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Bengali cuisine is a culinary style originating in Bengal, a region in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, which is now divided between Bangladesh and the West Bengal state of India. Other regions, such as Tripura, and the Barak Valley region of Assam (in India) also have large native Bengali populations and share this cuisine. With an emphasis on fish, vegetables and lentils are served with rice as a staple diet.
Bengali cuisine is known for its subtle (yet sometimes fiery) flavours, and its spread of confectioneries and desserts. It also has the only traditionally developed multi-course tradition from the subcontinent that is analogous in structure to the modern service à la russe style of French cuisine, with food served course-wise rather than all at once.
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The partition of Bengal following independence from the British in 1947 separated West Bengal from Bangladesh. This caused a significant change in demographics; populations were divided along religious lines, and over three million people were said to have crossed the new Bengal border in either direction. This large-scale displacement along religious lines led to some changes of food, because there were some minor differences in food habits between the Muslims and the Hindus. However, large populations of each religion remained on either side of the border. Though similar, there is a distinct difference between the flavors of the cuisines of West Bengal and Bangladesh (East Bengal). Apart from this, every district of both parts of Bengal have subtle variations in the use of raw materials and flavors.
The treatment of Hindu widows has always been highly repressive. Tradition ties a woman's identity to her husband; a widow is therefore left with no identity, property rights, or social standing. Bengal was particularly repressive in this regard; widows were either banished or led highly monastic lives within the household, living under rigid dietary restrictions and not allowed any interests but religion and housework. The nineteenth century saw active widow reform movements in Bengal—the ban on Sati in 1829 and the Hindu Widow Re-marriage Act of 1856 were key milestones—but the related social practices took a long while to die out and still remain in part. Rampant child marriage and low life expectancies left many women widowed – it is estimated that 25% of households have a widow living in them. Widows were not allowed to leave the house, so their contribution to the household was usually restricted to the kitchen—creating a unique class of chefs in the dominant Hindu community.
While most Bengali castes ate meat and fish, this was barred for widows. Widows also did not use "heating" foods such as shallot and garlic, but ginger was allowed—this found a core place in Bengali curries, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Expensive spices such as saffron, cinnamon or cloves were used very sparingly if at all; nuts, dry fruits, milk and milk products (such as cream, ghee or curd) were similarly scarce. In spite of all these restrictions, however, the food evolved in such a way that its deceptively simple preparations drew upon Bengal's vast larder of vegetable options and were often elaborate to the point of fussiness. Cooked with elaborate precision and served with equal refinement—multiple courses and an intricate formality about what goes with what and in which sequence—it formed an enduring base for a rich and varied cuisine. Leftover cuts in particular, such as spinach ends or vegetable peel, are transformed. Chitrita Banerji in her book quotes a nineteenth-century Bengali writer mentioning that "it was impossible to taste the full glory of vegetarian cooking unless your own wife became a widow".
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The traditional society of Bengal has always been heavily agrarian; hunting, except by some local clansmen, was uncommon. Rice is the staple, with many regions growing speciality rice varieties. Domestic cattle (especially the water buffalo) are common, more for agriculture than large scale dairy farming. Milk is an important source of nutrition, and also a key ingredient in Bengal's desserts. Ordinary food served at home is different from that served during social functions and festivals, and again very different from what might be served at a larger gathering (e.g., a marriage feast).
Nearly every Bengali community eat meat or fish. In most parts of the Indian subcontinent, individual castes and communities have their own food habits; this is not true of Bengal. There is similarity in eating styles across social strata, with the Hindu upper caste Brahmins sharing a diet very similar to the trading or princely castes. Fish, goat, mutton and chicken are commonly eaten across social strata. Beef and pork also are available throughout the state.
The nature and variety of dishes found in Bengali cooking are unique even in India. Fresh sweet water fish is one of its most distinctive features; Bengal's rivers, ponds and lakes contain varieties of fish such as roui, ilish, koi or pabda. Prawns, shrimp and crabs also abound. Almost every village in Bengal has ponds used for pisciculture, and at least one meal a day is certain to have a fish course.
Bengalis also excel in the cooking of regional vegetables. They prepare a variety of the dishes using the many types of vegetables that grow there year-round. They can make ambrosial dishes out of the oftentimes rejected peels, stalks and leaves of vegetables. This style of cooking food using rejected parts of the vegetables, is predominant in Bengalis in Bangladesh and those who have migrated to West Bengal, in they use fuel-efficient methods, such as steaming fish or vegetables in a small covered bowl nestled at the top of the rice pot.
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-flavoured kalonji (nigella or black onion seeds), radhuni (wild celery seeds), and five-spice or panch phoron (a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, kalonji, and black mustard seeds). Bengali cooking includes the phoron of a combination of whole spices, fried and added at the start or finish of cooking as a flavouring special to each dish. Bengalis share their use of whole black mustard seeds with South Indians, but unique to Bengal is the extensive use of freshly ground mustard paste. A pungent mustard paste called Kashundi is a dipping sauce popular in Bengal.
