Foods & cuisines

How Bengali Cuisine differs with food culture in India?

Bengal or as sometimes it referred as ‘Sonar Bangla’ consists of Indian state of West-Bengal and the country of Bangladesh.The people of Bengal farms and make usage of fertile Ganges Delta land. The main agricultural products of Bengal include Rice, vegetables and Fishes. So, it is quite practical Bengali culinary system will consist of a big part of Fish and vegetables.

In this blog i will try to give a brief feature of Bengal and its food habits along with some famous recipes in my next blog. Let us start with bazaars for whole food cycle.The Bengali bazaar or market can be classified into two groups viz. Vegetable Bazaar & Fish Bazaar. It is a common scene a Bengali babu holding a pair of fish with pride. The vegetable market is generally an open air market and its a known fact Bengal has lot to offer in terms of vegetables and fruits. Sealdah market, Gariahat Market etc. of Kolkata and Polton Bazaar of Dhaka can be seen as the busiest markets. A host of gourds, roots & tubers, leafy greens, succulent stalks, lemons & limes, green and purple eggplants, red onions, plantain, broad beens, okra, banana tree stems and flowers, green jack fruit and red pumpkins are just some of what you’ll see if you visit!

Fish Market which is referred as ‘Macher Bazaar’ in Bengali has also lot to offer.No state in India can offer you so many Fish options.It is very intersting to know visitors from outside Kolkata visit Fish Markets as a tourist spot.They are fascinated by the lively koi (climbing perch), the wriggling catfish family of tangra, magur, shingi and the pink-bellied Indian butter fish, the pabda. Among the larger fish, rui (rohu) and bhetki weigh upto eight kilograms. Baskets of pink and silvery ilish (hilsa) match the shine on the glistening blade of the fishmonger’s boti. And the fish itself is eaten from top to tail!

No straight from the market the Bengali Babus hand over all the shopping items to their wives called “Ginni’ and his duty is over. Now Ginni Maa will move to kitchen for the preparation. If we have a close look inside a Bengali Kitchen we can find so many special Utensils and Masalas that are unique only to Bengal.The kitchen also called ‘ranna Ghor’ or ‘Ranna Bari’ was used as a purpose of cooking. However storage and Eatery areas were different. Its quite intersting to know that separate Charcoal and woods were used to cook Vegetables, Rice,Fish or Mutton.But now Electric Gas is very commonly used.Among the cooking vessels that include are the karais (woks) where most of the cooking and frying is done, the tawa (griddle) on which rotis and parathas are made, the handi – a special large pot for cooking rice and the handleless modification of the sauce pan – the rimmed, deep, flat-bottomed dekchi are all hallmarks of the Bengali kitchen. And of course you will also find the pressure cooker which is indispensable to any Indian kitchen. As for the other utensils you absolutely can’t do without the hatha (ladle), the khunti (metal spatula), the jhanjri (perforated spoon), the sharashi (pincers to remove vessels from the fire), the ghuntni (wooden hand blender) for pureing dal and the old wooden chaki belon (round pastry board and rolling pin).The action in the kitchen begins with the cutting of fish and vegetables and the grinding of spices. And this is when the two star attractions of the Bengali kitchen – the sil nora (grinding stone) and the boti (a cutting tool) appear. The items to be ground are put on the heavy sil, a pentagonal slab of stone and are crushed over and over by its moving partner the nora, a smooth black stone you hold with your hands. This inseperable pair lasts longer than a lifetime and is usually handed down from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law.

Common Bengali Style Cooking :
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1. Ambal : A sour dish either made by vegetables or fish.The Ambal is preapared with the pulp of Tamarind.
2. Bhaja : Fried items.Aloo Bhaja, Potol (Parwaal) Bhaja, Begun Bhaja (baingan) or Fish (Maach Bhaja) are famous.
3. Bhapa : Steamed vegetables and Fish.Ilish Bhappa is a world famous dish from Bengal.
4. Bhuna
: An Urdu term used for fried items, fried for long time along with spices.Meats are used to bhoona items.
5. Chachari : A Vegetable item with varities of vegetables cut into pieces,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.
6. Chanchra : A mixed vegetable item.Fish head is also used.
7. Dalna
: Mixed vegetable or eggs are used to make dalna.Spices are added and the preparation is little thick pulpy.
8. Dam : Vegetables and specially meat cooked in a covered pot and cooked slowly over a low heat.
9. Ghonto : A mixed vegetable item, vegetables grounded finely and cooked with both a phoron and ground spices.
10. Jhal : 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.
11. A light fish or vegetable stew seasoned with ground spices like ginger, cumin, coriander, chili and turmeric with pieces of fish and longitudinal slices of vegetables floating in it. The gravy is thin yet extremely flavorful. Whole green chillies are usually added at the end and green corriander leaves are used to season for extra taste.
12. Kalia : A rich preparation of Fish, Meat or Vegetables along with Ghee and garam masala.
13. Koftas : It is also called Boras in Bengali.Prepared with vegetables and minced meat. It is served with thick Gravies.
14. Korma : Another term of Urdu origin, meaning meat or chicken cooked in a mild yogurt based sauce with ghee instead of oil.
15. Pora : It is an item usually burnt over furnaces (Unun-In Bengali).Brinjal, Parwaal Tomatoe are famous Poras. It is a custom to take Pora at the begining of Meal.”Porar Mukhe Sob Bhalo” (Taking Pora will make your Tongue taste better) is a famous saying.
16. Tarkari : A general term often used in Bengal the way `curry’ is used in English. 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.

