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Home > Cuisine of India > East India > Bengal
Bengali Food

Bangali SweetsFood has always been a weakness for the Bengalis. Studying their food habits since the yester years you will be appalled to find the time and money they spent on food. They were never hesitant in throwing parties and if, for the sake of it, they had to exhaust all their wealth they never did mind. Not only in marriage ceremonies, any occasion to them was a party time and in these parties lavish expenditure on food reduced many to a popper. Bengalis have been winners in all the delicacies they have presented to the world. Not just mutton, fish and vegetables but the variety of confections and array of fruit dishes have always overawed the gluttons of the world.

History of Bengali Cuisine
A distinct culinary tradition emerged in Bengal based on the availability of local ingredients. The great river systems, heat and humidity combine with the fertile soil to allow rice and an abundance of vegetables to thrive; these became the corner stones of the diet. Mangoes, bananas, coconuts, and cane sugar grew in abundance; fish, milk, and meat were plentiful; yogurt and spices such as ginger and black mustard would season the dishes.

Even though fish and meat were generally popular, there was a predisposition to vegitarianism, based on religious principles, that has continued to the present. Strict vegetarians also omit onion and garlic from their diet, foods that "heat rather than cool", preferring to substitute a garlicky-flavored spice called asafoetida. The taboo against the consumption of fish and meat became even stronger with the flowering of religions such as Jainism and Buddhism. But with the decline of Buddhism in the ensuing centuries, fish and meat returned to the menu.

Rice, the staple of Bengalis since ancient times, has remained untouched by the currents of religious change and its preparation has held to a continuing high standard. One crop a year was sufficient to sustain the people, providing ample leisure time for the Bengalis to pursue cultural ideals: folklore, music, and the culinary arts.

The 16th-century Mongol kings left their mark on the cooking of Northern India, which to this day is known as moghlai cooking. With the introduction of Islam, Bengali Moslems adopted dishes such as kababs, koftas and biriyani from their Moghul conquerors. But the major portion of Bengali Hindu cuisine retained its original characteristics except that the use of onion and garlic became more popular.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese came in large numbers to Bengal and intermarried with the locals and also introduced a variety of new crops, like potato, tobacco, cashew nut, papaya and guava.

The European traders introduced food from the New World - potatoes, chillies, and tomatoes. Bengalis incorporated them into their diet, combining them with a variety of native ingredients creating new dishes.

RosogollaThen as now, Bengali cooking is mostly confined to the home. Dishes are carefully prepared according to recipes handed down through generations. Modern Bengalis have become culinary innovators. They search for, and experiment with, foreign culinary ideas, incorporating such new food items as noodles, soy bean and custard into an increasingly cosmopolitan bill of fare. But in their hearts, they still delight in such traditional dishes as maacher chochori and rosogolla.

According to Shunya Purana, a medieval text, fifty kinds of rice were grown in Bengal.

Styles of Cooking Food
There are two distinct styles of Bengali cooking, rice being the staple food in bath. East Bengali food, which is exemplified by the cuisines of Chittagong and Dhaka, lays emphasis on dhal and is strong on fish.

The food of West Bengal, as in Kolkata (Calcutta) or the parganas, is distinguished by the liberal use of poppy seeds (pots).

East and West Bengali cooking differ both in the choice  of spices and the way in which the dishes are prepared. Both employ mustard in three different ways- fried in oil, carefully crushed leaving a pungent paste, and as a cooking medium. Fish and prawns are common to both cuisines, but regional preferences have developed on the basis of availability.

East Bengalis prefer fish from big rivers, and the West Bengalis prefer the fish bred in tanks or from estuaries, like mangor and tapsee, but the river fish hilsa is a universal favorite.

West Bengali food is strong on milk-based sweets and on fried snacks like kachudi and singhada.

The procession of tastes at a meal runs from a bitter start to a sweet finish. To start with, especially at lunch, is shukto. This is a dish that is essential bitter, made up of neem or other bitter leaves, bitter gourd, brinjals, potatoes, radish and green bananas, with spices like turmeric, ginger, mustard and radhuni (celery seed) pastes.

DalnaRice is first savored with ghee, salt and green chillis, then comes dhal accompanied by fried vegetables (bhaja) or boiled vegetables (bhate), followed by spiced vegetables like dalna or ghonto. Then comes fish preparations, first lightly-spiced ones like maccher jhol, and then those more heavily spiced., after which would follow a sweet-sour ambal or tauk (chutney) and fried papads. A dessert of mishti-doi (sweet curds), accompanied by dry sweets, or of payesh, accompanied by fruits like the mango, will end the meal, with paan (betel leaves) as a terminal digestive.

Traditionally meals were served on a bell-metal thala (plate) and in the batis (bowls, except for the sour items).  The night meal omits shukto and could include luchis, a palao and a dalna of various delicately spiced vegetables.

Historically, food in Bengal has always been strongly seasonal. The range of food materials in moist and fertile Bengal is exceptionally wide, ranging from cereals, tubers and rhizomes, vegetables, green pot herbs to a variety of spices and fish.

Bengalis also eat flowers like those of pumpkin, banana, raw jackfruit, water reeds, tender drumsticks and peels of potato or pumpkin. Panchphoron is a spice mixture of five components unique to Bengal. It consists of equal quantities of onion seed, celery seed, aniseed, fenugreek and jeera, but mustard seeds can replace radhuni.

