The Rule of the Nawabs
Bengal has been ruled by Muslim governors since the days of the Delhi Sultanate, five short-lived, Delhi based kingdoms or sultanates, of Turkic origin in medieval India. However, for over five hundred years Muslim rule in Bengal was centered in Dhaka. Trade routes going from Delhi to Dhaka traversed almost the entire width of today's Bengal, crossing most major rivers. Present-day West Bengal first came into prominence when Murshid Quli Jafar Khan became the first Nawab of Bengal under the Mughals in 1717, and moved the capital from Dhaka to the newly founded city of Murshidabad much further to the west and closer to Delhi, the seat of the Mughal Empire. From the culinary point of view, Dhaka evolved a vibrant cuisine based heavily on the influence of Mughal courts, popularly called Mughlai Cuisine or Moglai and characterised by rich sauces and a generous use of meat (especially beef). These food traditions continued in the courts of the Nawabs of Bengal. Though defeated by the British in 1757, they continued as puppet rulers of Bengal till 1880; their courts, manners and cuisine maintained by doles from the English.
Another key influence to the food came much later, when Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh was exiled in by the British 1856 to Metiabruz, on the outskirts of Kolkata. Rich and decadent, Awadhi cuisine was a giant in the world of food, and the Nawab is said to have brought with him hundreds of bawarchis (cooks), khansamas (stewards) and masalchis (spice mixers). On his death, these specialist workers dissipated into the population, starting restaurants and food carts all over Bengal and propagating a distinctly Avadhi legacy into the western parts of Bengal, especially the burgeoning megacity of Kolkata. While deriving from Mughlai Cuisine, Awadh preferred mutton to beef and was liberal in the use of ittar (essence) of aromatics such rose or kewra.
Christianity and other European influences
The Christian 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 Christian India. This meant that people retained many of their local customs and especially food habits. Though the Dutch and the French also had colonies in West Bengal, they have had little impact on Bengal's culinary habits. That came from the British, and other Western immigrants such as the Baghdadi Jews who set up Kolkata's famous Jewish Bakeries. West Bengal's flourishing community of Anglo-Indians formed a once-influential cuisine, but it is now dying along with the reduction in numbers of their communities in Bengal. The key culinary influence of the Christian community was the ritual of tea (introduced by the British, and in Bengal's snack food traditions. Baking, which was pretty much unknown till the British came along, became widespread. The popularity of baked confectioneries was a direct result of the British popularising the celebration of Christmas. The Jewish community, though always tiny in numbers, picked up the trend and made it hugely popular to the masses - now every railway station in West Bengal serves puff pastries to go with tea to millions of commuters across the state. Chops and cutlets, once British in origin but now firmly Bengali, are served every day in every little shack. The pound cake is a treat every kid has grown up stealing. Kolkata's big Jewish bakeries are dead or dying, but their influence is everywhere.
The Partition of Bangladesh and The Rise of Kolkata
The partition of India following independence from the British in 1947 separated West Bengal from Bangladesh. This caused a significant change in demographics; populations were divided along religious lines, and over three million people were said to have crossed the new Bengal border in either direction. This large-scale displacement along religious lines led to some changes of food, because there were differences in food habits between the Muslims and the Hindus. However, the culinary shift should not be overstated - large populations of each religion stayed put on either side of the border.
There was one major divergence, though. The newly formed West Bengal was a small state in India dominated by the city of Kolkata. This city came into prominence as the original capital of British India and quickly became one of the largest and richest in the world, completely overshadowing the original megacity of Dhaka. After partition, Kolkata continued to wield an outsize influence in the cultural and food habits of West Bengal. Its offices, ports and bazaars attracted many communities from the rest of India, (especially the Marwari and Chinese communities); substantial populations of these communities have lived for generations in Kolkata. Their influence has been, in particular, in the sweet shops (e.g. Ganguram's)and street foods of Kolkata; many have Marwari or Chinese origins. Bangladesh, on the other hand, was isolated by the political border from Kolkata's multiculturalism and retained a more traditional take on things.
Kolkata cuisine is now distinct enough that it can be considered a culinary subset.
The Influence of the Widows
The treatment of Hindu widows has always been very repressive. Tradition ties a woman's identity with her husband; a widow is therefore left without an identity or social standing. Bengal was particularly repressive in this regard; widows were either banished or led very monastic lives within the household, living under rigid dietary restrictions and not allowed any interests but religion and housework. The nineteenth century saw active widow reform movements in Bengal - the ban on Sati in 1829 and the Hindu Widow Re-marriage Act of 1856 were key milestones - but the related social practices took a long while to die out and indeed, still remain in part. Rampant child marriage and low life expectancies left many women widowed - it is estimated that some 25% of households have a widow living in them. Widows were not allowed to leave the house, so their contribution to the household was usually restricted to the kitchen - creating a unique class of chefs in the dominant Hindu community.
While most Bengali castes ate meat and fish, this was of course barred for widows. Widows also did not use "heating" foods such as onions and garlic, but ginger was allowed - this found a core place in Bengali curries, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Expensive spices such as saffron, cinnamon or cloves were used very sparingly if at all; nuts, dry fruits, milk and milk products such as cream, ghee or curd were similarly scarce. In spite of all these restrictions, however, the food evolved to be anything but crude and limited - its deceptively simple preparations drew upon Bengal's vast larder of vegetable options and were often elaborate to the point of fussiness. Cooked with elaborate precision and served with equal refinement - multiple courses and an intricate formality about what goes with what and in which sequence - it formed an enduring base for a rich and varied cuisine. Leftover cuts in particular, such as spinach ends or vegetable peel, are transformed lovingly into magical preparations. Chitrita Banerji in her book quotes a nineteenth century Bengali writer mentioning that "it was impossible to taste the full glory of vegetarian cooking unless your own wife became a widow".