Serving Bengali Foods:
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Traditional way to serve Bengali foods is something like this: Separate Small Carpets also called ‘Asans’ are arranged for each individual.In front of Asan large platter made of bell metal/steel or on a large piece of fresh cut banana leaf is placed.In arround the platter there will be an array of Bowls called ‘Bati’ in Bengali are arranged which contains Chicken,Mutton,Fish,Dal,Tarkari,Shukto,Chutney,Deserts.In the centre of the platter hot Rice is served along with a slice of lime and salt allong with green chillies.Fried items are kept at one side.At the centre of the rice fresh pure Ghee is poured.

In Bengal people use their hands to eat food,otherwise how it is possible to eat the fish Like Ilish or Koi that contains Hectic bones.Also scientifically eating with hands gives a separte taste to foods and a great satisfaction.The other peculiarity about the Bengali eating scene is the unashamed accululation 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. Wether you have one or twenty dishes,in Bengal the eating style is to have each dish separetly with rice n order to savour its individual bouquet.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 chachchari, followed by the important fish 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.

How Bengali food differs with any other food culture in India?
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Bengal has innumerable lakes and ponds and the availability of fishes are countless.The preaparation of fishes are different from rest of India.The style you will never find else where in India.Fishes are steamed or braised and also they are prepared with vegetables and usage of mustard paste is seen commonly. Poppyseeds are very famous and used in varieties of fish preparation.Not only fish ‘Posto’ is a very famous food for all Bengali.

Bengali master in Vegetable cooking. They prepare varieties of dishes out of the vegetables that grow here.Not only this various ‘Ambroisal’ foods are prepared from left overs like ejected peels, stalks and leaves of vegetables.They use fuel-efficient methods, such as steaming fish or vegetables in a small covered bowl nestled at the top of the rice cooker.

The usage of spices both for Fish dishes and vegetable dishes are unique and this combination cannot be found in Rest of India.Example can be Kalonji (Kalo Jeere) and pach phoron. Panch phoron is a five-spice (a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, kalonji, and black mustard). The trump card card of Bengali cooking probably is the addition of this phoran, a combination of whole spices, fried and added at the start or finish of cooking as a flavouring special to each dish.Black Mustard are very famous among Bengali cuisines and is highly used as paste.

Bengali sweets are really unique not over in India but also over the world. Rassgollas, Kheer Kodom, Malai Chop, Sor Bhaja, Rajbhog, Sita Bhog, Mihidana, Doi and lots and lots to name.

About the author

Ambarish Pandey

Ambarish Pandey is currently working for PricewaterhouseCoopers PVT. LTD. in India, Kolkata. He is a Senior Consultant in the Advisory Division of the firm. He holds Engineering degree from Bengal Engineering & Science University, Shibpur, India's second oldest Engineering college. Besides Developing websites and other software jobs he loves to blog on Women, Minority Issues.

His hobbies are Cooking, Collectibles and Archeology(Egyptology), Bengal's & Punjab's History... His book on cookery in Bengali under title "Hesel"(Kitchen) has been published in India.

2 Comments

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  • Ambarish,
    I would just like to add one thing to the “Common Bengali Style Cooking”, vada/ baura is an integral part of the Bengali cuisine. Though one can put it as a part of bhaja, but I think it has got its own niche. Vegetarian or non-vegetarian ingredients fried with a coat of batter is what makes the vada different from the common bhaja.
    I was a bit confused to find such a post in Pakistan times site. But looking at the author profile, the confusion went away. Being a Bengali myself I could relate to every word of the article, and I feel that is where the success of this post is.

  • Hi Sudeshna,

    Thank You for reading my blog. Yes Bora is truly an integral part of Bengali Thali. Posto Bora (Poppy Seeds), Narkel Bora (Coconut), Chingri Bora(Prawn), Macher Bora (Fish), Mangshor Bora (Meat), Bhaat er Bora (Rice), Komro Foll er Bora, Bok Fool er bora…..and lots and lots of other boras are there in Bengal.Sorry for missing them. In Kolkata….there is a very old shop called Monohar Agor er Dokan (Monohar Agor’s Shop) in Girish Park area. There you can find excellent Vegetable Chop and at Chacha’s famous Brain Chop and Mutton Ghoogni!!!…in College Street’s Coffee House ….Onion Chop (Piyaji) with a cup of Coffee and Ciggarates with lots of friends!….makes a good ADDA….that Bengalis always love to do!….Jai Bangla!