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An Introduction to Bengali Cooking

About Bengal

Bengal or, as she is lovingly referred to, "Sonar Bangla" (Golden Bengal), is made up of the Indian state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal). The people of Bengal farm the fertile Ganges Delta for rice and vegetables and fish the regions myriad rivers. If you haven't yet visited this uniquely beautiful land, here is a glimse of it below. These pictures are of Ashuria, a small village in Birbhum district of West Bengal, India.

Inside the Bengali Kitchen

With the shopping done, the scene shifts to the ranna bari (cookhouse). The storage, cooking and eating areas in a Bengali home were a separate unit and the domain of the womenfolk. This barrack-like cookhouse was a row of rooms running parallel to a wide airy veranda often used as the dining space. In an orthodox Bengali home, fish and vegetables were cooked over separate fires, rice over another and meat, if cooked at all was done in a portable bucket fire outside the kitchen. However, recipes that were once cooked on these cowpat, wood or charcoal fires have now been adapted to emerge almost perfect from the gas, electric and microwave ovens that are in use today.

Here are some essential items you are sure to spot if you ever take a peek into a Bengali kitchen (even today!).

 The staple food, rice, is bought by the sack and stored in huge containers. Pure golden mustard oil, that pungent Bengali cooking medium is usually stored in zinc lined tins. Large square tins are usually used to store the favorite Bengali snack food - muri (puffed rice). Achaars (pickles), spices, dals and ghee are kept in various sized bottles and jars on a shelf. And you will find many baskets, large and small, lidded and unlidded strewn all over the floor to store vegetables that just arrived from the market.

 Among the cooking vessels, the karais (woks) where most of the cooking and frying is done, the tawa (griddle) on which rotis and parotas are made, the handi - a special large pot for cooking rice and the handleless modification of the sauce pan - the rimmed, deep, flat-bottomed dekchi are all hallmarks of the Bengali kitchen. And of course you will also find the pressure cooker which is indispensable to any Indian kitchen. As for the other utensils you absolutely can't do without the hatha (ladle), the khunti (metal spatula), the jhanjri (perforated spoon), the sharashi (pincers to remove vessels from the fire), the ghuntni (wooden hand blender) for puréeing dal and the old wooden chaki belon (round pastry board and rolling pin).

 The action in the kitchen begins with the cutting of fish and vegetables and the grinding of spices. And this is when the two star attractions of the Bengali kitchen - the sil nora (grinding stone) and the boti (a cutting tool) appear. The items to be ground are put on the heavy sil, a pentagonal slab of stone and are crushed over and over by its moving partner the nora, a smooth black stone you hold with your hands. This inseperable pair lasts longer than a lifetime and is usually handed down from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law.

Although knives and peelers have made their debut into the modern Bengali kitchen, the boti,  that unique cutting tool, has not yet been ousted. Boti, the Bengali woman's pride and joy and her proverbial weapon, is fitted on a wooden stand and held in place by the feet on the floor so that both hands are free. The blade of the versatile boti varies and is sharp enough to cut off the head of the toughest carp and yet safe enough to peel vegetables (with some skill that is!).

 

Common Bengali Cooking Styles

AMBAL : A sour dish made either with several vegetables or with fish, the sourness being produced by the addition of tamarind pulp.

BHAJA : Anything fried, either by itself or in batter.

BHAPA : Fish or vegetables steamed with oil and spices. A classic steaming technique is to wrap the fish in banana leaf to give it a faint musky, smoky scent.

BHATE : Any vegetable, such as potatoes, beans, pumpkins or even dal, first boiled whole and then mashed and seasoned with mustard oil or ghee and spices.

BHUNA : A term of Urdu origin, meaning fried for a long time with ground and whole spices over high heat. Usually applied to meat.

CHACHCHARI : 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 phoron. The skin and bone of large fish like bhetki or chitol can be made into a chachchari called kanta-chachchari, kanta, meaning fish-bone.

CHHANCHRA : A combination dish made with different vegetables, portions of fish head and fish oil (entrails).

CHHENCHKI : Tiny pieces of one or more vegetable - or, sometimes even the peels (of potatoes, lau, pumpkin or patol for example) - usually flavored with panch-phoron or whole mustard seeds or kala jeera. Chopped onion and garlic can also be used, but hardly any ground spices.

DALNA : Mixed vegetables or eggs, cooked in a medium thick gravy seasoned with groung spices, especially garom mashla and a touch of ghee.

