Bengalis are famous for their obsession for food, travel and arguments. I shall, in this piece however concern myself with the fine art of Bengali cuisine, which is probably one of the most diverse and nuanced cuisines of South Asia.
My earliest and most vivid memory of an elaborate Bengali spread is from one eventful summer thirty years back, when we were visiting Kolkata. Mira Pishi – my third aunt from my father’s side decided to organise a special feast for her visiting niece and two nephews (my two elder siblings and I) and her own two children.
The feast was indeed very special and grand – fit for a king. I don’t remember the names of dishes my aunt cooked, but I do remember counting the 18 outstanding dishes that she had prepared all by herself. Her culinary skills were of an exceptional order and this was only rivalled by her outstanding talent as a singer and dancer (she was trained in Shantiniketan and was the topper in her batch at Sangeet Bhavan)
A traditional Bengali Hindu meal is meticulously planned in advance and served course by course, item by item, one after the other, based on a strictly recommended gastronomic progression in which vegetarian dishes are always served first, mutton is served after the fish and in general, richer dishes follow the lighter dishes, ending with a sweet-and sour chutney, desserts and paan (mildly pungent-sweet beetle leaf, garnished with refreshing herbs and digestive spices).
Generally it starts with a little bit of ghee (clarified butter) and hot rice, followed by a lightly bitter-sweet vegetable dish called shukto. This basically helps to clear the palate for the richer dishes to follow. After this follows the lentil and five kinds of crispy vegetable fries, three curried vegetable items, four fish items (including a dish of crispy fried fish), mutton, sweet chutney and four types of desserts, including sweet yoghurt and roshogolla or rasagulla. The meal ends with paan.
Traditionally, there are three distinguishing features of a Bengali feast. Firstly, the gradually unfolding menu is not known in advance by those being served. So as each item is served, one doesn’t know what and how many more items to expect and hence how much of each item to eat. The servings are never modest. Secondly one is expected to try every item that is served and thirdly, there is a lot of cajoling, bordering on force feeding by the host.
Another feature of a traditional Bengali meal is that it has to be had with one’s hands. Texture is a very important part of the Bengali cuisine and mixing and feeling the different textures by the fingers is an indispensable part of the overall culinary experience.
In the case of the feast given by my aunt, by the time the eighth item (chingri macher malai curry – tender prawns in coconut milk gravy) was served, my stomach was ready to burst. I however had to eat everything else that followed. Amongst the desserts, the highlight was one that had small pieces of slender pati-shapta (equivalent to sweet crepe rolled with a coconut and milk solids filling) dunked in a sauce of thickened sweet milk, flavoured with freshly crushed cardamom.
When I was asked to recreate a traditional Bengali meal by the Daily Star (the leading English Daily in Bangladesh) for an article in their lifestyle supplement, I was reminded of that summer afternoon almost three decades back. What I did essentially was to attempt recreate what was served many years back by my aunt. I managed to finally prepare a 4 course 18 item meal which were as follows:
1. Ghee and rice (the fragrant, small grained Gobindo Bhog variety)
2. Luchi (Deep fried, crispy Indian bread made of refined flour)
3. Cholar daal (chick pea lentil)
4. Alu bhaja (crispy fried potatoes) and Begun bhaja (fried eggplant).
5. Alu-phulkopir torkari (curried potato and cauliflower)
6. Chanar dalna (cottage cheese balls in mild gravy)
7. Macher chop (fish cutlet)
8. Potoler dorma (pointed gourd stuffed with minced prawns, served in a thick gravy)
9. Chitol-macher muitha / kofta (fish balls cooked in a rich gravy)
10. Chingri macher malai curry (lobsters cooked tender in a coconut milk based gravy) 11. Ilish-anarosh (Hilsa fish in a pineapple flavoured mustard gravy)
12. Kosha-mangsho (Spicy mutton curry)
13. Sweet and sour mango chutney
14. Chanar payesh (granular cottage cheese in thickened and flavoured milk)
15. Bhapa shondesh (sweet made from hung curd, milk solids and sugar)
16. Malai cham-cham (sweet made from cottage cheese)
17. Seasonal fruit
After the Daily crew took the photographs, we had guests come over and help us finish the food.
For those who are interested, you may want to read my full article that appeared in the Daily Star http://www.thedailystar.net/lifestyle/2011/05/03/page03.htm