‘Bideshi khabar’ or foreign food has influenced Bengali gastronomy immensely. In my last blog I delved into the reasons for Bongs being eternally ‘bhookha’ (hungry). The indelible shadow of famine, communal divide and death still looms like the sword of Damocles and reminds us- food is precious. Our parents who had witnessed those horrors taught us that wasting food is a sin. On the brighter side, the invaders and imperialists brought their food on the shores of Banglasphere and we learnt their preferences and palate. We tweaked their recipes, added our own salt and pepper and created some heavenly dishes which are inimitably Bengali in character and was known as ‘bideshi khabar’.
From the mid-thirteenth century, Bengal had been invaded by many Muslim clans from Persia (present day Iran), Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Islamic cuisine was initially for the upper classes which slowly started influencing the local Hindu and Muslim populations. Biryani and Korma used to be the meals for the privileged but the cooks of the royal Mughals brought their recipes and cooking techniques to the lower and middle classes.
During the British Raj, many Nawabs and Sultans like Tipu Sultan of Mysore and Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh were dislodged and took shelter in Kolkata. The exiles brought with them hundreds of cooks who were stripped off their patronage and wealth all of a sudden. These redundant cooks and ‘Masalchis’ (spice mixers) interspersed into the local population to earn their livelihood. They introduced various spices and used lots of ghee (clarified butter) in their preparations. Being prolific meat-eaters they brought mutton into mainstream Bengali cuisine along with already existing poultry and venison. The Banglasphere palate accepted this extremely refined cuisine with much affection and glee since Bengalis can’t rid themselves of meat and fish.
In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Mughlai cuisine has become very commonplace, while in West Bengal, they have remained as secrets with professional chefs.
Influence on West Bengal
Mughlai cuisine in West Bengal is considered a flourishing delicacy. Some of these items are quite unique to Kolkata, such as ‘chaanp’ (goat or chicken ribs cooked in thick aromatic brown gravy), ‘rezala’ (mutton cooked in silky, white flavourful gravy), Kolkata-style biryani (Awadhi-style mutton/chicken biryani with large chunks of potatoes and hard-boiled eggs) and ‘kathi rolls’ (rich, flaky parathas made out of refined flour and rolled with chargrilled/stir fried non-veg items, spices, onion rings, lemon juice and sauces).
It would be a sin if I don’t write about the ubiquitous kathi rolls of Kolkata, having its birthplace at the legendary Nizam’s Restaurant nestled in the New Market periphery. Raza Hassan Saheb set up this spartan eatery in 1932. It was a no-nonsense joint for the connoisseurs of Kebabs serving melt-in-the-mouth beef and mutton kebab and ‘khiri’ (cow udders) with flaky parathas. Bengalis, Anglo-Indians and the Brits were equally fond of this place. I myself had been a frequent visitor to Nizam’s to savour those heavenly beef kebabs. It’s very sad indeed that Nizam’s has discontinued its beef items with the break in supply chain due to Beef Politics in other parts of India. Legend goes that a certain Brit patron found it very messy to have kebabs with paratha. So, Nizam’s came up with a unique solution- rolled the paratha with the kebab inside, wrapped butter paper up to half the length of the roll and served. It was street food at its best; the rest is history. Some awful imitations of these are of course available in the big cities outside West Bengal, like, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, etc. Awful, because, the trick lies with the paratha. It should be mildly sweet, flaky, yet not brittle which hardly any cook outside of Bengal seems to have mastered.
Influence on Bangladesh
Bangladeshi cuisine is majorly influenced by Mughlai cuisine. With the blending of indigenous ingredients, it has attained a character of its own. Dhaka was once the Mughal capital of Bengal Subah (Banglasphere) which included modern Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal and was a major commercial centre of South Asia. So, many culinary styles had had their impact on the city’s cuisine. The people of Bangladesh began adopting from Persian, Turkish and Arabic dishes.
Some of the dishes worth mentioning are ‘chui jhal mangsho’ (mutton preparation made with Piper Chaba stems and roots having a very strong aroma like horseradish) from the south-western districts of Khulna, Jessore, Bagerhat, Satkhira and Narail; ‘Dhakai bakarkhani’ (a thick spice flatbread having its origins in the Mughlai cuisine of the Indian subcontinent); ‘kala bhuna’ from Chittagong- a famous beef recipe made from beef shoulder cooked with traditional spices till it becomes dark and extremely tender); ‘mejbani mangsho’ produced in Chittagong- another famous hot and spicy beef curry traditionally served in community feasts known ‘Mejban’.
Hence, the conclusion- Mughlai cuisine as it is known all over the world today is a derivative of cuisines from Persia and the Arab world refined in various forms in the Indian subcontinent. So, I prefer to call this version, “Bengali Mughlai Cuisine”.
Bengali widows’ influence
At the other end of the spectrum of this grandiose feast was the sorry state of Hindu widows. In the extreme patriarchal society of Banglasphere, Hindu widows were not permitted to consume non-vegetarian items and onions and garlic. Those food items which were believed to intensify the libido of those poor souls, were barred for the widows in order to preserve the sanctity of their bygone wedding vows. A widower had no surveillance on his movements though and didn’t need to remember his vows.
