Stylish Eating & Serving
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 little 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 accumulation 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 separately 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 chachchori, followed by the important maacher jhol as well as other fish preparations. Meat will always follow fish, and chutneys and ambals will provide the refreshing 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!