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.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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.
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