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Bengali cuisineBengali cuisine is a style of food preparation originating in Bengal, a region in the eastern South Asia which is now divided between the Indian state of West Bengal and the independent country of Bangladesh. Bengali cuisine is well-known for the vast range of rice dishes and various preparations of freshwater fish. Bengali cuisine is rich and varied with the use of many specialized spices and flavours.
Historical influencesBengali food has inherited a large number of influences, both foreign and South Asian, from both a turbulent history and strong trade links with many parts of the world. Originally inhabited by Dravidians and other ethnic groups, and later further settled by the Aryans during the Gupta era, Bengal fell under the sway of various Muslim rulers from the early thirteenth century onwards, and was then ruled by the British for two centuries (1757-1947).
Every layer of historical influence endures to the present day; the tribals have traditionally abided as hunter-gatherers in the dense forests of the Sunderbans while the rest of Bengal turned heavily agrarian, farming the extremely fertile Ganges delta for rice, vegetables and cash crops such as jute. There was also significant pisciculture in ponds and lakes, along with fishing in the many rivers.
Spread of IslamThe Islamic influence came to Bengal a few hundred years after its arrival on the western borders of India. While the religion propagated in the populace, the region remained isolated from the political and religious centres of Muslim India. This meant that people retained many of their local customs and especially food habits.
Influence of the widowsIn medieval Bengal the treatment of widows was much more restrictive than was common elsewhere. They led very monastic lives within the household and lived under strict dietary restrictions. They were usually not allowed any interests but religion and housework, so the kitchen was an important part of their lives; traditional cuisine was deeply influenced by them. Their ingenuity and skill led to many culinary practices; simple spice combinations, the ability to prepare small quantities (since widows often ate alone) and creative use of the simplest of cooking techniques. Since widows were banned 'impassioning' or aphrodisiac condiments such as onion or garlic, most traditional Bengali recipes don't use them; this is in stark contrast to the rest of the Indian subcontinent where almost every dish calls for onions and garlic. This has led to a definite slant towards ginger in Bengali food, and even in many common fish dishes. This treatment of widows in Bengal continued until fairly recently; the effect on the cuisine was to preserve many of the dishes and techniques of the old in purest form — well removed from the influence of Mughal or Western methods.
European and other outside influencesThe Europeans came to modern Bengal soon after the Mughals, but in small numbers. The Europeans brought cooking techniques, but also new ingredients and food items. In addition, cities developed population centres of Europeans; this in turn encouraged foreign purveyors to set up locally, such as Jewish bakeries and English sausage vendors.
Partition of BengalThe partition of India from the British in 1947 separated West Bengal from the present-day Bangladesh, causing a significant change in demographics. The newly formed West Bengal was a small state in India dominated by the mega city of Kolkata, which was already one of the largest cities in the world and about a quarter of the population of the state. Kolkata naturally came to dominate the food habits of the state. The city was India's richest city until the late seventies, attracting people from all over India and building a cosmopolitan culture that both incorporated influences from the rest of India and propagated many trends outwards. On the other side of the border, Bangladesh was isolated by the international boundary and continued to develop a distinct cuisine of its own. Today, three generations later, Bangladeshi and Kolkata cuisines are quite distinct.
Traditional Bengali cuisineThe traditional society of Bengal has always been heavily agrarian; hunting, except by some local clans men, was uncommon. The rearing of animals was also not popular. This is reflected in the cuisine, which relies on staples like rice and ?al, with little place for game or meat.
Fish is the dominant kind of meat, cultivated in ponds and fished with nets in the fresh-water rivers of the Ganges delta. More than forty types of mostly freshwater fish are common, including carp varieties like rui (rohu), katla, magur (catfish), chingr,i (prawn or shrimp), as well as shut,ki (small dried sea fish). Salt water fish (not sea fish though) Ilish (hilsa ilisha) is very popular among Bengalis, can be called an icon of Bengali cuisine. Almost every part of the fish (except fins and innards) is eaten; the head and other parts are usually used to flavor curries. Khashi (referred to as mutton in Indian English, the meat of sterilized goats) is the most popular red meat.
Other characteristic ingredients of traditional Bengali food include rice, moshur ?al (red lentils), mug ?al (mung beans), shorsher tel mustard oil, mustard paste, posto (poppyseed) and narkel (ripe coconut). Bengal is also the land of am (mangoes), which are used extensively—ripe, unripe, or in pickles. Ilish machh (hilsa fish), which migrates upstream to breed is a delicacy; the varied salt content at different stages of the journey is of particular interest to the connoisseur, as is the river from which the fish comes - fish from the river Pôdda (Padma or Lower Ganges) in Bangladesh, for example, is traditionally considered the best.To some part of the community, particularly from West Bengal, Gangatic Ilish is the best.The pãch phoron spice mixture is very commonly used for vegetables. A touch of gôrom môshla or hot spices (elachi cardamom, darchini cinnamon, lông clove, tej pata bay leaves, and peppercorn) is often used to enliven food.
Another characteristic of Bengali food is the use of a unique cutting instrument, the bothi. (This instrument is also used in Maharashtra, where it is known as vili and in Andhra Pradesh, known as kathi peeta (kathi = knife and peeta = platform) ). It is a long curved blade on a platform held down by foot; both hands are used to hold whatever is being cut and move it against the blade. The method gives excellent control over the cutting process, and can be used to cut anything from tiny shrimp to large pumpkins. Traditional cuisine is very demanding in the kind of cuts of vegetable used in each dish, vegetables cut in the wrong way is often frowned upon. Furthermore, since different vegetables are usually cooked together, the wrongly cut ones could remain raw or become overcooked.
In Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal), the culinary style developed rather independently; it was not greatly influenced by the rest of India and Southeast Asia because of the difficult geography of the Ganges delta. Four characteristics stand out: fresh-water fish, beef(only for Muslims), the extensive use of parboiled rice and mustard oil. ?al is also a staple. Spices are used sparingly, and the methods of preparation are relatively simple - steaming, frying or stewing. Floods are common in the region, so there is an extensive use of root vegetables and dried fish (shut,ki). Milk and dairy products, so widely used in the neighboring India, are not as common here; the geography prevents large scale breeding of cows, thus making dairy an expensive indulgence. Notably, hardly any food calls for curd or ghee. However, sweets do contain milk and dairy products as well as jaggery and rice paste.
In western parts of Bengal, more connected with the rest of India and dominated by the megacity of Kolkata since the late eighteenth century, a separate culinary style emerged. The delta is thinner there, with fewer rivers and more open plains. There is significant commerce with the rest of India, leading to a flow of spices, ingredients and techniques. The food is much richer with various spices, the presentations are more elaborate and a significant feature of the cuisine is a vast array of sweets based on milk and sugar - the result of both better supply and the influence of traders from the milk belts of Gujarat and Benares. While fresh-water fish is still common, mutton is more common among the Muslim population than beef and dried fish. Wheat makes its appearance alongside rice, in different types of breads such as luchi, kochuri and pôrot,a. Though mustard paste is extensively used, mustard oil is abandoned in favor of groundnut oil or refined vegetable oil. There's a greater use of coconut, both in cooking and in desserts.
Prosperity and urbanization also led to the widespread use of professional cooks who introduced complex spice mixtures and more elaborate sauces, along with techniques such as roasting or braising. Also introduced around this time, probably as a consequence of increased urbanization, was a whole new class of snack foods. These snack foods are most often consumed with evening tea. The tea-time ritual was probably inspired by the British, but the snacks bear the stamp of the substantial Marwari population in Kolkata - chat,, kachori, samosa, phuluri and the ever-popular jhal-muri.
