Monday, August 13, 2012

Common Bengali Cooking Styles

AMBAL : A sour dish made either with several vegetables or with fish, the sourness being produced by the addition of tamarind pulp.
BHAJA : Anything fried, either by itself or in batter.
BHAPA : Fish or vegetables steamed with oil and spices. A classic steaming technique is to wrap the fish in banana leaf to give it a faint musky, smoky scent.
BHATE : Any vegetable, such as potatoes, beans, pumpkins or even dal, first boiled whole and then mashed and seasoned with mustard oil or ghee and spices.
BHUNA : A term of Urdu origin, meaning fried for a long time with ground and whole spices over high heat. Usually applied to meat.
CHACHCHARI : Usually a vegetable dish with one or more varieties of vegetables cut into longish strips, sometimes with the stalks of leafy greens added, all lightly seasoned with spices like mustard or poppy seeds and flavoured with a phoron. The skin and bone of large fish like bhetki or chitol can be made into a chachchari called kanta-chachchari, kanta, meaning fish-bone.
CHHANCHRA : A combination dish made with different vegetables, portions of fish head and fish oil (entrails).
CHHENCHKI : Tiny pieces of one or more vegetable - or, sometimes even the peels (of potatoes, lau, pumpkin or patol for example) - usually flavored with panch-phoron or whole mustard seeds or kala jeera. Chopped onion and garlic can also be used, but hardly any ground spices.
DALNA : Mixed vegetables or eggs, cooked in a medium thick gravy seasoned with groung spices, especially garom mashla and a touch of ghee.
DAM : Vegetables, especially potatoes, or meat, cooked over a covered pot slowly over a low heat.
GHANTO : Different complementary vegtables (e.g., cabbage, green peas, potatoes or banana blossom, coconut, chickpeas) are chopped or finely grated and cooked with both a phoron and ground spices. Dried pellets of dal (boris) are often added to the ghanto. Ghee is commonly added at the end. Non-vegitarian ghantos are also made, with fish or fish heads added to vegetables. The famous murighanto is made with fish heads cooked in a fine variety of rice. Some ghantos are very dry while others a thick and juicy.
JHAL : Literally, hot. A great favorite in West Bengali households, this is made with fish or shrimp or crab, first lightly fried and then cooked in a light sauce of ground red chilli or ground mustard and a flavoring of panch-phoron or kala jeera. Being dryish it is often eaten with a little bit of dal pored over the rice.
JHOL : A light fish or vegetable stew seasoned with ground spices like ginger, cumin, corriander, chilli and turmeric with pieces of fish and longitudinal slices of vegetables floating in it. The gravy is thin yet extreamely flavorful. Whole green chillies are usually added at the end and green corriander leaves are used to season for extra taste.
KALIA : A very rich preparation of fish, meat or vegetables using a lot of oil and ghee with a sauce usually based on ground ginger and onion paste and garom mashla.
KOFTAS (or Boras) : Ground meat or vegetable croquettes bound together by spices and/or eggs served alone or in savory gravy.
KORMA : Another term of Urdu origin, meaning meat or chicken cooked in a mild yoghurt based sauce with ghee instead of oil.
PORA : Literally, burnt. Vegetables are wrapped in leaves and roasted over a wood or charcoal fire. Some, like eggplants (brinjals/aubergines), are put directly over the flames. Before eating the roasted vegetable is mixed with oil and spices.
TARKARI : A general term often used in Bengal the way `curry' is used in English. Originally from Persian, the word first meant uncooked garden vegetables. From this it was a natural extension to mean cooked vegetables or even fish and vegetables cooked together.

