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Foodways of west bengal

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My interest in "Bengali" cooking is historical and social, attempting to understand its evolution between 1860-1960 among the Rarh gentry living along the Ganga between Mayapur, Nadia, and Harinabhi, South 24-Parganas in what is now the state of West Bengal in India. This north-south axis encompasses hardly 120 miles, but forms a watershed of food, language etc, as also the penetration of 'modernization'/western influences into eastern India.

Rarh is the region occupied by Vardhamana, and part of Bankura & Medinipur:south-central and south-west of modern west Bengal. In one traditional way of delineating the components parts of Bengal, Pundra/Pundravardhana is the area roughly to the nort and west of Malda, VArendra roughly to the North-east up to Srihatta or Sylhet, VAngAla the broad area surounding Dhaka, and Samatata from eastern edge of VAngAla to about ChattagrAma.

The Rarh gentry loosely may be described as the Pascatya and Daksinatya Vaidika brahmans, the associated minor Brahman lineages, the western septs of the Kayasthas, the Vaidyas and possibly, the Suvarna Vanikas, the renowkned goldsmiths and merchants of Bengal. While the other great clans of yeomen such as the Mahishyas and similar classes have made colossal contributions to every facet of Bengali life, from the spiritual, political, musical and cultural, I exclude them only because I am personally unfamiliar with their kitchens and cooking styles.

Note, that I restrict myself to only the Rarh gentry populating the Gangetic strip I mentioned, centered first around Nadia and later around Kalikata.

The epithet 'bAngAl' attached itself to the hindu (?) foodways of East Bengal [East of the Icchamati river] . 'Ghoti' is a misnomer, derived from sober literary usage, to a less respectful catch-all term for foodways and people from western Bengal. For my generation which witnessed the Partition, these are loaded terms, best avoided.

Food, language and religion, those powerful definitions of identity that we like to 'own' in so personal a manner, seem to be the three things most labile to continuous and rapid evolvution, often unnoticed by those who would like to exclusively possess them. At any rate, there is a generational change, where my generation traumatized by the Partition and 1971 blessedly has given way to more cosmopolitan generations who will not quibble over the offensiveness of 'bangal', 'ghoti', 'bong' etc.

My aim is to provide an accurate record of the dishes and cooking styles that I have personally observed in two lower middle class kitchens, growing up during the fifties and sixties in a rural area some distance from Kalikata and Kalikata itself. It is limited in scope, personal and cannot claim to provide a definitive or encyclopedic view of Bengali foodways. Please always keep this in mind when I lapse into magisterial (and sweeping) generalizations.

[Therefore also, some bemusement and anxiety at works like Yamuna Devi's. I am intimately familiar with the Vaishnava cooking of Sridham Mayapur, Yet for the life of me I cannot understand, nor reconcile with, her interpretations of West Bengali Vaishnav cooking. This is far from a criticism; it merely emphasizes how complex issues of accuracy and authenticity can become, and how confounding the 'observer effect.'

Having been taken aback by the characterization of bengali food and meal traditions portrayed by Madhur Jaffrey and Camellia punjabi, to name just two influential writers, I want to exclaim, but that's not anything like what I saw growing up. It really gives an absurd and decadent picture, and I can never forget Chitrita Banerji reinforcing an abominable stereotype by writing of the 'indolent bengali'.

Such fatuous generalization is very damaging; please go 'Mainsprings of Civilization' by Samuel Huntington (?) who contemptuously dismisses the 'bengali diet'. This is like that French food authority who attributed the military weakness of the Hindus to their eating rice! All of this would be laughable had we not been burdened with the legacy of British classifications into 'martial' races, 'criminal' tribes etc. which continue to shape our mindset to this day.]

An initial impetus to write up one's own experiences came from a feeling that the fifties/sixties generation in central Bengal was at the pivot of change that intensified after the sixties, much as had taken place a century earlier.

Somehow one feels responsible for being a faithful witness.

Fewer and fewer in the coming generations will taste this delicate vegetarian cooking: the banana stems, the Dillenia fruit; or understand the socio-economic constraints and terrible human tragedy underpinning it all. Therefore, an urgency to convey a first-hand account of a cuisine in danger of extinction. It is not the food, but the pain and untold stories that cry out to be heard.