Anglo-Indian or Raj cuisineAnglo-Indian food isn't purely the influence of the British; Bengal was once the home of a French colony, and also hosted populations of Portuguese, Dutch, Armenians and Syrians. These collective western influences are seen in the foods created to satisfy the tastes of the western rulers. The result is a unique cuisine, local ingredients adapted to French and Italian cooking techniques—characterized by creamy sauces, the restrained use of spices and new techniques such as baking. English and Jewish bakers such as Flury's and Nahoum's dominated the confectionery industry which migrated from British tables to everyday Bengali ones, resulting in unique creations such as the pêt,is (savory turnovers, from the English "pasty"). Another enduring contribution to Bengali cuisine is pau rut,i, or Western-style bread. Raj-era cuisine lives on especially in the variety of finger foods popularized in the 'pucca' clubs of Kolkata, such as mutton chop, kabiraji cutlet or fish orly.
The British also influenced food in a somewhat different way. Many British families in India hired local cooks, and through them discovered local foods. The foods had to be toned down or modified to suit the tastes of the 'memsahibs'. The most distinct influence is seen in the desserts, many of which were created specifically to satisfy the British - most notably the very popular sweet le?ikeni named after the first Vicereine Lady Canning; it is a derivative of the pantua created for an event hosted by her.
Chinese foodThe Chinese of Kolkata originally settled into a village called Achipur south of Kolkata in the late 18th century, later moving into the city and finally into its present home in Tangra at the eastern edge of Kolkata, which still houses over 100,000 ethnic Chinese. No other part of the Indian subcontinent has any significant Chinese population. The Chinese of Kolkata form a substantial and successful community with a distinct identity. With this identity came Chinese food, available at almost every street corner in Kolkata. They were mostly Cantonese tradesmen and sailors, bringing with them aji-no-moto (monosodium glutamate) and sweet corn. The cuisine is characterized as much by what is missing - mushrooms, for instance, are not found in Bengal - as by what is there, such as a far greater use of pork than any of the other cuisines. As the Chinese opened restaurants for Bengalis, they spiced up the bland Cantonese sauces with sliced chillies and hot sauces, creating unique dishes such as Chilli Chicken and Veg Manchurian.
Indian Chinese food was given a second boost when a large number of Tibetans migrated into Indian Territory, when China annexed Tibet. Tibetans brought with them their own delicacies to add to this genre, such as the very popular momo (a kind of dumpling) or thukpa (a hearty noodle soup). Tibetans and Nepali immigrants also found ready employment in kitchens as 'Chinese' cooks because of their looks, and helped power the millions of eateries that serve this unique fusion on every street in India.
Bangladesh also hosts a large number of Chinese restaurants. In Dhaka, the phrase Chainiz khaoa (literally 'to eat Chinese food') often simply means 'to eat out (at a restaurant)', as Chinese cuisine was the first widely-available food in Dhaka eateries. As with Indian Chinese food, Chinese food in Bangladesh has evolved much from its Cantonese roots, with greater usage of chili and other spices native to Bengal.
The influence of this unique cuisine cannot be overstated; it's available in every town in India and Bangladesh as Chinese food. Bengali immigrants to other countries have started carrying this abroad as well; Indian Chinese, including halal Indian Chinese restaurants have appeared in many places in the United States.
Bengali MealsThe typical Bengali fare includes a certain sequence of food - somewhat like the courses of Western dining. Two sequences are commonly followed, one for ceremonial dinners such as a wedding and the day-to-day sequence. Both sequences have regional variations, and sometimes there are significant differences in a particular course between West Bengal and Bangladesh.
At home, Bengalis typically eat without the use of dining utensils; kat,a (forks), chamoch (spoons), and chhuri (knives) are used in the preparation of food, but will almost certainly not be used to eat one's own food, except in some urban areas. Most Bengalis eat with their right hand, mashing small portions of meat and vegetable dishes with rice and lentils into lokma. In rural areas, Bengalis traditionally eat on the ground with a large banana or plantain leaf serving as the plate or plates made from sal leaves sown together and dried.
The elaborate dining habits of the Bengalis were a reflection of the attention the Bengali housewife paid to the kitchen. In modern times, this is rarely followed anymore. Courses are frequently skipped or combined with everyday meals. Meals were usually served course by course to the diners by the youngest housewives, but increasing influence of nuclear families and urbanization has replaced this. It is now common to place everything on platters in the centre of the table, and each diner serves him/herself. Ceremonial occasions such as weddings used to have elaborate serving rituals, but professional catering and buffet-style dining is now common. The traditions are far from dead, though; large family occasions and the more lavish ceremonial feasts still make sure that these rituals are observed.