However, the economic and social restrictions imposed on the widows influenced them to create a very different style of vegetarian cooking with minimal ingredients and with the use of inexpensive vegetables and spices. And to the delight of every Bengali this new set of meals has found its place in mainstream Bengali cuisine.
Anglo-Indian food or ‘Conti’ food derived from the word Continental as we Bengalis love to call it and contrary to what the term suggests, is not necessarily the influence of the British. Other settlers like the Dutch, the Portuguese and other Europeans also contributed to these western influences. To satisfy western tastes, our cooks introduced local ingredients and adapted those to French and Italian cooking techniques producing silky sauces and using toned-downed spices. They perfected the art of Baking, which till then was unheard of in Bengal. The most enduring contribution is our very own ‘pau ruti’ which is western-style bread. English and Jewish bakers like Flury’s and Nahoum’s took over the confectionary industry and made the desserts of the ‘shaheb’ (white-skinned Europeans) a common fare on the Bengalis’ tables. The spirit of Raj-era Christmas fervour still remains undiluted on the streets of Central Calcutta, the air pervaded with the whiff of freshly baked confectioneries and the shops and eateries adorned with Christmas goodies. Religion doesn’t have any role to play.
I am a fair person and hence give credit where it is due. Bengali sweets could never have achieved such supreme quality, had its main ingredient not been introduced by the Europeans. ‘Chhanna’ (Indian cottage cheese made from cow milk), which is the mainstay of Bengali sweets was introduced in the late 18th Century by the Dutch……..Yes, you heard it right! The process and technology for synthesizing high grade chhanna was unknown to Indians. Chhanna produced in those days used to be granular and coarse and lacked binding capacity essential for producing Bengali sweets in its current avatar, as it was made using citric acid or ascorbic acid from natural fruit extracts. The Dutch and the Portuguese colonists used lactic acid derived from whey or acetic acid to curdle milk. This produced fine and smooth chhanna with ideal binding and is used in modern day Bengali sweets.
Cooks of Banglasphere learnt baking laminated pastries and stuffed them with some unique veg or non-veg fillings- our own version of the British ‘pasty’ which we fondly call ‘pattis’.
Such dishes as Roast Mutton with Mint Sauce, Roast Chicken with Roast Potatoes and Gravy, a sublime Tomato Soup or a Cream of Chicken Soup were much loved by the Bongs especially by those who were certified Anglophiles. Along with today’s world of fine dining and authentic international cuisine, Raj-era cuisine lives on with glory in a variety of finger foods popularized by the clubs of Calcutta- Mutton Chop (not to be confused with chops or ribs), Kabiraji Cutlet, Fish Orly, Devilled Crab, Dimer Devil (similar to Scotch Eggs) and such main course items like Dak-Bungalow Chicken/Mutton Curry, Chicken/Mutton Stew (very different from the classic French stew) and so on.
There are abominable exceptions though, like over-cooked pastas doled out at not-so-fancy restaurants blasted with cinnamon and bay leaf or could be kasoori methi if you are in North India or with curry leaves if you happen to be in the south.
Such was the food of the ‘shaheb’ or his female counterpart, the ‘memshaheb’. But somewhere we must draw the line. No self-respecting Bengali would ever touch such obscenities like Mulligatawny Soup. This god awful mishmash of lentils and rice to warm English bellies is for us an insult to our sanity. Compare that with our ‘sona moog er dal’ (golden hued mung lentils) on steaming fine grained white rice with a generous spoonful of ghee on top, a wedge of ‘gondhoraj lebu’ (‘king of fragrances’ lemon) and a single lush green chilli. Accompany with ‘jhuri-alu-bhaja’ which is finely julienned golden fried potatoes and you are as close to paradise as Yudhisthira was.
The contribution of Odia cooks towards developing Bengali cuisine in its current form is undeniable. During the 19th century, many Odia cooks migrated to wealthier Bengal for a better livelihood. Many found employment with affluent Bengali families. Odia Brahmin cooks, known as ‘thakurs’ from Puri who used to work in the famous Jagannath Temple were in great demand in Bengal for their culinary skills and used to cook in large banquets or festivals. Even now, thakurs remain the most sought after and reliable for bulk cooking in West Bengal.
Many of the Bengali classic dishes originated in Odisha which were refined in Bengali kitchens by the Odia cooks. Quite a number of researchers hold the opinion that ‘rosogola’ (Bengali rosogolla), ‘kanika’ (Bengali mishti pulao), ‘mangsa kawsha’ (Bengali kosha mangsho) were introduced in Bengali kitchens by Odia cooks, although this is disputed by other researchers.
Without going further into the above debate, let me tell you- I tasted rosogolla and many other sweets in Bhubaneswar and Puri in Odisha, which I must admit, were of near-mythical proportions in texture, flavour, fragrance and aftertaste and which I rate as being as good as those of Banglasphere, if not better. Having said so, I know I am inviting the wrath of other Bongs who would be yelling to declare my domicile status as Bengali non-grata.
