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Bengali cuisine is a style of food preparation originating in Bengal, a region in the eastern
South Asia which is now divided between the independent country of Bangladesh and the
Indian state of West Bengal. Bengali cuisine is well-known for the vast range of rice dishes
and various preparations of freshwater fish. Bengali cuisine is rich and varied with the use of
many specialied spices and flavours.
!istorical influences
Bengali food has inherited a large number of influences, both foreign and South Asian, from
both a turbulent history and strong trade links with many parts of the world. "riginally
inhabited by #ravidians and Austronesians, and later further settled by the Aryans during the
$upta era, Bengal fell under the sway of various %uslim rulers from the early thirteenth
century onwards, and was then ruled by the British for two centuries &'()(-'*+(,.
Influence of the widows
In medieval Bengal the treatment of !indu widows was much more restrictive than was
common elsewhere and lived under strict dietary restrictions. -hey were usually not allowed
any interests but religion and housework, so the kitchen was an important part of their lives.
traditional cuisine was deeply influenced by them. -heir ingenuity and skill led to many
culinary practices. simple spice combinations, the ability to prepare small /uantities &since
widows often ate alone, and creative use of the simplest of cooking techni/ues. Since widows
were banned 0impassioning0 or aphrodisiac condiments such as onion or garlic, most
traditional Bengali vegetarian recipes don0t use them. this is in stark contrast to the rest of the
Indian subcontinent where almost every dish calls for onions and garlic. -his has led to a
definite slant towards ginger in Bengali vegetarian food, and even in many common fish
Traditional Bengali cuisine
1ish is the dominant kind of meat, cultivated in ponds and fished with nets in the fresh-water
rivers of the $anges delta. %ore than forty types of mostly freshwater fish are common,
including carp varieties like rui &rohu,, katla, magur &catfish,, chingri &prawn or shrimp,, as
well as shutki &small dried sea fish,. Salt water fish &not sea fish though, Ilish &hilsa ilisha, is
very popular among Bengalis. Khashi &referred to as mutton in Indian 2nglish, the meat of
sterilied goats, is the most popular red meat.
"ther characteristic ingredients of traditional Bengali food include rice, moshur dal &red
lentils,, mug dal &mung beans,, shorsher tel mustard oil, mustard paste, posto (poppyseed,
and narkel &ripe coconut,. Bengal is also the land of am &mangoes,, which are used
e3tensively4ripe, unripe, or in pickles. Ilish machh &hilsa fish,, which migrates upstream to
breed is a delicacy.
-he pach phoron spice mi3ture is very commonly used for vegetables. A touch of gorom
moshla or hot spices &elachi cardamom, darchini cinnamon, long clove, tej pata bay leaves,
and peppercorn, is often used to enliven food.
Another characteristic of Bengali food is the use of a uni/ue cutting instrument, the boti.
&-his instrument is also used in %aharashtra, where it is known as vili,. 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, anything from tiny shrimp to large pumpkins.
%ilk and dairy products, so widely used in the neighboring India, are not as common here.
While fresh-water fish is still common, mutton is more common among the %uslim
population than beef and dried fish. Wheat makes its appearance alongside rice, in different
types of breads such as luchi, kochuri and porota.
-hese snack foods are most often consumed with evening tea. -he tea-time ritual was
probably inspired by the British, but the snacks bear the stamp of the substantial %arwari
population in 5olkata - chat, kachori, samosa, phuluri and the ever-popular 6hal-muri.
ughal influence
Islam arrived in Bengal probably around the mid-thirteenth century.
-his led to a uni/ue cuisine where even the common man ate the dishes of the royal court,
such as biryani, korma and bhuna. -he influence was reinforced in the 7a6 era, when
5olkata became the place of refuge for many prominent e3iled 8awabs, especially the family
of -ipu Sultan from %ysore and Wa6id Ali Shah, the ousted 8awab of Awadh. -he e3iles
brought with them hundreds of cooks and masalchis &spice mi3ers,, and as their royal
patronage and wealth diminished, they interspersed into the local population.
