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Sutapa Ray: Intro to Bengali Cooking


An Introduction to Bengali Cooking

About Bengal
Bengal or, as she is lovingly referred to, "Sonar Bangla" (Golden Bengal), is made up of the
Indian state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal). The
people of Bengal farm the fertile Ganges Delta for rice and vegetables and fish the regions
myriad rivers. If you haven't yet visited this uniquely beautiful land, here is a glimse of it
below. These pictures are of Ashuria, a small village in Birbhum district of West Bengal,

`` The skies are pure blue

brushed by wisps of white
clouds. A land of green and
gold rolls out to the horizon.
Yellow mustard flowers and
purple brinjal punctuate the
green of the paddy fields.
Now and again a huddle of
huts crowd around a duck
pond, fringed with stately
palms, lanky papaya trees
and untidy clumps of banana.
This is Sonar Bangla. ''

If you would like to learn more about Bengal and her people you should definitely visit the
the following websites:

The West Bengal Home Page (by Arghya Chatterjee)

Virtual Bangladesh (by Zunaid Kazi)

A Bengali Bazzar

Anaj Bazaar
(A Vegetable Market)

The variety of fruits and

vegetables that Bengal has to
offer is incredible. Markets
are usually open air ones.
This scene is from the busy
Sealdah vegetable market in
Calcutta. A host of gourds,
roots & tubers, leafy greens,
succulent stalks, lemons &
limes, green and purple
eggplants, red onions,
plantain, broad beens, okra,
banana tree stems and

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flowers, green jackfruit and

red pumpkins are just some
of what you'll see if you visit!

Maachher Bazaar
(A Fish Market)

Visitors enjoy a tour of

Calcutta's fish markets like
this one. They are fascinated
by the lively koi (climbing
perch), the wriggling catfish
family of tangra, magur, shingi
and the pink-bellied Indian
butter fish, the pabda. Among
the larger fish, rui (rohu) and
bhetki weigh upto eight
kilograms. Baskets of pink
and silvery ilish (hilsa) match
the shine on the glistening
blade of the fishmonger's boti.
And the fish itself is eaten
from top to tail!

Inside the Bengali Kitchen

With the shopping done, the scene shifts to the ranna bari (cookhouse). The
storage, cooking and eating areas in a Bengali home were a separate unit and the
domain of the womenfolk. This barrack-like cookhouse was a row of rooms running
parallel to a wide airy veranda often used as the dining space. In an orthodox
Bengali home, fish and vegetables were cooked over separate fires, rice over
another and meat, if cooked at all was done in a portable bucket fire outside the
kitchen. However, recipes that were once cooked on these cowpat, wood or
charcoal fires have now been adapted to emerge almost perfect from the gas,
electric and microwave ovens that are in use today.

Here are some essential items you are sure to spot if you ever take a peek into a
Bengali kitchen (even today!).

The staple food, rice, is bought by the sack

and stored in huge containers. Pure golden
mustard oil, that pungent Bengali cooking
medium is usually stored in zinc lined tins. Large square tins are usually used to
store the favorite Bengali snack food - muri (puffed rice). Achaars (pickles),
spices, dals and ghee are kept in various sized bottles and jars on a shelf. And you
will find many baskets, large and small, lidded and unlidded strewn all over the
floor to store vegetables that just arrived from the market.

Among the cooking vessels, the karais (woks) where most of the
cooking and frying is done, the tawa (griddle) on which rotis and
parotas are made, the handi - a special large pot for cooking rice
and the handleless modification of the sauce pan - the rimmed, deep,
flat-bottomed dekchi are all hallmarks of the Bengali kitchen. And of course you
will also find the pressure cooker which is indispensable to any Indian kitchen. As
for the other utensils you absolutely can't do without the hatha (ladle), the
khunti (metal spatula), the jhanjri (perforated spoon), the sharashi (pincers to
remove vessels from the fire), the ghuntni (wooden hand blender) for puréeing dal
and the old wooden chaki belon (round pastry board and rolling pin).

