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Bengali cuisine

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Template:Cuisine Bengali cuisine is a style of food preparation that originated in Bengal, a region in the northeast of South Asia which is now divided between the independent country of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.

Contents

Historical influences

Bengali food has inherited a large number of influences, both foreign and Indian, from both a turbulent history and strong trade links with many parts of the world. Bengal is fairly ancient; Originally a Dravidian and tribal society that was eventually settled by the Aryans during the Gupta era and then by various Muslim rulers since the early thirteeth century. The tribals were hunter gatherers in the dense forests of the Sunderbans while the rest of Bengal was heavily agrarian, farming the extremely fertile Ganges delta for rice, vegetables and cash crops such as jute. There was also significant pisciculture in ponds and lakes, along with fishing in the many rivers.

The Spread of Islam

The Islamic influence came to Bengal a few hundred years after its arrival on the western borders of India. Its initial influence was through wandering sufi saints, and later through administrative governors appointed by the Islamic rulers of Delhi and Agra. Bengal was under continuous Muslim rule soon after the late thirteenth century, first under the Turks and Afghans of and then continuously under the Mughals after the death of Sher Shah. Soon a large percentage of the population had converted to Islam. However, while the religion propagated in the populace, the region remained isolated from the political and religious centres of Muslim India. This meant that people retained many of their local customs and specially food habits.

The Influence of the Widows

In medieval Bengal the treatment of Hindu widows was much more proscribed than common elsewhere. They led very monastic lives within the household and lived under strict dietary restrictions. Traditional cuisine was deeply influenced by them; they were usually the important contributors to the kitchen since they were not allowed any interests but religion and housework. Their ingenuity and skill led to many culinary practices; simple spice combinations, the ability to prepare small quantities (since widows often ate alone) and creative use of the simplest of cooking techniques. Since widows were banned 'impassioning' condiments such as onion or garlic, most traditional Bengali vegetarian recipes don't use them - in stark contrast to the rest of the Indian subcontinent where almost every dish calls for onions and garlic. This has led to a definite slant towards ginger in Bengali vegetarian food. This treatment of widows in Bengal continued until fairly recently; the effect on the cuisine was to preserve many of the dishes and techniques of the old in purest form—well removed from the influence of Mughal or Western methods.

European and Other Outside Influences

The Europeans came to modern Bengal soon after the Mughals, but in small numbers. The Portuguese visited the ports of Bengal as traders and missionaries, along with the French, the Dutch and the British. The French were the first to establish a colony at Chandannagar, but by the late eigteenth century the British were dominant. They made it the eastern capital of the Empire while Dutch and Irish missionaries launched their missions and schools from Bengal. Marwai and Gujarati traders made it their home, Afghans visited frequently with their spices and moneylending, the Chinese came to escape the mainland. The prosperity of Bengal made it attractive to Syrians, Jews and Armenians too. The Europeans brought cooking techniques, but also new ingredients and food item. In addition, cities developed population centres of Europeans; this in turn encouraged foreign purveyors to set up locally, such as Jewish bakeries and English sausage vendors.

The Partition of Bengal

The partition of India from the British in 1947 separated West Bengal from the present-day Bangladesh, causing a significant change in demographics. Though the population was already somewhat concentrated along religious lines before the partition, the resultant migrations afterwards dramatically increased the religious divide. Food and cultures followed the people who, at least in the initial years, were often transplanted from one side to the other lock, stock and barrel. Some ten million people are though to have crossed the border in either direction, a migration that had a significant influence on local culture. Further, the new international border was far more difficult to cross, and this continued the divergence of cultures and cuisines.

The newly formed West Bengal was a small state in India dominated by the mega city of Kolkata, which was already one of the largest cities in the world and about a quarter of the population of the state. Kolkata naturally came to dominate the food habits of the state. The city was India's richest city till the late seventies, attracting people from all over India and building a cosmopolitan culture that both incorporated influences from the rest of India and propagated many trends outwards. On the other side of the border, Bangladesh was isolated by the international boundary and continued to develop a distinct cuisine of its own. Today, three generations later, Bangladeshi and Kolkata cuisines are quite distinct.