DAM : Vegetables, especially potatoes, or meat, cooked over a covered pot slowly over a low heat.

GHANTO : Different complementary vegtables (e.g., cabbage, green peas, potatoes or banana blossom, coconut, chickpeas) are chopped or finely grated and cooked with both a phoron and ground spices. Dried pellets of dal (boris) are often added to the ghanto. Ghee is commonly added at the end. Non-vegitarian ghantos are also made, with fish or fish heads added to vegetables. The famous murighanto is made with fish heads cooked in a fine variety of rice. Some ghantos 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 panch-phoron or kala jeera. Being dryish it is often eaten with a little bit of dal pored over the rice.

JHOL : A light fish or vegetable stew seasoned with ground spices like ginger, cumin, corriander, chilli and turmeric with pieces of fish and longitudinal slices of vegetables floating in it. The gravy is thin yet extreamely flavorful. Whole green chillies are usually added at the end and green corriander leaves are used to season for extra taste.

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 onion paste and garom mashla.

KOFTAS (or Boras) : Ground meat or vegetable croquettes bound together by spices and/or eggs served alone or in savory gravy.

KORMA : Another term of Urdu origin, meaning meat or chicken cooked in a mild yoghurt based sauce with ghee instead of oil.

PORA : Literally, burnt. Vegetables are wrapped in leaves and roasted over a wood or charcoal fire. Some, like eggplants (brinjals/aubergines), are put directly over the flames. Before eating the roasted vegetable is mixed with oil and spices.

TARKARI : A general term often used in Bengal the way `curry' is used in English. Originally from Persian, 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.

 

Eating and Serving Bengali Food

The Bengali people are perhaps the greatest food lovers in the Indian subcontinent. A leisurely meal of many items which requires long hours of labour and ingenuity in the kitchen has long been a major part of Bengali culture. The traditional way of serving food is on the floor, where individual pieces of carpet, called asans, are spread for each person to sit on. In front of this seat is placed a large platter made of bell metal/steel or on a large piece of fresh cut banana leaf. Around this platter a number of small metal or earthen bowls are arrayed in which portions of dal, vegetables, fish, meat chutney and dessert are served. In the center of the platter sits a small mound of piping hot rice flanked by vegetable fritters, wedges of lime, whole green chillies and perhaps a bit of pickle. Finally in the center of the mound a liitle hole is made to pour in a spoonful of ghee to flavour the initial mouthfuls of rice.

 The approach to food is essentially tactile. As in all of India, Bengalis eat everything with their fingers. What, after all, could be better to pick out treacherous bones of fish like hilsa and koi? Apart from this functional aspect, the fingers also provide an awareness of texture which becomes as important as that felt by the tongue. The various mashed vegetables or different rice or varieties of fish we eat are all appreciated by the fingers before they enter the mouth.
Each individual has a particular style of dealing with his or her food. Some people pick up their rice and accompaniments very daintily, their fingers barely touching the food. Then there are those hearty, somewhat coarse eaters who can be seen liking their palms all the way to their wrists and `Up to one's wrist in food' has become a Bengali phrase to denote gluttonous indulgence.
The other peculiarity about the Bengali eating scene is the unashamed accululation of remnants. Since succulent vegetable stalks, fish bones and fish heads, meat and chicken bones are all meticulously chewed until not a drop of juice is left inside, heaps of chewed remnants beside each plate are an inevitable part of a meal.

 Whether you have five dishes or sixty, the most important part of eating in Bengal is eating each dish seperately with a little bit of rice in order to savour its individual bouquet. The more delicate tastes always come first and it is only by graduating from these to stronger ones that you can accommodate the whole range of taste. Vegetables, especially the bitter ones, are the first item followed by dal, perhaps accompanied by fries or fritters of fish and vegetables. After this comes any of the complex vegetable dishes like ghanto or chachchari, followed by the important fish jhol as well as other fish preparations. Meat will always follow fish, and chutneys and ambals will provide the refeshing touch of tartness to make the tongue anticipate the sweet dishes.
With all these delicious flavors combined with textures to be chewed, sucked, licked and gulped with suitable chomps and slurps (the better the meal the louder the sounds of appreciation) the Bengali meal usually ends with a great fortissimo burp!

 

A History of Bengali Cuisine and Cookery

A distinct culinary tradition emerged in Bengal based on the availability of local ingredients. The great river systems, heat and humidity combine with the fertile soil to allow rice and an abundance of vegetables to thrive; these became the corner stones of the diet. Mangoes, bananas, coconuts, and cane sugar grew in abundance; fish, milk, and meat were plentiful; yogurt and spices such as ginger and black mustard would season the dishes.

Even though fish and meat were generally popular, there was a predisposition to vegitarianism, based on religious principles, that has continued to the present. Strict vegetarians also omit onion and garlic from their diet, foods that "heat rather than cool", preferring to substitute a garlicky-flavored spice called asafoetida. The taboo against the consumption of fish and meat became even stronger with the flowering of religions such as Jainism and Buddhism. But with the decline of Buddhism in the ensuing centuries, fish and meat returned to the menu.

Rice, the staple of Bengalis since ancient times, has remained untouched by the currents of religious change and its preparation has held to a continuing high standard. One crop a year was sufficient to sustain the people, providing ample leisure time for the Bengalis to pursue cultural ideals: folklore, music, and the culinary arts.

The 16th-century Mongol kings left their mark on the cooking of Northern India, which to this day is known as moghlai cooking. With the introduction of Islam, Bengali Moslems adopted dishes such as kababs, koftas and biriyani from their Moghul conquerors. But the major portion of Bengali Hindu cuisine retained its original characteristics except that the use of onion and garlic became more popular.

The European traders introduced food from the New World - potatoes, chillies, and tomatoes. Bengalis incorporated them into their diet, combining them with a variety of native ingredients creating new dishes.

 Then as now, Bengali cooking is mostly confined to the home. Dishes are carefully prepared according to recipes handed down through generations. Modern Bengalis have become culinary innovators. They search for, and experiment with, foreign culinary ideas, incorporating such new food items as noodles, soy bean and custard into an increasingly cosmopolitan bill of fare. But in their hearts, they still delight in such traditional dishes as maacher chochori and rosogolla.

Food is a major part of Bengali culture. Here are some interesting articles on Bengali cuisine, its uniqueness, how it has developed through the ages and how it plays an important role in rituals and festivals:

 

How Bengali Cuisine Differs from other Indian Cuisines

An abundant land provides for an abundant table. The nature and variety of dishes found in Bengali cooking are unique even in India. Fish cookery is one of its better-known features and distinguishes it from the cooking of the landlocked regions. Bengal's countless rivers, ponds and lakes teem with many kinds of freshwater fish that closely resemble catfish, bass, shad or mullet. Bengalis prepare fish in innumerable ways - steamed or braised, or stewed with greens or other vegetables and with sauces that are mustard based or thickened with poppyseeds. You will not find these types of fish dishes elsewhere in India.

Bengalis also excel in the cooking of 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 cooker.

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 seeds and five-spice (a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, kalonji, and black mustard). The trump card card of Bengali cooking probably is the addition of this phoran, a comination of whole spices, fried and added at the start or finish of cooking as a flavouring special to each dish. Bengalis share a love of whole black mustard with South Indians, but the use of freshly ground mustard paste is unique to Bengal.

 

Translation Table for Ingredients

  BENGALI HINDI ENGLISH
MILK PRODUCTS chhana paneer cottage cheese
doi dahi yogurt
ghee ghee clarified butter
ghole lassi yogurt drink
khoa/kheer khoya thickened milk
payesh kheer rice pudding
CEREALS atta atta whole wheat flour
bhaat chawal cooked rice
chaler guro chawal atta rice flour
chirey chura, poha flattened or beaten rice
moida maida wheat flour
moori moori puffed rice
sewai sewai vermicelli
siddha chaal ushna chawal parboiled rice
sooji sooji semolina
LENTILS arhar dal toor/toovar dal split pigeon peas
besan besan chickpea flour
bori bori small sundried cones of lentil paste
kabuli chhola kabuli chana chick peas
chholar dal chana dal bengal gram
kalai/biuli dal urad dal black gram
matar dal matar dal dried peas
munger dal moong dal moong beans or green gram
musurir dal masoor dal red lentil
papar papad poppadum
V
E
G
E
T
A
B
L
E
S
alu alu potato
bandha kopi bund gobi cabbage
begoon baigan brinjal/aubergine/eggplant
enchor kancha kanthal green jackfruit
gajar gajar carrot
jhingey torai ridged gourd
kanch kala kacha kela green banana/plantain
khosha chhilke peels, scrapings
kochu ghuiyan taro/arum root
korola, ucchey karela bitter gourd/melon
kumro kaddu red pumpkin
lau lauki white/bottle gourd
matarshuti hara matar green peas
mocha kele-ka-phool banana blossom/spadex
moolo mooli daikon/horse radish
neem pata neem patti margosa leaves
ole ole elephant yam
paan paan betle leaf
palang saag palak spinach
phulkopi gobi cauliflower
piaj piaz onion
piaj koli piaz patti spring onion shoots
potol parval/palwal pointed gourd
ranga alu shakarkhand sweet potato
saag saag leafy vegetables
salgam salgam turnip
shosha kheera cucumber
sheem seem broad bean
sorshey saag sarso-ki-saag mustard greens
thor kele-ki-tana white pith of banana plant stem
FRUIT and NUTS aam aam mango
anaras ananas pineapple
caju caju cashew
chine badam mung phali peanut
kala kela banana
kamala lebu santra orange
kancha aam keri/kacha aam unripe/green mango
kanthal kathal jackfruit
kishmish kismis raisin
kool ber Indian plum
lebu nimbu lemon
narkel nariyal coconut
pepey papita papaya [ripe=fruit, unripe=veg]
pesta pista pistachio
peyara amrood guava
tentul imli tamarind
FISH bhetki bhetki machchi beckti
chingri jhinga prawns/shrimp
gurjali ravas Indian salmon
ilish hilsa machchi hilsa
kankra kakkra crab
koi - climbing perch
maachh machchi fish
maachher dim machchi-ka-anda roe
magur, shinghi, tangra magur, singhi, tangra cat fish
pabda pupta Indian butter fish
parshey boi mullet
rui, mrigel, katla rohu, mirgel, katla carp, buffalo fish
shole shole murrel
topshey topsi mango fish
MEAT and POULTRY bherar mangsho bheri mutton
chaap chaap rib chop
dim anda egg
gorur mangsho gai-ka-gosht beef
hansh batak duck
keema keema mince/ground meat
khashi khashi fattened castrated goat
mangsho gosht meat
murgi murgh chicken
pantha bakri goat
suwarer mangsho suwar-ka-gosht pork
BREADS kochuri kachori fried wheat pastry with seasoned filling
luchi luchi puffed fried fllour bread
porota paratha thick crispy bread grilled in ghee
pau ruti pau roti loaf bread
ruti chapati unleavened whole wheat flour bread
S
P
I
C
E
S

and

S
E
A
S
O
N
I
N
G

ada adrak ginger
boro elach bara elaichi black cardamon
daruchini dalchini cinamon
dhoney dhania coriander seeds
dhoney patta dhania patta cilantro/coriander leaves
(choto) elach elaichi green cardamon
garam mashla garam masala cloves, cinamon, cardamons (and black pepper for the rest of India but not Bengal)
gol morich kala mirch black pepper
halud haldi turmeric
hing hing asafoetida
jaffran zaffran saffron
jaiphal jaiphal nutmeg
jaitri javitri mace
(sada) jeera jeera cumin
jowan, randhuni jwain carom seeds
kala jeera kalonji nigella
kancha lanka hara mirich green chilli
kari pata kari patta curry leaves
labongo lavang cloves
mashla masale spices
mauri saunf aniseed/fennel
methi methi dana fenugreek seeds
noon, laban namak salt
panch phoron panch phoran five spice: aniseed, cumin, fenugreek, mustard and nigella
postho khus khus poppy seeds
pudina pata pudina patti mint leaves
rasoon lasoon garlic
rai sorsey rai sarson mustard seeds
shukno lanka sukha lal mirich red dried chilli
tej pata tej patta bay leaf
til til sesame seed

  Resources Used:

  1. "Bengali Cooking : Seasons and Festivals" by Chitrita Banerji. Published by Inbook.
  2. "The Calcutta Cook Book: A Treasury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace" by Minakshie Dasgupta. Penguin Publishers.
  3. "A Taste of India" by Madhur Jaffrey. Macmillan Publishing Company, Incorporated.
  4. "The Healthy Cuisine of India: Recipes from the Bengal Region" by Bharti Kirchner. Published by Lowell House, Los Angeles.
  5. "Bangla Ranna: The Bengal Cookbook" by Minakshie Dasgupta. UBS Publishers' Distributors Ltd.