The action in the kitchen begins with the cutting of fish and
vegetables and the grinding of spices. And this is when the two star
attractions of the Bengali kitchen - the sil nora (grinding stone)
and the boti (a cutting tool) appear. The items to be ground are
put on the heavy sil, a pentagonal slab of stone and are crushed
over and over by its moving partner the nora, a smooth black stone you hold with
your hands. This inseperable pair lasts longer than a lifetime and is usually handed
down from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law.

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Although knives and peelers have made their debut into the modern Bengali
kitchen, the boti, that unique cutting tool, has not yet been ousted. Boti, the
Bengali woman's pride and joy and her proverbial weapon, is fitted
on a wooden stand and held in place by the feet on the floor so
that both hands are free. The blade of the versatile boti varies and
is sharp enough to cut off the head of the toughest carp and yet
safe enough to peel vegetables (with some skill that is!).

Read an interesting article on the "boti" by Chitrita Banerjee

Common Bengali Cooking Styles

AMBAL : A sour dish made either with several vegetables or with fish, the sourness being
produced by the addition of tamarind pulp.

BHAJA : Anything fried, either by itself or in batter.

BHAPA : Fish or vegetables steamed with oil and spices. A classic steaming technique is to
wrap the fish in banana leaf to give it a faint musky, smoky scent.

BHATE : 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.

BHUNA : A term of Urdu origin, meaning fried for a long time with ground and whole
spices over high heat. Usually applied to meat.

CHACHCHARI : Usually 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. The 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).

CHHENCHKI : Tiny pieces of one or more vegetable - or, sometimes even the peels (of
potatoes, lau, pumpkin or patol for example) - usually flavored with panch-phoron or whole
mustard seeds or kala jeera. Chopped onion and garlic can also be used, but hardly any
ground spices.

DALNA : Mixed vegetables or eggs, cooked in a medium thick gravy seasoned with groung
spices, especially garom mashla and a touch of ghee.

DAM : Vegetables, especially potatoes, or meat, cooked over a covered pot slowly over a
low heat.

GHANTO : Different complementary vegtables (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. Dried pellets of dal (boris) are often added to the ghanto. Ghee
is commonly added at the end. Non-vegitarian ghantos are also made, with fish or fish
heads added to vegetables. The famous murighanto is made with fish heads cooked in a fine
variety of rice. Some ghantos are very dry while others a thick and juicy.

JHAL : Literally, hot. 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 panch-phoron or kala jeera. Being dryish it is often eaten
with a little bit of dal pored over the rice.

JHOL : A light fish or vegetable stew seasoned with ground spices like ginger, cumin,
corriander, chilli and turmeric with pieces of fish and longitudinal slices of vegetables
floating in it. The gravy is thin yet extreamely flavorful. Whole green chillies are usually
added at the end and green corriander leaves are used to season for extra taste.

KALIA : A very rich preparation of fish, meat or vegetables using a lot of oil and ghee with

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a sauce usually based on ground ginger and onion paste and garom mashla.

KOFTAS (or Boras) : Ground meat or vegetable croquettes bound together by spices
and/or eggs served alone or in savory gravy.

KORMA : Another term of Urdu origin, meaning meat or chicken cooked in a mild yoghurt
based sauce with ghee instead of oil.

PORA : Literally, burnt. Vegetables are wrapped in leaves and roasted over a wood or
charcoal fire. Some, like eggplants (brinjals/aubergines), are put directly over the flames.
Before eating the roasted vegetable is mixed with oil and spices.

TARKARI : A general term often used in Bengal the way `curry' is used in English.
Originally from Persian, the word first meant uncooked garden vegetables. From this it was
a natural extension to mean cooked vegetables or even fish and vegetables cooked

Eating and Serving Bengali Food

The Bengali people are perhaps the greatest food lovers in the Indian subcontinent. A
leisurely meal of many items which requires long hours of labour and ingenuity in the kitchen
has long been a major part of Bengali culture. The traditional way of serving food is on the
floor, where individual pieces of carpet, called asans, are spread for each person to sit on. In
front of this seat is placed a large platter made of bell metal/steel or on a large piece of fresh
cut banana leaf. Around this platter a number of small metal or earthen bowls are arrayed in
which portions of dal, vegetables, fish, meat chutney and dessert are served. In the center of
the platter sits a small mound of piping hot rice flanked by vegetable fritters, wedges of lime,
whole green chillies and perhaps a bit of pickle. Finally in the center of the mound a liitle
hole is made to pour in a spoonful of ghee to flavour the initial mouthfuls of rice.

The approach to food is essentially tactile. As in all of India,

Bengalis eat everything with their fingers. What, after all, could be
better to pick out treacherous bones of fish like hilsa and koi? Apart
from this functional aspect, the fingers also provide an awareness of texture which becomes
as important as that felt by the tongue. The various mashed vegetables or different rice or
varieties of fish we eat are all appreciated by the fingers before they enter the mouth.
Each individual has a particular style of dealing with his or her food. Some people pick up
their rice and accompaniments very daintily, their fingers barely touching the food. Then
there are those hearty, somewhat coarse eaters who can be seen liking their palms all the
way to their wrists and `Up to one's wrist in food' has become a Bengali phrase to denote
gluttonous indulgence.
The other peculiarity about the Bengali eating scene is the unashamed accululation of
remnants. Since succulent vegetable stalks, fish bones and fish heads, meat and chicken
bones are all meticulously chewed until not a drop of juice is left inside, heaps of chewed
remnants beside each plate are an inevitable part of a meal.

Whether you have five dishes or sixty, the most important

part of eating in Bengal is eating each dish seperately with a
little bit of rice in order to savour its individual bouquet. The
more delicate tastes always come first and it is only by
graduating from these to stronger ones that you can
accommodate the whole range of taste. Vegetables, especially
the bitter ones, are the first item followed by dal, perhaps
accompanied by fries or fritters of fish and vegetables. After
this comes any of the complex vegetable dishes like ghanto or chachchari, followed by the
important fish jhol as well as other fish preparations. Meat will always follow fish, and
chutneys and ambals will provide the refeshing touch of tartness to make the tongue
anticipate the sweet dishes.
With all these delicious flavors combined with textures to be chewed, sucked, licked and
gulped with suitable chomps and slurps (the better the meal the louder the sounds of
appreciation) the Bengali meal usually ends with a great fortissimo burp!

A History of Bengali Cuisine and Cookery

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A distinct culinary tradition emerged in Bengal based on the availability of local ingredients.
The great river systems, heat and humidity combine with the fertile soil to allow rice and an
abundance of vegetables to thrive; these became the corner stones of the diet. Mangoes,
bananas, coconuts, and cane sugar grew in abundance; fish, milk, and meat were plentiful;
yogurt and spices such as ginger and black mustard would season the dishes.

Even though fish and meat were generally popular, there was a predisposition to
vegitarianism, based on religious principles, that has continued to the present. Strict
vegetarians also omit onion and garlic from their diet, foods that "heat rather than cool",
preferring to substitute a garlicky-flavored spice called asafoetida. The taboo against the
consumption of fish and meat became even stronger with the flowering of religions such as
Jainism and Buddhism. But with the decline of Buddhism in the ensuing centuries, fish and
meat returned to the menu.

Rice, the staple of Bengalis since ancient times, has remained untouched by the currents of
religious change and its preparation has held to a continuing high standard. One crop a year
was sufficient to sustain the people, providing ample leisure time for the Bengalis to pursue
cultural ideals: folklore, music, and the culinary arts.

The 16th-century Mongol kings left their mark on the cooking of Northern India, which to
this day is known as moghlai cooking. With the introduction of Islam, Bengali Moslems
adopted dishes such as kababs, koftas and biriyani from their Moghul conquerors. But the
major portion of Bengali Hindu cuisine retained its original characteristics except that the use
of onion and garlic became more popular.

