Friday, April 9, 2010

Traditional Bengali cuisine

The traditional society of Bengal has always been heavily agrarian; hunting, except by some local clans men, was uncommon. However, cattle rearing has been common as reflected in use of milk primarily for sweets and desserts. Also, as one would assume, general food at home is different from that served during functions and festivals and again very different from what might be served a larger gathering (e.g. a marriage feast).

An abundant land provides for an abundant table. The nature and variety of dishes found in Bengali cooking are unique even in India. Fish cookery is one of its better-known features and distinguishes it from the cooking of the landlocked regions. Bengal's countless rivers, ponds and lakes teem with many kinds of freshwater fish that closely resemble catfish, bass, shad or mullet. Bengalis prepare fish in innumerable ways - steamed or braised, or stewed with greens or other vegetables and with sauces that are mustard based or thickened with poppyseeds.

Bengalis also excel in the cooking of vegetables. They prepare a variety of the imaginative dishes using the many types of vegetables that grow here year round. They can make ambrosial dishes out of the oftentimes rejected 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 use of spices for both fish and vegetable dishes is quite extensive and includes many combinations not found in other parts of India. Examples are the onion-flavored kalonji seeds,radhuni and five-spice or paanch phoron(a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, kalonji, and black mustard). The trump card of Bengali cooking probably is the addition of this phoron, a combination of whole spices, fried and added at the start or finish of cooking as a flavouring special to each dish. Bengalis share a love of whole black mustard with South Indians, but the use of freshly ground mustard paste is unique to Bengal as it is used to make fish curry gravy or in the preparation of steamed fish. Mustard paste called Kasundi is an accompanying dipping sauce popular in bengal.

Fish and meat

Fish is the dominant kind of meat, cultivated in ponds and fished with nets in the fresh-water rivers of the Ganges delta. Almost every part of the fish (except fins and innards) is eaten; the head and other parts are usually used to flavor curries. The head is often cooked with dal or with cabbage. Dal is not a traditional eastern grain. Still today, most of the Traditional Bengali widow do not take dal as it is alien(mostly north Indian accompaniment)food.

More than forty types of mostly freshwater fish are common, including carp varieties like rui (rohu), koi (climbing perch), the wriggling catfish family of tangra, magur, shingi and the pink-bellied Indian butter fish, the pabda katla, magur (catfish), chingŗi (prawn or shrimp), as well as shuţki (small dried sea fish). Chingri could be of varieties - kucho (varieties of shrimp), usual (prawns), bagda (tiger prawns), and galda (Scampi).

Shorshe Ilish, a dish of smoked hilsa with mustard seeds, has been an important part of both Bangladeshi and Bengali cuisine. Traditionally till the middle age, Fried Hilsa Oil is used to massage the body to prevent heart attack.

Salt water fish (not sea fish though) hilsa (hilsa ilisha) is very popular among Bengalis, can be called an icon of Bengali cuisine. Ilish machh (hilsa fish), which migrates upstream to breed is a delicacy; the varied salt content at different stages of the journey is of particular interest to the connoisseur, as is the river from which the fish comes - fish from the river Pôdda (Padma or Lower Ganges) in Bangladesh, for example, is traditionally considered the best. To some part of the community, particularly from West Bengal, Gangatic Ilish is considered as the best variety. Fried fish served in all over bengal.

There are numerous ways of cooking fish depending on the texture, size, fat content and the bones. It could be fried, cooked in roasted, a simple spicy tomato based gravy (jhol), or mustard based with green chillies (shorshe batar jhaal), with posto, with seasonal vegetables, steamed, steamed inside of plantain leaves, cooked with doi (curd/yogurt), with sour sauce, with sweet sauce or even the fish made to taste sweet on one side, and savory on the other. Ilish is said be cooked in 108 distinct ways

Chicken is a late entrant into Bengali cuisine relative to mutton. Khashi, the meat of younger goats, is preferred.

The variety of fruits and vegetables that Bengal has to offer is incredible. A host of gourds, roots and tubers, leafy greens, succulent stalks, lemons and limes, green and purple eggplants, red onions, plantain, broad beans, okra, banana tree stems and flowers, green jackfruit and red pumpkins are to be found in the markets or anaj bazaar as popularly called.


Bengali people are primarily rice eaters, and the rainfall and soil in Bengal lends itself to rice production as well. Many varieties of rice are produced from the long grain fragrant varieties to small grain thick ones. Rice is semi-prepared in some cases when it is sold as par-boiled, or in some cases as un-polished as well, still retaining the color of the husk. Rice is eaten in various forms as well - puffed, beaten, boiled and fried depending on the meal. The first two are used usually as snacks and the other as the main constituent in a meal. Lightly fermented rice is also used as breakfast in rural and agrarian communities.

Luchi (circular deep fried un-leavened bread) or Parothha (usually triangular, multi-layered, pan fried, un-leavened bread) are also used as the primary food item on the table. It is considered that wheat based food came in from the north and is relatively new in advent. Both Luchi and Parothha could have stuffed versions as well, and the stuffing could vary from dal, peas etc.

These days Pulses (or lentils) form another important ingredient of a meal. These dals vary from mushur đal (red lentils), mug đal (mung beans), kadhaier dal, arhar dal' etc. and are used as an accompaniment to rice.

Cooking medium and spices

Traditionally, the worrd "tel" came from Til(sesame). Though Mastered Oil is one of the best ingredient of cooking, Til Oil was most preferred medium of oil in rural areas. In coastal areas like Medinipur, two decades earlier people used to consume coconut oil. Shorsher tel (mustard oil) is the primary cooking medium in Bengali cuisine although Badam tel (groundnut oil) is also used, because of its high smoke point. Of late, use of sunflower oil, soybean oil and refined vegetable oil, which is a mixture of soybean, kardi, and other edible vegetable oils, is gaining prominence.This later group is popularly known as "sada tel", meaning white oil, bringing out the contrast in color between the lightly-colored groundnut and the somewhat darker mustard oil and the other white oils. However, depending on need ghee (clarified butter) is often used .e.g. for making the dough or for frying bread.

mustard paste, holud (turmeric), posto (poppyseed), aadaa (ginger), dhonia (coriander, seeds and leaves) and narkel (ripe coconut usually desiccated) are other common ingredients. 'The pãch phoron is a general purpose spice mixture comprising of shorshe (mustard seeds), jeere (cumin), kaalo jeere (black cumin, also known as nigel), methi (fenugreek) and mauri (anis). This mixture is more convenient for vegetarian dishes and fish preparations. In addition to the specific flavour and taste obtained by these combinations, behind the recipes there has been a solid knowledge of the medicinal properties known in the traditional system of aayurveda.

Bengal is also the land of aam (mangoes), which are used extensively — ripe, unripe, in chutneys and pickles. Dried mangoes (unripe, known as aamchur and ripe, in form of aamsatta) are much appreciated. The sweet drink made out of roasted green mangoes is a delicious antidote against sunstroke.

A touch of gôrom môshla or hot spices (elach cardamom, darchini cinnamon, lôvongo clove, tej pata bay leaves, and peppercorn) is often used to enliven food through taste and aroma. Gôrom môshla is used either roughly broken or ground to different levels of fineness, especially suitable for meat preparations.
[edit] Instruments and utensils

Another characteristic of Bengali food is the use of a unique cutting instrument, the bothi. (This instrument is also used in Maharashtra, where it is known as vili and in Andhra Pradesh, known as kathi peeta (kathi = knife and peeta = platform) ). It is a long curved blade on a platform held down by foot; both hands are used to hold whatever is being cut and move it against the blade. The method gives excellent control over the cutting process, and can be used to cut anything from tiny shrimp to large pumpkins. Knives are rare in a traditional Bengali kitchen.

A korai (wok) is a universal cooking vessel for most Bengali food, for making sauces, frying/stir-frying etc. Dekchi (a flat bottomed pan) is used generally for larger amounts of cooking or for making rice. The dekchi comes with a thin flat lid which is used also to strain out the starch while finishing up cooking rice. The other prominent cooking utensil is a haandi, which is a round bottomed pot like vessel. All the three mentioned vessels come in various sizes and in various metals and alloys.

Silverware, as expected, is not part of traditional Bengali cookery. A flat metal spatula, khonti is used often, along with haatha (scoop with a long handle), jhaanjri (round shaped sieve like spatula to deep fry food), the sharashi (pincers to remove vessels from the fire), the ghuntni (wooden hand blender) for puréeing dal and the old wooden chaki belon (round pastry board and rolling pin), sil nora (grinding stone) is also used.

Preparation and cutting

Bengali cuisine is rather particular in the way vegetables and meat (or fish) are prepared before cooking. Some vegetables are used unpeeled, in some preparations fish is used un-skinned in contrast as well. However, in most dishes vegetable are peeled, and fish scaled and skinned.

In many cases the main ingredients are lightly marinated with salt and turmeric (also an anti-bacterial and anti-septic). Vegetables are to be cut in different ways for different preparations. Dicing, Julienne, strips, scoops, slices, shreds are common and one type of cut vegetables can not replace another style of cutting for a particular preparation. Any aberration is frowned upon.
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