In West Bengal, , the food of professional chefs. the best e3amples are still available at
restaurants. Specialties include chap &ribs slow cooked on a tawa,, rezala &meat in a thin
yogurt and cardamom gravy,.
Anglo!Indian or "a# cuisine
Anglo-Indian food isn0t purely the influence of the British. Bengal was once the home of a
1rench colony, and also hosted populations of 9ortuguese, #utch, Armenians and Syrians.
-hese collective western influences are seen in the foods created to satisfy the tastes of the
western rulers.
2nglish and :ewish bakers such as 1lury0s and 8ahoum0s dominated the confectionery
industry which migrated from British tables to everyday Bengali ones. Another enduring
contribution to Bengali cuisine is pau ruti, or Western-style bread. 7a6-era cuisine lives on
especially in the variety of finger foods popularied in the 0pucca0 clubs of 5olkata, such as
mutton chop, kabiraji cutlet or fish orly.
%any British families in India hired local cooks, and through them discovered local foods.
-he foods had to be toned down or modified to suit the tastes of the 0memsahibs0. -he most
distinct influence is seen in the desserts, many of which were created specifically to satisfy
the British - most notably the very popular sweet ledikeni named after the first ;icereine
<ady =anning. it is a derivative of the pantua created for an event hosted by her.
Chinese food
-he =hinese of =alcutta originally settled into a village called Achipur south of 5olkata in
the late '>th century, later moving into the city and finally into its present home in Tangra.
8o other part of the Indian subcontinent has any significant =hinese population. With this
identity came =hinese food, available at almost every street corner in 5olkata. -hey were
mostly =antonese tradesmen and sailors, bringing with them a6i-no-moto &monosodium
glutamate, and sweet corn. As the =hinese opened restaurants for Bengalis, they spiced up
the bland =antonese sauces with sliced chillies and hot sauces, creating uni/ue dishes such as
Chilli Chicken and Veg Manchurian.
Indian =hinese food was given a second boost when a large number of -ibetans migrated into
Indian -erritory, when =hina anne3ed -ibet. -ibetans brought with them their own delicacies
to add to this genre, such as the very popular $o$o &a kind of dumpling, or thu%&a &a hearty
noodle soup,.
Bengali immigrants to other countries have started carrying this abroad as well. Indian
=hinese, including halal Indian =hinese restaurants have appeared in many places in the
?nited States.
Bengali Meals
-he typical Bengali fare includes a certain se/uence of food - somewhat like the courses of
Western dining. -wo se/uences are commonly followed, one for ceremonial dinners such as a
wedding and the day-to-day se/uence.
At home, Bengalis typically eat without the use of dining utensils. kata &forks,, chamoch
&spoons,, and chhuri (knives, are used in the preparation of food.
%ost Bengalis eat with their right hand. Bengalis traditionally eat on the ground with a large
banana or plantain leaf serving as the plate or plates made from sal leaves sown together and
-he elaborate dining habits of the Bengalis were a reflection of the attention the Bengali
housewife paid to the kitchen. In modern times, this is rarely followed anymore. =ourses are
fre/uently skipped or combined with everyday meals.
It is now common to place everything on platters in the centre of the table, and each diner
serves him@herself
Courses in a dail' $eal
-he foods of a daily meal are usually simpler, geared to balanced nutrition and makes
e3tensive use of vegetables. -he courses progress broadly from lighter to richer and heavier.
7ice remains common throughout the meal until the chatni &chutney, course.
-he starting course is a bitter. -he bitter changes with the season but common ones are
korolla &bitter gourd, which is available nearly throughout the year, or tender nim leaves in
spring. 9ortions are usually very small - 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.
Another bittersweet preparation usually eaten in summer, especially in West Bengal, is a
soupy mi3ture of vegetables in a ginger-mustard sauce, called shukto.
