Bengali cuisine perhaps the only cuisine in the Indian region which maintains its authenticity over the millenium. Bengali food service is similar in structure to the modern Service à la russe style of French cuisine and is very different than other Asian food cultures that serve all the food at once.
Bengal is a region (Ganges Delta/Bay of Bengal) in eastern South Asia which is now divided between the Bangladesh and West Bengal (India). Other Indian regions, such as Tripura and the Barak Valley of Assam, also have large native Bengali populations. Bengali cuisine is known for its subtle yet sometimes fiery flavors and its huge spread of confectioneries and desserts. There is an emphasis on fish, vegetables and lentils served with rice and there is a saying, “Mache Bhaate Bangali” which means “lentils and fish powers a Bangali.”
A typical meal would start with leafy greens, lentils and a main course of fish and or meat. Then comes sweet-savory-spicy achar(chutney) in Pach Phoron to aid digestion. Then comes the dessert. Mostly, all tropical fruits found in the Mekong Delta are present in Bengal. As one would expect, ordinary food served at home is different from that served during social functions and festivals, and again very different from what might be served at a larger gathering (for instance, a marriage feast).
Bangali food varies between sweet and mild-to-extremely spicy. It resembles North East Indian and South East Asian food more closely than that of any other part of the subcontinent, most likely due to geographic and cultural proximity. Although the delta lies mostly in Bangladesh and India, rivers from Bhutan, China, India and Nepal drain into it from the north. The Mekong Delta cuisine has a lot of Bengali (Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta) influences in sweet and savory since the river was named after “Ma Ganga” meaning “Mother of life giving waters.”
Fresh sweet water fish is one of its most distinctive features of Bengali cuisine as a result of the countless rivers, ponds and lakes brimming with innumerable varieties of fish. Almost every village in Bengal have ponds used for pisciculture and at least one meal a day is certain to have a fish course. Bengal also use fermented fish (Shutki) to add umami to certain dishes, which can be found in all over South East Asia and the Pacific Islands. The traditional society of Bengal has always been heavily agrarian. Rice is the staple, with many regions growing speciality rice varieties (70 and counting). Milk is an important source of nutrition and also a key ingredient in Bengal’s plethora of desserts.
Bengalis are somewhat unique in their food habits in that nearly every community eats meat or fish. In most parts of the Indian subcontinent, individual castes and communities have their own food habits; this is not true of Bengal. There is remarkable similarity in eating styles across social strata, with the Hindu upper caste Brahmins sharing a diet very similar to the trading or princely castes. Fish, goat mutton and chicken are commonly eaten across social strata; the only exception is beef, which if ever, is restricted to Muslim communities.
Bengali food has inherited a large number of influences, both foreign and South Asian, arising from a historical and strong trade links with many parts of the world. Chinese in West Bengal and Afghans in East Bengal settled down in their own distinct communities in and around Kolkata. Dutch, French, British, Portuguese, The Ottoman Empire and Persians also traded in Bengal via the Sea Ports in the Bay of Bengal. The Mughals added a royal elegance during their rule. Bengal also boasts various dishes using pungent and fermented fish which is similar to all the different fish sauces from the entire Mekong Delta. The Palas of Bengal are deeply tied with influencing the Champas of Indo-Chine, Hinduism in Sumatra and with the restoring of the library in Tibet after it was burnt by Chinese King Lang Darma. Bengal was the capital of the British monarchy.
Bengal has it’s own blend of five spice known as “Paach Phoron” which consists of fenugreek, nigella, cumin, black mustard and fennel. Bengalis use extra virgin mustard seed oil for cooking which adds a nutty pungency with a wasabi like burn on the back of the throat. Hilsha fish in mustard oil is a favorite dish.
Do you have a favorite Bengali dish or restaurant? Please share in the comments.