Now, this is a very sensitive area and I would like to desist myself from judging or expressing any opinion about the subject to keep peace. So, let me just provide you with the facts and you can be your own judge. Cuisine of undivided Bengal was apparently homogeneous in nature with minor differences due to geographic settlement of its people. For example, inhabitants of coastal areas tend to have their meals hotter and spicier and use sour ingredients more than those inland; possibly to negate the effects of hot and saline humid climate.
But heterogeneity of our cooking styles magnify many times to us- the Bengali epicurean connoisseurs, who at times can be annoyingly finicky and can sense immediately whether a particular dish has been prepared by a ‘bangal’ (original inhabitants of present day Bangladesh) or a ‘ghoti’ (settled in present day West Bengal, India for many generations). Ghotis prefer their food mild with a little bit of sweetness. ‘Posto’ (poppy seeds) cooked in various forms is their source for sustenance which no ghoti worth his salt can do without. Ghotis eat a wide range of ‘bora’ (fritters) and are extremely adept at making Bengali sweets.
Bangals, on the other hand, want their food richer and spicier. Also, the repertoire of Bangal’s fish and vegetables, right from their roots to flowers and sometimes even their seeds; and heads and brains in case of fish, is enormous. ‘Sutki machh’ or dried fish is quite common and often used as a flavouring agent. Cooking of Hindus of Bangladesh has had much influence on that of West Bengal in India but the same does not hold true the other way. During partition most Hindus of Bangladesh migrated to Hindu majority India but instances of Hindus migrating to Bangladesh were rare, if at all. Bengali Muslims of both West Bengal and Bangladesh practised almost the same kind of cooking.
So, in the current context we can say, cuisine of Hindu Bengalis is a heterogeneous blend of both Bangal and Ghoti cooking styles which is quintessentially Bengali……… Well, a lot can be written about Bangal-Ghoti rivalry, but that is a topic for another discussion.
The Chinese of Kolkata are a unique community who has made the city their home from late 18th Century. Over generations they established a distinct identity, have become successful and are mostly clustered at a place called Tangra in Kolkata. Cantonese tradesmen and sailors first settled at a place called Achhipur near Calcutta and later moved to Tangra. They cooked with whatever ingredients they could lay their hands on. Due to non-availability of their traditional ingredients, they developed a very different brand of cuisine using stir-fry techniques with no resemblance to original Chinese recipes other than the use of soy sauce and loads of glutamate salts. Monosodium Glutamate- commonly known by the brand name ‘Ajinomoto’ provided that much needed umami flavour called ‘Chinese gondho’ (aroma of Chinese food) which is Bengalis’ archetypal idea about Chinese food. This is Indian-Chinese food which massively appealed to the locals’ taste, although, if offered to any Chinese domiciled in China would squirm like a disgruntled worm.
But such was the wizardry of this syncretic cuisine that it is now available in every street corner of every town big or small in India and Bangladesh. Indian Chinese restaurants have invaded us like locusts and we are happy to play the victim. And now, we are not sparing even the Indian diaspora in the US and the UK. No story of Indian Chinese can be complete without mentioning the contributions of Tangra chefs- Chef Nelson Wang and Chef Jerry Wong who have made it big and are doing very well with Tangra food at top-end restaurants outside of Kolkata. A number of Tangra chefs have migrated to the US and UK and have opened up Tangra eateries. Two such restaurants in New York are Tangra Wok and Tangra Masala.
Tibetan refugees also played a major role in shaping this distinctive fusion. In the 1950s a large number of Tibetans migrated to India along with the 14th Dalai Lama who sought refuge in India. They brought with them their own delicacies like Momo and Thukpa. Many Tibetans and Nepali immigrants were engaged in these kitchens for their culinary skills and resemblance of their physical features to the Chinese people. Dishes like Chilli Chicken, Chilli Paneer, Honey Chilli Potato, Chicken/Veg Manchurian, American Chop Suey, Chinese Chop Suey, Fried Rice, Hakka Style Noodles, etc. none of which are authentic Chinese, have become synonymous with Chinese food of Banglasphere as well as in other parts of India.
I won’t be surprised, if in the near future Indian-Chinese food overruns China as well.
During Raj era, Calcutta (modern day Kolkata) was the seat of power of the Empire in southern Asia. Hence, it also claimed for itself the title of the Second City of the Empire.
Along with tradesmen from other European nations and Indian businessmen from other parts of India like the Marwaris, Kolkata became a booming economy (though much of the glory has faded in the latter years) rich in cosmopolitan culture which is abundantly reflected in its current gastronomic identity. Kolkata residents, to their credit and unlike those from most other Indian cities have long got rid of religious taboos of non-consumption of beef or pork. These are quite easily available and consumed frequently in Kolkata. In this digital edge of open-source information and exposure, Kolkata is right there in the reckoning for its quest in multicultural epicureanism.
Bengali cuisine, having preserved its traditional recipes, is an evolving process which never shies away from embracing the best of world cuisine, twists them to its own identity and creates an unparalleled art which remains uniquely its own.