‘Khai Khai’ is a Bengali’s inimitable quest for food which only another Bengali can empathize with. You are not a true blue Bengali unless you have spent half your life’s earnings on eating. On the other front, this gluttonous hunger has helped develop over the ages a unique cuisine which is extremely sophisticated in its use of ingredients and is unparalleled by the sheer number of cooking techniques.
I, being brought up in a very liberal family, am not a gastronomical bigot and am absolutely free of any cultural or religious or social taboo. Hence, unlike most Bengalis who would be scouring even the permafrost of Antarctica in search of ‘Sorse Ilish’ (Hilsa cooked in mustard gravy), I would rather settle happily with a barbecued Seal. Having travelled most of India and experimenting with various regional cuisines, I have found India a smorgasbord of cultural heritage and local cuisines but quintessentially Indian in character.
I have been fascinated by the earthy tandoori chicken, ‘dal makhni’ (a rich form of lentil gravy with loads of butter) and ‘sarson da saag’ (a mushy flavourful dish made with mustard leaves) of Amritsar. Never being a great advocate of vegetarianism, I was floored by some of the best vegetarian delicacies which I had in Bikaner, Rajasthan. The dishes I would particularly like to mention are ‘sangri ki sabzi’ (a heavenly composition of dried ‘sangri’ which is a type of thin small beans in their pods indigenous to desert regions and cashew nuts), ‘bajra roti’ (a kind of unleavened millet flatbread) served with copious quantities of ghee (clarified butter) and ‘seo tamatar ki sabzi’ (a yellow thick curry with tomatoes and ‘seo’. Seo looks like thick, short yellow spaghetti prepared from a paste of Split Bengal Gram- deep fried into thin sticks and air dried).
I love the subtlety of Kashmiri food especially their meat items like ‘Kashmiri Roganjosh’, ‘Gustaba’ and ‘Rista’; the amazing array of Nawabi cuisines of Lucknow and Hyderabad; the ‘Chaats’ of Varanasi; crisp ‘Dosa’, ‘Uttapam’ and ‘Avial’ from the southern states of India and the spicy ‘Keema Pao’ and ‘Vada Pao’ of Mumbai.
Yet, the mere range and complexity of ‘Banglasphere’ gastronomy is unrivalled. By Banglasphere, I mean the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh together.
The incorrigible Bengali epicure
Before stating further, let me confess. Being a proud Bengali myself, I definitely am a prototype of this character. A Bengali’s kitchen is sacred territory, a mix of folklore and home. Food is a part of our history and heritage. The secrets are being passed through generations, not through documented recipes but through watch-and-learn, cook-and-learn and taste-and-learn; every ‘ma’ (mother) being better than her ‘meye’ (daughter), unable to break free from the umbilical cord. The only member of the bloodline who could surpass the ‘ma’ would be the ‘thakuma’ or the ‘didima’ (grandmother).
The ideal urban Bengali ‘babu’ (gentleman) goes hunting every day and gathers the best and the freshest of raw materials from the market to satisfy his family’s taste buds, convinced that bland health food is for weaker souls. It is sacrilegious not to argue with the ‘sobjiwala’ (vegetable seller) or his female equivalent, the ‘sobjiwali’ over the quality of produce. Quality comes first and price always later and of course a face saving exit if it proves unaffordable.
The fussy and know-all ‘babu’ is in supreme command when he enters the ‘machher bajar’ (fish market). The ‘machhwala’ (fish monger) will be stretched to the limits of his vast reservoir of patience as the ‘babu’ scrutinizes the freshness of the fish by expertly prising open the gills to check if it is of the acceptable hue of darkest reddish pink. Not satisfied with just one test, he prods the flesh of the fish to check if it is tolerably firm. Some varieties like ‘Koi’ (Climbing Gourami), ‘Shingi’ (Stinging Catfish), ‘Magur’ (Walking Catfish), etc. are to be rejected outright if not demonstrably alive.