-his is followed by shak &leafy vegetables, such as spinach, methi fenugreek.
-he dal course is usually the most substantial course.
A common accompaniment to Aal is bhaja &fritters,. Bhaja literally means 0deep-fried0. most
vegetables are good candidates but begun &aubergines,, kumra (pumpkins,, or alu &potatoes,
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 bra or deep-fried savoury balls
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. torkari - the word merely means 0vegetable0 in Bengali.
-he ne3t course is the fish course. =ommon fish delicacies include machher jhol, tel koi,
pabda machher jhal, oi machh, Chingri machh &shrimp, malai curry, and bhapa ilish
&steamed hilsa,.
-hen comes the meat course. Khashi mutton or goat meat is traditionally the meat of choice,
especially West Bengal, but murgi chicken and dim eggs are also commonly consumed.
1inally comes the chutney course, which is typically tangy and sweet. the chutney is usually
made of am mangoes, tomatoes, anarosh pineapple, tetul tamarind, pepe papaya, or 6ust a
combination of fruits and dry fruits.
Mishti !"#eets$
Sweets occupy an important place in the diet of Bengalis and at their social ceremonies. It is
an ancient custom among !indus to distribute sweets during festivities. -he confectionery
industry has flourished because of its close association with social and religious ceremonies.
-he sweets of Bengal are generally made of sweetened cottage cheese &chhena,, khoa
&reduced solidified milk,, or flours of different cereals and pulses. Some important sweets of
Bengal areB
%ade from sweetened, finely ground fresh chhena &cheese,, shCndesh in all its variants is
among the most popular Bengali sweets, a few hundred different varieties e3ist, from the
simple kachagolla to the complicated abar khabo, jlbhra or indrani. Another variant is the
krapak or hard mi3ture, which blends rice flour with the paneer to form a shell-like dough
that last much longer.
7Cshogolla is one of the most widely consumed sweets. -he basic version has many regional
9antua is somewhat similar to the gulab 6amoon, e3cept that the balls are fried in either tel
&oil, or ghi &clarified butter, until golden or deep brown before being put in syrup.
-his oval-shaped sweet is reddish brown in colour and it is of a denser te3ture than the
Shondesh, chhanar jilepi, kalo jam, darbesh, raghobshai, paesh, nalengurer shondesh, shor
bhaja and an innumerable variety are 6ust a few e3amples of sweets in Bengali cuisine.
(itha or (ithe
In West Bengal, the tradition of making cakes, locally known as piha, still flourishes. -hey
are usually made from rice or wheat flour mi3ed with sugar, 6aggery, grated coconut etc.
9iDhas are usually en6oyed with the sweet syrups of khejurer gur &date tree molasses,. -hey0re
usually fried or steamed. the most common forms of these cakes include bhapa piha
&steamed,, pakan piha &fried,, and puli piha &dumplings,, among others. -he other common
pithas are chandrapuli, gokul, pati sapta, chitai pitha, muger puli and dudh puli.
9ithas are usually a celebration of the new crop, and often associated with harvest festivals.
*. uri
+. ,hal!uri
-. oa
%mbalB A sour dish made either with several vegetables or with fish, the sourness
being produced by the addition of tamarind pulp.
Biryani) 1ragrant dish of long-grained aromatic rice combined with beef, mutton, or
chicken and a mi3ture of characteristic spices. Sometimes cooked in sealed containers
&dum biriyani,.
Bhaja or BhajiB Anything fried, either by itself or in batter.
Bhapa) 1ish or vegetables steamed with oil and spices. A classic steaming techni/ue
is to wrap the fish in banana leaf to give it a faint musky, smoky scent.
Bhate) &0steamed with rice0, Any vegetable, such as potatoes, beans, pumpkins, or
even dal, first boiled whole and then mashed and seasoned with mustard oil or ghee
and spices. -raditionally the vegetables were placed on top of the rice. they steamed
as the rice was being boiled.
