If one were to really talk about the USP or defining a feature of Bengali cuisine – it would certainly be in the paradoxical tastes that define it. Typical Bengali cuisine is an amalgamation of the hot and the spicy – the jhal and the mishti. The richness of food is more to do with the style of preparation and the subtle use of spices. The essence of Bengali cooking is delicately balanced between the main ingredients and its seasoning. The humblest of pulses gain an unforgettable identity because of the phoron or flavouring added at the end. The panch phoron – most popular in Bengali cuisine includes cumin, nigella, fenugreek, aniseed and mustard seed.
As the only region within the subcontinent of India to serve dishes over traditional courses during meal times, Bengal is interesting in its eating habits. Generally there are about 5 or 6 different courses. Sukto (a bitter preparation of bitter gourd, brinjal, sweet potato and plantain); ghonto (vegetables, with or without fish, cooked in milk); jhol; ambole (sweet and sour dish of fruit, vegetables or fish) and pitha (cakes of rice flour or sweet potato fried in syrup) are some of the delicacies that form part of this cuisine. Bengalis take pride in the Luchi — a refined sophisticated form of poori. Luchi is a deep-fried bread that is preferred here and is prepared using both refined and whole-wheat flour.
West Bengal is famously known as the land of maach (fish) and bhaat (rice). Bengalis share an irrevocable relationship with these two foods that are a staple in almost every household. Since countless rivers surround the state, fresh sweet water fish are a major attraction with rohu, pabda and koi being the popular ones. Fish is the dominant meat, and there are more than forty types of fresh water fish commonly used in Bengali cuisine. It includes the Nil (rohu), Katla, Magur (catfish), Chingri (prawn or shrimp), 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 curries. Khashi (referred to as mutton in Indian English, the meat of sterilized goats) is the most popular red meat. Mustard oil is the medium of cooking these dishes. This is to give a distinct flavor in the dish. Maccher jhol is also popularly known even beyond Kolkata.
Curries make an important part of most of Bengali or Indian meals. An essential combination of vegetables and spices, curries are enjoyed for its various flavours. What sets Bengali curries apart are the distinctive flavours of mustard oil, poppy seeds and turmeric with sweet undertones that warm spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and mace impart. If all the innumerable kinds and variations of curries are not baffling enough, Bengal has its own distinctions of curries – Jhaal, Jhol and Dalna. Jhaal is usually the more spicy version often with thicker sauce. Jhol is a mildly spiced curry with the consistency of a thin watery soup. A Dalna, on the other hand, is hard to describe. It is somewhat in between a Jhal and a Jhol; not too spicy, yet has more spices than a light Jhol and maybe more ingredients. We Bengalis make Jhol (and Jhal) with almost anything. Vegetables, fish, egg, meat or a combination of vegetables and a protein.
The sweets, or mishti, are an integral part of the gastronomy of Bengal. Popular sweets include sandesh (made from sweetened, finely ground fresh chhena or cheese), roshogolla and chomchom. Sandesh in all its variants is among the most popular Bengali sweets and its basic form has been considerably enhanced by the many famous confectioners of Bengal, and now a few hundred different varieties exist, from the simple kachagolla to the complicated abar khabo or indrani. It was during the British colonial days that the rosogolla suddenly made its appearance on Bengal’s platter. To trace its origins one has to travel way back in time, nineteenth century Bagbazaar, a famous north Calcutta locality. It is where, Nobin Chandra Das, the man who invented the rosogolla resided.. Chum 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 modernised by his grandson, Matilal Gore. This oval-shaped sweet is reddish brown in colour and it is of a denser texture than the roshogolla. It can also be preserved longer. Jhal-Muri is one of the most popular and iconic snack foods of Bengal, jhal literally means “hot” or “spicy”. It is puffed rice with spices, vegetables and raw mustard oil. Depending on what is added, there are many kinds of jhal-muri but the most common is a bhorfa made of chopped onion, roasted ground cumin, black salt, chillies (either kacha “ripe” or shukna “dried”), mustard oil, and dhone pala (fresh coriander leaves). Mishti Doi, a kind of sweetened yogurt with rich notes of jaggery is a usual meal accompaniment. Patishapta is also a delightful Bengali dessert prepared in the form of thin crepes stuffed with a delicious coconut and jaggery filling.
BEST BONG RESTAURANTS
Delhi – Oh Calcutta!, Bijoli Grill, City of Joy, Desi Vibes
Mumbai – Bhojohari Manna, Calcutta Calling, The Calcutta Club, 24 Parganas
Kolkatta – Oh Calcutta!, 6 Ballygunge Place, Bohemian, Kasturi
Chennai – The Bayleaf, Petuk, Kolkata Q, Hotel Aahar
Text by Aarti Kapur Singh