Bengali food has inherited a large number of influences, arising from the strong trade links with many parts of the world throughout its history. Bengal fell under the sway of various Turkic rulers from the early thirteenth century, and later governed by the British for two centuries (1757–1947).
The Jews brought bakeries to Bengal, the Marwaris contributed their sweet-making skills, the exiled family of Wajed Ali Shah and Tipu Sultan brought different flavours of Mughlai cuisine. British patronage and the Babu culture during the Bengal Renaissance period fuelled the development of these different culinary strands into a distinct heritage. From the culinary point of view, some major historical trends influenced Bengali food.
Paanch phoron is the most popular spice in Bengali cuisine. It includes five (hence, paanch) spices – cumin seeds (jeera), nigella seeds (kalo jeera), fenugreek seeds (methi), fennel seeds (mouri) and mustard seeds (shorshe). Shukto, ghonto, jhol and ambole are some of the prominent cuisines of Bengal that use paanch phoron.
Shukto consists of a plethora of vegetables cooked in the most unique spices, drenched in creamy gravy, with the slightest hint of sweetness and a core taste of bitterness. It is a soothing rustic curry which clears your palate perfectly before you dig into the countless courses of a typical Bengali meal.
Patishapta pitha: This is a traditional Bengali pancake stuffed with kheer or khowa (bongong.com)
Fish is the dominant kind of meat. There are more than forty types of fresh water fish commonly used in Bengali cuisine. It includes the rohu, magur (catfish), chingri (prawn or shrimp), shutki (dried sea fish) and ilish (hilsa). Goat meat is the most popular red meat.
The Rule of the Nawabs
From the culinary point of view, Dhaka evolved a vibrant cuisine based heavily on the influence of the Mughal courts, popularly called Mughlai (or Moglai) cuisine and characterised by rich sauces and a generous use of meat. These food traditions continued in the courts of the Nawabs of Bengal. After the Mughals left Bengal, their cooks utilised their skills which spread into the roots of some of Bengal’s famous recipes such as kosha mangsho and maach Dhakai, the latter being popular in Dhaka.
Kosha mangsho: Spicy mutton curry characterised by juicy pieces of the meat in velvety gravy (photos.boldsky.com)
Another key influence to the food came much later, when Wajed Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, was exiled by the British. He is said to have brought with him hundreds of baburchis (cooks), khansamas (stewards) and mashlachis (spice mixers). On his death, these specialist workers dissipated into the population, starting restaurants and food carts all over Bengal and propagating a distinctly Awadhi legacy.
Christianity and other European influences
As the legend goes, to cater for the needs of British workmen, Nizam's restaurant in Kolkata invented the first kathi roll. Culinary habits came from the British, and other Western immigrants such as the Baghdadi Jews and West Bengal’s flourishing community of Anglo-Indians. Another culinary influence of the Christian community was that of baked confectionery.
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. Kolkata’s big Jewish bakeries are dead or dying, but their influence is everywhere.
Kathi roll: Skewer-roasted kebab wrapped in parantha bread (pintrest.com)
Maacher chop: An outer casing of potato, stuffed with a separately cooked spicy fish (limadelhi.blogspot.com)
The Chinese community in West Bengal initially emigrated in the late 18th century to work at the Kolkata port. Along with them, Chinese food came to Bengal and as time passed by, it has been influenced by the demands of the local taste buds. Today a sizeable number are also owners and workers in Chinese restaurants. 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.
Chicken sweet corn soup: Sweet corn kernels in a flavourful chicken stock with egg drop (www.food-blog.co.za)
Chilli chicken: Spicy, juicy pieces of chicken sautéed in Chinese sauces with onion and capsicum (mariasmenu.com)
The introduction of the fabled tastemaker, monosodium glutamate came much later, along with sweet corn. It got infused into what is widely popular as ‘Bengali Chinese’. The cuisine is characterised as much by what is missing – mushrooms, for instance – as by what is there, such as a far greater use of pork than other Indian cuisines.
Bengalis have been winners in all the delicacies they have presented to the world. A distinct culinary tradition emerged in Bengal based on the availability of local ingredients. 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.
Shorshe ilish: Hilsa steaks cooked in hot-chilli-and-nigella-seed-flavoured, thick mustard gravy (amarcooking.info)
The flow of tastes of a Bengali meal starts from a bitter and ends in a sweet flourish. To start with, especially at lunch, is shukto and rice. Ghee and dal come next, accompanied by fried or boiled vegetables. This is followed by spiced vegetable dishes like dalna and/or ghonto. Now come the non-vegetarian components, first lightly-spiced ones and then the more heavily spiced ones.
Mishti doi: Sweet curd made from milk and caramelised sugar, fermented in an earthen pot (travelblog.org)
The last phase of the meal starts with sweet-and-sour ambol or tauk (chutney) and fried papads. A dessert of mishit doi (sweet curd), accompanied by dry sweets or payesh or fruits will end the meal. A meal is usually followed by paan (betel leaves), which is a digestive aid.
Bengali food is widely cooked in mustard oil, which gives a distinct flavour to the dishes. Hilsa fish is the speciality of Kolkata which is delicately steamed with spices and mustard oil to retain its flavours and tenderness. Most Bengalis take pride in luchi, a refined, sophisticated form of puri. Sweets occupy a special place in any Bengali feast or social ceremony. Some of the popular sweets are rasgulla, sandesh and chumchum.
Luchi: Deep-fried flatbread made of wheat flour (flickr.com)
Sandesh: Bengali dessert created with chhana (cottage cheese) or kheer, and sugar (calcuttanow.blogspot.com)
Kolkata has continued to wield an enormous influence on the cultural and food habits of West Bengal. Its offices, ports and bazaars attract substantial populations of many communities from across India. These communities have flourished for generations, and they continue to influence the local cuisine as well, of Kolkata as well as the rest of Bengal.
Written by Daniel Johns for Team M3.tv
Lead image: blog.trulymadly.com