Characteristics of Bengali cuisine
The traditional society of Bengal has always been heavily agrarian; hunting, except by some local clansmen, was uncommon. Rice is the staple, with many regions growing specialty rice varieties. Domestic cattle (especially the water buffalo) is common, more for agriculture than large scale dairy farming. Milk is an important source of nutrition, and also a key ingredient in Bengal's plethora of desserts. Also, as one would expect, ordinary food served at home is different from that served during social functions and festivals, and again very different from what might be served at a larger gathering (e.g. a marriage feast).
Bengalis are somewhat unique in that food habits in that nearly every community will eat meat or fish. In most parts of the Indian subcontinent, individual castes and communities have their own food habits; this is not true of Bengal. There is remarkable similarity in eating styles across social strata, with the upper caste Brahmins sharing a diet very similar to the trading or princely castes. Fish, goat mutton and chicken are commonly eaten across social strata; the only exception is beef, which if ever, is restricted to Muslim communities.
An abundant land provides for an abundant table. The nature and variety of dishes found in Bengali cooking are unique even in India. Fresh sweet water fish is one of its most distinctive features; Bengal's countless rivers, ponds and lakes teem with innumerable varieties of fish such as rohu, hilsa, koi or pabda. Almost every village and Bengal have ponds used for pisciculture, and at least one meal a day is certain to have a fish course.
Bengalis also excel in the cooking of regional vegetables. They prepare a variety of the imaginative dishes using the many types of vegetables that grow here year round. They can make ambrosial dishes out of the oftentimes rejected peels, stalks and leaves of vegetables. They use fuel-efficient methods, such as steaming fish or vegetables in a small covered bowl nestled at the top of the rice pot.
The use of spices for both fish and vegetable dishes is quite extensive and includes many combinations not found in other parts of India. Examples are the onion-flavored kalonji (nigella or black onion seeds), radhuni (wild celery seeds), and five-spice or paanch phoron (a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, kalonji, and black mustard seeds). The trump card of Bengali cooking probably is the addition of this phoron, a combination of whole spices, fried and added at the start or finish of cooking as a flavouring special to each dish. Bengalis share their love of whole black mustard seeds with South Indians, but unique to Bengal is the extensive use of freshly ground mustard paste. A pungent mustard sauce called Kasundi is an dipping sauce popular in Bengal.
Fish is the dominant kind of protein, and is cultivated in ponds and fished with nets in the fresh-water rivers of the Ganges delta. Almost every part of the fish (except fins and innards) is eaten; unlike other regions the head is particularly preferred. Other spare bits of the fish are usually used to flavor curries and dals.
More than forty types of mostly freshwater fish are common, including carp varieties like rui (rohu), koi (climbing perch), the wriggling catfish family - tangra, magur, shingi - pabda (the pink-bellied Indian butter fish), katla, ilish (ilish), as well as shuţki (small dried sea fish). Chingri(prawn) is a particular favourite and comes in many varieties - kucho (tiny shrimp), bagda (tiger prawns) or galda (Scampi).
Salt water fish (not sea fish though) Ilish (hilsa ilisha) is very popular among Bengalis, can be called an icon of Bengali cuisine. Ilish machh (ilish 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 considered as the best variety.
There are numerous ways of cooking fish depending on the texture, size, fat content and the bones. It could be fried, cooked in roasted, a simple spicy tomato or ginger based gravy (jhol), or mustard based with green chillies (shorshe batar jhaal), with posto, with seasonal vegetables, steamed, steamed inside of plantain or butternut squash leaves, cooked with doi (curd/yogurt), with sour sauce, with sweet sauce or even the fish made to taste sweet on one side, and savory on the other. Ilish is said be cooked in 108 distinct ways.
The most preferred form of meat in Bengal is mutton, or goat meat. Khashi (castrated goat) or Kochi pantha (kid goat), is also common. Some delicate dishes are cooked with "Rewaji Khashi", a goat that has been specifically raised on a singular kind of diet, to encourage the growth of intramuscular fat, commonly known as "Pardah". Pork is commonly eaten among the Santal tribes, and is quite common on the menus of Chinese restaurants everywhere in Bengal. Chicken is less preferred, though it has steadily grown in popularity over the last few decades. Beef, the least popular meat,[peacock term] is consumed in pockets, and only in certain Muslim homes and some restaurants serving Mughlai food in Dhaka. Eggs - both chicken and duck - are quite popular. Surprisingly, duck meat is rarely found on menus even though the birds are common in the many ponds and lakes.
Special Dishes of Dhaka: The Nawabs of Dhaka were not the original Nawabs of Bengal. Their ancestors came from Kashmir as merchants who made their fortunes here in Eastern Bengal in the 18th Century. They finally settled in Dhaka and having bought large landed estates, they became the largest landowners in these parts. They were given the title of Nawab by the British.