Piper chaba is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae Chui Jhal is originally the twig of a Piper chaba. It is a very expensive spice in Bangladesh, and tastes like horse radish. People in Khulna, Bagerhat and Shatkhira cut down the stem, roots, peel the skin and cut it in to small pieces and cook them with meat and fishes, especially with mutton.
Fish is the dominant kind of protein in Bengali cuisine and is cultivated in ponds and fished with nets in the freshwater rivers of the Ganges Delta. Almost every part of the fish (except scales, fins, and innards) is eaten; unlike other regions, the head is particularly preferred. Other spare bits of the fish are usually used to flavour curries and dals.
More than forty types of mostly freshwater fish are common, including carp varieties like rui (rohu), koi (climbing perch), tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), bhetki (Barramundi),Catla (Catla catla), the wriggling catfish family—tangra, magur,sole (Solea solea), shingi—pabda (the pink-bellied Indian butter fish), katla, ilish (ilish), pomflet (Bramidae), as well as shuţki (small or large dried sea fish). Chingri (prawn) is particularly popular and comes in varieties—kucho (tiny shrimp), bagda (tiger prawns) or galda (Scampi).
The salt water fish Ilish is very popular among Bengalis. Ilish machh (ilish 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.
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 or ginger based gravy (jhol/jhul), or mustard based with green chillies (shorshe batar jhal), with posto, with seasonal vegetables, steamed, steamed inside of plantain or butternut squash leaves, cooked with doi (curd/yogurt), with sour sauce, with sweet sauce or the fish can be made to taste sweet on one side, and savoury on the other. Ilish is said be cooked in 108 distinct ways. Ilish which is considered the tastiest among the Bengal culinary delights is becoming costlier by the day. With the partial drying of Ganga (Ganges) River the volume of catch river is getting lower driving up the prices. The Ilish breeds in fresh water and during the rainy season it travels up the Ganges to breed where it is caught and this fresh water fish is the best in terms of taste. The fish from Padma river (Ganges is called Padma in Bangladesh) is also highly prized for its sweet taste.
The most preferred form of meat in Bengal is mutton or goat meat. Khashi (castrated goat) or kochi pantha (kid goat) are the common forms of goat meat taken. Some delicate dishes are cooked with rewaji khashi, a goat that has been specifically raised on a singular kind of diet, to encourage the growth of intramuscular fat, commonly known as pardah. However In Bangladesh Beef is the most popular meat while in West Bengal it is not commonly eaten due religious prohibition for Hindus. Pork unlike Bangladesh is commonly eaten in West Bengal especially amongst the Santal tribes, the people in the Darjeeling district, and is quite popular in Urban regions of West Bengal.Pork is available on the menus of almost all Chinese restaurants in Kolkata. Chicken is also preferred, though it has grown steadily in popularity over the last few decades after the advent of poultry farming. Beef, though not as popular as in West Bengal, is still widely consumed in Bangladesh due to being a Muslim majority. Eggs—both chicken and duck—are quite popular. Duck meat is quite often found on menus in West Bengal, mostly Chinese restaurants, even though the birds are common in the many ponds and lakes. Turkey meat, Emu meat, Quail meat and Rabbit meat are also available to buy raw and the delicacies of these meats are popular in the food joints.
The Nawabs of Dhaka were not the original Nawabs of Bengal. Their ancestors came from Kashmir as merchants who made their fortunes in Eastern Bengal in the 17th century. They finally settled in Dhaka, and, having bought large landed estates, they became the largest landowners in these parts. They were given the title of Nawab by the British.
The Nawabs brought many famous baburchis ("cooks") from many parts of India who introduced many new dishes, especially meat dishes, to the local cuisine. Admittedly, these expensive dishes were hardly enjoyed by the common people. They remained the favourite of the wealthy and the well-to-do aristocrats. After 1947 some of them have become favorites of the rich classes especially on such festive occasions as Eid and marriages. The food industry of Bangladesh is boosting since the 1950s with different kinds of Dhaka style Biryanis, Polao, Tehari, Cutlet, kababs, Lassi, Mattha, Falooda and other Bangladeshi special food items. Bangladeshi cuisine and food industry is booming since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971.
Kebabs: There are many kinds of kebabs, mostly cooked over open grill. Some of the Dhaka's specialty of this genre are: Sutli Kebab, Bihari Kebab, Boti Kebab, etc., made from marinaded (by secret spice mix by each chef) mutton and beef. Kebabs are eaten as snacks or as starters for a big feast. Special kinds of breads: There are many kinds of breads made with cheese mix, with minced meat, with special spices, etc., all are delicacies enjoyed by the affluent classes as side dishes.
Mutton Biriyani: This famous dish is now the mainstay speciality of the Bengali cuisine, especially in Kolkata. It is cooked with basmati rice and 'pakki" (pre-cooked) goat-mutton pieces . When on 'dum', i.e., steamed in a sealed pot over a slow wood fire or charcoal to impart a smokey-flavour, simultaneously cooking both rice and mutton. Spices such as saffron, nutmeg and star anise are employed chefs of this special dish.
Whole goat roasted: Marinated whole cabrito is roasted over charcoal fire. This dish is usually made on special occasion such as marriage feast when usually it is served on the high table reserved for the bridegroom and his party.
Whole roasted chicken/duck: Highly spiced, cooked in a pot with lots of ghee.
Special dishes meant for festive occasion: There are some delicacies that are enjoyed occasionally by the wealthy people. These are: game birds, turtle, rabbit or venison cooked in spicy sauce. However, the rare (mostly migratory) birds and turtles and deer being protected by law, this is on the decline. However, pigeons, guinea fowls, Muscovy ducks, etc., are still eaten as hobby food by some peoples. Turtles are still sold at many places although this is illegal.
There are gourds, roots and tubers, leafy greens, succulent stalks, lemons and limes, green and purple aubergine, shallots, plantain, broad beans, okra, banana tree stems and flowers, green jackfruit and red pumpkins in the vegetable markets or shobji bajar. Bitter vegetables like bitter melon/gourd ("uchhe" or "korola") and nim leaves are used. Bengalis are particularly fond of using leftover bits of vegetables. Peels, roots, stems and other bits that are usually disposed of are eaten in Bengal.
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 parboiled, or in some cases as unpolished as well, still retaining the colour 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 (panta bhat).
Luchi (circular, deep-fried unleavened bread) or Porothha (usually triangular, multi-layered, pan fried, unleavened 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.
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.
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, the 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 "shada tel", meaning white oil, bringing out the contrast in colour between the lightly coloured groundnut and the somewhat darker mustard oil and the other white oils. However, depending on type of food, ghee (clarified butter) is often used, e.g., for making the dough or for frying bread.
Mustard paste, holud (turmeric), poshto (poppyseed), ada (ginger), dhone (coriander, seeds and leaves) and narikel (ripe coconut usually desiccated) are other common ingredients. 'The panch phoron is a general purpose spice mixture composed of radhuni (Carum roxburghianum seeds), jira (cumin), kalo jira (black cumin, also known as nigella), methi (fenugreek) and mouri (aniseed). This mixture is more convenient for vegetarian dishes and fish preparations. Panch phoron is also referred to as Bengali five spice mixture.
Another characteristic of Bengali food is the use of a cutting instrument, the boti (also called the dao in some regional dialects). South Indians also use the same sort of cutting instrument, where it is called katti peeta. 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 effective 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. The 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 handi, which is a round-bottomed pot-like vessel. The three mentioned vessels all come in various sizes and in various metals and alloys. The tawa is used to make roti and porota.
Silverware is not a part of traditional Bengali cookery. A flat metal spatula, khunti, is used often, along with hata (scoop with a long handle), jhanjri (round-shaped sieve-like spatula to deep-fry food), the shanrashi (pincers to remove vessels from the fire), the ghuntni (wooden hand blender) for puréeing dal, the old wooden belun chaki (round pastry board and rolling pin), and the shil nora, which is a rough form of a mortar and pestle or grinding stone. The kuruni is a unitasker, there to grate coconuts.
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 unskinned in contrast as well. However, in most dishes vegetables are peeled, and fish scaled and skinned.
In many cases, the main ingredients are lightly marinated with salt and turmeric (an anti-bacterial and antiseptic). 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 cannot replace another style of cutting for a particular preparation. Any aberration is frowned upon. For example, in alu-kumror chhakka, the potatoes and gourds must be diced, not shredded; if they are shredded it is called ghonto and not chhakka.
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Bengali cuisine has evolved with the influence of Mughal cuisine, Anglo Indian cuisine, Chinese cuisine and so on. Some characteristics stand out: great number of rivers and its tributaries providing freshwater fish, flat and fertile land producing abundance of paddy(Rice) and Pulse(lentil), domestic cattle and dairy farming providing milk, beef (mainly non-Hindus) and mutton, alluvial soil producing variety of fruits and vegetables. Moreover, use of different spices has added to the flavour and taste of Bengali food. Ceremonial food differes from the daily food. While daily food consists mainly of rice/roti(handmade bread), fish, lentil(dal), meat, vegetables etc., in different occasions and festivals, guests are entertained with different kind of Polao or Biryani, Chicken korma, beef kalia, Kebab, borhani, firni, jorda or different sweet dishes etc. A significant feature of the cuisine is a significant variety of sweets based on milk and sugar as part of tradition. Wheat is used alongside rice, in different types of breads, such as luchi, kochuri and pôroţa. Special cuisine are also prepared in different seasons; for example, in winter, both urban and rural areas prepare various kinds of Pitha (Cakes like ' bhapa pitha', 'phul pitha', ' telerpitha', 'patishapta' and 'taler bora') and Payesh/ khir (a special kind of dessert made of milk, rice, sugar/gur and spices) are prepared.