The European traders introduced food from the New World - potatoes, chillies, and
tomatoes. Bengalis incorporated them into their diet, combining them with a variety of native
ingredients creating new dishes.

Then as now, Bengali cooking is mostly confined to the home. Dishes

are carefully prepared according to recipes handed down through
generations. Modern Bengalis have become culinary innovators. They
search for, and experiment with, foreign culinary ideas, incorporating
such new food items as noodles, soy bean and custard into an
increasingly cosmopolitan bill of fare. But in their hearts, they still
delight in such traditional dishes as maacher chochori and rosogolla.

Food is a major part of Bengali culture. Here are some interesting articles on Bengali
cuisine, its uniqueness, how it has developed through the ages and how it plays an important
role in rituals and festivals:

Conchshells and bananas: The Bengali way of Birth

Food of Calcutta - Past & Present
Bengali Gastronomy
History of the Rossogolla
Sweet Talk of Calcutta
The Subtle Flavours Of Bengali Cuisine
The Taste of Bengal
A Bengali bounty

How Bengali Cuisine Differs from other Indian Cuisines

An abundant land provides for an abundant table. The nature and variety
of dishes found in Bengali cooking are unique even in India. Fish cookery
is one of its better-known features and distinguishes it from the cooking of
the landlocked regions. Bengal's countless rivers, ponds and lakes teem with many kinds of
freshwater fish that closely resemble catfish, bass, shad or mullet. Bengalis prepare fish in
innumerable ways - steamed or braised, or stewed with greens or other vegetables and with
sauces that are mustard based or thickened with poppyseeds. You will not find these types of
fish dishes elsewhere in India.

Bengalis also excel in the cooking of vegetables. They prepare a variety of the imaginative

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dishes using the many types of vegetables that grow here year round. They can make
ambrosial dishes out of the oftentimes rejected peels, stalks and leaves of vegetables. They
use fuel-efficient methods, such as steaming fish or vegetables in a small covered bowl
nestled at the top of the rice cooker.

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-flavored kalonji
seeds and five-spice (a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, kalonji, and black mustard). The
trump card card of Bengali cooking probably is the addition of this phoran, a comination of
whole spices, fried and added at the start or finish of cooking as a flavouring special to each
dish. Bengalis share a love of whole black mustard with South Indians, but the use of freshly
ground mustard paste is unique to Bengal.

All of India clamors for Bengali sweets. Although grains, beans and vegetables
are used in preparing many deserts, as in other regions, the most delicious
varieties are dairy-based and uniquely Bengali.

Translation Table for Ingredients

chhana paneer cottage cheese
doi dahi yogurt
MILK ghee ghee clarified butter
PRODUCTS ghole lassi yogurt drink
khoa/kheer khoya thickened milk
payesh kheer rice pudding
atta atta whole wheat flour
bhaat chawal cooked rice
chaler guro chawal atta rice flour
chirey chura, poha flattened or beaten rice
CEREALS moida maida wheat flour
moori moori puffed rice
sewai sewai vermicelli
siddha chaal ushna chawal parboiled rice
sooji sooji semolina
arhar dal toor/toovar dal split pigeon peas
besan besan chickpea flour
bori bori small sundried cones of lentil paste
kabuli chhola kabuli chana chick peas
chholar dal chana dal bengal gram
kalai/biuli dal urad dal black gram
matar dal matar dal dried peas
munger dal moong dal moong beans or green gram
musurir dal masoor dal red lentil
papar papad poppadum
alu alu potato
bandha kopi bund gobi cabbage
begoon baigan brinjal/aubergine/eggplant
E enchor kancha kanthal green jackfruit
G gajar gajar carrot
E jhingey torai ridged gourd
kanch kala kacha kela green banana/plantain
B khosha chhilke peels, scrapings
L kochu ghuiyan taro/arum root
E korola, ucchey karela bitter gourd/melon
kumro kaddu red pumpkin
lau lauki white/bottle gourd
matarshuti hara matar green peas

