The myriad influences and their subtle hints in Bengali Cuisine.
What do the exiled descendants of the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh, the family of Tipu Sultan, the Anglo-Indians, the repressed Hindu widows of yore, the Jewish fortune hunters, the Chinese settlers, British Memsahibs and Marwari traders have in common? The answer is simple – they have all left a lasting mark on Bengali cuisine, subtle influences that highlight the flavours and the unique taste of the food, which is as much a confluence of cross-cultural influences as the people of this beautiful land itself.
Boiled rice, lentils a variety of fish curries and a plethora of sweetmeats may be the staple of the Bengali diet but it is the assimilation of the tastes of all those who have entered the land that has helped the cuisine morph into what it is today, a riot of tastes that constitute the high notes of a symphony played to perfection. The food here is a personification of the people, warm as opposed to hot; welcoming as opposed to overbearing; above petty distinctions of class, caste, creed or colour the influence of the ruler perfectly integrated with that of the ruled; a celebration of the diversities in the union on the plate. It will thus, not be an exaggeration to state that Bengal has been the proverbial melting pot in more ways than one.
The Nawabs who ruled Bengal from the time of the Delhi Sultanate were credited with introducing the Bengali palate to the exotic flavours of central Asia helping evolve a distinct gastronomic genre with the chunks of meat and the flavor of saffron. As the center of Bengal in those days was Dhaka, it was here that the courts first helped the locals embrace these exotic traditions. As a matter of fact, these influences characterized by their generous use of spices, are still strong in some typical dishes, especially those that draw their lineage to the erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The influence of the Portuguese, who had long had a sizeable presence in these parts of the world, can also be traced back in some of the concoctions which add a special zing to the local cuisine and is often acknowledged as a distinct sub-genre.
It was only much later, during the reign of Murshid Kuli Khan that the seat of power shifted from Dhaka to Murshidabad, bringing in its wake a deluge of dishes from the east and exposing the locals to the striking taste of the Courts.
However, it was the exile of the last Nawab of Awadh, to Calcutta, the capital of British India that has perhaps left the most lasting culinary impression on our lives. The Nawab is stated to have brought in his retinue of Bawarchis, Khanshamas and Mashlachis (cooks, stewards and spice grinders) who are credited to have been instrumental in introducing the distinct style of Awadhi food – the now ubiquitous Biryani and the use of attars (essences) like rose and kewra. When the Nawab passed away, Bengal did not turn its back on these celebrity chefs – choosing the embrace them into the local population, assimilating their expertise into the local knowledge base and in the process enriching the distinct taste of its cuisine. In today’s parlance such efforts are often termed as fusion – fact is, fusing of cultures has been in our DNA since time immemorial, just that we didn’t have a term for it.
On the other end of this spectrum spread of Bengali food is the irrefutable mark left on it by the widows of the land. The dominant Hindu community, especially in the pre-renaissance Bengal was extremely regressive to the widows who were literally banished to the kitchen and the temples within the confines of the house. Here, in forced confinement, they sought a catharsis, seeking to keep their tryst with respective destinies through their cooking. Not allowed to eat fish or meat and forbidden from partaking vegetables and spices that are known for their ability to generate “heat” like garlic, onion or shallot, they gave rise to a taste that is as revered for their taste as they are for their delicate balancing. Purely vegetarian, it was this tradition that has given Bengali food its high place in the culinary sun. Ritualistic child marriage, low life expectancy and a host of other socio-economic issues had once ensured the presence of at least one widow in every four Bengali household and it is to them, these unsung heroines who wielded the spoons in the sanctum sanctorum of the Bengali kitchen that we and our cuisine owes the most. As a matter of fact, such was the reverence with which their abilities were acknowledged that it was said, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek, that it was nigh impossible to taste Bengali vegetarian cooking in all its glories unless one’s own wife became a widow!
The British introduced Bengal to the intoxication of tea and we have been raising storms in our teacups ever since. But it was not just tea that the sahibs and their ilk (the Dutch and the French included) taught us to eat. It was the Jews who introduced us to the fine art of baking. Chops and Cutlets, virtually synonymous with pangs of Bengali hunger were first introduced by the British as were the various puddings and other baked dishes. However, it was the Anglo Indian community that has left the most indelible mark on the Bengali palate, apart from being immortalised as entries into the Hobson Jobson – the Mulligatawny Soup, the Pispas, the fish rissoles’, the ball curry, the salted beef tongue and … chutney!
In this regard we will be failing in our duties if we do not, even in passing, mention about the role played by the Bengali babus of yore, especially in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries, who took on the established social order to open their minds, hearts and kitchens to foreign influence. Had they not done what they did, and history stands testimony, this process of assimilation, absorption, integration and digestion of cultural influences into the Bengali psyche would not have been the rule and would have remained the exception like it is in other parts of the world.
Similar is the case of the Chinese who came first to the docks and then entered the Bengali heart through the stomach. As a matter of fact, the Chinese food that has today become a virtual staple in the land is as much Bengali as it is Chinese having evolved to cater to the local taste buds over the ages. Bland Chinese sauces have been spiced up, mushrooms dispensed with, pork added as one of the major draws and the use of sweet corns and monosodium glutamate as ingredients introduced. In the process of this evolution, Sweet Corn Chicken soup, Manchurian, Chilli Chicken and various other dishes have been added to the repertoire of Bengali cuisine – cooked up here in Bengal and gifted to the world. The roadside Chinese – a hash of noodles with dollops of red and green sauce with any edible thing that is available tossed in for good measure – that is as ubiquitous as the kathi roll in Bengal today, is another example of the Bengali ability of synthesizing what it likes in others as its own.
The piece was originally written for the Express “Experience Bengal” supplement.