Prosperity and urbanisation also led to the widespread use of professional cooks who introduced complex spice mixtures and more elaborate sauces, along with techniques, such as roasting or braising. Also introduced around this time, probably as a consequence of increased urbanisation, was a new class of snack foods. These snack foods are most often consumed with evening tea. The tea-time ritual was probably inspired by the British, but the snacks most popular are 'Shingara','dalpuri', 'samosa','peyaji','beguni', 'phuluri', 'chop', 'puffed rice (popularly known as Muri),' halim' etc. 'Chatpati' is one of the most popular street foods of Bangladesh.
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The following are a list of characteristic Bengali recipe styles. There are Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Burmese influences in the food of Bengal, as well as some British influence, because of the formation of Kolkata during the 1700s. Each entry here is a class of recipes, producing different dishes depending on the choice of ingredients. There are six different tastes to which the Bengali palate caters to, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot and koshay.
Bengali food today has some broad (though not so distinct) traditional variations.
Islam arrived in Bengal probably around the mid-thirteenth century, coming into force with the penetration of the Muslim rulers from the northwest. Dhaka (the present-day capital of Bangladesh), in particular, expanded greatly under Mughal rule. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in a large migration of people to and from present-day Bangladesh, resulting in a much stronger divide along religious lines. Bangladesh today shows a much greater Muslim influence than West Bengal.
The influence on the food was from the top down, and more gradual than in many other parts of India. This led to a unique cuisine where even commoners ate the dishes of the royal court, such as biryani, korma and bhuna. The influence was reinforced in the Raj era, when Kolkata became the place of refuge for many prominent exiled Nawabs, especially the family of Tipu Sultan from Mysore and Wajid Ali Shah, the ousted Nawab of Awadh. The exiles brought with them hundreds of cooks and masalchis (spice mixers), and as their royal patronage and wealth diminished, they became interspersed into the local population. These cooks came with the knowledge of a very wide range of spices (most notably jafran (saffron) and mace), the extensive use of ghee as a method of cooking, and special ways of marinating meats.
In Bangladesh, this food has over time become the staple food of the populace. In West Bengal, however, this has remained, more than the other categories, the food of professional chefs; the best examples are still available at restaurants. Specialties include chap (ribs slow cooked on a tawa), rezala (meat in a thin yogurt and cardamom gravy) and the famous kathi roll (kebabs in a wrap). The local population absorbed some of the ingredients and techniques into their daily food, resulting in meat-based varieties of many traditional vegetarian dishes, but the foods remained largely distinct.
The Mughal influence is most distinct in preparations involving meat, especially mutton. However, even chicken and other meats became more prevalent. The influence was also seen in desserts; traditional desserts were based on rice pastes and jaggery but under the Mughal influence moved towards significantly increased use of milk, cream and sugar along with expensive spices such as cardamom and saffron.
Anglo-Indian food is not purely the result of the influence of the British; Bengal was once the home of a French colony, and also hosted populations of Portuguese, Dutch and other Europeans. These collective western influences are seen in the foods created to satisfy the tastes of the western rulers. The result is a unique cuisine, local ingredients adapted to French and Italian cooking techniques—characterised by creamy sauces, the restrained use of spices, and new techniques such as baking. English and Jewish bakers such as Flury's and Nahoum's dominated the confectionery industry which migrated from British tables to everyday Bengali ones, resulting in unique creations such as the pêţis (savory turnovers, from the English "pasty"). Another enduring contribution to Bengali cuisine is pau ruţi, or Western-style bread. Raj-era cuisine lives on especially in the variety of finger foods popularised in the 'pucca' clubs of Kolkata, such as mutton chop, kabiraji cutlet or fish orly.
The British also influenced food in a somewhat different way. Many British families in India hired local cooks, and through them discovered local foods. The foods had to be toned down or modified to suit the tastes of the "memsahibs". The most distinct influence is seen in the desserts, many of which were created specifically to satisfy the British—most notably the very popular sweet leđikeni named after the first Vicereine Lady Canning; it is a derivative of the pantua created for an event hosted by her.
The Chinese of Kolkata originally settled into a village called Achipur south of Kolkata in the late 18th century, later moving into the city and finally into its present home in Tangra at the eastern edge of Kolkata. The Chinese-origin people of Kolkata form a substantial and successful community with a distinct identity. With this identity came Chinese food, available at almost every street corner in Kolkata at present, due to the taste, quick cooking procedure, and no similarity with the original Chinese recipe other than the use of soy sauce. They were mostly Cantonese tradesmen and sailors who first settled down here and decided to cook with whatever items they had at hand.
The influence of this unique syncretic cuisine cannot be overstated; it is available in every town in India and Bangladesh as "Chinese" food. Bengali immigrants to other countries have started carrying this abroad as well; Indian Chinese restaurants have appeared in many places in the United States and UK.
Indian Chinese food was given a second boost when a large number of Tibetans migrated into Indian Territory, following the 14th Dalai Lama's flight. Tibetans brought with them their own delicacies to add to this genre, such as the very popular momo (a kind of dumpling) or thukpa (a hearty noodle soup). Tibetans and Nepali immigrants also found ready employment in kitchens and helped power the millions of eateries that serve this unique fusion on virtually every street in Kolkata. The chop suey became a favorite, and versions like "American chop suey" and "Chinese chop suey" were constantly talked about.
The medium of cooking is mustard oil which adds on its own pungency. Another very important item of Bengali cuisine is the variety of sweets or mishti as they call them. Most of them are milk-based and are prepared from 'chhana' (ponir as it is popularly known). The most popular among the Bengali sweets are the Roshogolla, Shondesh, Pantua and Mishti Doi and these four sweets are deemed essential at every wedding besides some other sweets, which may vary as per individual choice. A meal, for the Bengali, is a ritual in itself even only boiled rice and lentils (dal bhat), with a little fish. Bengalis, like the French, spend not only the great deal of time thinking about the food but also on its preparation and eating. Quips like "Bengalis live to eat" and "Bengalis spend most of their income on food" are not exactly exaggerated. The early morning shopping for fresh vegetables, fish etc. is the prerogative of the head of the family, even in affluent household, because he feels that he alone can pick up the best at a bargain price. The Bengalis are very particular about the way and the order in which the food should be served. Each dish is to be eaten separately with a little rice so that the individual flavours can be enjoyed. The first item served may be a little ghee which is poured over a small portion of rice and eaten with a pinch of salt. Then come the bitter preparation, shukto, followed by lentils or dals, together with roasted or fried vegetables (bhaja or bharta). Next come the vegetable dishes, the lightly spiced vegetables, chenchki, chokka, followed by the most heavily spiced dalna, ghonto and those cooked with fish. Finally the chicken or mutton, if this being served at all. Chaatni comes to clear the palate together with crisp savoury wafers, papor. Dessert is usually sweet yogurt (mishti doi). The meal is finally concluded with the handing out of betel leaf (paan), which is considered to be an aid to digestion and an astringent. Traditionally the people here eat seated on the floor, where individual pieces of carpet, called asans, are spread for each person to sit on and the meal is served on a large gun-metal or silver plate (thala) and the various items of food are placed in bowls (batis) around the top of the thala, running from right to left. Rice is mounded and placed on the middle of the thala, with a little salt, chilies and lime placed on the upper right hand corner. They eat with the fingers of the right hand and strict etiquette is observed with regard to this. The typical Bengali fare includes a certain sequence of food—somewhat like the courses of Western dining. Two sequences are commonly followed, one for ceremonial dinners such as a wedding and the day-to-day sequence. Both sequences have regional variations, and sometimes there are significant differences in a particular course between West Bengal and Bangladesh.
At home, Bengalis traditionally ate without silverware: kaţa (forks), chamoch (spoons), and chhuri (knives) gradually finding use on Bengali tables in urban areas. Most Bengalis eat with their right hand, mashing small portions of meat and vegetable dishes with rice and in some cases, lentils. In rural areas, Bengalis traditionally eat, sitting on the floor with a large banana or plantain leaf serving as the plate or plates made from sal leaves sown together and dried.
The elaborate dining habits of the Bengalis were a reflection of the attention the Bengali housewife paid to the kitchen. In modern times, thanks to Western influence, this is rarely followed any more. Courses are frequently skipped or combined with everyday meals. Meals were usually served course by course to the diners by the youngest housewives, but increasing influence of nuclear families and urbanisation has replaced this. It is now common to place everything on platters in the centre of the table, and each diner serves him/herself. Ceremonial occasions such as weddings used to have elaborate serving rituals, but professional catering and buffet-style dining is now commonplace. The traditions are far from dead, though; large family occasions and the more lavish ceremonial feasts still make sure that these rituals are observed.
The foods of a daily meal are usually simpler, geared to balanced nutrition and makes extensive use of vegetables. The courses progress broadly from lighter to richer and heavier and goes through various tastes and taste cleansers. Rice remains common throughout the meal and is the main constituent of the meal, until the chaţni (chutney) course.
