The Friends of the THATLou series is running with guest blog posts from just that, Friends of THATLou:
Somesh, also known as Santu Online as his blog is called, has appeared in the THATLou blog from nearly the very beginning. He is my first generous comment-er, I’ve written about him here, when I won a blogging award, as well as here, when I introduced the Friends of THATLou series. But in this latter introduction to Somesh I mistakenly thought that I was symbolically posting his delicious piece on Bengali cuisine on Thanksgiving, what I thought was the last Thursday of November (sadly I can’t blame this on having been in Europe too long – I have always been hopeless with dates and holidays). It was meant as an act of thanks to Somesh. Apologies, my cyber friend, I was mistaken and apparently Thanksgiving was last Thursday. Anyway, enough of me, it is his rich history of his native cuisine that you must not miss!
An Art Which Tastes Yummy
Bengali people (people of the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent) are world-renowned foodies and culinary artists! We spend a huge chunk of our time (and wealth) in cooking, serving and feasting. We throw parties and treats all the time. Apart from marriage, birthdays anniversaries we even have food festivals like “Ilish utsav” (the hilsa fish festival). We just need excuses to get cooking! Since this blog is about history and art, let’s dive into the history of this yummy art! Here goes.
Being the eastern part of the great Indian northern plains, Bengal has always been blessed with fertile soils of the river basin. Combined with a hot and humid weather the natives grew a huge variety of crops ranging from rice, vegetables to fruits like Mango, banana, Papaya etc. Since ancient time rice was the staple food of the Bengali household, it continues to be so even today! There was an abundant supply of milk and milk products; fish and meat were in plenty; spices like ginger and mustard were used to season the dishes. In ancient times, most people took a vegetarian diet to keep themselves cool in the hot climate. Strict vegetarians avoid onion and garlic, instead they use asafoetida for seasoning. There was a time when meat and fish almost vanished from the menu under the influence of Jainism and Buddhism, but it came back to the menu in the following centuries.
Around the 16th century the Mongols invaded this region. They left us rich with a new style of cooking, which to this day is known as moghlai cooking. During the Mughal invasion, Bengalis adopted dishes such as kababs, koftas and biriyani from their Moghul conquerors. But the major portion of Bengali cuisine retained its original characteristics except that the use of onion and garlic became more popular. In the 16th century and afterwards the Portuguese and other European traders came in large numbers to Bengal and intermarried with the locals and also introduced a variety of new crops, like potato, tobacco, cashew nut, papaya and guava. Guess what? Today potato is next to rice, as the most important ingredient of Bengali diet! Tomatoes and chillies were also introduced around this time. Bengalis incorporated them into their diet, combining them with a variety of native ingredients creating new dishes. As it was in the old times, so it is in the new. Bengali culinary arts are mostly confined to the home. Dishes are carefully prepared according to recipes handed down through generations.
Alas, we have lost a lot of our traditional customs to make space for the new. Modern Bengalis search for, and experiment with, foreign culinary ideas, incorporating such new food items as noodles, soya bean and custard thus enriching this art forever. But in our hearts, we still delight in such traditional dishes as maacher jhol and rosogolla. You know, Bengali cuisine has perhaps the only traditionally developed multi-course tradition from South Asia that is analogous to the modern Service à la russe style of French cuisine, with food served course-wise rather than all at once. The procession of tastes at a meal runs from a bitter start to a sweet finish. To start with, especially at lunch, is shukto. This is a dish that is essential bitter, made up of neem or other bitter leaves, bitter gourd, brinjals, potatoes, radish and green bananas, with spices like turmeric, ginger and mustard pastes. Rice is first savored with ghee, salt and green chillis, then comes daal accompanied by fried vegetables (bhaja) or boiled vegetables (bhate), followed by spiced vegetables like dalna or ghonto. Then comes fish preparations, first lightly-spiced ones like maccher jhol, and then those more heavily spiced, after which would follow a sweet-sour ambal or tauk (chutney) and fried papads. A dessert of mishti-doi (sweet curds), accompanied by dry sweets, or of payesh, accompanied by fruits like the mango, will end the meal, with paan (betel leaves) as a terminal digestive. The night meal often includes luchis, a pulao and a dalna of various delicately spiced vegetables.
Now comes my favourite part, sweets! Yaayyyy!
Sweets occupy an important place in our diet and at our social ceremonies. It is an ancient custom for us Bengalis to distribute sweets during festivities (lovely tradition, huh?). The sweets of Bengal are generally made of sweetened cottage cheese (chhena), sometimes khoa (reduced solidified milk). Additionally, flours of different cereals and pulses are used as well. I would like to add a few of my favourites .
1st comes Rosogolla. Rosogolla is one of the most widely consumed sweets. It is one of the three most prominent trademark of Bengali culture (along with Rabindranath Tagore and the festival of Durga Puja) and probably the face of Bengali cuisine to people outside Bengal. Next comes the Pantua and Chom Chom, both have a long history of its own. These have a lot of versions, but basically these are ghee-fried sweets. 3rd comes the Sondesh, made from sweetened, finely ground fresh chhena (cottage cheese).The basic Shondesh has been considerably enhanced by the many famous confectioners of Bengal, and now a few hundred different varieties exist! Opposed to the rosogolla which is kept dipped in sugar syrup, sondesh is a dry sweet. Almost forgot the Paati Shapta! The Paati Shapta variety is basically a thin-layered rice-flour crepes with a milk-custard creme-filling, very weirdly similar to the French crepes
Cooking and preparation of different dishes are like religious rituals in all our festivals. For ex. in rural Bengal the harvest season (known as ‘Nabanno’ – literally ‘new sustenance’) calls for not both popular and festive cultural activities like Public Dramas at night and Open Air Dance Performances and also rare luxuries celebrating food and sweets. This entire culture of making these sweets at home during harvest and offering it to friends and neighbours is to induce wellness and make others happy, and deriving good karma through the mingled blessings.
Anyone feeling hungry?
Indeed, I am, and so wish I could just hop on a plane to Bengali (where I’ve never been) for some of this Paati Shapta of which you speak! More visits with Somesh can be found on his blog, Facebook page and twitter handle (@SantuOnline)