Mishti (Sweets)Sweets occupy an important place in the diet of Bengalis and at their social ceremonies. It is an ancient custom among Hindus to distribute sweets during festivities. The confectionery industry has flourished because of its close association with social and religious ceremonies. Competition and changing tastes have helped to create many new sweets, and today this industry has grown within the country as well as all over the world.
The sweets of Bengal are generally made of sweetened cottage cheese (chhena), khoa (reduced solidified milk), or flours of different cereals and pulses. Some important sweets of Bengal are:
ShôndeshMade from sweetened, finely ground fresh chhena (cheese), shôndesh in all its variants is among the most popular Bengali sweets. The basic shôndesh has been considerably enhanced by the many famous confectioners of Bengal, and now a few hundred different varieties exist, from the simple kachagolla to the complicated abar khabo, jôlbhôra or indrani. Another variant is the kôrapak or hard mixture, which blends rice flour with the paneer to form a shell-like dough that last much longer.
RôshogollaRôshogolla is one of the most widely consumed sweets. The basic version has many regional variations.
PantuaPantua is somewhat similar to the rôshogolla, except that the balls are fried in either tel (oil) or ghi (clarified butter) until golden or deep brown before being put in syrup.
ChômchômChômchôm (especially from Porabari, Tangail District in Bangladesh) goes back about 150 years. The modern version of this sweet was inspired by Raja Ramgore of Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh in India. It was then further modernised by his grandson, Matilal Gore. This oval-shaped sweet is reddish brown in colour and it is of a denser texture than the rôshogolla. It can also be preserved longer. Granules of maoa or dried milk can also be sprinkled over chômchôm.
Several varieties of yoghurts such as misht,i doi, custards, and rice pudding (khir or firni) are also popular in both Bangladesh and West Bengal.
Shôndesh, chhanar jilepi, kalo jam, darbesh, raghobshai, paesh, nalengurer shôndesh, shor bhaja and an innumerable variety are just a few examples of sweets in Bengali cuisine.
Pitha or PitheIn both Bangladesh and West Bengal, the tradition of making cakes, locally known as pit,ha, still flourishes. They are usually made from rice or wheat flour mixed with sugar, jaggery, grated coconut etc. Pit,has are usually enjoyed with the sweet syrups of khejurer gur (date tree molasses). They're usually fried or steamed; the most common forms of these cakes include bhapa pit,ha (steamed), pakan pit,ha (fried), and puli pit,ha (dumplings), among others. The other common pithas are chandrapuli, gokul, pati sapta, chitai pit,ha, muger puli and dudh puli.
Pithas are usually a celebration of the new crop, and often associated with harvest festivals.
MuriMuri (puffed rice) is made by heating sand in a pot, and then throwing in grains of rice. The rice can have been washed in brine to provide seasoning. The rice puffs up and is separated from the sand by a strainer. Mur,i is very popular and is used in a wide variety of secular and religious occasions, or even just munched plain. A variant of mur,i is khoi, which is flattened puffed rice. Both varieties are used to make many different snack foods.
Jhal MuriOne of the most popular and iconic snack foods of Bengal, jhal literally means 'hot' or 'spicy'. Jhal-mur,i is puffed rice with spices, vegetables and raw mustard oil. Depending on what is added, there are many kinds of jhal-mur,i but the most common is a bhôrta made of chopped onion, jira roasted ground cumin, bitnoon black salt lôngka / morich chilis (either kacha 'ripe' or shukna 'dried'), mustard oil, and dhone pata (fresh coriander leaves).
MoaA moa is made by taking muri with gur (jaggery) as a binder and forming it into a ball. Another popular kind of moa is Joynagorer moa, a moa particularly made in Joynagor from a district of West Bengal which uses khoi and a sugar-milk-spices mixture as binder.
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