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Historical Sketch

Bengali cuisine is one of the finest blends of non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes. Bengal is known as the land of 'Maach aar Bhaat’ which means ‘fish and rice'. The wide varieties of Bengal Cuisine in festivals, occasions and seasons are integral part of Bengali Culture - literature, songs, paintings, movies have a nostalgic appeal . The Bengali cuisine has an unique feature being an assimilation of the best of the world gastronomy and Indian diverse cookery. Rasogolla and sweets of Bengal are world famous. We invite visitors and tourists to have a taste of Bengali Cuisine.

Bengali Cuisine

The panch phoron most popular in Bengali cuisine includes spices like cumin, nigella, fenugreek, aniseed and mustard seed. Sukto (a bitter preparation of bitter gourd, brinjal, sweet potato and plantain); ghonto (vegetables, with or without fish, cooked in milk); jhol; ambole (sweet and sour dish of fruit, vegetables or fish) and pitha (cakes of rice flour or sweet potato fried in syrup) are some of the delicacies that form part of this cuisine.

The Bengali food mainly comprises of fresh water fish and a vast range of rice dishes. It is rich for its use of subtle spices and flavours. The food of this state is predominated by the coastal location of the state, hence is reputed for its varied preparations of fish delicacies. The other chief foods are their sweet meats and confectioneries of the state that is famed all over the world.

Historical Background

Bengali food has inherited a large number of influences, arising from a historical and strong trade links with many parts of the world. Bengal fell under the sway of various Turkic rulers from the early thirteenth century onwards, and was then governed by the British for two centuries (1757–1947). The Jews brought bakeries to Bengal, the Marwaris contributed their sweet-making skills, the exiled families of Wajid Ali Shah and Tipu Sultan brought different flavours of Mughlai cuisine. British patronage and the Babu Renaissance fueled the development of these different culinary strands into a distinct heritage. From the culinary point of view, some major historical trends influenced Bengali food.

The Rule of the Nawabs

Bengal has been ruled by Muslim governors since the days of the Delhi Sultanate, five short-lived, Delhi-based kingdoms or sultanates, of Turkic origin in medieval India. However, for more than 500 years, Muslim rule in Bengal was centred in Dhaka. Trade routes going from Delhi to Dhaka traversed almost the entire width of today’s Bengal, crossing most major rivers. Present-day West Bengal first came into prominence when Murshid Quli Jafar Khan became the first Nawab of Bengal under the Mughals in 1717, and moved the capital from Dhaka to the newly founded city of Murshidabad much further to the west and closer to Delhi, the seat of the Mughal Empire. 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 (especially beef). These food traditions continued in the courts of the Nawabs of Bengal. Though defeated by the British in 1757, they continued as puppet rulers of Bengal till 1880; their courts, manners and cuisine maintained by doles from the English. After Dhaka's culinary evolution to Mughlai cuisine, which primarily used beef as its main meat course due to the influence of the Mughal rulers and governors, we could see a shift in the way the primary meat changed from beef to mutton or lamb. The reason this happened is due to the fact that after the Mughals left Bengal their cooks remained and found out that using beef would not be very popular as they set up food carts, hence they used mutton or lamb as a substitute and this spread into the roots of some of Bengals famous recipes such as "Kosha Mangsho",Maach Dhakai style which is popular in Dhaka .

Another key influence to the food came much later, when Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, was exiled by the British 1856 to Metiabruz, on the outskirts of Kolkata. Rich and decadent, Awadhi cuisine was a giant in the world of food, and the Nawab is said to have brought with him hundreds of baburchis (“cooks”), khansamas (“stewards”) and moshlachis (“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 into the western parts of Bengal, especially the burgeoning megacity of Kolkata. While deriving from Mughlai cuisine, Awadh preferred mutton to beef and was liberal in the use of attor (“essence”) of aromatics such rose or keto ki. This is the other reason a shift occurred from using beef to using mutton instead . Also it can be observed that the recipes that have a Mughal Bengali influence do not use mustard, like the authentic recipes that are traditional to Hindu Bengali's .The reason mustard wasn't used is that it wasn't appreciated that much by the Mughals and was avoided as we can see in their recipes.

Christianity and other European influences

As legend goes, to cater for the needs of British workmen, Nizam's restaurant in Kolkata invented the first Kathi roll. The Christian influence came to Bengal a few hundred years after its arrival on the Western borders of India. While the religion spread among the population, the region remained isolated from the political and religious centres of Christian India. This meant that people retained many of their local customs, especially food habits. Though the Dutch and the French also had colonies in West Bengal, they have had little impact on Bengal’s culinary habits. That came from the British, and other Western immigrants such as the Baghdadi Jews who set up Kolkata’s famous Jewish bakeries. West Bengal’s flourishing community of Anglo-Indians formed a once-influential cuisine, but it is now dying along with the reduction in numbers of their communities in Bengal. The key culinary influence of the Christian community was the ritual of tea (introduced by the British, and in Bengal’s snack food traditions. Baking, which was pretty much unknown till the British came along, became widespread. The popularity of baked confectioneries was a direct result of the British popularising the celebration of Christmas. The Jewish community, though always tiny in numbers, picked up the trend and made it hugely popular to the masses—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.