Regional variations

Bengali food today has some broad (though not so distinct) variations - Traditional, Muslim, Anglo-Indian and Chinese.

Traditional Bengali cuisine

The traditional society of Bengal has always been heavily agrarian; hunting, except by some local tribals, was uncommon. The rearing of animals was also not popular. This is reflected in the cuisine, which relies on staples like rice and dal, with little place for game or meat.

Fish is the dominant kind of meat, cultivated in ponds and fished with nets in the fresh-water rivers of the Ganges delta. More than forty types of mostly freshwater fish are common, including rui (rohu), catla, magur (catfish), chingri (prawn, shrimp or scampi), as well as shutki (dried sea fish). Almost every part of the fish (except fins and innards) is eaten; the head and other spare parts are usually used to flavor curries. Mutton, from baby goat, is the most popular red meat.

Other characteristic ingredients of traditional Bengali food include rice, masur dal (broken red lentils), moong dal (broken mung beans), mustard oil, mustard paste, posto (poppyseed) and coconut. Bengal is also the land of mangoes, which are used extensively—ripe, unripe or in pickles. Hilsa, which migrates upstream to breed similar to salmon, is a delicacy; the varied salt content at different stages of the journey is of particular interest to the connoisseur, as is which river (the fish from the river Padma in Bangladesh is traditionally considered the best). The Panch Phoron spice mixture is very commonly used for vegetables. A touch of gorom moshla or hot spices ( cardamom, cinnamon, clove, bayleaves, and peppercorn) is often used to enliven food.

Another characteristic of Bengali food is the use of a unique cutting instrument, the bothi. It is a long curving blade on a platform that's held down by foot; both hands are used to hold whatever is being cut and move it against the blade. The method gives excellent control, and can be used to cut anything from tiny shrimp to large pumpkins. Traditional cuisine is very demanding in the kind of cuts of vegetable used in each dish, and using the wrong one is frowned upon. Further, different vegetables are usually cooked together; the wrong cuts can lead to some vegetables remaining raw or becoming overcooked.

In East Bengal, now Bangladesh, the cuisine developed relatively isolated from influences of the rest of India and South East Asia by the difficult geography of the Ganges delta. Four characteristics stand out - fresh-water fish, beef, the extensive use of parboiled rice and mustard oil. Dal is also a staple. Spices are used sparingly, and the methods of preparation are relatively simple - steaming, frying or stewing. Floods are common in the region, so there's extensive use of root vegetables and dried fish (shukti). Milk and dairy products, so widely used in the neighboring India, are not as common here; the geography prevents large scale breeding of cows, thus making dairy an expensive indulgence. Notably, hardly any food calls for curd or ghee. However, sweets do contain milk and dairy products as well as jaggery and rice paste.

In western parts of Bengal, more connected with the rest of India and dominated by the mega city of Kolkata since the late eighteenth century, a separate cuisine emerged. The delta is thinner there, with fewer rivers and more open plains. There is significant commerce with the rest of India, leading to a flow of spices, ingredients and techniques. The food is much richer with various spices, the presentations are more elaborate and a significant feature of the cuisine is a vast array of sweets based on milk and sugar - the result of both better supply and the influence of traders from the milk belts of Gujarat and Benares. While fresh-water fish is still common, mutton is more common among the Muslim population than beef and dried fish is nearly unknown. Wheat makes its appearance alongside rice, in different types of breads such as loochis, kochuris and porotas. Though mustard paste is extensively used, mustard oil is abandoned in favor of groundnut oil or refined vegetable oil. There's a greater use of coconut, both in cooking and in desserts.

Prosperity and urbanization also led to the widespread use of professional cooks who introduced complex spice mixtures and more elaborate sauces, along with techniques such as roasting or braising. Also introduced around this time, probably as a consequence of increased urbanization, was a whole new class of snack foods. These snack foods are most often consumed with evening tea. The tea-time ritual was probably inspired by the British, but the snacks bear the stamp of the substantial Marwari population in Kolkata - chaats, kachoris, samosas, phuluri and the ever-popular jhal-muri.

