Before Aniruddha and I were engaged, my knowledge of Bengali cuisine was very limited. I knew that fish was a big part of their diet but I wouldn’t have been able to name a single dish. And my father had convinced me that the best Bengali sweets (notably sandesh) were available not in Kolkata but in Nagpur, his hometown.
Aniruddha and his family opened up the world of Bengali food to me and when I started experiencing the cuisine, I realized just how much I had missed out on. Fish was an integral part of the diet, but there was so much more to it.
I tasted unusual vegetable combinations and flavours in shukto and chorchori (mixed vegetable dishes typically cooked in mustard oil). I enjoyed dal preparations like cholar dal (slightly sweetened dal made from Bengal gram). I was introduced to paanch phoron, the Bengali 5 spices of onion seeds, fennel, cumin, mustard and fenugreek. I discovered kashundi, the Bengali mustard sauce. I learnt that poppy seeds are as much a part of their cuisine as they are in Marathi food. I experienced nulen gur (date palm jaggery). And of course I went through a wide range of Bengali sweets especially sandesh (a light dessert made of a ricotta-like cheese). I later realized my father’s love for his home town had clearly muddled his taste buds.
I learnt that the Bengali obsession with all things meat is second only to that of the Parsis. A Parsi wedding feast is slightly extreme. If you opt for non-vegetarian, that is pretty much the only thing you are getting on your plate 🙂 And vegetarians, like my father, are relegated to one corner of the dinner hall.
Bengalis are more inclusive. A traditional meal which is served in courses has vegetarian food served, consumed and done with before moving on to more exciting non vegetarian options. I learnt this the hard way at a dinner hosted by Aniruddha’s relatives. Not knowing that there would be courses, I tucked into the first couple of vegetarian dishes and had a lot of trouble trying to cope with the dishes that came in later. I also learnt that trying to argue with a Bengali hostess is in vain.
The Bengali opinion on culinary matters was another part of my education. Well, the Bengali opinion on anything and everything is also something to experience.
- Evidence 1: To me, the samosa and shingara (fried flour pastries with a vegetable stuffing) look the same, though the filling is different (samosa is mostly potato while shingara has cauliflower and peanuts also). However to the Bengali they couldn’t be further apart and any insistence that they’re essentially the same thing with a different name can provoke an extreme reaction
- Evidence 2: The pani puri vs. phuchka, both street snacks in the respective cities of Mumbai and Kolkata and made of deep fried wheat and semolina puffs stuffed with an assortment of boiled potato and/or lentils. The boiled lentil in the filling is a key point of difference between the Mumbai version which has it vs. Kolkata which doesn’t and which apparently makes the Mumbai version inferior. The second point of difference is the water that it is dunked into. Not willing to relinquish this debate, I still maintain that the Mumbai pani puri is better!
- Evidence 3: The Mumbai frankie vs. the Kolkata kathi roll. Both rolls made from parathas and stuffed with meat or veg fillings. I believe the two should not be compared as they are quite different and both are good in their own right.
Mercifully since Aniruddha grew up in Mumbai he takes a benign view of these debates.
And so after almost 14 years of being married into the community, learning dishes from my mother-in-law and eating in Kolkata, a small part of me is also Bengali. Through the Bombay Howrah Dining Car, hopefully more people will be exposed to Bengali cuisine.