Bengali Sweets
The Bengalis are famous for their sweet tooth. Today, Bengali sweets have crossed the boundaries of Bengal and have gained world wide recognition.

SandeshDiscovery of "sandesh"
The credit of the discovering sandesh goes either to the Bengalis or the Portuguese of Bandel Church as there is little difference between a particular kind of Portuguese cheese and the Bengali chana.

Rabri, another kind of Bengali confection is actually not a pure Bengali dish and holds its roots in Lucknow. The name sandesh was not associated with confections made from chana but was widely used in connection to sweets prepared from chickpea flour, coconut and grams. Sugar balls were also named as sandesh.

At first these "sandeshes" in rural areas were known as "Phike Sandesh" as the taste of these were not sweet enough to satisfy the palate and as a result were not preferred by many.

The Rasgolla was actually called  "Gopal Golla." The famous Bengali "Rasgolla" was actually called "Gopal Golla", probably discovered by a confectioner named "Haradhan" from "Phulia". It has been nomenclatured by the Paul Chowdhurys of Ranaghat. A variant of this item was the "Sponge Rasgolla" discovered by "Nobin Moira". Verses were not only a subtle invitation but they did also tell a lot about the menu.

Bengalis could never subdue their indomitable urge to invite their relatives and friends for a treat every now and then. No occasion was needed for inviting people and father-in-laws have always sent of the renowned poets of that era "Hemendra Bandyopadhyay" used to invite his daughter and son-in-law with his self composed verses at his place in Bhawanipore (Padmapukur). The verses were not only a subtle invitation but they did also tell a lot about the menu. For example:

"Topto topto Topse mach,
Garam garam luchi,
Aja mangsa, bandha kopi,
Alu kuchi kuchi.
Siter dine esob jodi,
Khabe hata hata,
Nombor Padmapukure,
Shigrha esho baba."

Common Bengali Cooking Styles
AMBAL : A sour dish made either with several vegetables or with fish, the sourness being produced by the addition of tamarind pulp.

BHAJA : Anything fried, either by itself or in batter.

BHAPA : Fish or vegetables steamed with oil and spices. A classic steaming technique is to wrap the fish in banana leaf to give it a faint musky, smoky scent.

BHATE : Any vegetable, such as potatoes, beans, pumpkins or even dal, first boiled whole and then mashed and seasoned with mustard oil or ghee and spices.

BHUNA : A term of Urdu origin, meaning fried for a long time with ground and whole spices over high heat. Usually applied to meat.

CHACHCHARI : Usually a vegetable dish with one or more varieties of vegetables cut into longish strips, sometimes with the stalks of leafy greens added, all lightly seasoned with spices like mustard or poppy seeds and flavoured with a phoron. The skin and bone of large fish like bhetki or chitol can be made into a chachchari called kanta-chachchari, kanta, meaning fish-bone.

CHHANCHRA : A combination dish made with different vegetables, portions of fish head and fish oil (entrails).

CHHENCHKI : Tiny pieces of one or more vegetable - or, sometimes even the peels (of potatoes, lau, pumpkin or patol for example) - usually flavored with panch-phoron or whole mustard seeds or kala jeera. Chopped onion and garlic can also be used, but hardly any ground spices.

DALNA : Mixed vegetables or eggs, cooked in a medium thick gravy seasoned with groung spices, especially garom mashla and a touch of ghee.

DAM : Vegetables, especially potatoes, or meat, cooked over a covered pot slowly over a low heat.

GHANTO : Different complementary vegtables (e.g., cabbage, green peas, potatoes or banana blossom, coconut, chickpeas) are chopped or finely grated and cooked with both a phoron and ground spices. Dried pellets of dal (boris) are often added to the ghanto. Ghee is commonly added at the end. Non-vegitarian ghantos are also made, with fish or fish heads added to vegetables. The famous murighanto is made with fish heads cooked in a fine variety of rice. Some ghantos are very dry while others a thick and juicy.

JHAL : Literally, hot. A great favorite in West Bengali households, this is made with fish or shrimp or crab, first lightly fried and then cooked in a light sauce of ground red chilli or ground mustard and a flavoring of panch-phoron or kala jeera. Being dryish it is often eaten with a little bit of dal pored over the rice.

JHOL : A light fish or vegetable stew seasoned with ground spices like ginger, cumin, corriander, chilli and turmeric with pieces of fish and longitudinal slices of vegetables floating in it. The gravy is thin yet extreamely flavorful. Whole green chillies are usually added at the end and green corriander leaves are used to season for extra taste.

KALIA : A very rich preparation of fish, meat or vegetables using a lot of oil and ghee with a sauce usually based on ground ginger and onion paste and garom mashla.

KOFTAS (or Boras) : Ground meat or vegetable croquettes bound together by spices and/or eggs served alone or in savory gravy.

KORMA : Another term of Urdu origin, meaning meat or chicken cooked in a mild yoghurt based sauce with ghee instead of oil.

PORA : Literally, burnt. Vegetables are wrapped in leaves and roasted over a wood or charcoal fire. Some, like eggplants (brinjals/aubergines), are put directly over the flames. Before eating the roasted vegetable is mixed with oil and spices.

TARKARI : A general term often used in Bengal the way `curry` is used in English. Originally from Persian, the word first meant uncooked garden vegetables. From this it was a natural extension to mean cooked vegetables or even fish and vegetables cooked together.

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