Mughal influence

Islam arrived in Bengal probably around the mid-thirteenth century, coming into force with the penetration of the Muslim rulers from the northwest. Dhaka (Bangladesh), in particular, expanded greatly under Mughal rule. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in a large migration of people to and from present-day Bangladesh, resulting in a much stronger divide along religious lines. Bangladesh today shows a much greater Muslim influence than West Bengal.

The influence on the food was top-down, and more gradual than in many other parts of India. This led to a unique cuisine where even the common man ate the dishes of the royal court, such as biryani, korma and bhunas. The influence was re-inforced in the Raj era, when Kolkata became the place of refuge for many prominent exlied Nawabs, specially the family of Tipu Sultan from Hyderabad and Wajid Ali Shah, the ousted Nawab of Awadh. The exiles brought with them hundreds of cooks and masalchis (spice mixers), and as their royal patronage and wealth diminished, they interspersed into the local population. These highly accomplished cooks came with the knowledge of a very wide range of spices (most notably saffron and mace), the extensive use of ghee as a method of cooking, and special ways of marinating meats.

This has remained, more than the other categories, the food of professional chefs; the best examples are still available at restaurants. Specialities include chaap (ribs slow cooked on a tawa), rezala (meat in a thin yogurt and cardamom gravy) and the famous kathi roll (kebabs in a wrap). The local population absorbed some of the ingredients and techniques into their daily food, resulting in beef or meat-based varieties of many traditional vegetarian dishes, but by and large the foods remained distinct.

Anglo-Indian or Raj cuisine

Anglo-Indian food isn't purely the influence of the British, though they are the dominant one. Bengal had a French colony, and also Portuguese, Dutch, Armenian and Syrian populations. These collective western influences are seen in the foods created to satisfy the tastes of the western rulers. The result is a unique cuisine, local ingredients adapted to French and Italian cooking techniques—characterized by creamy sauces, the restrained use of spices and new techniques such as baking. English and Jewish bakers such as Flury's and Nahoum's dominated the confectionery industry which migrated from British tables to everyday Bengali ones, resulting in unique creations such as the patties (savory turnovers). Another enduring contribution to Bengali cuisine is pau roti, or bread. Raj-era cuisine lives on especially in the variety of finger foods popularized in the pucca clubs of Kolkata, such as mutton chop, kabiraji cutlet or fish orly.

Chinese food

The Chinese originally settled into a village called Achipur south of Kolkata in the late eighteeth century, later moving into the city and finally into its present home in Tangra at the eastern edge of Kolkata, which still houses over 100,000 ethnic Chinese. No other part of the Indian subcontinent has any significant Chinese population. The Chinese of Kolkata form a substantial and successful community with a distinct identity. With this identity came Chinese food, available at almost every street corner in Kolkata. They were mostly Cantonese tradesmen and sailors, bringing with them aji-no-moto and sweet corn. The cuisine is characterized as much by what is missing - mushrooms, for instance, are not found in Bengal - as by what is there, such as a far greater use of pork than any of the other cuisines. 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 Chilly Chicken and Veg Manchurian. The influence of this unique cuisine cannot be overstated; it's what all of India knows as Chinese food.

Courses in a meal

The typical Bengali fare includes a certain sequence of food - somewhat like the courses of Western dining. Two sequences are commonly followed, one for ceremonial dinners such as a wedding and the day-to-day sequence. Both sequences have regional variations, and sometimes there are significant differences in a particular course between West Bengal and Bangladesh.

The elaborate dining habits of the Bengalis are a reflection of the attention the Bengali housewife paid to the kitchen. In modern times, this is rarely followed anymore. Courses are frequently skipped or combined with everyday meals. Meals were usually served course by course to the diners by the youngest housewives, but increasing influence of nuclear families and urbanization has replaced this. It is now common to place everything on platters in the centre of the table, and each diner serves him/herself. Ceremonial occassions such as weddings used to have elaborate serving rituals, but professional catering and buffet-style dining is now common. The traditions are far from dead, though; large family occassions and the more lavish ceremonial feasts still make sure that these rituals are observed.