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mocha kele-ka-phool banana blossom/spadex

moolo mooli daikon/horse radish
neem pata neem patti margosa leaves
ole ole elephant yam
paan paan betle leaf
palang saag palak spinach
phulkopi gobi cauliflower
piaj piaz onion
piaj koli piaz patti spring onion shoots
potol parval/palwal pointed gourd
ranga alu shakarkhand sweet potato
saag saag leafy vegetables
salgam salgam turnip
shosha kheera cucumber
sheem seem broad bean
sorshey saag sarso-ki-saag mustard greens
thor kele-ki-tana white pith of banana plant stem
aam aam mango
anaras ananas pineapple
caju caju cashew
chine badam mung phali peanut
kala kela banana
kamala lebu santra orange
kancha aam keri/kacha aam unripe/green mango
kanthal kathal jackfruit
kishmish kismis raisin
kool ber Indian plum
lebu nimbu lemon
narkel nariyal coconut
pepey papita papaya [ripe=fruit, unripe=veg]
pesta pista pistachio
peyara amrood guava
tentul imli tamarind
bhetki bhetki machchi beckti
chingri jhinga prawns/shrimp
gurjali ravas Indian salmon
ilish hilsa machchi hilsa
kankra kakkra crab
koi - climbing perch
maachh machchi fish
FISH maachher dim roe
magur, shinghi, magur, singhi,
cat fish
tangra tangra
pabda pupta Indian butter fish
parshey boi mullet
rui, mrigel, rohu, mirgel,
carp, buffalo fish
katla katla
shole shole murrel
topshey topsi mango fish
bheri mutton
chaap chaap rib chop
dim anda egg
gorur mangsho gai-ka-gosht beef
MEAT and hansh batak duck
keema keema mince/ground meat
khashi khashi fattened castrated goat
mangsho gosht meat
murgi murgh chicken
pantha bakri goat

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suwar-ka-gosht pork
kochuri kachori fried wheat pastry with seasoned filling
luchi luchi puffed fried fllour bread
BREADS porota paratha thick crispy bread grilled in ghee
pau ruti pau roti loaf bread
ruti chapati unleavened whole wheat flour bread
ada adrak ginger
boro elach bara elaichi black cardamon
daruchini dalchini cinamon
dhoney dhania coriander seeds
dhoney patta dhania patta cilantro/coriander leaves
(choto) elach elaichi green cardamon
cloves, cinamon, cardamons (and black
garam mashla garam masala
pepper for the rest of India but not Bengal)
gol morich kala mirch black pepper
halud haldi turmeric
S hing hing asafoetida
P jaffran zaffran saffron
C jaiphal jaiphal nutmeg
E jaitri javitri mace
S (sada) jeera jeera cumin
and jowan,
jwain carom seeds
S kala jeera kalonji nigella
E kancha lanka hara mirich green chilli
S kari pata kari patta curry leaves
O labongo lavang cloves
N mashla masale spices
mauri saunf aniseed/fennel
G methi methi dana fenugreek seeds
noon, laban namak salt
five spice: aniseed, cumin, fenugreek,
panch phoron panch phoran
mustard and nigella
postho khus khus poppy seeds
pudina pata pudina patti mint leaves
rasoon lasoon garlic
rai sorsey rai sarson mustard seeds
shukno lanka sukha lal mirich red dried chilli
tej pata tej patta bay leaf
til til sesame seed

Click here for many delicious Bengali recipes!

Resources Used:

1. "Bengali Cooking : Seasons and Festivals" by Chitrita Banerji. Published by Inbook.

2. "The Calcutta Cook Book: A Treasury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace" by Minakshie Dasgupta. Penguin
3. "A Taste of India" by Madhur Jaffrey. Macmillan Publishing Company, Incorporated.
4. "The Healthy Cuisine of India: Recipes from the Bengal Region" by Bharti Kirchner. Published by Lowell
House, Los Angeles.
5. "Bangla Ranna: The Bengal Cookbook" by Minakshie Dasgupta. UBS Publishers' Distributors Ltd.

© 1998-2008. All rights reserved. Sutapa Ray

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