The Nawabs brought many famous 'baburchis' from many parts of India who introduced many new dishes, specially meat dishes, to the local cuisine. Admittedly, these expensive dishes were hardly enjoyed by the common people. They remained the favourite of the wealthy and the well to do aristocrats. However, with the general economic growth of Dhaka since 1971, some of them have become favourite of the rich classes specially on such festive occasions as Eid and marriages. They are:
Many kinds of Kebabs, mostly cooked over open grill. Some of the Dhaka specialities of this genre are: Sutli Kebab, Bihari Kebab, Boti Kebab etc. made from marinaded (by secret spice mix by each chef) mutton and beef. Kebabs are eaten as snacks or as starters for a big feast. Special kinds of Breads: There are many kinds of breads made with cheese mix, with minced meat, with special spices etc., all are delicacies enjoyed by the affluent classes as side dishes. The Kachchi Biriani: This famous dish is now the main dish in almost all marriage feasts of the wealthy people. It is cooked with parboiled rice cooked with layers of raw mutton pieces. When on 'dam' i.e. steamed in a sealed pot over slow wood fire [gas fire, or electric cooker will not do ]both rice and mutton will cook perfectly. Special spices including very expensive saffron is used by the famous chefs of this special dish. Many culinary specialists declare that Dhaka Kachchi is better than any that the Delhi or Lucknow varieties cooked by Indian chefs. But Hyderabadi Biryani is considered to be the best biryani. Whole lamp roasted: Marinaded whole lamb is roasted over charcoal fire. This dish is usually made on special occasion such as marriage feast when usually it is served on the high table reserved for the bride groom and his party! Whole roasted chicken/duck: Highly spiced, cooked in a pot with lots of Ghee. Special dishes meant for festive occasion. There are some delicacies that are enjoyed occasionally by the wealthy people. These are: game birds, rabbits or venison cooked in spicy sauce. However with all birds protected by law, this is on the decline. However, pigeons, guinea fowls, muscovy ducks etc. are still eaten as hobby food by some people.
The variety of fruits and vegetables that Bengal has to offer is incredible. A host of gourds, roots and tubers, leafy greens, succulent stalks, lemons and limes, green and purple eggplants, red onions, plantain, broad beans, okra, banana tree stems and flowers, green jackfruit and red pumpkins are to be found in the vegetable markets or sobji bazaar. Bitter vegetables like karela and neem pata satisfy the love for bitters. Bengalis are particularly good at using leftover bits of vegetables. Peels, roots, stems and other bits that usually get thrown out often find themselves in starring roles in Bengal.
Bengali people are primarily rice eaters, and the rainfall and soil in Bengal lends itself to rice production as well. Many varieties of rice are produced from the long grain fragrant varieties to small grain thick ones. Rice is semi-prepared in some cases when it is sold as parboiled, or in some cases as unpolished as well, still retaining the color of the husk. Rice is eaten in various forms as well - puffed, beaten, boiled and fried depending on the meal. The first two are used usually as snacks and the other as the main constituent in a meal. Lightly fermented rice is also used as breakfast in rural and agrarian communities (panta bhat).
Luchi (circular deep fried un-leavened bread) or Porothha (usually triangular, multi-layered, pan fried, un-leavened bread) are also used as the primary food item on the table. It is considered that wheat based food came in from the north and is relatively new in advent. Both Luchi and Parothha could have stuffed versions as well, and the stuffing could vary from dal, peas etc.
Pulses (or lentils) form another important ingredient of a meal. These dals vary from mushur đal (red lentils), mug đal (mung beans), kadhaier dal, arhar dal' etc. and are used as an accompaniment to rice.
Cooking medium and spices
Shorsher tel (mustard oil) is the primary cooking medium in Bengali cuisine although Badam tel (groundnut oil) is also used, because of its high smoke point. Of late, the use of sunflower oil, soybean oil and refined vegetable oil, which is a mixture of soybean, kardi, and other edible vegetable oils, is gaining prominence. This later group is popularly known as "shada tel", meaning white oil, bringing out the contrast in color between the lightly colored groundnut and the somewhat darker mustard oil and the other white oils. However, depending on type of food, ghee (clarified butter) is often used, e.g., for making the dough or for frying bread.
mustard paste, holud (turmeric), poshto poppyseed), ada (ginger), dhonia (coriander, seeds and leaves) and narikel (ripe coconut usually desiccated) are other common ingredients. 'The pãch poron is a general purpose spice mixture composed of radhuni (Carum roxburghianum seeds), jira (cumin), kalo jira (black cumin, also known as nigella), methi (fenugreek) and mouri (anis). This mixture is more convenient for vegetarian dishes and fish preparations.
Instruments and utensils
Another characteristic of Bengali food is the use of a unique cutting instrument, the boti (also called the dao in some regional dialects). 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. Knives are rare in a traditional Bengali kitchen.
A korai (wok) is a universal cooking vessel for most Bengali food, for making sauces, frying/stir-frying etc. Dekchi (a flat bottomed pan) is used generally for larger amounts of cooking or for making rice. The dekchi comes with a thin flat lid which is used also to strain out the starch while finishing up cooking rice. The other prominent cooking utensil is a hari, which is a round bottomed pot like vessel. All the three mentioned vessels come in various sizes and in various metals and alloys. the "Tawa" is used to make roti and porota.