The starting course is made from bitter vegetables or herbs, often deep fried in oil or steamed with cubed potatoes. Portions are usually tiny—a spoonful or so to be had with rice—and this course is considered to be both a palate-cleanser and of great medicinal value. The ingredients used for this course change seasonally, but commonly used ones are kôrola or uchhe (forms of bitter gourd) which are available nearly all year round, or tender neem leaves in spring.
A thick soupy mixture of vegetables in a ginger-mustard sauce called Shukto in West Bengal usually follows the bitter starting course, but sometimes replaces it as a starter altogether. Eaten in much bigger portions, Shukto is usually eaten in summer. It is a complex dish, featuring a fine balance of many different tastes and textures and is often a critical measure of a Bengali cook's abilities in the kitchen.
The first course is then followed by shak (leafy vegetables) such as spinach, palong chard, methi fenugreek, or amaranth to name a few. The shak can be steamed or cooked in oil with other vegetables such as begun (aubergine). Steamed shak is sometimes accompanied by a pungent paste of fermented mustard seeds, spices and sometimes dried mangoes, dried Indian plum and olives which is called Kashundi. Many varieties of the Shak (fried/ cooked leaves) are savored in Bengal. Methi Shak, Kormi Shak, Pui Shak, Ponka Shak, Kulekhara Shak, Sojne Shak(drum stick leaves), Hinche Shak, Neem Pata, Lau Shak, Kumro Shak, Sorshe Shak (also very common in North of India), Kochu Shak etc. are some of the varieties that are vary commonly eaten in Bengali dishes. Neem Shak and Begun (Brinjal) is cooked in mustard oil (deep fried) and consumed with rice. This is a unique dish which is consumed as a normal food considering its bitter taste because of the Neem leaves.
The đal course is usually the most substantial course, especially in West Bengal. It is eaten with a generous portion of rice and a number of accompaniments. Common accompaniments to đal are aaloo bhaate (potatoes mashed with rice), and bhaja (stir fried). Bhaja literally means 'fried'; most vegetables are good candidates but begun (aubergines), kumro (pumpkins), or alu (potatoes) like French fries, or shredded and fried, uchhe, potol pointed gourd are common. Machh bhaja (fried fish) is also common, especially rui (rohu) and ilish (hilsa) fishes. Bhaja is sometimes coated in a beshon (chickpea flour) and posto (poppyseed) batter. A close cousin of bhaja is bôra or deep-fried savoury balls usually made from poshto (poppyseed) paste or coconut mince. Another variant is fried pointed gourd as potoler dorma with roe/prawn.
Another accompaniment is a vegetable preparation usually made of multiple vegetables stewed slowly together without any added water. Labra, chorchori, ghonto, or chanchra are all traditional cooking styles. There also are a host of other preparations that do not come under any of these categories and are simply called tôrkari—the word merely means 'vegetable' in Bengali. Sometimes these preparations may have spare pieces of fish such as bits of the head or gills, or spare portions of meat. A charchari is a vegetable dish that is cooked without stirring, just to the point of charring.
Pickles such as raw mangoes pickled in mustard oil and spices or sweet and tangy tamarind picckles and lemon pickle are also served with the dal course. A variety of pickles are a permanent fixture of Bengali meal.
The next course is the fish course. Generally there is one fish course a day, because Bengalis tend to eat fish and generally derive the necessary protein intake from fish and dal. Meat was generally a once-a-week affair until the 1990s, but now with changing culture, meat is served more often in the household. Generally the most common fish dish is the Jhol, where a thin jus of fish is made with ginger, turmeric, chili and cumin (the basic group of spices), and fish and sometimes potato or other vegetable.
Bengalis fame in cooking fish, both dried fish called "Shutki" (more present in East Bengali households) as well as fresh fish. Prawn or shrimp is often considered to be a kind of fish, and crabs are also a favourite of the Bengalis. Apart from it, mutton and chicken feature largely in the non-vegetarian menu, while the vegetarian menu contains homemade ponir, gram flour "dhoka" (a cousin to the gatta of the Marwari/Gujrati food group).
Generally one or two pieces of fish or meat are served during lunch, with rice, to balance out the meal.
Then comes the meat course. This course may be eaten occasionally for 2 reasons: the Hindu principle of ahimsa, which is observed throughout the region, and cost, as meat is very costly. The divide among the Bengalis of Bangladesh and West Bengal is most evident when it comes to the meat course. Meat is readily consumed in urban parts of Bangladesh and some consider it the meal's main course. Beef is mainly consumed in some of the feasts and banquets in major cities like Dhaka and Chittagong. Because the consumption of beef is prohibited among Bengali Hindu communities, Khashi mutton is traditionally the meat of choice in West Bengal, but murgi chicken and đim eggs are also commonly consumed. At the time of Partition, it was rare for caste Hindus to eat chicken or even eggs from hens, choosing rather duck eggs if eggs were to be consumed. Although it is debatable as to whether chicken is more popular than khashi in West Bengal today, the proliferation of poultry farms and hatcheries makes chicken the cheaper alternative.
