People's knowledge of food from west Bengal is restricted to 'Maacher- jhol -bhat'(fish curry and rice), sandesh and rosogolla. there is of course a lot m ore .Far from being as the rest with its subtle, just a cuisine that concentrates on fish ,rice and mustard oil Bengali cuisine with its subtle delicate intermingling of flavours and the blend of the exotic with ordinary creates a gastronomical experience that can only be described as sheer bliss.
Cookery books written in Bengali have been in existence for more a century. Notable among them are tomes by Pragya sundari Devi and Bipradas Mukhopadhyay. But these books do not contain only typically Bengali recipes. Pragya Sundari Devi's book comprise largely continental style of cooking Bipradas's book relies heavily on mughlai cuisine.
In Bengal like in many other regions of India recipes have been handed down from mother to daughter. The basic recipes are similar, but each family has its own variation, depending on the particular area it originally belonged to, and this version is always considered superior to anyone else's. of course!
Few communities can match the Bengalis in their love for good and the care and skill with they prepare it. Generally speaking, authentic traditional Bengali food does not really lend itself to restaurant catering. So for a taste of the genuine stuff, you have to be invited to a Bengali home or you have to turn to this book.
The best Bengali food that you'll ever get will be in Bengali homes. People of no other culture spend such a disproportionately large part of their income on food as do the Bengalis. Extraordinarily expensive items like lobsters and hilsa get snapped up in no time. And the buyers are not affluent. Most of them are ordinary middle class people, who take great pride in beating the others in getting the best early in the morning.
One typical trait of the Bengalis is their of shopping every day. Most people prefer to buy fresh vegetables and fish despite the advances in refrigeration and other food-preservation techniques. Curiously all the shopping is done by the men of the family and for some this is an addiction. Come morning and you'll see them on their way to the market with a plastic or jute shopping bag. The fish and vegetable market is also a meeting place to discuss the day's inside of a kitchen know exactly which vegetables to buy for 'Shukto' (a vegetable medley with bitter gourd), or if they buy 'Mocha' (banana flower), that it must be accompanied by 'bori' (dry pellets made from a paste of pulses)
If you have managed to secure an invitation to lunch to taste pure authentic 'Bangla ranna', let us see what you are in for. Bengalis, like their neighbours, the Oriyas follow a certain sequence of dishes. You start with something bitter and then move through pungent hot and sour or sweet sour dishes to the final delight of a sweet.
The meal begins with an 'uchche -charchari' a dry curry of bitter gourd with rice and ghee; or 'shukto'- a dish of carefully blended vegetables, in which bitter gourd predominates. This is a recipe that Bengali mothers-in -law should be part of every daughter in-law's repertoire of dishes. These are appetizers, which open up the taste buds and whet the appetite. A dal and a 'bhaja' or some, kind of fried vegetable, follows this. The dal is not as thick as the one served in northern India and is eaten with a dash of limejuice. Sometimes, a fish head made with pumpkin, colocassia stem and banana flower; or 'charchari' a combination of five speces aniseed cumin, fengreek nigella and radhuuni, which resembles parsley seeds. Seasonings and flovourings which are carefully chosen to enhance their natural taste.
The best vegetarian meals come from the kitchens of Bengali widows. Bengali widows of yesteryear (of course things are changing now though a few still follow the strict rules) never ate fish, meat, eggs, onion and garlic. Even masur dal was taboo as it was supposed to be heat inducing as was non-vegetarian food. So these widows created vegetarian masterpieces with a sublety of spices that could transform even a mundane vegetable like radish or bottle gourd into an item of culinary bliss.
A discussion of Bengali food would be incomplete without a mention being made of the two different styles of cooking in the state -the ghoti (belonging to West Bengal) and the bangal from erstwhile East Bengal now Bangladesh. Traditional Bengali wedding feasts used to be memorable. The Meal used to be served on glistening banana leaves. The first course consisterd of fried brinjals lentils with fish head a dalna with seasonal vegetables with luchi or radha ballabhi (dal -stuffed puries). This was followed by pulao or ghee bhat (rice coked in a little ghee a very light kind of pulao), served with at least two kinds of fish and one muton. Dahi fish, prawn malaikari and mustard hilsa were great favourites. Green mangoes, when in season were always preferred for the chutney, which came next. Heading the sweet list would be mishti doi this is such a favourite. The choice of sweets was always so wide that one seldom offered the same sweet twice in the course of a marriage season.
Unfortunately, times have changed. Modern life with all its hustle and bustle has taken its toll. Wedding feasts have been transformed with the emergence of the professional caterers. Menus have also undergone a change as the Bengali palate has expanded to accept non-Bengali cuisine. In recent times dishes like Kashmiri aloo dum navratan pulao, Amritsari machi, biryani tandoori chiken naan, fish butter fry. Chole bhature and even chilli fish feature more often. What really pains me is that ice cream has replaced sweet yoghurt more often than not, though I must adimit, judging by my daughter's reaction, this seems to have gone down most favourably with the younger generation. The mode of service has also changed. Seldom do you find banana leaves and earthenware glasses these days. Now uniformed bearers on laminated tables in china crockery serve you. An era has certainly ended but the Bengali passion for food continues.
Back of the Book
Few communities can match Bengali's in their Love for good and the care and skill with which they prepare it. Generally Speaking, authentic, traditional Bengali food does not really Lend itself to restaurant catering. The best Bengali food that you'll ever get will be at homes. So, for a taste of the genuine stuff you have to be invited to a Bengali home or turn to this book.
Bengalis follow a certain sequence of dishes. You Start with something bitter and then move through pungent, hot and sour or sweet sour dishes to the final delight of a sweet.
You will get the choicest of recipes for all the courses of the menu in this book. With clear, step-by-step instructions which even a novice in the kitchen can easily follow, these recipes can be recreated in any part of India.
Satarupa Banerjee is a renowned food writer. She has several cookbooks with leading publishers and writes in three languages English, Bengali and Hindi. She contributes regularly to various magazines and journals and her recipes have won her prize in various contests. She also conducts cookery classes at home.
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