Silverware, as expected, is not part of traditional Bengali cookery. A flat metal spatula, khunti is used often, along with hata (scoop with a long handle), jhanjri (round shaped sieve like spatula to deep fry food), the "sharashi" (pincers to remove vessels from the fire), the ghuntni (wooden hand blender) for puréeing dal and the old wooden belun chaki (round pastry board and rolling pin), and the "shil nora", which is a rough form of a mortar and pestle, or grinding stone is also used. The "Kuruni" is a unitasker, there to grate coconuts.
Preparation and cutting
Bengali cuisine is rather particular in the way vegetables and meat (or fish) are prepared before cooking. Some vegetables are used unpeeled, in some preparations fish is used un-skinned in contrast as well. However, in most dishes vegetable are peeled, and fish scaled and skinned.
In many cases the main ingredients are lightly marinated with salt and turmeric (also an anti-bacterial and anti-septic). Vegetables are to be cut in different ways for different preparations. Dicing, Julienne, strips, scoops, slices, shreds are common and one type of cut vegetables can not replace another style of cutting for a particular preparation. Any aberration is frowned upon. For example, in Alu-kumror Chhakka the potatoes and gourds must be diced not shredded and if they are shredded it will be ghonto and not chhakka.
In Bangladesh, 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. Some characteristics stand out: fresh-water fish, beef (only for Muslims, but still not very popular), the extensive use of parboiled rice, and much spicier food (some of the hottest dishes in the world). Floods are common in the region, so there is an extensive use of root vegetables and dried fish (shuţki). Milk and dairy products, so widely used in the neighboring India, are not as common here; the geography prevents large-scale dairy farming, thus making dairy products an expensive indulgence. Although, some food calls for curd/yogurt or ghee. However, sweets do contain milk and dairy products as well as jaggery and rice paste.
As you move eastwards, anthropologically the people become more and more different, and the language takes a different tone and flavour all together. The far eastern parts are closer culturally to Burma than to India. In western parts of Bengal, more connected with the rest of India and dominated by the megacity of Kolkata since the late eighteenth century, the culinary style evolved to become different. 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 and more importantly culture. The presentations are more elaborate and a significant feature of the cuisine is a vast array of sweets based on milk and sugar as part of tradition. 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 pôroţa. 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 most popular are Kolkata - chaţ, kachori,beguni,mochaar chop, samosa, phuluri and the ever-popular jhal-muri also referred to as bhelpuri . Puchka is the ever-popular street food.
Common Bengali Recipe Styles
The following are a list of characteristic Bengali recipe styles. You can note the Chinese, South East Asian, and Burmese influence in the food of Bengal, not to mention some British influence, because of the formation of Kolkata during the 1700s. Each entry here is actually a class of recipes, producing different dishes depending on the choice of ingredients. There are six different tastes to which the Bengali palate cater to, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot and "koshay".
Ombol or Aum-bol (also known as Tok) : A sour dish made either with several vegetables or fish, especially fish bones. The souring agent is usually tamarind pulp, unripe mango and sometimes amla or amloki is used. Curd, though a souring agent occasionally used with non-vegetarian dishes, will not be called ombol. It is served at the end of the meal as a kind of digestive, and to cleanse the palate.
Achar: Pickles. Generally flavored with Mustard oil, Mustard Seeds, Aniseed, Caraway Seed and Asafoetida, or hing.
Bawra : Anything that has been mashed and then formed into rough roundish shape and fried, generally in mustard oil. Generally served with rice as a starter, or served with puffed rice crisps as a snack. The baora actually has quite a few different kinds. When potatoes are fried in a light chickpea flour batter, they are called Fuluri (giving rise to the Trinidadian pholourie)
Bhaja : Anything fried, either just after it has been salted or dipped in any kind of water-based batter. Does not include croquettes, or crumb coated items.
Bhapa : Fish or vegetables steamed with spices.
Bhate : A vegetable, that has been put inside the pot in which rice is cooking, and it has been cooked along with the rice. Generally, you get potatoes, butternut squash, raw papayas, bitter gourd, snake gourd and okra in the rice. Bengalis often eat it with a tinge of mustard oil and salt. However, a very popular one-dish Bengali meal is Alu Bhate Bhat, which is Potatoes boiled along with rice, and then served along with the rice. For this, generally "gobindobhog atop" rice, which is a short-grained, glutinous rice that cooks quickly is used, and is preferred to the long grained rice, because of its creamy quality, and ability to become ever so sticky, which aids the dish when it comes to mashing. During the serve, some fresh Ghee or Butter, and salt to taste, to be mixed and mashed by hand into the right consistency, and then eaten. A raw green chili, and a boiled and shelled egg sometimes accompanies this dish.
Bhorta : Any vegetable, such as potatoes, beans, sour mangoes, papaya, pumpkins or even dal, first boiled whole and then mashed and seasoned with red shallot, fresh chile, mustard oil/ghee and spices.
Chorchori : 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 pouron. Sometimes a chochchori may have small shrimp. The skin and bone of large fish like bhetki or chitol can be made into a chochchori called kata-chochchori (kata meaning fish-bone). The stir frying process and the lightness of a Chochhori is not unlike that of chop suey, which is a term for assorted pieces, and this shows the influence of the Chinese in Bengali household cooking. The chochhori would be generally an assortment of vegetable and fish bones and other things that would have been rather thrown away, fried in a korai,(a slightly rounded wok), over high heat at first, and then simmered to let the vegetables cook down to being just done, and then taken off the flame immediately to stop cooking. The cooking procedure adds to the confirmation of the entrance of Chinese style of cooking into Kolkata during the mid 1800s, prior to which this particular dish was not very popular in Bengali cuisine.