Next comes the chutney course, which is typically tangy and sweet; the chutney is usually made of am mangoes, tomatoes, anarôsh pineapple, tetul tamarind, pepe papaya, or just a combination of fruits and dry fruits called mixed fruit chutney served in biye badi (marriage). The chutney is also the move towards the sweeter part of the meal and acts also as a palate cleanser, similar to the practice of serving sorbet in some Western cuisines.
Papoŗ (papadum), a type of wafer, thin and flaky, is often made of đal or potatoes or shagu (sago) and is a usual accompaniment to the chutneys.
The last item before the sweets is Doi or yogurt. It is generally of two varieties, either natural flavour and taste or Mishti Doi – sweet yogurt, typically sweetened with charred sugar. This brings about a brown colour and a distinct flavour. Like the fish or sweets mishti doi is typically identified with Bengali cuisine.
In a daily meal it is likely that some of the courses might get missed, for instance the 'Shak', the additional course, Chutney and Papor. In some cases, the dessert might be missed as well. The courses overall are the same at home or at a social function (e.g. marriage feast). Rice, which is the staple across the meal gets replaced by 'luchi' or luchi stuffed with dal or mashed green peas. The replacement is a relatively recent phenomenon and has been seen in practice only from about the early 20th century.
Sweets occupy an important place in the diet of Bengalis and at their social ceremonies. It is an ancient custom among both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis to distribute sweets during festivities. The confectionery industry has flourished because of its close association with social and religious ceremonies. Competition and changing tastes have helped to create many new sweets, and today this industry has grown within the country as well as across the world.
The sweets of Bengal are generally made of sweetened cottage cheese (chhena), unlike the use of khoa (reduced solidified milk) in Northern India. Flours of different cereals and pulses are used as well. Some important sweets of Bengal are:
Made from sweetened, finely ground fresh chhena (cottage cheese), shôndesh in all its variants is among the most popular Bengali sweets. The basic shôndesh has been considerably enhanced by the many famous confectioners of Bengal, and now several hundred different varieties exist, from the simple kachagolla to the complicated abar khabo, jôlbhôra or indrani. Another variant is the kôrapak or hard mixture, which blends rice flour with the paneer to form a shell-like dough that lasts much longer.
Rôshogolla/Rossogolla, a Bengali traditional sweet, is one of the most widely consumed sweets in India. It spread to Bengal in 1868. Channa based sweets were introduced in Eastern India from about the 18th century; as the process and technology involved in synthesizing "Chhana" was introduced to the Indians by the Dutch in the 1790s. The cottage cheese "schmierkase" was also known as Dutch cheese. The earlier versions of Rossogolla lacked binding capacity of the modern avatar that is well known and highly acclaimed today. This was due to the fact that the know-how involved in synthesizing such a sweet was unknown before being experimentally developed by Nobin Chandra Das and then constantly improved and further standardized by his successors. Furthermore, one must clearly understand that the "chhana" manufactured in those days was a coarse and granular variety and had low binding capacity. It was made by citric and ascorbic acid from natural fruit extracts.This type of "chhana" cannot be worked on to compact into any regular and firm shape for the purpose of sweet-making, leave alone making Rossogolla. This is because of a documented technological issue - lactic acid (extracted from whey) used to curdle milk now was introduced to India in the late 18th century by Dutch and Portuguese colonists (along with acetic acid) - and it is this method that creates the fine, smooth modern "chhana" with high binding capacity - which is now the staple raw material for Bengali confectioners. At present, Nobin Chandra Das is referred to have invented the spongy variant of rossogolla
Laddu is a very common sweet in West Bengal and Bangladesh, especially during celebrations and festivities.
Ras malai is composed of white, cream, or yellow cloured balls of channa which are dipped and soaked in sugar and malai or cottage cheese. This dessert resembles the rasgulla greatly. Though it is not a primarily Bengali sweet and originated from other places, Ras Malai is still very popular. Comilla is famous for its Roshmalai.
Pantua is somewhat similar to the rôshogolla, except that the cottage cheese balls are fried in either ghee (clarified butter) or oil until golden or deep brown before being put in syrup. There are similar tasting, but differently shaped versions of the Pantua e.g. Langcha (cylindrical) or Ledikeni. Interestingly, the latter was created in honour of Countess Charlotte Canning (wife of the then Governor General to India Charles Canning) by Bhim Nag, a sweet maker in Kolkata.
Pantua is similar to gulab jamun, and could be called a Bengali variant of that dish.
Chômchôm, (চমচম) (originally from Porabari, Tangail District in Bangladesh) goes back about 150 years. The modern version of this oval-shaped sweet is reddish brown in colour and has a denser texture than the rôshogolla. It can also be preserved longer. Granules of maoa or dried milk can also be sprinkled over it.