Courses in a daily meal

The foods of a daily meal are usually simpler, geared to balanced nutrition and makes extensive use of vegetables. The courses progress broadly from lighter to richer and heavier. Rice remains common through out the meal until the chutney course.

The starting course is a bitter. The bitter changes with the season but common ones are karela (bitter gourd) which is available nearly throughout the year, or tender neem leaves in spring. Bitters are mostly deep fried in oil, or steamed with cubed potatoes. Portions are usually very small - a spoonful or so to be had with rice - and this course is considered to be both a palate-cleanser and of great medicinal value.

Another bittersweet preparation usually eaten in summer, especially in West Bengal, is a soupy mixture of vegetables in a ginger-mustard sauce, called shukto. This usually follows the dry bitters, but sometimes replaces it, and is eaten in much bigger portions. Shukto is a complex dish, a fine balance of many different kinds of tastes and textures and is often a critical measure of a Bengali housewife's abilities in the kitchen. However, shukto is not popular in Bangladesh.

This is followed by shaak (leafy vegetables) such as spinach, fenugreek, or amaranth. The shaak can be steamed or cooked in oil with other vegetables such as begoon (aubergine). Steamed shaak is sometimes accompanied by a sharp mustard paste called Kasundi.

The dal course is usually the most substantial course, especially in West Bengal. It is eaten with a generous portion of rice and a number of accompaniments. In Bangladesh, dal is usually eaten at the end of the meal, while in West Bengal it is eaten somewhat before the fish and meat courses.

A common accompaniment to dal is bhaja (fritters). Bhaja literally means deep-fried; most vegetables are good candidates but aubergine or pumpkin or plain potatoes are common. Fried fish (mach bhaja) is also common, specially rui (rohu) and ilish (hilsa) fishes. Bhaja is sometimes coated in a besan (chickpea flour) and posto (poppyseed) batter. A close cousin of bhaja is bora or deep-fried savoury balls usually made from posto (poppyseed) paste or coconut mince.

Another accompaniment is a vegetable preparation usually made of multiple vegetables stewed slowly together without any added water. Labra, Chorchori, Ghonto, or Chanchra are all traditional cooking styles. There also are a host of other preparations that do not come under any of these categories and are simply called Torkari - the word merely means vegetable in Bengali. Sometimes these preparations may have spare pieces of fish such as bits of the head or gills, or spare portions of meat.

The next course is the fish course. Common fish delicacies include maacher jhol, tel koi, Pabda maacher jhaal, Doi maachh, Chingri maachh (shrimp) malai curry, and bhaapa ilish (steamed hilsa).

Then comes the meat course. The steep religious divide among the Bengalis of Bangladesh and West Bengal is most evident when it comes to the meat course. Meat is readily comsumed in Bangladesh and some consider it the meal's "cream of the crop" course. To this day, the Hindu population in West Bengal do not typically consume beef. However, the Muslim population in West Bengal enjoy a variety of meat dishes. Mutton or goat meat is traditionally the meat of choice, especially West Bengal, but chicken and eggs are also commonly consumed. Beef is popular in Bangladesh, but not in most parts of West Bengal. Pork is very rare except among the Anglo-Indians and the Chinese in West Bengal.

Finally comes the chutney course, which is typically tangy and sweet; the chutney is usually made of mangoes, tomatoes, pineapple, tamarind, raw papaya, or just a combination of fruits and dry fruits. In Bangladesh, chuteny is ususlly eaten during the dal course and no separate course is dedicated to churteny. Papads, a type of thin flaky flat bread, usually accompany the chutneys.

Sweets

Sweets occupy an important place in the diet of Bengalis and at their social ceremonies. It is an ancient custom among Hindus to distribute sweets during festivities. The confectionary industry has flourished because of its close association with social and religious ceremonies. Competition and changing tastes have helped to create many new sweets, and today this industry has grown within the country as well as all over the world.