Chop : Croquettes, usually coated with crushed biscuit or breadcrumbs.
Cutlet : Very different from the Cutlets of the Brits, this is referred typically to a crumb coated thinly spread out dough, made generally of chicken/mutton minced, mixed together with onion, bread crumbs and chillies. Generally it is then dipped in egg and coated in breadcrumb, fried and served with thin julienne of cucumber, carrots, radish and onions. Often an egg mixed with a teaspoon or two water and a pinch of salt is dropped on top of the frying cutlet, to make it into a "Kabiraji" the Bengali pronunciation of a "Coverage or Cover:Egg" Cutlet, influenced by the British.
Chhyanchra : A combination dish made with different vegetables, portions of fish head and fish oil (entrails).
Chhenchki : Tiny pieces of one or more vegetable, generally a dice of vegetables along with general odds and ends, often even the peels (of potatoes, squash, gourd, pumpkin, bitter gourd, or potol for example) - usually flavored with pach-pouron, whole mustard seeds or kalo jira. Chopped shallot and garlic can also be used, but hardly any ground spices.
Chutney : Generally Bengal is one of the pioneers for this particular dish, making it with everything including preserved mango sheets, called amshotto.
Dalna : Mixed vegetables or eggs, cooked in a medium thick gravy seasoned with ground spices, especially gorom moshla and a touch of ghee.
Dom : Vegetables, especially potatoes, or meat, cooked over a covered pot containing water, slowly over a low heat, slightly steaming. The word is derived from the Dum technique popular in Mughlai food.
Dolma : A vegetable, 'potol', stuffed with fish boiled, de-boned, then prepared with Bengali five spice powder, ginger and onions (alternately coconut-vegetable stuffing is used). A misconception once arose that this was a take on the Greek Dolmathes or Dolmades, but has not been proven so.
Ghonto : Different complementary vegetables (e.g., cabbage, green peas, potatoes or banana blossom, coconut, chickpeas) are chopped or finely grated and cooked with both a pouron and ground spices. Dried pellets of dal are often added to the ghonto. Ghee is commonly added at the end. Non-vegetarian ghontos are also made, with fish or fish heads added to vegetables. The famous murighonto is made with fish heads cooked in a fine variety of rice. Some ghontos 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 pach-pouron or kalo jira. Being dryish, it is often eaten with a little bit of dal poured over the rice.
Jhol : A light fish or vegetable stew seasoned with ground spices like ginger, cumin, coriander, chilli, and turmeric with pieces of fish and longitudinal slices of vegetables floating in it. The gravy is thin yet extremely flavorful. Whole green chillies are usually added at the end and green coriander leaves are used to season for extra taste. It is the closest to a "Curry", yet it is more of a jus than a sauce.
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 fresh shallots pasted or fried along with a tempering of gorom moshla.
Kofta (or Boras) : Ground meat or vegetable croquettes bound together by spices and/or eggs served alone or in savory gravy. Koftas are usually softer than boras which are mainly made of ground lentils, sometimes with added chopped vegetables - Telebhaja is different.
Korma : A term that can also be called "Qurma" of Mughali origin, meaning meat or chicken cooked in a mild yoghurt based sauce with ghee instead of oil, and often poppy seed paste is added to it. People of Southern Bangladesh are known to add coconut milk to many of their dishes and Korma is no exception.
Kosha: Meaning fried for a long time with ground and whole spices over high heat until shallot/garlic/ginger have dissolved into a thick paste. Usually applied to meat and some shellfish.
Paturi: Generally oily fish is sliced evenly, and then wrapped in a banana leaf, after the fish has been hit by a basting of freshly pasted mustard with a hint of mustard oil, chili, turmeric and salt.
Pora: Literally, burnt. Vegetables are wrapped in leaves and roasted over a wood or charcoal fire. Some, like aubergine, are put directly over the flames. Before eating the roasted vegetable is mixed with oil and spices.
Poshto: anything cooked with poppy seed paste as the main flavoring agent. Often poppy seed paste with some mustard oil is eaten mixed with rice all by itself as a mild beginner for any Bengali meal.
Torkari: A general term often used in Bengal the way `curry' is used in English. 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.
Shukto: A favorite Bengali palate cleanser, made with a lot of different vegetables including at least one bitter veg, simmered with a hint of sugar and milk to bring out the bitterness of the fresh vegetables.
Shak: Any kind of green leafy vegetable, like spinach and mustard greens, often cooked till just wilted in a touch of oil and tempering of nigela seeds.
Bengali food today has some broad (though not so distinct) variations - Traditional, Mughal, Anglo-Indian and Chinese.
Islam arrived in Bengal probably around the mid-thirteenth century, coming into force with the penetration of the Muslim rulers from the northwest. Dhaka (the present-day capital of Bangladesh), in particular, expanded greatly under Mughal rule. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in a large migration of people to and from present-day Bangladesh, resulting in a much stronger divide along religious lines. Bangladesh today shows a much greater Muslim influence than West Bengal.