To return to our subbject:

Beginning in 1207, Muslim rule in Bengal had gradually marginalised the Hindu gentry [i.e. brahmans, kayasthas and vaidyas]; that is, the latter worthies 'lost their jobs' and were in a steep economic decline that did not bode well for much culinary exploration or development.

When the Nawabs of Bengal were ousted in 1757 by the English, this Hindu gentry discovered renewed opportunities to participate in the intellectual and economic life of the nascent colony. When the Crown took over direct administration post-1857, a discernible class of Bengali Hindu rent farmers [zamindars] and merchants began to grow in numbers and influence.

The Nawabs of Awadh (Lucknow) and later the Mughals of Delhi were defeated and removed by the British. Many Muslim aristocrats were exiled to Calcutta, the seat of the colonial government, and were accompanied by large numbers of loyal retainers who found jobs as tailors, cooks, musicians, etc.

The Kayasthas, [who, unlike the Brahmans, had retained more links to the Muslim administration], now became especially prominent. Other castes like the Tilis (oilpressers) could also make their presence felt in this new dispensation of rent-farmers.

In addition to the country seats [bhadrasana], lavish residences emerged at Calcutta. To remain in the good graces of their imperial masters [and covertly channel stupendous quantities of pelf to them] these parvenu affected an extravagant lifestyle that featured lavish entertainment every night. A groaning board accompanied the daily debauch.

Separate kitchens in these palatial residences accommodated non-Hindu cooks, including Muslims from the ancien regime plus Buddhist Maungs (from the Chittagong Hills) who had no restrictions in handling any of the meats and drinks favored by the British.

Unlike most Brahmans, Kayasthas had fewer inhibitions adopting relatively innocuous elements such as onions, and a greater use of goat meat, into everyday preparations. The use of onions, but not garlic, began to enter the kitchens of the andarmahal [women's area], primarily through novel fish preparations modeled on the grand khanas prepared for the menfolk.

Prawns on bamboo skewers(mimicking kebabs served in the 'outside' kitchens'), for example, a redundant exercise, provided a hint of novelty to women confined to a very restricted life. My foster mother, for decades, cooked in the women's kitchen in one of the great houses of Kalikata, but throughout all of this, never once tasted the oniony fare, to say nothing of meat or even ice!

I would venture further to suggest that heretofore, there were NO traditional hindu Bengali savory dishes amongst the rarh gentry prepared with the addition of yoghurt. Now, doi mach, mala kari, kancha macher kofta [kofta curry of raw fish balls], mutton preparations, 'chop-cutlet' marinades began to make their headway.

In middle and lower middle class Brahman and Kayastha families, onions made a slower entry, especially as the all-important grindstone would be permanently defiled by grinding onions. So also, as eggs began to appear, a grudging concession was made for duck eggs, as opposed to the 'dirtier' chicken eggs.

Since most households had only one sheel-nora [stone grinder], in relatively orthodox households, onion and garlic could not be ground on such, most especially if the kitchen and stone were also where Bhog or consecrated food for major pujas was prepared.

[Even as late as 1988, meat was cooked in our household on a separate, portable stove well away from the kitchen; owing to the insistence of some in the younger generation, chopped onion and garlic entered the dish, no improvement in my judgement. If chicken eggs were to be eaten, they were placed in a separate vessel in the angan and boiling water poured from the verandah!]

Gradually, the use of onions characterized by the onion-ginger paste now a common flavor in 'Bengali' cooking began to penetrate other Hindu kitchens through various ways. One was through the beginning of a cookshop or 'restaurant' tradition.

Hindu cooks from princely households began to set up eating establishments that went in one of two directions: within and without the ambit of Hindu dietary conventions.

The first manifested itself through the confectionaries and confections/savories that now oftimes define 'authentic Bengali' sweet houses. In addition to the modest traditional milk-based sweets like kanchagolla, new-fangled confections developed in the abundance of chenna and kheer of the great houses now began to be offered to ordinary folk. Sandesh, rosogolla, ksirmohon, ksirer-chop (the name is a dead giveaway), channar polau, chom-chom, pantua-ledikeni (alleged to have been named after a favorite sweet of lady Canning), aam sondesh, aamer langcha, etc. all begin to make their appearance in Bengali foodways at about this time.

