By Guest blogger – Kamalika Basu, Chief Culinary artist at camelia.artisanal
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Camellia.artisanal is a small home based food company that delivers home-made norom pak sondesh & few other Bengali sweets to all over Delhi NCR & also organizes old fashioned sit down Bengali Sunday lunches at gurugram 2-3 times a month.
In a nutshell, Bengal has a wide, evolved cuisine, which celebrates the bounty of nature. Most dishes have distinct, subtle flavours & taste, while retaining the flavours & textures of ingredients as close as possible to the original. Food is served & eaten in a sequence. The cuisine has influences from not only different parts of India but also from different parts of the world.
Bengali food is most talked about in terms of fish, meat, prawns and other animal based food, but the cuisine has a huge spread of vegetarian food as well.
The vegetarian food is mostly Sattvik (no onion, no garlic, minimal fats), using not just the main fruit, root or vegetable, but also at times using the peel, the pith of the stems, the blossoms & more. The West is talking about sustainable cooking methods of late but this culture has been around in Bengali food for centuries.
Cooking Bengali food has an unwritten grammar. Choice of vegetables is usually seasonal. Each vegetable & each dish has a specific spice combination. The cuts of same vegetable in different curries is different, depending on aspects like the style of cooking (slow cooked or normal), the intended mouthfeel. Usually minimal number of spices is used in each dish. Bengali cooking style in general is appreciative of the texture & flavour of each ingredient. For many Indians used to strong flavours, lot of chillies & spicy food, Bengali food might feel bland. However, chances are that the food would grow on them.
Bengali traditional home food, like Assamese & Odisha cuisine, rarely has any thick gravies. The gravies are usually thin, bordering watery, but full of flavours. Even the daals that are thin have full-bodied of flavours.
There are two different styles of cooking that started being discussed after partition of Bangladesh & India. The families who migrated from Bangladesh (Bangal) have a somewhat different cooking style than the families who were already living in West Bengal (Ghoti). Examples are sweetness in curries of Ghotis, hotter curries of Bangals, posto (poppy seeds) being popular in Ghoti homes, frequent use of coconut paste & coconut grated among bangals etc.
Commercial Bengali food served at restaurants are quite different from home food. The flavours of commercial food is usually stronger & on the face. The levels of industrially processed spices & oil are much higher than one usually has at home.
New age restaurants like sienna cafe, kolkata does a modern version / new interpretation of traditional bengali food using fresh ingredients from the market. We loved our new interpretation of bengali food experience at amar khamar lunch table earlier this year.
Some dishes are made only for family members for daily consumption & never served to guests.
Traditionally the main source of carbohydrates in Bengal was rice, be it in the form of steamed rice or pulao (pilaf), chirey (poha/ flattened rice), (khoi) popped rice or muri (puffed rice). In the last century, a famine followed by a major rice shortage forced people to start eating handmade tawa roti, at least in one meal in a day.
Popular rice like basmati was almost never eaten in Bengal earlier. There were many varieties of aromatic short grain rice & other mid grain rice. Many varieties of local rice were on the verge of extinction since the last three decades, as those were costlier to grow than the Green revolution led high yielding varieties of rice & cheaper industrial processing. New age organisations like Amar khamar, the Bengal store, are now helping farmers grow small batches of traditional variety of rice by reaching out to elite customers & shipping these ace artisanal produce worldwide. Dhenki chhata (Hand pounded) rice, easy to digest & a good substitute for industrially processed brown rice, is also being re-popularised by such organizations.
Luchi, the Bengali version of poori, was however an exception to the rice dishes & was a part of occasional, celebratory food. Luchi was always made of maida, and unlike the poori of Northern India, the luchi dough is made with some fat & salt in it that adds to the taste. Some even add a pinch of sugar in the dough & keep it for about 15 minutes for the sugar to set in.
Mustard oil is not only the most common cooking medium, but it is also used as a pungent flavouring agent in many dishes. For deep frying a luchi however the oil of choice was & is a white oil/ ghee etc.
Food in major Bengali meals is traditionally served in a sequence. A meal might not have so many dishes at one go but the sequence is followed with whatever dishes are there. The thought is that the more sought-after dishes come later in sequence.
Rice is served in the south west corner of the plate, with a wedge of Gondhoraj lebu (fragrant lime) or lemon & a pinch of salt in the north west corner.
Ghee is poured on the rice, to pair with certain dishes.
Bitter food is served first. It can be a vegetable curry like shukto, with bitter gourd or neem leaves.
Next dal is served with bhaja (fries) or a dry curry on the side. The bhaja can be a vegetable fry or a fish fry. Vegetables are usually fried with marination in just salt & turmeric.
Sometimes there is a makha (mashed) dish, usually of a vegetable like pumpkin/ potato/bittergourd etc to be had with daal or with ghee rice.
Saag bhaja is sautéed saag, had with rice & ghee.
After this is served the non-vegetarian curries in this sequence – egg, fish, chicken, prawns, mutton.
The end of a savoury meal is marked by a Sweet & sour Chutney made from fruits.
Finally Mishti Doi (sweet curd) & Mishti (Sweets) are served.
Addition of onion & garlic makes a dish ‘Amish’ (equivalent of non-vegetarian). So on puja days food (at temples or community pujas) is cooked without these ingredients. Niramish is the opposite of Amish. If meat is cooked without onion garlic, it’s called Niramish Mangsho:). Many river fish dishes are cooked without onion garlic.
Bengal has taken many food influences from places around the world – Potoler dolma (a green vegetable stuffed with potatoes or minced meat) from dolma of Armenians, Chingri (prawn) Malay curry from Malaysia. Alu bhate (mashed potato), Kobiraji (coverage of a meat/fish patty), chop & cutlet (crumb fried meat/ fish/ vegetables) from the British, Chhana (Cottage cheese) from the Portuguese etc.
Bengalis love sweets but sweets are not made at most homes but are bought from ubiquitous sweet shops. Unlike in most parts of the country, where reduced milk & pulses are mostly the base raw material, the sweets of Bengal are mostly made from curdled milk. Techniques of curdling milk to make fine sweets were learnt from the processes used by Europeans (living in Bengal in mid nineteenth century) for making cheese.
When Nawab Wazid ali shah was deposed by the British from Lucknow to Kolkata in mid nineteenth century, he brought with him a retinue of cooks. It is believed that the Kolkata biryani with aloo is a local version of the Lucknowi Biryani, introduced by the khansamas of the Nawab.
P.S. Like always, Bengali food is still evolving. New influences are moving in from other cultures. As always, Bengalis are open to it & are constantly creating newer versions.
Note: The above is not a comprehensive description of each & every kind of Bengali food. Please feel free to add your other Bengali food experiences in the comment section, for the benefit of the readers