The influence on the food was top-down, and more gradual than in many other parts of India. This led to a unique cuisine where even the common man ate the dishes of the royal court, such as biryani, korma and bhuna. The influence was reinforced in the Raj era, when Kolkata became the place of refuge for many prominent exiled Nawabs, especially the family of Tipu Sultan from Mysore and Wajid Ali Shah, the ousted Nawab of Awadh. The exiles brought with them hundreds of cooks and masalchis (spice mixers), and as their royal patronage and wealth diminished, they interspersed into the local population. These highly accomplished cooks came with the knowledge of a very wide range of spices (most notably jafran saffron and mace), the extensive use of ghee as a method of cooking, and special ways of marinating meats.
In Bangladesh, this food has over time become the staple food of the populace. In West Bengal, however, this has remained more than the other categories, the food of professional chefs; the best examples are still available at restaurants. Specialties include chap (ribs slow cooked on a tawa), rezala (meat in a thin yogurt and cardamom gravy) and the famous kathi roll (kebabs in a wrap). The local population absorbed some of the ingredients and techniques into their daily food, resulting in meat-based varieties of many traditional vegetarian dishes, but by and large the foods remained distinct.
The Mughal influence is most distinct in preparations involving meat especially mutton. However, even chicken and other meats became more prevalent. The influence was also seen in desserts; traditional desserts were based on rice pastes and jaggery but under the Mughal influence moved towards significantly increased use of milk, cream and sugar along with expensive spices such as cardamom and saffron.
Anglo-Indian or Raj cuisine
Anglo-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 and other Europeans. 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 pêţis (savory turnovers, from the English "pasty"). Another enduring contribution to Bengali cuisine is pau ruţi, 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 leđikeni named after the first Vicereine Lady Canning; it is a derivative of the pantua created for an event hosted by her.
The 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. The Chinese-origin people 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 nowadays, thanks to the taste, quick cooking procedure, and no similarity with the original Chinese recipe other than the use of Soy Sauce. They were mostly Cantonese tradesmen and sailors who first settled down here and decided to cook with whatever items they had in hand. The introduction of the fabled taste maker monosodium glutamate came along with sweet corn, much later, and got infused into what is widely popular as "Kolkata Chinese", or "Indian Chinese". 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 other Indian 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 Chicken sweet corn soup, Chilli Chicken and Manchurian; they apparently made up these names to attract customers.
The influence of this unique syncretic 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 restaurants have appeared in many places in the United States and UK.
Indian Chinese food was given a second boost when a large number of Tibetans migrated into Indian Territory, following the 14th Dalai Lama's flight. 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 virtually every street in Kolkata. The Chopsuey became a favorite, and versions like American Chopsuey and Chinese Chopsuey were constantly talked about.
Bangladesh also hosts a large number of Chinese restaurants. In Dhaka, the phrase Chai-niz khaowa (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, soy sauce, lemon and peanut than Indian Chinese and the use of other spices native to East Bengal. Unlike Indian Chinese food, Bangladeshi Chinese food still retains the use of mushrooms and although generally hotter, is much sweeter than its Indian counterparts.
The Bengalis are great food lovers and take pride in their cuisine. The medium of cooking is mustard oil which adds on its own pungency. Another very important item of Bengali cuisine is the variety of sweets or mishti as they call them. Most of them are milk based and are prepared from chaana (paneer as it is popularly known). The most popular among the Bengali sweets are the Rosogolla, Sandesh, Pantua and Mishti Doi and these four sweets are a must at every wedding besides some other sweets, which may vary as per individual choice. A meal, for the Bengali, is a ritual in itself even if it only boiled rice and lentils (dal bhat), with of course a little fish. Bengalis, like the French, spend not only the great deal of time thinking about the food but also on its preparation and eating. Quips like “Bengalis live to eat” and “Bengalis spend most of their income on food” are not exactly exaggerated. The early morning shopping for fresh vegetables, fish etc. is the prerogative of the head of the family, even in affluent household, because he feels that he alone can pick up the best at a bargain price. The Bengalis are very particular about the way and the order in which the food should be served. Each dish is to be eaten separately with a little rice so that the individual flavors can be enjoyed. The first item served may be a little ghee which is poured over a small portion of rice and eaten with a pinch of salt. Then come the bitter preparation, shukto, followed by lentils or dals, together with roasted or fried vegetables (bhaja or bharta). Next come the vegetable dishes, the lightly spiced vegetables, chenchki, chokka, followed by the most heavily spiced dalna, ghonto and those cooked with fish. Finally the chicken or mutton, if this being served at all. Chaatni comes to clear the palate together with crisp savory wafers, papor. Dessert is usually sweet yogurt (mishti doi). The meal is finally concluded with the handing out of betel leaf (paan), which is considered to be an aid to digestion and an astringent. Traditionally the people here eat seated on the floor, where individual pieces of carpet, called asans, are spread for each person to sit on and the meal is served on a large gun-metal or silver plate (thala) and the various items of food are placed in bowls (batis) around the top of the thala, running from right to left. Rice is mounded and placed on the middle of the thala, with a little salt, chilies and lime placed on the upper right hand corner. They eat with the fingers of the right hand and strict etiquette is observed with regard to this. The 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 traditionally ate without silverware: kaţa (forks), chamoch (spoons), and chhuri (knives) gradually finding use on Bengali tables in urban areas. Most Bengalis eat with their right hand, mashing small portions of meat and vegetable dishes with rice and in some cases, lentils. In rural areas, Bengalis traditionally eat, sitting on the floor 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, thanks to Western influence, 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 commonplace. The traditions are far from dead, though; large family occasions and the more lavish ceremonial feasts still make sure that these rituals are observed.