The Bengali people are perhaps the greatest food lovers in the Indian subcontinent. A leisurely meal of many items which requires long hours of labour and ingenuity in the kitchen has long been a major part of Bengali culture. The traditional way of serving food is on the floor, where individual pieces of carpet, called asans, are spread for each person to sit on. In front of this seat is placed a large platter made of bell metal/steel or on a large piece of fresh cut banana leaf. Around this platter a number of small metal or earthen bowls are arrayed in which portions of dal, vegetables, fish, meat chutney and dessert are served. In the center of the platter sits a small mound of piping hot rice flanked by vegetable fritters, wedges of lime, whole green chillies and perhaps a bit of pickle. Finally in the center of the mound a liitle hole is made to pour in a spoonful of ghee to flavour the initial mouthfuls of rice.
The approach to food is essentially tactile. As in all of India, Bengalis eat everything with their fingers. What, after all, could be better to pick out treacherous bones of fish like hilsa and koi? Apart from this functional aspect, the fingers also provide an awareness of texture which becomes as important as that felt by the tongue. The various mashed vegetables or different rice or varieties of fish we eat are all appreciated by the fingers before they enter the mouth.
Each individual has a particular style of dealing with his or her food. Some people pick up their rice and accompaniments very daintily, their fingers barely touching the food. Then there are those hearty, somewhat coarse eaters who can be seen liking their palms all the way to their wrists and `Up to one's wrist in food' has become a Bengali phrase to denote gluttonous indulgence.
The other peculiarity about the Bengali eating scene is the unashamed accululation of remnants. Since succulent vegetable stalks, fish bones and fish heads, meat and chicken bones are all meticulously chewed until not a drop of juice is left inside, heaps of chewed remnants beside each plate are an inevitable part of a meal.
Whether you have five dishes or sixty, the most important part of eating in Bengal is eating each dish seperately with a little bit of rice in order to savour its individual bouquet. The more delicate tastes always come first and it is only by graduating from these to stronger ones that you can accommodate the whole range of taste. Vegetables, especially the bitter ones, are the first item followed by dal, perhaps accompanied by fries or fritters of fish and vegetables. After this comes any of the complex vegetable dishes like ghanto or chachchari, followed by the important fish jhol as well as other fish preparations. Meat will always follow fish, and chutneys and ambals will provide the refeshing touch of tartness to make the tongue anticipate the sweet dishes.
With all these delicious flavors combined with textures to be chewed, sucked, licked and gulped with suitable chomps and slurps (the better the meal the louder the sounds of appreciation) the Bengali meal usually ends with a great fortissimo burp!

A distinct culinary tradition emerged in Bengal based on the availability of local ingredients. The great river systems, heat and humidity combine with the fertile soil to allow rice and an abundance of vegetables to thrive; these became the corner stones of the diet. Mangoes, bananas, coconuts, and cane sugar grew in abundance; fish, milk, and meat were plentiful; yogurt and spices such as ginger and black mustard would season the dishes.
Even though fish and meat were generally popular, there was a predisposition to vegitarianism, based on religious principles, that has continued to the present. Strict vegetarians also omit onion and garlic from their diet, foods that "heat rather than cool", preferring to substitute a garlicky-flavored spice called asafoetida. The taboo against the consumption of fish and meat became even stronger with the flowering of religions such as Jainism and Buddhism. But with the decline of Buddhism in the ensuing centuries, fish and meat returned to the menu.
Rice, the staple of Bengalis since ancient times, has remained untouched by the currents of religious change and its preparation has held to a continuing high standard. One crop a year was sufficient to sustain the people, providing ample leisure time for the Bengalis to pursue cultural ideals: folklore, music, and the culinary arts.
The 16th-century Mongol kings left their mark on the cooking of Northern India, which to this day is known as moghlai cooking. With the introduction of Islam, Bengali Moslems adopted dishes such as kababs, koftas and biriyani from their Moghul conquerors. But the major portion of Bengali Hindu cuisine retained its original characteristics except that the use of onion and garlic became more popular.
The European traders introduced food from the New World - potatoes, chillies, and tomatoes. Bengalis incorporated them into their diet, combining them with a variety of native ingredients creating new dishes.
Then as now, Bengali cooking is mostly confined to the home. Dishes are carefully prepared according to recipes handed down through generations. Modern Bengalis have become culinary innovators. They search for, and experiment with, foreign culinary ideas, incorporating such new food items as noodles, soy bean and custard into an increasingly cosmopolitan bill of fare. But in their hearts, they still delight in such traditional dishes as maacher chochori and rosogolla.

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