In both Bangladesh and West Bengal, the tradition of making different kinds of pan-fried, steamed or boiled sweets, lovingly known as pithe or the "pitha", still flourishes. These symbolise the coming of winter, and the arrival of a season where rich food can be included in the otherwise mild diet of the Bengalis. The richness lies in the creamy silkiness of the milk which is mixed often with molasses, or jaggery made of either date palm or sugarcane, and sometimes sugar. They are mostly divided into different categories based on the way they are created. Generally rice flour goes into making the pithe.
They are usually fried or steamed; the most common forms of these cakes include bhapa piţha (steamed), pakan pitha (fried), and puli pitha (dumplings), among others. The other common pithas are chandrapuli, gokul, pati shapta, chitai piţha, aski pithe, muger puli and dudh puli.
The Pati Shapta variety is basically a thin-layered rice-flour crepes with a milk-custard creme-filling, similar to the hoppers or appams of South India, or the French crepes. In urban areas of Bangladesh and West Bengal most houses hold Pitha-festivals sometime during the winter months. The celebration of the Piţha as a traditional sweet is the time for the Winter Harvest festival in rural Bangladesh and West Bengal. The harvest is known as 'Nobanno' – (literally 'new sustenance') and calls for not only rare luxuries celebrating food and sweets but also other popular and festive cultural activities like Public Dramas at night and Open Air Dance Performances.
Several varieties of yogurts such as mishţi doi, custards, and rice pudding (khir or firni) are also popular in West Bengal.
Shôndesh, chhanar jilapi, kalo jam, darbesh, raghobshai, payesh, bundiya, nalengurer shôndesh, shor bhaja, langcha, babarsa, Rajbhog and a variety of others are examples of sweets in Bengali cuisine.
Muŗi (puffed rice) is made by heating sand in a pot, and then throwing in grains of rice. The rice may have been washed i brine to provide seasoning. The rice puffs up and is separated from the sand by a strainer. Muŗi is very popular and is used in a wide variety of secular and religious occasions, or even just consumed plain. Muri is also often used as a replacement for or in combination with regular rice.
A variant of muŗi is khoi, which is popped rice. Both varieties are used to make many different snack foods.
One of the most popular and iconic snack foods of Bengal, jhal literally means 'hot' or 'spicy'. Jhal-muŗi is puffed rice with spices, vegetables and raw mustard oil. Depending on what is added, there are many kinds of jhal-muŗi but the most common is a bhôrta made of chopped shallot, jira roasted ground cumin, bitnoon black salt lôngka / morich chilis (either kacha 'ripe' or shukna 'dried'), mustard oil, dhone pata (fresh coriander leaves) and mudhi.
A moa is made by taking muri with gur (jaggery) as a binder and forming it into a ball, made all over Bengal. Another popular kind of moa is Joynagarer moa, a moya particularly made in Jaynagar, South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal which uses khoi and nolen gur as binder. Nolen gur is fresh jaggery made from the sap of date palm. Moas are made specially during winter.
Chir̦e Bhaja is made up of Flattened rice fried in sand and then strained in metal strainers, not tea strainer. It is mostly consumed with fried peanuts, jhuri-bhaja and fried curry leaves .
Though the culture of having several types of Rolls are not authentic Bengali cuisine but it has a partial Awadhi touch made in Bengali style.Usually common within office goers, student. Predominantly nonveg, it is prepared by lacha paratha wrapped with egg or stuffed with chicken, chicken tikka, mutton keema and so on, sometimes with paneer and onion on demand.This is good
Kochuri has its advent from the time immemorial. It is pulses stuffed in Puri or Luchi and paired with Alur dam or Cholar Dal.
Also known as Golgappa within North India, Kolkata Phuchka has its own flavour and taste. It is a very good appetizer where each small golgappa is stuffed with potato smash and tamarind. Usage of 'Bhaja Masala' or Fried spices powder and chilli makes it goes mouth watering.
Though the beginnings of Hakka Chinese food in India can be traced to innovators like Eau Chew and Pou Chong in the old city, it is in Tangra, a neighborhood 30 kilometers away from Kolkota, that the cuisine took true shape.
Tangra, which means "tannery" in Bengali, was home to Chinese leather factories, which were shut down after the Indo-Sino war in 1962. After India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959, relations between India and China began to weaken. In 1962, China invaded India through Ladakh in the north, which spiraled into a disastrous war between the two countries. India lost many soldiers to the war, and in response began to imprison the Chinese immigrants in detention camps in Rajasthan. After the war, hostilities between the Indian and Chinese communities began to grow leaving Chinese businesses in Tangra, and restaurants in the older Dharmatala area, to suffer.
After the animosity caused by the war died down, however, some Chinese moved back and converted the tanneries to restaurants, and Tangra became the new center of Indian-Chinese cuisine.