The slightly elaborate daily meal
The foods of a daily meal are usually simpler, geared to balanced nutrition and makes extensive use of vegetables. The courses progress broadly from lighter to richer and heavier and goes through various tastes and taste cleansers. Rice remains common throughout the meal and is the main constituent of the meal, until the chaţni (chutney) course.
The starting course is made from bitter vegetables or herbs, often deep fried in oil or steamed with cubed potatoes. Portions are usually tiny - a spoonful or so to be had with rice - and this course is considered to be both a palate-cleanser and of great medicinal value. The ingredients used for this course change seasonally, but commonly used ones are kôrolla or uchhe(forms of bitter gourd) which are available nearly all year round, or tender nim leaves in spring.
In West Bengal, a thick soupy mixture of vegetables in a ginger-mustard sauce called shukto usually follows the bitter starting course, but sometimes replaces it as a starter altogether. Eaten in much bigger portions, Shukto is usually eaten in summer. It is a complex dish, featuring a fine balance of many different tastes and textures and is often a critical measure of a Bengali housewife's abilities in the kitchen. However, it is not particularly popular in Bangladesh.
The first course is then followed by shak (leafy vegetables) such as spinach, palong chard, methi fenugreek, or amaranth. The shak can be steamed or cooked in oil with other vegetables such as begun (aubergine). Steamed shak is sometimes accompanied by a sharp paste of mustard and raw mango pulp called Kashundi.
The đal course is usually the most substantial course, especially in West Bengal. It is eaten with a generous portion of rice and a number of accompaniments. Common accompaniments to đal are aaloo bhaate (potatoes mashed with mustard oil), and bhaja (fritters). Bhaja literally means 'deep-fried'; most vegetables are good candidates but begun (aubergines), kumro (pumpkins), or alu (potatoes) like French fries, or shredded and fried, uchhe, potol pointed gourd are common. Machh bhaja (fried fish) is also common, especially rui (rohu) and ilish (hilsa) fishes. Bhaja is sometimes coated in a beshon (chickpea flour) and posto (poppyseed) batter. A close cousin of bhaja is bôra or deep-fried savoury balls usually made from posto (poppyseed) paste or coconut mince. Another variant is fried pointed gourd as potoler dorma with roe/prawn.
Another accompaniment is a vegetable preparation usually made of multiple vegetables stewed slowly together without any added water. Labra, chorchori, ghonto, or chanchra are all traditional cooking styles. There also are a host of other preparations that do not come under any of these categories and are simply called tôrkari - the word merely means 'vegetable' in Bengali. Sometimes these preparations may have spare pieces of fish such as bits of the head or gills, or spare portions of meat. A charchari is a vegetable dish that is cooked without stirring, just to the point of charring.
Pickles such as raw mangoes pickled in mustard oil and spices or sweet and tangy tamarind picckles are also served with the dal course.
The next course is the fish course. Generally you would have to go through one fish course a day, because Bengalis do tend to eat fish and generally derive the necessary protein intake from fish and dal. Meat till the 1990s was a once-a-week affair, but now with changing culture, meat is served more often in the household. Generally the most common fish dish is the Jhol, where a thin jus of fish is made with ginger, turmeric, chili and cumin (the basic group of spices), and fish and sometimes potato or other vegetable.
of course Bengalis fame in cooking fish, both dried fish called "Shutki" (more present in East Bengali households) as well as fresh fish. Prawn is also considered to be a kind of fish, and Crabs are also a favorite of the Bengalis. Apart from it, mutton and chicken feature big time in Non-vegetarian menu, while the vegetarian menu contains homemade paneer, gram flour "dhoka" (a cousin to the gatta of the Marwari/Gujrati food group).
Generally one or two pieces of fish or meat is served during lunch, with rice, to balance out the meal.
Additional main course
Then comes the meat course. This course may be eaten occasionally for 2 reasons: the Hindu principle of ahimsa, which is observed throughout the region, and cost, as meat is very costly. The divide among the Bengalis of Bangladesh and West Bengal is most evident when it comes to the meat course. Meat is readily consumed in urban parts of Bangladesh and some consider it the meal's main course. Beef is consumed in some of the feasts and banquets in major cities like Dhaka and Chittagong, but not anywhere else. Because the consumption of beef is prohibited among Bengali Hindu communities, Khashi mutton is traditionally the meat of choice in West Bengal, but murgi chicken and đim eggs are also commonly consumed. At the time of Partition, it was rare for caste Hindus to eat chicken or even eggs from hens, choosing rather duck eggs if eggs were to be consumed. Although it is debatable as to whether chicken is more popular than khashi in West Bengal today, the proliferation of poultry farms and hatcheries makes chicken the cheaper alternative.
Next comes the chutney course, which is typically tangy and sweet; the chutney is usually made of am mangoes, tomatoes, anarôsh pineapple, tetul tamarind, pepe papaya, or just a combination of fruits and dry fruits called mixed fruit chutney served in biye badi (marriage). The chutney is also the move towards the sweeter part of the meal and acts also as a palate cleanser, similar to the practice of serving sorbet in some Western cuisines.
Papoŗ (papadum), a type of wafer, thin and flaky, is often made of đal or potatoes or shagu (sago) and is a usual accompaniment to the chutneys.
In Bangladesh, chutney is usually eaten during the đal course, and no separate course is dedicated to chutney.