A special note must be made over ‘ilish’ (Hilsa). The very look of this fine specimen is gorgeous to say the least. The perfect symmetry of its torso with glistening silvery scales, a hue of pink underbelly and clear benign eyes is a sight to behold. The rest can be left to the babu’s imagination. And this is just the beginning. Without delving further into the various dishes/recipes of this superlative organism and the babu’s critical analysis of the merits of its exact ratio of flesh and fat content, there are a few points which need to be mentioned to make my not-Bengali comrades understand what the fuss is all about.
The best quality of ilish is believed to be those caught from the mighty river Padma in Bangladesh and Rupnarayan and Hooghly rivers of West Bengal, India. A perpetual debate exists among the Bengalis which is the better among the two. I guess, the scales are tilted towards the ones caught in Bangladesh. East or west, ilish is a very expensive fish but to the babus the price seems to be the the least of their worries. Purchasing hilsa is serious business. It requires judgment:
- Hawk-eye vision to check the acceptable sheen on its scales
- Eyes of the fish must not be cloudy. Those should be clear black or red. Cloudy eyes indicate staleness
- The head to body ratio (Bangladesh ilish has a smaller head than its peers in West Bengal)
- The flatness and width of its midriff (the flatter and wider, the better, which indicates accumulation of Omega-3 fatty acids and makes it even tastier)
- Correct firmness of the flesh to touch post rigor mortis- that is a trait you can develop only through experience; trust me
- The exact shade of pink on its underbelly
There are other minor indicators which I am not elaborating further. Phew!! That’s no job for a rookie. The season of the year also plays a major role in satisfying the Bengalis’ palate as far as ilish is concerned. The monsoon reveals the supreme assets of this heavenly creature. The ideal location for catching the ideal fish is at the estuaries of the rivers where they come for spawning.
Now, can you comprehend how much time, expertise and money the maverick Bengali is ready to invest just to get a good deal for the perfect ilish? Would you believe if I say, many poems and ballads have been written in Bengali recounting the hilsa’s romanticism with the Bengali psyche? Boy!! That could be annoyingly bizarre! Well, …………. for the not-Bengalis I mean. If you want a recipe for hilsa you can check here.
The ‘mangshowala’ (butcher) will be taken through a lesson on how to properly portion the chicken or in the case of mutton or beef (mainly in Muslim dominated Bangladesh), what mix of the anatomy of the carcass is ideal. He will push for more information on how the animal was slaughtered and when and may be quizzed about the exact place the kid was born. And if someone alongside protests, ‘Dada, ektu taratari’ (Sir, make it a bit hurried along) as he also needs to fulfill his responsibility of hunting-gathering or if the butcher shows an iota of impatience…… all hell will break loose.
Our culinary idiosyncrasies
Bengali cuisine consists of four different kinds of dishes- ‘chorbya’ (food that is chewed like fish, meat rice), ‘chosya’ (food that is sucked such as ambal, tak), ‘lehya’– pronounced ‘lejhho’ (food meant to be licked like chutney) and ‘peyo’ (which includes drinks like milk or tea).
North Indian cuisines are mostly influenced by Mughlai cuisine and Punjabi cuisine. The dominant use of onion, ginger, garlic and tomatoes and an overdose of garam-masala and spices which are by and large limited to cumin, coriander, red chilli powder/Kashmiri chilli powder and ‘kasoori methi’ (dried fenugreek leaves) is very much apparent. The dishes are rich, robust and in your face.
Bengali cuisine on the other hand characterizes subtlety of flavours balanced by the use of some unique spices such as ‘panch phoron’ (a combination of five spices- fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and fennel seeds), ‘radhuni’ (wild celery seeds), ‘kalo jire’ (kalongi in Hindi and nigella seeds in English), ‘gorom moshla’ (Bengali variant of garam-masala which is very delicate and different from the North Indian specimen), mustard seeds and paste, cinnamon, green cardamom, clove, bay leaf, poppy seeds, etc. and fresh herbs, vegetables and leafy vegetables – ‘palong shak’ (spinach), ‘lal shak’ (red amaranth), ‘kolmi shak’ (water spinach), ‘sojne danta’ (drumsticks), ‘dhone pata’ (coriander leaves), ‘pudina pata’ (mint leaves), ‘lau’ (bottle gourd), ‘korola/uchhe’ (bitter gourd), ‘begun’ (aubergine/eggplant)……….the list is endless.