The sweets of Bengal are generally made of sweetened cottage cheese (chhenna), Khoa (reduced solidified milk), or flours of different cereals and pulses. Some important sweets of Bengal are:

Rasogolla (cheese ball in sugar syrup) was first made by Haradhan Maira, a confectioner of Phulia district, during the time of Bengal renaissance. These white cottage cheese balls in sugar syrup not only created a revolution in the confectionary industry and but also set the trend for the main sweets of today. Nabinchandra Roy of Bagbazar, Kolkata, was the first person to make 'sponge' rasogolla in 1868.

Chamcham (especially from Porabari, Tangail District in Bangladesh) goes back about 150 years. The modern version of this sweet was inspired by Raja Ramgore of Balia district in Uttar Pradesh in India. It was then further modernised by his grandson, Matilal Gore. This oval-shaped sweet is reddish brown in colour and it is of a denser texture than the rasagolla. It can also be preserved longer. Granules of mawa or dried milk can also be sprinkled over chamcham.

Several varieties of yoghurts such as misti doi, custurds, and rice pudding (kheer) are also popular in both Bangladesh and West Bengal.

Sandesh, chhanar jilepi, kalo jam, darbesh, raghobshai, payesh, nalengurer sandesh, shor bhaja and an innumerable variety are just a few examples of sweets in Bengali cuisine.

Pitha or Cakes

In both Bangladesh and West Bengal, the tradition of baking cakes, locally known as Pithas still flourishes. Pithas are usually made in the winter season. They are usually made from rice flour, wheat flour, sugar, molasses, coconut powder, etc. Pithas are usually enjoyed with the sweet syrups of Khejurer Gur (date tree molasses). Most common forms of these cakes include Bhapa pitha, Pakan pitha, Puli pitha, etc.

Glossary

adapted from content by Sutapa Ray (mailto:sutapa.ray@colorado.edu)

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

Biriyani: Fragrant dish of long-grained aromatic rice combined with beef, mutton, or chicken and a mixture of characteristic spices. Sometimes cooked in sealed containers (dum biriyani).

Bhaja or Bhaji: 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: (meaning steamed with rice) 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. traditionally the vegetables were placed on top of the rice; they steamed as the rice was being boiled.

Bhorta: Any vegetable, fish or shrimps boiled and coarsely mashed, mixed with spices, mustard oil and onions.

Bhuna: A term of Urdu origin, and applies to meat cooked in spices for a long time without water. The spices are slow-cooked in oil (bhunno). The spices first absorb the oil, and when fully cooked release the oil again.

Bora: See Kofta

Chacchari: 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).

Chechki: 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 or Dum: Vegetables (especially potatoes), meat or rice (biriyanis) cooked slowly in a sealed pot over a low heat.

Ghonto: 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.

Jhaal: 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. This term is also used to refer to any type of stew in meat, fish or vegetable dishes.

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.

Khichuri: Rice mixed with vegetables and in some cases, boiled eggs. Usually cooked with spices and turmeric powder.

Kofta: Ground meat or vegetable croquettes bound together by spices and/or eggs served alone or in savory gravy.

Korma: Another term of Urdu origin (literally 'braised with onions), meaning meat or chicken cooked in a mild onion and yoghurt sauce with ghee.

Luchi: Small round unleavened bread fried in oil. See Parata

Parata: Bread made from wheat flour and fried in the oven until golden-brown.

Paturi: Typically fish, seasoned with spices (usually shorshe) wrapped in banana leaves and steamed or roasted over a charcoal fire.

Polau Pilaf or Pulau: Fragrant dish of rice with ghee, spices and small pieces of vegetables. Long grained aromatic rice is usually used, but some aromatic short grained versions such as Kalijira or Gobindobhog may also be used.

Pora: The word literally means charred. Vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves and roasted over a wood, charcoal or coal fire. Some vegetabls with skin such as brinjals), are put directly on the flame or coals. The roasted vegetable is then mixed with onions, oil and spices.

Ruti or Roti: Unleaved bread made in a tawa and puffed over an open flame.

Tarkari: A general term often used in Bengal the way `curry' is used in English (it is speculated to be one of the origins of curry). 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.

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