Ever since Gopal Krishna Gokhale sanctified the Bengali sense of intellectual superiority by declaring, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow”, people from my part of the country have never stopped preening about their distinctive identity in almost every sphere of life—culture to cuisine. From that it is a small step to arrogance, often expressed graphically by a comparison between French sophistication vis-a-vis British “mediocrity”. A Bengali media baron created quite a stir some years ago when he suggested that his community rightly looks down upon the “boorish people” of the rest of India. The Bengali style of wearing a dhoti is different from others, the best saris are crafted here; our tastes are understated, even the cuisine is subtle, it grows on you, he told a foreign magazine, and concluded: “We are like the French”.
The big disadvantage with Bengali cuisine is the elaborate nature of every preparation, the use of a complex blend of spices, and the amount of time it takes to bring a dish to perfection. Given the number of items required to present a complete Bengali thali, it can only be compared to the delectable Kashmiri wazwan. No wonder Bengali or Kashmiri food are not readily available in restaurants, even in their home states.
Despite its uniqueness, Bengali food failed to grow beyond connoisseurs. Short-cuts are frowned upon by purists and innovative improvisations dismissed as unacceptable compromises. Traditional Bengali cuisine is gradually becoming a dying art, kept alive only by Anjan Chatterjee’s chain of restaurants such as Oh! Calcutta, a few other eateries aimed at the diaspora, and caterers who still serve a complete traditional meal at wedding receptions.
Full course A typical Bengali spread
Let me detail some of the items that would be considered non-negotiable in a traditional Bengali meal. It should start with fried miniature bodi, a few spoonfuls of lightly fried saag and uchchhey (small bitter gourd)—aloo fry, begun (brinjal) bhaja and/or bhindi bhaja (chopped fried bhindi). This should be followed by shukto (a light stew of aloo, karela, green banana, laau (green gourd) etc. Coconut-laced preparations are common in Bengali cuisine; hence a chholar dal (dhuli huyi chana with chopped coconut) is considered a delicacy. This also goes well with luchi (medium-sized puris made with maida rather than atta). At lunchtime, bhaja mooger dal (dal made with roasted moong) is often the next item. Alongside, there is a wide array of side dishes. They range from aloo posto, sager ghonto or chocchori (palak cooked with aloo, brinjal and various other vegetables including pumpkin), laau-chingri (shrimps cooked with finely cut pieces of green gourd and cabbage), chhenchki (pumpkin, aloo and other vegetables bunged together to make a mash), and in some cases chhanchra (a mash made of palak, aloo, laau, topped up with the head of fish—a huge delicacy).
Enter the entree. Ideally, there ought to be a fish (usually rohu) curry, either a kaalia—a thickish gravy with big pieces of fish—or a daalna, fish curry with aloo and cauliflower. This should be followed by a prawn delicacy, usually chingri malaikari—prepared with coconut milk among other ingredients, but no vegetables. Meat is the last main item to be served. Although kosha mangsho is a perennial delicacy, it goes better with luchi, as it contains little gravy. A simpler mangshor jhol, rich in gravy and containing big chunks of potatoes, goes better with rice. It may surprise many to learn that chicken does not form part of traditional Bengali cuisine, although the relative simplicity of making a light murgir jhol has allowed the avian species to enter kitchens in a big way in recent decades.
Of course, every Bengali household has its own secret recipe and special way of preparing a dish. On my first visit to Oh! Calcutta in Delhi, I heard a middle-aged mashima (aunty) from Chittaranjan Park launch into a diatribe over a dish. The chef was summoned and the hapless man was subjected to a half-hour-long lecture on the correct way to cook the impugned item. She insisted that the particular item was her family’s “copyright” and the restaurant deserved to be sued for putting it on its menu without consulting her!
This shows how fanatically possessive Bengalis are about their “secret” family recipes. But I won’t be so zealous, and will end this piece with one of my mother’s recipes, a simple, quickly prepared, shrimp-based dish that goes very well with plain rice or with a light dal such as urad.
Bhapa Chingri Bhatey
Ingredients: Shrimp (the smaller the better): 500 gm, Grated coconut: 250 gm (one-third of one normal sized coconut, approx), Ginger paste: 1 teaspoon, Green chilli paste: 2 chillies should suffice, Mustard powder: 2 teaspoons. Salt: 1 tablespoon (or to taste), Mustard oil: 2 tablespoons
How to cook: Make a fine paste of the shelled shrimp in a mixer. Add the other ingredients. Pour the mustard oil and mix it vigorously with your fingers as you would knead dough. Put the mixture in a steamer box, above an empty container. Put two cups of water in the pressure cooker and close the lid, but do not put the pressure cap on. Allow 12 to 15 minutes to cook after steam starts escaping from the vent. Remove the container and serve at room temperature. This quantity should suffice for four persons. Garnish with a whole green chilli for visual effect.
Simple, isn’t it?
(Chandan Mitra is a BJP Rajya Sabha MP and editor of the Pioneer newspaper.)
So, the Bengalis (or others for that matter) are not as good as the French on matters of food, eh, Mr Chandan Mitra (3 Tbsp Mustard, Pride to Taste)? Wrong. French food is okay, and in fact some of their popular fare, unlike the upper-crust pseudo-fineries, is quite delightful. And popular or not, most French dishes are meat-heavy. Try real Italian food, richer in cereals and vegetables. Sadly, Italy is no longer the country of Gramsci, De Sica or Rosellini; it is more about Berlusconi and friends, mindlessly vulgar and jingoistic. Thankfully, nourishment for the belly retains its old quality.
Will Mr Mitra tell me where and when did Gokhale say, "What Bengal think today, India think tomorrow?"
At least please learn history properly. You might have studied either in St Stephens or Presidency College.
That's where bhadralok of his time used to begins higher education.
I will await a reply, Mr MP.
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT