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Bengali

What comes into the mind when we talk about Bengali Cuisine? It’s the delicious fish and rice preparations accompanied with the rasbhare Bengali sweets. West Bengal is well known as the land of maach (fish) and bhaat (rice). The various preparations of fresh water fish and a vast range of rice dishes is Bengal’s specialty. The typical Bengali cuisine is now divided between the Independent country of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.

Bengalis are great food lovers. It is since the yester years you will be appalled to find the time and money they spent on food. Whether it is marriage ceremony or any other occasion, it’s a party time for them. Bengali food has won the hearts in all the delicacies they have presented to the world. It’s not only the mutton, fish and vegetables but the variety of sweets and array of fruit dishes, they have made popular around the world. 

The History

History has a great influence on Bengali cuisine as different rulers who came here have left their cultural footprints in Bengal.

Based on religious principles of Jainism and Buddhism, there was a predisposition to the vegetarianism in olden times. Fish and meat was avoided. Strict vegetarians also omit onion and garlic from their diet. But with the decline of Buddhism in the ensuing centuries, fish and meat returned to the menu.

Rice, the staple food of Bengalis since ancient times, has remained untouched by the ongoing religious changes and its preparation has held to a continuing high standard. According to Shunya Purana, a medieval text, fifty kinds of rice were grown in Bengal.

Qutb-ud-din brought Bengal under Muslim control at the end of the 12th century and after the death of Aurangzeb it became an independent Muslim state. This introduced Mughlai cooking in Bengal. Bengali Moslems adopted dishes such as kebabs, koftas and biryani from their Mughal conquerors. But the major portion of Bengali Hindu cuisine retained its original characteristics except that the use of onion and garlic became more popular.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese came to Bengal and introduced a variety of new crops, like potato, tobacco, chillies, tomato, cashew nut, papaya and guava. Bengalis incorporated them into their diet, combining them with a variety of native ingredients creating new dishes.

The famous Bengali sweet shondesh was either discovered by Bengalis or the Portuguese of Bandel Church as there is little difference between a particular kind of Portuguese cheese and the Bengali chhena. The name shondesh was not associated with confections made from chhena but was widely used in connection to sweets prepared from chickpea flour, coconut and grams.

Sugar balls were also named as shondesh. At first these shondeshes in rural areas were known as phike shondesh as the taste of these was not sweet enough to satisfy the palate and as a result were not preferred by many.

Chom-chom (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 modernized by his grandson, Matilal Gore.

Rabri, another kind of Bengali sweet holds its roots in Lucknow. The roshogolla was actually called gopal golla, probably discovered by a confectioner named Haradhan from Phulia.

The traditional recipes are carefully handed down through generations. Today, the modern Bengalis have become culinary innovators. The new food items as noodles, soya bean and custard are also added to the diet. The food has been influenced by a large number of cultures, both South Asian and continental. Among the continental cuisines, chops and cutlets are very much popular in Kolkata, and are an integral part of the city's coffee house culture. Chinese food is also very much popular in Kolkata.

The Food of the Land

The coastal area stretching the Bay of Bengal in the south to the borders, the rivers of the state, the fertile soil and the diverse climate have shaped the Bengali food style in a unique way.

The cuisine of West Bengal is mostly based on the availability of local ingredients. It is mainly centered on fish, lentil and rice, but there is a wide variety of side dishes which adds richness to the Bengali cuisine. The range of food materials in moist and fertile Bengal is exceptionally wide, ranging from cereals, tubers and rhizomes, vegetables, green pot herbs to a variety of spices and fish.

The great river system, heat and humidity in combination with the fertile soil are so ideal for the abundance of rice and vegetables here. Mangoes, bananas, coconuts, and sugarcane grow in abundance; fish, milk, and meat are plentiful; yogurt and spices such as ginger and black mustard would season the dishes.

Bengal has two distinct styles of cooking. Rice is the staple food in both East and West Bengal. East Bengali Food represents the cuisines of Chittagong and Dhaka and lays emphasis on dal and is strong on fish. The food of West Bengal, as in Kolkata (Calcutta) or the Parganas, is distinguished by the liberal use of poppy seeds (khus khus).

East and West Bengali cooking differ both in the choice of spices and the way in which the dishes are prepared. The common thing is use of mustard in three different ways – fried in oil, carefully crushed leaving a pungent paste and as a cooking medium.

Bengalis also eat flowers like those of pumpkin, banana, raw jackfruit, water reeds, tender drumsticks and peels of potato or pumpkin.

Fish on the plate:

Fish is the main food of Bengal and there are more than forty types of fresh water fish available here that it would be difficult for you to decide what to taste and what not. It includes the Nil (rohu), Katla, Bhekti, Magur (catfish), Chingri (prawn or shrimp), Carp, Rui, 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 flavor the curries.

The regional preferences are according to the availability. East Bengalis prefer fish from big rivers, and the West Bengalis prefer the fish bred in tanks or from estuaries, like mangor and tapsee, but the river fish hilsa is a universal favorite. Fish, and especially fresh water fishes are cooked in diverse styles in West Bengal by steaming, frying, boiling, and stewing with vegetables and spices giving unique flavor to the dish. Mustard oil is the medium of cooking these dishes. This is to give a distinct flavor in the dish.

Prawns and crabs are also favourites among the people of West Bengal. Prawn curry with coconut milk is a wonderful delicacy. Khashi (referred to as mutton in Indian English, the meat of sterilized goats) is the most popular red meat. 

Bengali sweets, Mishti

Sweets hold a special place in Bengali Cuisine and are integral part of their social ceremonies. It is believed that a meal without a sweet or curd normally is incomplete. Bengali Sweets are gastro-intestinal delights. Sweet delicacies of this state are enjoyed and relished by all around the country and now have crossed the boundaries of Bengal and have gained the worldwide recognition.

Shondesh, roshogolla, pantua, payesh, chom chom, malpua and pithe, you can pick any of the famous sweet delicacies of the state.

#Shondesh – Made from sweetened, finely ground fresh chhena (cheese), shondesh in all its variants is among the most popular Bengali sweets. The basic shondesh has been considerably enhanced by the many famous confectioners of Bengal, and now a few hundred different varieties exist, from the simple kacha golla to the complicated abar khabo, jdlbhora or indrayani.

#Mishti Doi – The sweet curd is one of the most popular desserts of Bengal. It is served in an earthen bowl and tastes tremendously delicious.

#Roshogolla – The “king of all Indian sweets”, roshogolla is one of the most widely consumed sweets of Bengali origin. They are homemade cheese or paneer balls soaked in chilled sugar syrup. Today, it’s available in its many regional variations.

#Chom-chom – These are popularly called as "Pleasure Boats". This oval-shaped sweet is white in colour and it is of a denser texture than the roshogolla. It can also be preserved longer.

#Payesh/ Kheer (rice pudding) – This creamy rice pudding is delicately flavored with cardamom and full of nuts. It's a great dessert for anytime of the year.

#Pithe - To celebrate harvest festival, in all Bengali homes, mothers and grandmothers get busy making a special kind of sweet named pithe, which is made with rice flour. These are the cakes of rice flour or sweet potato fried in syrup. There are many kinds of pithe, namely puli pithe, gokul pithe, dudh puli, patishapta pithe and many more. 

Food Habits

The people here prefer to eat rice with the fish delicacies. The use of coconut in the preparations is present but unlike the other coastal cuisines, coconut oil is not used as a medium of cooking. Mustard oil which goes well with fish dishes is the favorite medium of cooking in Bengali cuisine. West Bengali food is more about milk-based sweets and fried snacks like kochuri and shingada.

The spicing of the food in West Bengal is of a unique way. It has the minimum usage of garlic and onion in the diet, as against the abundance of both ingredients in many of the recipes in the rest of the Indian subcontinent.

The essence of Bengali cooking is delicately balanced between the main ingredients and its seasoning. The phoron or flavouring added at the end is to give an unforgettable taste to food. Seasoning is done with a spice mixture of five components unique to Bengal namely aniseed, mustard, fenugreek seed, cumin seed and black cumin seed. The concoction of these five spices is called panch phoron.

Another food habit of Bengalis is the habit of consuming the betel leaf which is a favorite among the women of the state. Mangoes in the raw form are also used in large quantities in making sweet pickles, which sometimes accompany the main meal.

Bengali Meals:

Like the course system in Western dining, here in Bengal the traditional meal also follows a certain sequence of food. There are two sequences which are commonly followed, one for ceremonial dinners such as a wedding and the other is day-to-day sequence.

The procession of tastes at a meal runs from a bitter start to a sweet finish. It begins with a vegetable curry named shukto (a bitter preparation), which is followed by lentil and deep-fried potatoes and brinjals. Rice is first served 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. In main course there comes fish preparations, first lightly-spiced ones like maccher jhol, and then those more heavily spiced. After which would follow a sweet-sour ombol or tauk (chutney) and fried papads. A dessert like 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 terminal digestive.

Traditionally meals are served on a bell-metal thala (plate) and in the batis (bowls, except for the sour items). The night meal skips the shukto and could include luchis (a puri) and a dalna of various delicately spiced vegetables.

At home, Bengalis typically eat without the use of dining utensils; kata (forks), chamoch (spoons), and chhuri (knives) are used in the preparation of food, but will almost certainly not be used to eat one own food, except in some urban areas. In rural areas, Bengalis traditionally eat on the ground with a large banana leaf serving as the plate or plates made from sal leaves sown together and dried.

The Recipes with Unique Cooking Styles

The people here prefer to eat rice with the fish delicacies. The use of coconut in the preparations is present but unlike the other coastal cuisines, coconut oil is not used as a medium of cooking. Mustard oil which goes well with fish dishes is the favorite medium of cooking in Bengali cuisine. West Bengali food is more about milk-based sweets and fried snacks like kochuri and shingada.

The spicing of the food in West Bengal is of a unique way. It has the minimum usage of garlic and onion in the diet, as against the abundance of both ingredients in many of the recipes in the rest of the Indian subcontinent.

The essence of Bengali cooking is delicately balanced between the main ingredients and its seasoning. The phoron or flavouring added at the end is to give an unforgettable taste to food. Seasoning is done with a spice mixture of five components unique to Bengal namely aniseed, mustard, fenugreek seed, cumin seed and black cumin seed. The concoction of these five spices is called panch phoron.

Another food habit of Bengalis is the habit of consuming the betel leaf which is a favorite among the women of the state. Mangoes in the raw form are also used in large quantities in making sweet pickles, which sometimes accompany the main meal.

Bengali Meals:

Like the course system in Western dining, here in Bengal the traditional meal also follows a certain sequence of food. There are two sequences which are commonly followed, one for ceremonial dinners such as a wedding and the other is day-to-day sequence.

The procession of tastes at a meal runs from a bitter start to a sweet finish. It begins with a vegetable curry named shukto (a bitter preparation), which is followed by lentil and deep-fried potatoes and brinjals. Rice is first served 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. In main course there comes fish preparations, first lightly-spiced ones like maccher jhol, and then those more heavily spiced. After which would follow a sweet-sour ombol or tauk (chutney) and fried papads. A dessert like 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 terminal digestive.

Traditionally meals are served on a bell-metal thala (plate) and in the batis (bowls, except for the sour items). The night meal skips the shukto and could include luchis (a puri) and a dalna of various delicately spiced vegetables.

At home, Bengalis typically eat without the use of dining utensils; kata (forks), chamoch (spoons), and chhuri (knives) are used in the preparation of food, but will almost certainly not be used to eat one own food, except in some urban areas. In rural areas, Bengalis traditionally eat on the ground with a large banana leaf serving as the plate or plates made from sal leaves sown together and dried.

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