The last item before the sweets is Doi or yoghurt.It is generally of two varieties, either natural flavour and taste or Mishti Doi - sweet yoghurt, typically sweetened with charred sugar. This brings about a brown colour and a distinct flavour. Like the fish or sweets mishti doi is typically identified with Bengali cuisine.
In a daily meal it is likely that some of the courses might get missed, for instance the 'Shak',the additional course, Chutney and Papor. In some cases, the dessert might be given a miss as well. The courses overall are the same at home or at a social function (e.g. marriage feast). Rice, which is the staple across the meal gets replaced by 'luchi' or luchi stuffed with dal or mashed green peas. Interesting thing to note is that the replacement is a relatively recent phenomenon and has been seen in practice only from about early 20th century.
Sweets occupy an important place in the diet of Bengalis and at their social ceremonies. It is an ancient custom among both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis 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), unlike the use of khoa (reduced solidified milk) in Northern India. Additionally, flours of different cereals and pulses are used as well. Some important sweets of Bengal are:
Made from sweetened, finely ground fresh chhena (cottage 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.
Note that Shondesh is also the name of a sweet rice flour and palm sugar fritter eaten in Bangladesh and West Bengal (where it is called malpua). What West Bengal call "shondesh" is a type of halwa in Bangladesh.
Rôshogolla is one of the most widely consumed sweets. The basic version has many regional variations. Rôshogolla is one of the three most prominent trademark of Bengali culture (along with Rabindranath Tagore and the festival of Durga Puja) and probably the face of Bengali cuisine to people outside Bengal (along with fish and stereotypical posto or poppyseed).
Laddu is a very common sweet in Bangladesh and West Bengal, especially during celebrations and festivities.
Pantua is somewhat similar to the rôshogolla, except that the cottage cheese balls are fried in either ghee (clarified butter) or oil until golden or deep brown before being put in syrup. There are similar tasting, but differently shaped versions of the Pantua e.g. Langcha (cylindrical) or Ledikeni. Interestingly, the latter was created in honour of Countess Charlotte Canning (wife of the then Governor General to India Charles Canning) by Bhim Nag, a renowned sweets maker in Kolkata.
Chômchôm, (originally from Porabari, Tangail District in Bangladesh) goes back about 150 years. The modern version of this oval-shaped sweet is reddish brown in colour and has a denser texture than the rôshogolla. It can also be preserved longer. Granules of maoa or dried milk can also be sprinkled over chômchôm.
Piţha or pithe
In both Bangladesh and West Bengal, the tradition of making different kinds of pan-fried, steamed or boiled sweets, lovingly known as piţhe or the "pitha", still flourishes. These little balls of heaven symbolizes the coming of winter, and the arrival of a season where rich food can be included in the otherwise mild diet of the Bengalis... the richness lie in the creamy silkiness of the milk which is mixed often with molasses, or jaggery made of either date palm or sugarcane, and sometimes sugar. They are mostly divided into different categories based on the way they are created. Generally rice flour goes into making the pithe.
They are usually fried or steamed; the most common forms of these cakes include bhapa piţha (steamed), pakan piţha (fried), and puli piţha (dumplings), among others. The other common pithas are chandrapuli, gokul, pati shapta, chitai piţha, aski pithe, muger puli and dudh puli.
The Pati Shapta variety is basically a thin-layered rice-flour crepes with a milk-custard creme-filling, very weirdly similar to the hoppers or appams of South India, or the French crepes. In urban areas of Bangladesh and West Bengal most houses hold Pitha-festivals sometime during the winter months. The celebration of the Piţha as a traditional sweet is the time for the Winter Harvest festival in rural Bangladesh and West Bengal. The harvest is known as 'Nabanno' -- (literally 'new sustenance') and calls for not only rare luxuries celebrating food and sweets but also other popular and festive cultural activities like Public Dramas at night and Open Air Dance Performances. The entire culture of making these sweets at home during harvest and offering it to friends and neighbors is to induce wellness and make others happy, and deriving good karma through the mingled blessings.
Several varieties of yoghurts such as mishţi doi, custards, and rice pudding (khir or firni) are also popular in both Bangladesh and West Bengal.
Shôndesh, chhanar jileepi, kalo jam, darbesh, raghobshai, paesh,bundiya ,nalengurer shôndesh, shor bhaja, langcha and an innumerable variety are just a few examples of sweets in Bengali cuisine.
Muŗi (puffed rice) is made by heating sand in a pot, and then throwing in grains of rice. The rice may have been washed in brine to provide seasoning. The rice puffs up and is separated from the sand by a strainer. Muŗi is very popular and is used in a wide variety of secular and religious occasions, or even just munched plain. Muri is also often used as a replacement for or in combination with regular rice.
A variant of muŗi is khoi, which is popped rice. Both varieties are used to make many different snack foods.
One of the most popular and iconic snack foods of Bengal, jhal literally means 'hot' or 'spicy'. Jhal-muŗi is puffed rice with spices, vegetables and raw mustard oil. Depending on what is added, there are many kinds of jhal-muŗi 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). and ( mudhi ) also.
A moa is made by taking muri with gur (jaggery) as a binder and forming it into a ball. Another popular kind of moa is Jaynagarer Moa, a moya particularly made in everywhere of Bangladesh, Jaynagar, South 24 Parganas district, Paschimbanga (West Bengal) which uses khoi and a sugar-milk-spices mixture as binder. Moas are made specially during winter.