Bhuna) A term of ?rdu origin, and applies to meat cooked in spices for a long time
without water. -he spices are slow-cooked in oil &bhunno,. -he spices first absorb the
oil, and when fully cooked release the oil again.
ChacchariB ?sually a vegetable dish with one or more varieties of vegetables cut into
longish strips, sometimes with the stalks of leafy greens added, all lightly seasoned
with spices like mustard or poppy seeds and flavoured with a phoron. -he skin and
bone of large fish like bhetki or chitol can be made into a chachchari called kanta-
chachchari, kanta, meaning fish-bone.
Chhanchra) A combination dish made with different vegetables, portions of fish head
and fish oil &entrails,.
ChechkiB -iny pieces of one or more vegetable - or, sometimes even the peels &of
potatoes, lau, pumpkin or patol for e3ample, - usually flavored with panch phoron or
whole mustard seeds or kala 6eera. =hopped onion and garlic can also be used, but
hardly any ground spices.
alna) %i3ed vegetables or eggs, cooked in medium thick gravy seasoned with
ground spices, especially garom mashla and a touch of ghee.
am or umB ;egetables &especially potatoes,, meat or rice &biriyanis, cooked slowly
in a sealed pot over a low heat.
&hontoB #ifferent complementary vegetables &e.g., cabbage, green peas, potatoes or
banana blossom, coconut, chickpeas, are chopped or finely grated and cooked with
both a phoron and ground spices. #ried pellets of dal &boris, are often added to the
ghanto. $hee is commonly added at the end. 8on-vegetarian ghantos are also made,
with fish or fish heads added to vegetables. -he famous murighanto is made with fish
heads cooked in a fine variety of rice. Some ghantos are very dry while others a thick
and 6uicy.
'halB <iterally, 0hot0. A great favorite in West Bengali households, this is made with
fish or shrimp or crab, first lightly fried and then cooked in a light sauce of ground red
chilli or ground mustard and a flavoring of pEch-phoron or kala 6ira. Being dryish it is
often eaten with a little bit of dal pored over the rice.
'hol) A light fish or vegetable stew seasoned with ground spices like ginger, cumin,
coriander, chili, and turmeric with pieces of fish and longitudinal slices of vegetables
floating in it. -he gravy is thin yet e3tremely flavorful. Whole green chilis are usually
added at the end and green coriander leaves are used to season for e3tra taste.
Kalia) A very rich preparation of fish, meat or vegetables using a lot of oil and ghee
with a sauce usually based on ground ginger and onion paste and garom mashla.
KhichuriB 7ice mi3ed with vegetables and in some cases, boiled eggs. ?sually cooked
with spices and turmeric powder.
Korma) Another term of ?rdu origin &literally 0braised with onions,, meaning meat or
chicken cooked in a mild onion and yoghurt sauce with ghee.
LuchiB Small round unleavened bread fried in oil.
(orota ) Bread made from wheat flour and fried in the oven until golden-brown.
(aturiB -ypically fish, seasoned with spices &usually shorshe, wrapped in banana
leaves and steamed or roasted over a charcoal fire.
(olau B 1ragrant dish of rice with ghee, spices and small pieces of vegetables. <ong
grained aromatic rice is usually used, but some aromatic short grained versions such
as Kalijira or Gobindobhog may also be used.
(oraB -he word literally means charred. ;egetables are wrapped in banana leaves and
roasted over a wood, charcoal or coal fire. Some vegetables with skin such as begun,
are put directly on the flame or coals. -he roasted vegetable is then mi3ed with
onions, oil and spices.
)utiB ?nleaved bread made in a tawa and puffed over an open flame.
*orkari) A general term often used in Bengal the way Fcurry0 is used in 2nglish &it is
speculated to be one of the origins of curry,. "riginally from 9ersian, the word first
meant uncooked garden vegetables. 1rom this it was a natural e3tension to mean
cooked vegetables or even fish and vegetables cooked together.