Bangali food as we know today is just a shadow at best of the authentic dishes that date back several centuries. But with changing times, it might be the only link to age-old culinary treasures.
Eighty-eight-year-old Kamala Roy has been living with her daughter in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park for almost 50 years now. She says the city felt like “home” ever since she moved here with her husband after marriage. But as she makes her way to the dining table for lunch, the smile on her face gives way to a frown that’s directed at the contents of her plate. “Our cook here, even though she’s Bangali, just won’t make anything with the potato skins like they would in Kolkata. Those were delicious,” she sighs, as she unmindfully goes on to mix the masoor dal and skin-less aloo bhaja (potato fries) with rice, making space for some rui machher jhol (rohu fish curry) on her plate.
Roy, a native of Burdwan district of West Bengal, is among the many, who, after the state’s partition, were acquainted with East Bengal’s (present-day Bangladesh) way of whipping a delicacy out of every part of a vegetable or fish, no matter how unsightly. “Even the Bangali restaurants here don’t know how to make any of those Bangal (as people from East Bengal are called) dishes!” Roy says disapprovingly.
What one identifies as ‘authentic Bangali food’, sold in Bangali restaurants today, is the usual three-course meal of rice served with shukto (a bittersweet mixed vegetable made of bitter gourd and seasonal vegetables), a dal with a side of aloo posto (potatoes made in a poppy seed gravy) or begun bhaja (fried slices of brinjal), and a bowl of the seasonal fish made in shorshe (mustard gravy) or kosha maangsho (spicy mutton curry). With a few additions and subtractions, this standardised menu can be found in every Bangali eatery. “It is difficult to vouch for the ‘authenticity’ of a dish that’s perhaps 4,000 years old,” says Siddhartha Bose, one of the partners of Bhojohori Manna, a well-known chain of Bangali restaurants in India.
The undivided Bengal comprised not only the present-day Bangladesh and West Bengal, but Odisha, Bihar and Assam as well. One can only imagine the culinary range of the fertile land—geographically as big as present-day France—being fed by the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Teesta, among several other rivers. In colonial, urban pockets of Bengal, a hybrid of Bangali ingredients and British cooking styles began to emerge. Sometimes, the basic elements were experimented with, but irrespective of their degree of heterogeneity, the dishes were always served as ‘authentic’ Bangali.
As the cosmopolitan, middle-class Bangali warmed up to its stew and made it locally acceptable by adding a dash of ghee and turmeric, the second partition of Bengal in 1947 (after the first attempt was made by Lord Curzon in 1905) drove a wedge through their land and, consequently, their sacred kitchen.
With the Radcliffe Line rendering West Bengal a predominantly Hindu province and East Bengal a Muslim one, Bengal’s culinary definitions began to change, albeit slowly. “The influence of East Bengal on our food hasn’t been much. It’s this food that we took from our dining tables and into our restaurants,” Bose of Bhojohori Manna says.
As people of erstwhile East Bengal left behind acres of farmland, lush vegetable and fruit gardens dotted with ponds full of fish, to come to terms with unimaginable loss, oppression and penury on alien turf, they strived to hold on to the lives they once knew through their food.
Seventy-six-year-old Minati Dasgupta, now a resident of Kolkata, had once known Pirojpur in Bangladesh’s Barisal district as her home. Daughter of a lawyer and the youngest of eight children, Dasgupta describes their journey from East Bengal to Kolkata as one of ‘riches to rags’. “When we reached Kolkata, two of my older siblings would often say they’d go to our mamarbari (maternal uncle’s place) in the afternoon and have ‘horimotor’. I’d stay back at home and have my lunch as usual. It was much later that I realised that ‘horimotor’ was codeword for skipping a meal,” she recollects. But despite their circumstances, Dasgupta remembers looking forward to her mother’s delectable food. “She would make roshbora (balls made of dal dipped in a syrup). The syrup was made with mishri or batasha and not sugar like they make these days. She would also fry some potato or gourd skin with posto for us,” she says, with a hint of pride in her voice. In the initial days after Partition, thousands of refugees made Kolkata’s Sealdah Railway Station their home. The cuisine, which was brewing in the kitchens of the fortunate few who found a roof, was born of the resourcefulness that eked out maximum from the very minimum they could afford.
The use of tomato, cashew or yogurt in the food is more of a recent development, and not one that’s original to Bengal. With Kolkata being an important port city, businessmen from Rajasthan’s Marwar and other parts settled here and brought with them their culinary styles. With the increased emergence and influence of people from across the country as travel became easier, the intricate methods of cooking a sylheti koru (different vegetables chopped finely with their skins), chaapor ghonto (mixed vegetable with dal patties), motor shaak diye koi machh (a variant of carp made with spinach) or goalondo steamer chicken curry (a light chicken curry made by the boatmen on a steamer leaving from Goalondo, a small dock at the confluence of the Padma and Brahmaputra rivers, where the Eastern Bengal Express from Sealdah terminated, that carried people to Dhaka) became more and more elusive.
“Tempering and measured proportions of seasonings is what our mothers taught us to put in our food. These days, people think lots of oil, onion and garlic make good food,” Dasgupta remarks.
With technology seemingly bridging the gap between people and their roots and with foods from obscure parts of the world making their way to our neighbourhood eateries every single day, is there a dwindling popularity of delicacies by an immigrant people who’ve been a part of the region’s populace for decades now? “Nothing is disappearing. Someone somewhere is making it, we need to dig it out,” says Pritha Sen, former journalist and food historian, who is working on reviving the heritage cuisine of Bengal. “What we eat at restaurants isn’t representative of the different cooking styles. Through the years, people have been exposed to only one style of cooking, which is not what we eat at home… Delicate flavours can’t be made in large quantities. Therefore, the masalas came into the festival style of cooking. Most recipes were being done the West Bengal way,” Sen says.
She further believes that the resurrection of this allegedly endangered cuisine has received an impetus in recent times, as the younger generation “doesn’t really care” about being called ‘Bangal’ or ‘Ghoti’ (the term used for the natives of West Bengal). “It’s taken two generations for us to stand up on our feet and proudly claim, ‘I’m Bangal’. Earlier, Bangals were looked down upon because they were refugees… But today, restaurants are making shutki (dried fish, a preparation from East Bengal) and people want to eat it,” she observes.
However, one must be careful of not confusing East Bengal food with present-day Bangladeshi cuisine, which is mostly a Muslim style of cooking. “It’s not the same as what I ate when I was a child living in Mymensingh. They use more onion and garlic now,” says 81-year-old Indrani Lahiri, author of cookbooks and a resident of Kolkata. “The original dishes can’t be found any more. People are replacing the chittol (a river fish) in the muittha (an East Bengal dish) with the mackerel nowadays,” she sighs. But, as Sen says, maybe it’s all about the changing times and “developing an awareness and taste” for these age-old culinary treasures.
Arshia Dhar is a freelancer