Thursday, May 06, 2010

Bengali Cuisine

While some communities in India regard fish as a symbol of fertility and luck, Bengalis take their adoration of fish to a whole new level. The Bengalis have a saying, 'Mache Bhate Bengali' that translates to 'Fish and Rice make a Bengali'. Not surprisingly, 'pancho byanjan', the traditional five course Bengali meal, revolves primarily around rice and fish.

The first course begins with shukto, a mildly spiced dish made with bittergourd and other vegetables, served with steamed rice and a little ghee (clarified butter). This is followed by more rice, some dal (lentils) that may or not include fish head, chorchori (spiced mixed vegetable dish sometimes including fish) and a tele bhaja (a deep-fried fritter usually made with fish, aubergine or potato). In the third course, two types of fish are served with rice. The small fish is cooked in a dry gravy. The bigger variety, when using hilsa in the monsoons, is made as bhapa ilish - marinated, steamed and then cooked in a rich gravy. If mutton or chicken is on the menu, it is usually served at this point. Sometimes, a pilaf is served instead of steamed rice. Khichuri (rice and lentils steamed and seasoned together) is considered comfort food during the monsoons. Then comes the turn of sweet and sour chutneys, like tomato or green mango usually sweetened with sugar, jaggery, dates or raisins. The main meal ends with a serving of doi (yoghurt) or mishti doi (sweet yoghurt) or bhapa doi (steamed sweetened yoghurt).
Bengalis also love what are called luchis that look like puris but made of maida (all-purpose flour), usually deep fried in cow ghee and served with cholar dal (steamed split chickpea) and begun or alu bhaja (aubergine or potato fritters). However, luchis are usually not served in the same meal as rice.
In terms of ingredients and techniques, the Bengalis are very particular in their use of mustard oil as a cooking medium while occasionally, ghee (clarified butter) made from cow's milk is used. Panchphoron is a dry masala used by Bengalis to liven up even the dullest of ingredients. It is a mix of five spices in equal measure - nigella, fennel, fenugreek, mustard and cumin – that are used whole or as a powder.
Bengalis are renowned as much for their sweet tooth as for the freshness of the desserts they create out of chhenna (paneer/cottage cheese). The Rossogolla, Rasamalai and Sondesh are the healthiest by far, as they are simply cottage cheese balls in various forms, but not deep-fried. In the winter months, the sugar in the dessert recipe is substituted with patali gur (jaggery made of dates). There's also the simplest of home-made desserts - payesh (milk pudding) - using milk, rice/seviya, sugar/date jaggery) and flavourings.

  • Hilsa is fished from the confluence of the rivers with the sea and is considered to be the tastiest among freshwater fishes. Affluent Bengalis are known to relish the seasonal Hilsa at every meal during the monsoon.

  • The colonial influence is visible in the chops and cutlets that Bengalis love to serve. The tomato ketchup made its entry into Bengali kitchen as an accompaniment.

  • While both are fish-loving communities, the cuisine of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and West Bengal differ in that the former is richer, oilier, and spicier making use of every available vegetable or green. More mustard is used by the East Bengal communities. The cuisine of West Bengal, due to western influence, has a more sophisticated form, subtler flavours and making use of maida (all-purpose flour). More coconut is used by the West Bengal community.

  • Bengalis are adept at creating wonderful dishes out of seeming food waste. Every part of a banana tree is used, from its blossoms for chops to raw fruit for koftas to the stem in a simple fry. Even the peel is apparently used to make a type of chop! The banana leaf makes for a vibrant platter to serve a traditional Bengali meal. Even fish marrow is not allowed to go waste.

  • Ledikeni is surely a quaint name for a dessert. A confectioner called Bhim Nag created a variation of the Bengali sweet, pantua, for the birthday of Countess Charlotte Canning, the wife of the British Governor General Charles Canning. The name of the sweet then, 'Lady Canning', became over time, 'Ledikeni'.
(an edited version appeared in the April 2010 Issue of Culturama, formerly At A Glance.)


abcasl said...

Any suggestions where one can find date jaggery in syrup form in the US?

Saritha said...

No idea. If the remembered flavour of date syrup is not very strong, perhaps you could substitute with maple syrup?