Culinary Culture in Colonial Bengal (Kolkata)

In 1871, the Calcutta Corporation demolished Fenwick's market and built Hogg Market in Esplanade for the Europeans. A small replica of London's Mayfair, it was soon the spot for European cuisine — selling everything from turkey and pork chops to pastries and patties. Meanwhile, Nahoum's Confectioners, still the one-stop shop for bakery products, introduced European delicacies to the Bengali babu. Soon, the puff pastry — with vegetarian and non-vegetarian spicy mixes — had become popular as patties.

Cooking style from Chittagong, known for their culinary skills, created pantheras — a fried minced meat roll. The researchers claim that pantheras, along with other dishes such as cream cutlets and tipsy pudding, were first prepared at the Sovabazar Rajbari.

Among the legacies of the Raj is the dak bungalow cuisine. Dak bungalows were rest houses where the British would stop for the day when they were touring. The khansama (cook), who had to quickly conjure up a meal for them, would put into the pot whatever was around. But it led to some lip-smacking dishes such as the Dak Bungalow Chicken, Hawildar's Dal Tadka, Dimer Dalna and Jhaal Frezi.

The Portuguese introduced chhana to Bengal, and sweet-maker Nabin Chandra Das experimented by mixing the cottage cheese with suji — leading to the sponge rasogolla. Ledikeni — a browned chhana sweet — was so named because it was prepared especially for Lady Canning by Bhim Nag, famous sweet seller. Empress Gaja was prepared at the Sovabazar Rajbari for Queen Victoria.

Small eateries played a role in the city's cuisine too. The Bengali babu had developed a taste for chops and cutlets, and went to small restaurants such as Allen's Kitchen (started by a certain Scottish gentleman the locals referred to as Allen Saheb). The eatery served — and still has on its menu — various kinds of cutlets, including the famed prawn cutlets. Local legend has it that the gravy cutlet was introduced by Allen's, which still holds its original recipe.

The Chinese

The Chinese community in Indian sub-continent are a community of immigrants and their descendants that emigrated from China starting in the late 18th century to work at the Chittagong and Calcutta port. The ethnic Chinese have contributed to many areas of the social and economic life of Bengal. A sizeable number are also owners and workers in Chinese restaurants. Along with them, the Chinese food came to Bengal for the first time and as time passed by it has been influenced by the demands of the local taste buds.
The introduction of the fabled taste maker monosodium glutamate came along with sweet corn, much later, and got infused into what is widely popular as "Bengali Chinese". The cuisine is characterised 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 other Indian 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 Chicken sweet corn soup, Chilli Chicken and Manchurian; they apparently made up these names to attract customers.

Modern Bengal after the partition of Bengal

After partition, Kolkata continued to wield an outsize influence in the cultural and food habits of West Bengal. Its offices, ports and bazaars attracted many communities from the rest of India, (especially the Marwari and Chinese communities); substantial populations of these communities have lived for generations in Kolkata. Their influence has been, in particular, in the sweet shops (e.g. Ganguram's) and street foods of Kolkata; many have Marwari or Chinese origins. Bangladesh, on the other hand, was isolated by the political border from Kolkata’s multiculturalism and retained a more traditional take on things.

Dominant ingredients

Fish is the dominant kind of meat, and there are more than forty types of fresh water fish commonly used in Bengali cuisine. It includes the Rohu (Ni), Katla, Magur (catfish), Chingri (prawn or shrimp), Shutki (dried sea fish), Ilish (hilsa). Almost every part of the fish (except fins and innards) is cooked and eaten; the head and other parts are usually used to flavour curries. Kosha (referred to as mutton in Indian English, the meat of sterilized goats) is the most popular red meat.
Bengali food is widely cooked in mustard oil as it the medium of cooking. This gives a distinct flavour to the dishes. Hilsa fish is the speciality of Kolkata which is delicately steamed cooked with spices and mustard oil to retain its flavours and tenderness. Maccher Jhol is another popularly acclaimed dish throughout Kolkata and most Bengalis take pride in its Luchi, a refined sophisticated form of puri. Sweets occupy a special place in Bengali feast or any social ceremonies. Some of the popular sweet meats are Rasogolla, Sandesh, Chum chum etc.

Food has always been a weakness for the Bengalis. They have been winners in all the delicacies they have presented to the world. Not just mutton, fish and vegetables but the varieties of confections have always overawed the gluttons of 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.

Bengali cooking is mostly confined to the home and their dishes are carefully prepared according to recipes handed down through generations. Most modern Bengalis have become culinary innovators and search for, and experiment with new culinary ideas. But in their hearts, they still glee traditional dishes as maacher chachchori and rasogolla. The flow of tastes of a Bengali meal starts from a bitter to a sweet finish. To start with, especially at lunch, is shukto. This is a dish that is essentially bitter, made up of neem or other bitter leaves, bitter gourd, brinjals, potatoes, radish and green bananas, with spices like turmeric, ginger, mustard and radhuni (celery seed) pastes.

Rice is first savoured with ghee, salt and green chillies, then comes dal accompanied by fried vegetables (bhaja) or boiled vegetables (bhate), followed by spiced vegetables like dalna or ghonto. Then comes the fish preparations, first lightly-spiced ones like maacher jhol, and then those more heavily spiced. After which would follows a sweet-sour ambol or tauk (chutney) and fried papads. A dessert of mishti-doi (sweet curds), accompanied by dry sweets, or of payesh, accompanied by fruits like the mango, will end the meal, with paan (betel leaves) as a digestive aid. Bengalis are well known for their sweet tooth and take pride in gaining worldwide recognition for some of their acclaimed sweet meats.

Read More: History of Bengali Cuisine & Cookery