01 January 1970

Bengali Cuisine: Towards A Homogenising World

Weekend Reads

Bengali Cuisine: Towards A Homogenising World

For a long time, it was a common trend among different food vlogs to prioritise fish delicacies in Bengal; however, there has been a shift recently.

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A common stereotype about Bengali cuisine is that it is all about fish dishes. Though an integral part of this cuisine consists of different fish recipes, like paturi (wrapped in a leaf and then cooked), bhapa (steamed), bharta (mashed), jhal (thick gravy), jhol (Stew or curry), and ambal (curry that tastes sour), vegetables dominate a larger part of the cuisine. In fact, the variegated nature of Bengali cuisine is reflected in the traditional plating of the food. A usual Bengali full-course meal consists of different vegetable items and at least one protein item – mainly fish, meat or egg, or any vegetarian protein (as in many households, especially in some of the Brahmin households, non-vegetarian items are prohibited) item and some sour or sweet food items at the end. The geographical location of Bengal on the Gangetic plane and its proximity to the Sea, the Bay of Bengal, makes it a perfect place for fish and vegetable cultivation. Among the fishes, both sweet-water fishes and salt-water fishes enjoy equal popularity, while among the vegetables, different kinds of roots, stems, leaves, fruits, and flowers reign over the cuisine.

For a long time, it was a common trend among different food vlogs to prioritise fish delicacies in Bengal; however, there has been a shift recently. Food vlogs like Bong Eats, The Bong Gastronomist, Popi Kitchen with Village Food and many others have showcased and are still showcasing the vivacity and dynamicity of Bengali veg cuisine. Recipes like shukto (a rich stew made with different vegetables – among which bitter gourd is a must – and different spices like mustard, poppy seed, cumin powder and ghee etc); ghonto (mix veg with a sticky gravy); different bhaji (fried items); chutney and achar have gained global recognition. What is most interesting about these vlogs is the choice of language and name. The use of “bong”, a slang and short form for Bengali, is often used to represent the Bengali community and is quite popular among the netizens. In today’s digitised world, which is slowly becoming homogenised, the differences in different culinary practices are slowly getting blurred. 

Further, the choice of English – to gain a global audience – as the official language of the vlog (in many cooking vlogs) adds swiftness to this process of homogenising. Therefore, the use of the prefix “Bong” or sometimes other vernacular terms like “ranna-ghar” (kitchen space) as an identity marker becomes essential to represent the Bengali sensibility, “Bangaliyana”, of these vlogs. Also, what is interesting about these English-speaking cooking vlogs is the use of vernacular terms in the context of a particular recipe. For example, a recipe like dalna (One kind of light gravy) is always referred to as “dalna”, not as stew or curry in these food vlogs.

The flavour of the food has a deep connection with language. Like any literary translation, where the translated text loses its original essence to some extent in the process of translation as the text moves out of its original linguistic and cultural context when a regional recipe is translated into some foreign language, it loses its natural “umami”. For example, Bengali cuisine is full of “pora” recipes, and the only word that is equivalent to “pora” is “burnt”, but they are not the same when used in the context of cooking. Sometimes “baked” or “grilled” is used to refer to the cooking process of such items, but that doesn’t justify the original recipe. For example, baked/grilled potato or baked/grilled bringle or baked/grilled tomato is quite different in taste and texture than “aalu (potato) pora” or “begun (brinjal) pora”, or “tomato pora” where the whole vegetable is put on the open fire directly and cooked till its surface layer got burnt. In the case of grilling, the outer layer is slightly charred, not fully burnt.

Bengali cuisine is varied and ever-evolving. It is never static. Therefore, to refer to any particular recipe as “authentic” is highly questionable. This is a popular trend among different food vlogs to showcase “authentic” Bengali recipes these days. But does an authentic recipe ever exist? Bengal consists of diverse regions where each family possesses their own cuisine that is influenced by the region’s geographical position to some extent. Food for them is not just an everyday necessity; it is a part of their identity. The recipes are handed down from one generation to another. Even in a particular region, the same food tastes different from family to family. 

The best example of such a variation can be noticed in the preparation of fish paturi. In some families, the leaf that is used for wrapping up the fish is banana leaf, while in some, pumpkin leaf or gourd leaf or taro leaf is used. The cooking process, too, differs from family to family. In some families, the paturi is steamed, while in some, it is shallow fried with the minimum amount of oil. In some regions, it’s baked in open wood or charcoal fire. Even within the same family, food tastes different from generation to generation. Earlier, it was mainly through the diary entry or commonly known as “kheror khata” (hand-made notebook with a cover of thick, coarse red cloth), where the elderly women of the family used to write down the recipes, which were handed down to the next generation and thus the recipe was transferred from one generation to another. But as in earlier days the right to education was not easily available to women; it’s mainly through oral narratives that the recipe gets transferred from one generation to another. The same recipe changes each time during the transmission, where the earlier holder of the recipe puts his/her signature into the dish, and the recipe evolves in the process. Marriage is one of the many social factors that facilitate such evolution of the recipe to a great extent. While the written recipe gets cultural permanency, the oral recipe tends to change more.

Writing provides the narrative cultural permanency, which is unavailable to the orally transmitted text. The transmission of the recipes is perhaps best captured in a short film called Debi directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, where Lali finds her didun’s (grandma’s) notebook consisting of different recipes. She tried her best to recreate her didun’s recipes. Though Lali has heard many stories about didun, it is through the diary that she is directly connected to didun’s memory. The diary here becomes the repository of her subjective memory of didun. Among the other factors, migration and travelling contribute to the evolution of the recipes significantly. After experiencing a different cuisine, people often try to indigenise the recipe in their own cultural terms. It is cultural appropriation that happens in most of these cases. In recent times, food vlogs and their experiment with different cuisines have contributed to this event of cultural appropriation to a great extent. Thus, because of these food vlogs, what was once a local cuisine has now become global, both in terms of food and audience. 

These vlogs are not only vlogs that showcase the variegated food culture of a particular region but has also become an archive of different tradition and culture.

(Arindam Goswami is PhD student at IIT Gandhinagar)