Accompanying them are such riffs on the traditional kachoris as the radhaballabhi, using green peas, and quite possibly inspired by the growing prominence of "English' vegetables in the urban foodways. Motor shuntir kachori certainly was a delicacy much in favor with the great houses, relying on an ingredient that was in season but briefly, and required a battery of kitchen help to shell and prepare for its intended use. Another such was the Vegetable Chop, using Beetroot, Carrots, Potatoes (then still a seasonal novelty), Peanuts and raisins, dipped in 'breadcrumbs' (made of a rusk and not bread, which was baked by Muslims or Christians, and taboo to the orthodox Hindu both for that reason and for being yeast-fermented). Aloor Dom, again using a fairly new and luxury item, would have taken ts inspiration from the Muslim chefs of the great houses, but came to have have its uniquely Hindu Bengali manifestations via the confectionaries started by the erstwhile Hindu employees of the zamindar families.

Some of these employees branched out to establish non-vegetarian establishments, as well, catering to the nascent groups of 'Young Turks' (as it were) and others in the Bengali society who were willing to break with the orthodox taboos and embrace modern eating habits, outside their homes of course (a pattern visible to this day, particularly among Hindu males).

These restaurants offered native interpretations of the western and fusion cuisines emerging in zamindar households. Here were 'chops', 'cutlets', fish fries, dhakai parota, mughlai parota, dimer devil [bengali Scotch eggs?], kosha mangsho etc. These are more in the realm of snacks or tiffin type foods, even if substantial, rather than full meals.

Slightly more elaborate and respectable 'residential' hotels or 'rice' hotels in north Kolkata would serve full meals, and these would often include spicing with onions, if not garlic. Developed around an onion-ginger flavor in the great houses, Machher kaliya [fish in dark gravy], lau chingri [shrimp with lauki/alabu/Lagenaria], dimer dalna [egg curry], maccher kancha kofta [minced raw fish cooked in a white onion sauce], the infamous Doi mach, chingrir malai kari [shrimp in coconut milk], fish fry, prawn cutlet, meat cutlet etc. stand out as the dishes leading the charge into the general Bengali foodway.

This second stream continues unabated, introducing more and more 'forbidden' foods into the Hindu mainstream. I can recall the extreme shock my birth mother engendered when she would buy mutton kathi rolls from Nizam's once in a blue moon in the early sixties; one would suppose from the reaction that she was encouraging some horrid perversion. Now, kabab rolls of truly dubious provenance seem inseparable from modern Hindu Bengali foodways. Poor lady, she was such a free spirit. We find today Chitrita Banerji giving a recipe for aloo posto that includes onions! That is truly amazing!


The filling is best made of fresh green peas. Frozen peas will do. Usually they are stone-ground; an American-style blender will not do, because of the amount of liquid needed to spin its blades.

Grind ginger on a stone or Indian-style blender, reserve; then in same blender, coarsely grind fennel, using scant water

Now, in heated ghee, phoron/tadka of whole cumin and asafetida followed by the ground green peas; keep stirring for a bit over moderate heat; this is called giving 'paak' [also used for sandesh or dhonka etc.], cooking and drying the filling to a particular doneness and consistency; a delicate touch is required, especially when cooking for 'bhog' or sacramental offerings, because neither taste nor smell are permitted to guide you.

After a short while, introduce your ginger/fennel, a tiny touch of cayenne, sugar, salt. Cook briefly until raw smell [!] gone; the filling should be sweet with a touch of piquancy, redolent of ghee, hing and at a lower level, of ginger and fennel. The consistency should be moist just this side of friable; color should not have turned a dinosaur gray-green [too much paak]. The pea taste should not be lost, either, so a delicate hand with the spices is essential, particularly as the filling will have to withstand the 'heavy' touch of being encased and deep fried.

For radhaballabhi, the moyen/shortening in all purpose flour should not be too much; more shortening makes for a more 'khasta' [short] crust, better suited to matar-shuntir kachuri (where the dough moiety is rather thicker. Radhaballabhi has to be rolled pretty thin (rolled with oil, not flour) and fried in a mixture of peanut oil and pure ghee, or just the latter, should you be so fortunate. Oil will produce a heavier, greasier 'puri', defeating the delicacy of the intended product. Serve with Bengali aloor dom? Cabbage dalna? Chana dal?

You could make a shorter dough, and prepare a series two small dough circles, say 4-5 inches in diameter. On one of each pair, spoon in a modest amount of pea filling, cover with the second, and pleat the edges shut (just use a fork if you are cooing for your family). This will be a kachori. Fry as above. Serve hot.