Bengalis have a most annoying habit- well, annoying for not-Bengalis I mean. As we keep progressing through a fine meal, at home among families or anywhere else on earth- our c-drives start pinging themselves. Someone at the gathering will begin ruminating about some exquisite dish he had eaten elsewhere and elsewhen even as praises over the ongoing meal pour in with a second, third or even a fourth helping. He will blabber innocuously about its aroma, texture, the quality of ingredients or about the expertise and love with which it was served. Several other cultures would find this profoundly insulting and infuriating with the probable exception of Italians who obsess over ingredients, cooking and undiluted eating.
For us it is the highest accolade though. What can be more pleasing for the host than his guests recalling other fine meals and putting him on the same pedestal? Fine dining albeit home cooked is our attitude; always attitude.
No, Bengalis don’t eat only fish and ‘mishti doi’ (sweetened curd)
“Maachh e bhaat e Bangali” (Bengalis are defined by fish and rice) – although the phrase is coined by Bengalis themselves with their innate sense of wit, it actually is a kind of a misnomer. Undeniably, fish (mainly freshwater) is our mainstay but not ‘only’.
Bengalis are primarily non-vegetarians but not carnivores. Contrary to popular belief we are omnivores. Apart from fish, we eat vegetables of different textures, shapes and sizes. In reality, our range of vegetarian dishes surpasses that of any community of India. We digest what others discard. But, we do require our frequent doses of aphrodisiacs like chicken, mutton and beef (mainly in Bangladesh) to sustain our insatiable appetites both literally and figuratively. It is contextual to mention that during our teens, we used to savour a heavenly delicacy of tortoise meat and eggs- usually the female ones of this fine specimen. It was believed that tortoise meat was a sure-shot cure for arthritis. Whether that was an excuse or a fact, I don’t know. Unfortunately, those wonderful reptiles are no more available for being devoured by the Bengalis due to vociferous demonstrations by the boring animal rights activists for whom, alas, food is just for sustenance.
Service à la russe
Bengali cuisine has the only conventionally developed multi-course tradition among the cuisines of the Indian subcontinent which is akin to the structure of service à la russe of modern day French cuisine. Food is served in courses rather than all at once. Now is that a boon or a bane? We will come to that later.
Very much like the French, the Bengalis’ world revolves around food. An ‘adda’ (an informal gathering of friends and/or relatives) or ‘mezban’ as is known in Bangladesh is the raison d’être of any self-respecting Bengali. A similar culture used to prevail in ancient Greece. Stalwarts like Plato, Aristotle and Socrates used to discuss various topics, such as Mathematics, Science, Philosophy and Astronomy in their Greek addas. The Bengalis’ addas commence with the usual pleasantries and end almost invariably with each individual’s gastronomic adventures.
Analogous to French cookery techniques, Bengal has independently developed its own versions of braising, broiling, boiling, sautéing, stewing, steaming, roasting, frying and so many others which are its very own identity. Different cuts of vegetables, meat and fish are designed specifically for preparing different kinds of dishes. For example the style of cutting of vegetables for ‘ghonto’ will be entirely different from that of ‘labra’ which in turn will be different from ‘chorchori’. The reason being, each cut contributes towards conforming to the individuality of each kind of cooking technique producing characteristic flavour, texture and consistency of the finished item. The same goes for French cooking as well- brunoise, julienne, alumette, mirepoix, macedoine, paupiette, darne, trocon, goujon, supreme, filet, entrecote to name just a few of the cuts of vegetables, meat and seafood.
Here, through this blog, I have tried to make you aware of and visualize the intricacies and enormity, or if you prefer to call it peculiarity, of Banglasphere epicureanism. But the story just begins.
I shall come up with different courses of a Bengali meal and many more exciting narratives on the subject in my next write-up.
Hope you had an absorbing read.
Credits: “The Bengalis, A Potrait of a Community” by Sudeep Chakravarti; My Mother