken. The ever loved luchi can be had with Cholar Dal (Bengal gram dal), Kosha Mangsho (mutton or chicken cooked into a dry curry), begun bhaja (fried eggplants), shada alur chorchori (white potato curry), aloo dum and of course payesh.
Baked sweet curd or Mishti Doi is a speciality of Bengal only. Its unique taste is indescribable – suffice to say it is sweet and caramel in colour.
A typical Bengali lunch
A complete Bengali lunch would go thus: We start with shukto (a bitter gourd curry) at the beginning. It cools the stomach and readies it to accept the later items. Then comes a ‘shaak’ (spinach, fried or curried), which also aids in digestion.
Next will be a dal or lentil curry accompanied by potato or eggplant fritters or had just as is. Generally a ‘chorchori’ (mixed vegetable curry) is also served with dal. The preferred vegetables being ash gourd, bottle gourd, gourd, banana flower are banana stem in summer, carrot and beetroot preferred in winter.
From here the menu gets divided between the vegetarian and the non-vegetarian takers. Those having vegetarian, have choices that include bottle gourd and potato curry, koftas made with raw banana, paneer (cottage cheese) or even gourd. A cabbage and cauliflower curry is very common in winters.
The non-vegetarian items include different kinds of fish – Rohu and kathla being the most common to ilish and prawns that are delicacies. Weekends would see the presence of mutton or chicken also.
Then comes the chutney — a sweet tangy preparation of raw mango in summer and tomato, dates and prunes in winter.
Finally, arrives the curd. Generally it is homemade and people add sugar according to taste. The ‘lal doi’ is for special occasions.
Serving sweets after curd is not a common day to day practice. This is generally done either on special occasions or when guests are invited over.
– The writer is a homemaker based in Dubai.
Here is a list of authentic bengali recipes by our popular food blogger Bong Eats
1. Recipe for Fulkopi diye katla macher jhol or Catla/rohu fish curry with seasonal cauliflower
2. Panchmishali dal or 5 mixed lentils recipe
3. Here is the recipe for singhara or fried pastry filled with spicy potatoes
4. Bengali Palong shak bhaja or spinach and aubergine stir fry recipe
5. Try this recipe for Lau chingri or spiced ash gourd with tiny prawns
6. Alu Bukhara’r Jhal Chutney or dried plum chutney recipe
7. Recipe for Chhana’r Payesh or cottage cheese pudding