Filling can also be encased in mashed potato, and made into tikkis, baked or broiled to save on calories.

Aloor Dom, Bengali style

The vegetarian cooking of Rarh-Bengal is redolent of ginger, especially the dishes prepared for the evening meal. A major thickener/ flavoring combination is fresh ginger and green chilies, either ground to a paste or crushed with the end of a batta/nora stone grinder; each contributes a slightly different flavor profile and mouth feel. I believe that this ginger/chili combination turns up often in the cooking of UP/Kashi, and sometimes in that of east Bengal [?, not sure]. Anyway, will offer a couple of dishes from the Rarh kitchen:

Aloo dum Potatoes of your choice, russet types good, say 1 kg-750 grams?

boiled in their jackets until just tender, cooled a little, peeled, quartered/left whole according to your judgement, and very lightly fried/sauteed in scant oil. Set aside.

Gingerroot, peeled or not, slice into thick rounds and smash with stone grinder until disintegrated into fibrous sheds; Use your andaaz: with bonafide US measuring spoons, 2 tb; with Indian tableware spoons, maybe 1.5tb? increase next time, if this expt. proves successful.

Same treatment with 4-5 green chilies selected for aroma and freshness; remove seeds if you want lower piquancy.

Stonegrind 1.5tb whole coriander, 0.75 tb whole cumin, ½ tsp. Black peppercorns .

This dish is superb with stone ground turmeric and red chilies as well;if that proves too difficult, make a slurry with some haldi,and mirchi powder [again, flavor over heat]; total should be less than 1.5tsp

In a round & heavy-bottomed handi or karhai with tight fitting lid- some ghee+peanut oil ; Tadka: nigella, whole cumin, cassia bark small piece, green cardamom –2 lightly crushed, cloves 2, cassia leaf 2-3 , followed by hing.

Immediately add ginger/chili crush, adjust heat, stir for a few times until fragrance wafts, add turmeric/mirch, cumin etc. 'black' masala, salt, gur [the end result should be a bit sweet!!] cook masala judiciously, err on the side of undercooking, add a little water to generate slurry,add potatoes, coat and stir, may add a tiny spoon of ghee now; put on lid, and give dum. Afterwards, before serving, add a tiny hint of amchur or tamarind water. A hint of roasted powdered cumin, if you want. Enjoy with chapatis or puris.

[this identical method can be pursued with Dhokar Dalna, dhoka or false being a paste of soaked chana dal cooked with/wo embellishment in a non-stick pan until it pulls away; flatten out on a plate, score and cut in diamond shapeswhen cool, lightly fry in a non-stick pan or cast iron, with scant oil, to give each piece a golden crust. Note these soak up gravy like the dickens, so your cooked masala slurry needs to be more liquid; you might also add a larger quantity of masala, to compensate for the dal's absorbing/masking qualities]

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Fascinating Gautam. Of course I need a dictionary to understand some of the terms. I look forward to more.

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Gautam Da - very enlightening - Small question - In Aaloor Dom you use ghee+peanut oil ? I thought that cooking which mustard oil (sasoor tel) was one of the distinguishing flavours ?

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Gautam Da,

You have a very deep insight into this cooking and I feel that you are feeling homesick for the food. Not being impolite.

Int the opther topic you have talked about Prawn Malai Kari,  it is the same as Dab Chingri?

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Gautam Da - very enlightening - Small question - In Aaloor Dom you use ghee+peanut oil ? I thought that cooking which mustard oil (sasoor tel) was one of the distinguishing flavours ?

I was just going to ask the same thing. On the other hand whenever I make Bengali food, I use a method similar to my Ghee trick i.e., normal oil is used and sprinkle a little mustard oil before serving. A fraction of the required quantity is sufficient to give me the kick.

I'm also a little wary of my mustard oil sources.

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Suresh, Anil,

Glad you brought up this point that I did not make clear in the post. Home-style Bengali cooking of the type I am describing, depends on 2 distinct cooking fats, one of which is ghee, the second of which is mustard oil.

When I say peanut oil+ghee, I mean exactly that, and a little ghee may be added at the very end or not. Using any mustard oil in these dishes might not be a wise choice, in the beginning, although as we move on to our etudes, we shall see that there exists some leeway depending on the context.  However, blindly equating bengali=mustard oil is a misconception, which this series should do something to lessen.

When mustard oil is specified, I will sometimes modifdy this to use peanut oil in the beginning, or peanut + mustard oil, and end, as traditional with a few drops good quality mustard oil.

There are so many imponderables with the mustard oil quality, with recent news of adulteration with allyl isothiocyanate at alarming levels, that I feel hesitant in recommending oil that you have not seen pressed yourself, or a Korean type like kaeja, which is relatively pure [admixed with soybean oil] but does not have the right flavor spectrum.

In some of the later evolved dishes, like spicy liver, do we see both the use of mustard oil and ghee.

Chef Raj Saheb,

I value your spirit and person greatly; you are never impolite. Dab Chingri is shrimp cooked inside a quasi-mature coconut with just thickening endosperm.

Malai kari, as we shall discuss shortly, is  cooked with the milk of mature coconut.


Please let me know which terms were unfamiliar to you. I have the bad habit of using colloquial terms to rapidly describe recipes. As this should be intelligible to as wide an audience as possible, not just to Indians handy in their kitchens, please help me weed out areas that read like gibberish to you. There is nothing more frustrating or insulting than to come upon an English tract written in some colloquial prose. Thank you very much for calling this to our collective attention.

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An English (or French   :) ) name of a dish or English description next to the Bengali name would help. That's about it.

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Gautam, thanks for the explanation on the not so compulsory use of mustard oil.

Did you grow up in a vegetarian household and then expanded around? I did and ergo will always be a inefficient fish eater with a lot of edibilia left on the plate. :)

Can you recollect any major changes in cooking method/styles within the span of your earlier years? I remember the pressure cooker making an entry into my family's kitchen. The results with and without a PC are palpably different.  

Perhaps you can also add a little on the availability of produce in your targeted area over a time frame.This may sharpen the perspective and help us understand your dissertation.

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My exposure to Bengali food ,apart from a few years in calcutta, is at the home of a fantastic Bengali cook ( her mother wrote a cookbook on bengali cooking ).

All the vegetarian food she serves is without onions or garlic.Her reasoning - that most of the vegetarian traditions were carried on by widows (who were not allowed to indulge in meat or other luxurious food and forbidden from onions and garlic ,considered aphrodisiacs).I love onions and garlic , but vegetables cooked without them and subtly spiced (which is how she cooks them) do taste deliciously different and special.

My favourite is Kopir muri ghanto - Cauliflower cooked with a little rice.

The aloor dum gautam has posted above is awesome ,try it sometime -youll be glad you did.I tried shortening the procedure by using raw potatoes - that doesnt work as the starch released from the potatoes makes a thick gravy which swallows the spices.

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A warm welcome to the forum. Hope to see you often.

Re: widows, the underlying principle [applied with terrible cruelty and hypocrisy on helpless women not just by men (for economic and other perverse subjugation) but strangely enough, by other women, especially other widows] is that widows, like brahman males, are supposed to live almost like renunciants within the householder framework.

Brahman male, & widows, theoretically should only eat:

atapa tandul, unconverted rice

cooked rice only once a day

evening meal should be a semi-fast, puffed rice allowed, wheat products allowed

Ekadasi fast: on the 11 th days of the waxing and waning moon, generally  by complete fast is observed, especially by ritually observant; some eat a small evening meal that avoids certain cereals and legumes

a whole bunch of other rules.

Vegetarianism in Bengal is not just for widows, those influenced by Vaishnavism are primarily vegetarian, cutting across caste lines.

I am writing of a strip of land that is in many ways a watershed, culturally etc. between the drier country of western Bengal where fish and non-vegetarian foods have a very small influence on the diet of the twice-born, and the moist riverine lands of east Bengal where seasonal flooding of the low-lying land makes fish an important component of the diet.

The strip I write about clings to the eastern and western banks of the Ganga  as it makes its way to the sea. The food is primarily vegetarian, and fish is not a compulsory element of the menu, especially in orthodox families c. 1950-1970 {it is more prevalent in urban areas like Kolkata, primarily as a signal of well-being.]


I shall write about the produce in detail in later posts, but during the period mentioned, other than the greater availability of potatoes and onions throughout the year, not much changed for 95% of the people.

Pressure cooker: not available in our rural kitchens. in Kolkata, used to stew dal [legumes like hulled lentils, mung beans], cook meat, made no other impact. Bottled gas made food preparation simpler in the city; was not easily available in the rural areas even until 1988. For that matter, nor was unadulterated kerosene!

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