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Subtle Flavours Of Bengali Cuisine
Khai khai koro keno, esho bosho aharey
Khawar ajob khawa, Bhoj koy jaharey
The Bengalis love for food is legendary. It probably has its roots in the soil and water of the state which is rich in possibilities. While the soil bursts forth with a variety of vegetables, herbs and vines, the water bodies teem with the choicest fish and crustaceans that end up on the thalas of the Bengali household.
Food experts and gourmets have discovered an astounding depth of thought and scientific planning behind the elaborate but apparently chaotic meals. According to Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta, food columnist, Bengali cuisine takes in the five basic tastes of astringent, bitter, sweet, sour and hot. Moreover the cuisine also facilitates five different ways of eating: slurping (liquids), gentle chewing (soft), masticating (hard), sucking (soft and hard) and licking (semi-liquids and liquids).
It is easy to validate the point with an authentic Bengali meal which begins with bitters, either in the form of shukto (a kind of stew with vegetables, drumsticks or bitter gourd) and moves on in stages through the dals with fries and fritters, a vegetable dish like a ghonto or chhokka or dalna, to the non-vegetarian items of fish or meat. Before ending on a sweet note, there is the occasional treat of an astringent or sweet chutney.
Even though Bengalis are famed for their fish fixation, the array of vegetarian items that form part of their cuisine is amazing. It is said that nothing goes to waste in a Bengali kitchen. Take the case of the banana plant. The leaves are used for serving, the stems (thor) are cooked as ghonto or chhechhki, the blossoms (mocha) are also consumes as ghonto and paturi (a way of cooking food wrapped in banana leaves). The fruit is available both in the ripe and raw form, the latter being considered ideal for koftas. And what do you know, even the peel is crushed and ground to a paste and fried for a delicious starter!
"This kind of ingenuity is apparent in the use of almost all kinds of vegetables," says Sadhana Mukherjee, food writer. She points out that jackfruit and numerous other plants like jute and pumpkin whose leaves, stems and flowers are consumed- boiled, fried, steamed or curried.
Besides this variety, there is a basic difference in the cuisines of East and West Bengal. While the eastern Bengalis (now Bangladesh) prefer hotter and spicier food, those on the western side of the border like the sweeter version of the same. There are also certain items which are traditionally attributed to the two segments. For instance, chittal machher muitha (chittal deboned and skinned, the flesh scooped and rounded into balls, fried and curried), or morag pulao (a lighter version of chicken biryani), are typically east Bengali. Most of the posto (poppy seeds) items certain kinds of dals like Kalai and snacks like radhaballabhi and hinger kachuri (kachuri with asafoetida) are from the west.
But all these items and techniques of cooking were developed at a time when Bengali women spent most of their time in the kitchen. Says Sadhana Mukherjee, During the days of the Babu-culture, men spent all their time at work or with their mistresses and would only come home for their meals. While women worked hard on their culinary arts to enchant their husbands". And the more time they spent in the kitchen, the more elaborate and intricate were the preparations.
Pragyasundari Devis cookbook, published exactly a hundred years ago, is one of the earliest of its kind and enlists a mind-boggling variety of items and techniques of cooking. For something as basic as dal, there are at least 83 varieties in one volume alone. A far cry from today when most elaborate meals are scheduled for occasions like pujas and weddings.
Places such as Aaheli at The Peerless Inn, Kewpies or more home grown outlets like Suruchi and Kasturi rejuvenate the dormant Bengali taste buds that have become used to instant noodles and chicken patties. One gets traditional items like chittal maccher muitha, ilish paturi, mochar ghonto, mach diye dal, dhokar dalna here, when not at home. Says Chef Tapan David at Aaheli; "Most of our customers here are Bengalis who have tasted authentic stuff, so we cannot take chances with recipes."
While mutton has always been Bengals favorite meat, chicken is a relatively new entrant. Of fish, the hilsa is probably the Bengalis first love, followed closely by koi, pabda and chingri (lobster and prawns). Cooked in mustard sauce for a pungent taste, gravied in grated coconuts, or smoked in banana leaves or simply curried or fried, hilsa is a sure winner any day. Says Lalita Dey of Suruchi, "Come monsoon and we have to make khichuri and fried hilsa". Agrees Chef David at Aaheli, " Hilsa is a favorite 365 days a year, while golda chingri (king prawn) is much sought after during the Bengali New Year".
No Bengali meal is complete without sweets. From the ubiquitous mishti doi and rossogolla, to the more rare pithey and pulli, the choice here too is unlimited. In the more traditional households like the Mullicks of North Calcutta, special events are still marked by vien, the sweet makers session. Says actor Ranjit Mullick of the family, "During Durga Puja, the vien is what we look forward to for the delicious bondeys."
But here again, making sweets like the gokul pithey, ananda naru (a must at weddings), elo jhelo or chandrapuli is a dying art.
Whether having an elaborate meal at home, or tucking in at a restaurant, Bengali cuisine has much to offer. Small wonder then that it is that said Bengalis live to eat.
UNIQUELY BENGALI FLAVOUS
Pora: cooked mostly with eggplant, the vegetable is roasted and mixed with salt, green chillies, coriander leaves, onions and mustard oil.
Jhaal: especially for fish the gravy is of freshly ground mustard sauce.
Doi maach / doi patal: parwal or fish cooked in gravy of curd.
Pithey: a pancake like sweet base of semolina or flour which is rolled around a variety of fillings like coconut and kheer and fried in ghee.
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