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'' S O N A R   B A N G L A ''

Bengal - Geographical outlook  Bengal - Historical perspective  Historical influence on food
 Philosophy of food  Eating and serving of Bengali food  Seasonal influences
 Bengali cuisine  Recipes Glossary

Eating and Serving Bengali Foods.

The Bengalis are perhaps the greatest food lovers in the Indian subcontinent. A long leisurely meal of many items which requires long hours of labour and ingenuity in the kitchen to be produced, has been as much a part of Bengali culture as ceremonious eating in France. The traditional way of serving food is on the floor where individual pieces of carpet, called asans, would be spread for each person to sit on. Infront of this seat would be placed a large platter, made of bell metal or silver depending on the family’s economic status. Around this platter would be arranged a number of small metal or silver bowls in which portions of dal, vegetable, fish, meat, chutney, and dessert would be served. In the center of the platter there would be 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 little hole would be made to pour a spoonful of ghee or classified butter to flavour the initial mouthful of rice.

The star of the eating scene was inevitably the male: husband, father, son, son-in-law and others. The women would move around, anxiously serving extra helpings or directing the servants to bring them. Some of the women would sit and ply palm-leaf fans to cool the heated male as the pleasure of intake intensified. But, in traditional homes, there would always be the secondary-eating scene where the women could finally sit down and enjoy their meal. But, the best portion of fish and meat would be gone, devoured by the superior sex, but that did not detract significantly from their enjoyment. The long-establish female tradition of savoring the ultimate pleasure from concoctions of vegetables and fish bones or succlent stalks cooked with tiny shrimps of various kinds of pickles and chutneys is rooted in this practice of making the best of secondary resources.

The approach to food is essentially tactile as in all of India; Bengalis eat everything with their fingers. Neither table sliver nor chopsticks are used as aid to convey food to the mouth. What, after all, could be better than one’s own sensitive fingers to pick out the bones of fish like hilsa or koi? Quick apart from the functional aspects, the fingers also provide an awareness of which becomes as important as that felt by the tongue. The fingers appreciate all the various mashed vegetables or the different kinds of rice or varieties of fish we eat before they enter the mouth.

Each individual has a peculiar style of dealing with his food. Some people pick up their rice and accompaniments very daintily, their fingers barely touching the food. This is supposed to be the style of elite. Other prefers to mash their rice in their fingers before mixing it with the other items. Yet, other will forms balls of rice and other items in their palms before popping it in their mouth. Their mothers inevitably feed children in this way. And then there are those hearty, somewhat course eaters who can be seen licking their palms, all the way to their wrist. The other peculiarity about the Bengali-eating scene is the unashamed accumulation of remnants.

Since succlent vegetables stalks, fish bones and fish heads, meat and chicken bones are all meticulously chewed until a drop of juice is left inside, heaps of chewed remnants, besides each plate are an inevitable part of a meal. The custom of immediately and scrupulously wiping clear the part of the floor – now the table – where food has been eaten is probably related to the presence of such remnants.

Bengalis associate too much of there foods with festivals and a popular saying goes that Bengalis has 13 festivals in 12 months. Hence, all the year round, something to do with food is always in air. All the major Bengali festivals (household) are held in the dalan, which serves as informal gathering, place for the family and old friends. The flooring of the dalan is quite artistically painted or alpana draw, incredibly with flowers, fruits, leaves and couch shells drawn with a rag dipped in rice flour butter. Well, after the event is over, they lingered as a memento of festivity.

But apart from festivities a routine of daily shopping for fish and vegetables, grinding of spices, cutting of vegetables and cooking of rice, dal, macher jhal makes up for the day. Vegetables are got from the market, with extreme scrutiny, as to there freshness, shape, size and off course the price by the head of the family, most usually early in the morning. If the vegetables were not the right shape, the dish would never taste, such was the long flat slices for the fish jhol; tiny cubes for the dry bhaji spiced with salt, dry red chillies and a pinch of panchphoron; the combination of five whole spices so dear to the Bengali nose and potato; slanting but small pieces for the mixed vegetables, halved for the meat and or chicken curry, quarters or whole new potatoes for the cooked slowly in a thick spicy sauce. Another quite striking fact of Bengali household, is being the absence of refrigerators, as most of the food that are cooked for the day are consumed in that day itself, and any left-over are had early-in the morning as panta-bhaat. The very, idea of not having a refrigerator is to buy fresh vegetables and fishes from the market, which are in abundance. Bengali culture has a set of rules which is every much intertwined with a set of rules regarding food habits, called ‘achar-bichar’. It was a set of taboos centered around the basic item, the pot of rice. Anything that touched the pot or grains of cooked rice, became entho, and had to be washed to be reusable. Serving spoons, glasses, serving dishes of vegetables, even hands and mouth, all had to be rinsed after contact. Even a sick-person is not allowed to eat rice, or anything that touched cooked rice, while sitting on bed, for that would mean washing the bed-clothes and sprinkling the holy water of the Ganga on the wooden frame! And, in keeping with the irrationality of the whole system, uncooked rice as well as puffed rice or popped rice was not considered entho. Bengali, is probably one of the few languages that has two different words for raw and cooked rice: - chaal and bhaat.

With the influence of urbanization, now the Bengali households have chairs and dinning tables. But still few years ago dinning was essential on floors, with few asans (mats) spread in a row and banana leaves (in festivity) or the brass plates laid in front of the guests. Before the guest sat down, the leaves would be embellished in the corners with a bit of salt, and a wedge of lime, fried aubergines split lengthwise in the middle, and with the stem still attached, a little dab of fried spinach and some fried potatoes. As the guest sat down, the serving would begin, each server carrying brass buckets in which the cooks had heaped the food. Hot rice, cauliflower and potato dalna, the moong dal cooked with the heads of carp, followed by the carp kalia and the fries. Then came the meat curry served with those flaky, puffy luchis. And, finally the dessert or ‘misti’, with ‘Rossogollas’ almost being compulsory! It is a real feast to watch the little drama that inevitably resulted with some of the guests, who really loved to eat but had to pretend, for the sake of good manners, that they did not. Whenever seconds or thirds helpings were offered, they would extend both hands over the banana leaf, look panic stricken and deny vehemently that they couldn’t eat another morsel. The server, who used to be in dhoti and gangee (vest) with a gamcha (muslin rag) tied to his waist, would off course refuse to accept this and threaten to pour the food over his hands until, good manners having being observed, the guest would remove their hands in mock dismay and allow the food to be served and consumed with relish. After the meat came the chutney, a common winter favourite, and hot crisp salty papars. These were supposed to cleanse the mouth and prepare you for desserts.

The most important aspect of a joint family in Bengal is eating together, food from same handi (cooking pot) prepared in the same henshel (hearth). The bunch of keys to the bhandar ghar (storeroom) was secured tied to the sari of the ginni or chotelaine – controller of household. Depending on the size and station of family, there were one or more storerooms. The staple rice, was stored for the year in enormous terracotta jars and allowed to age.

Pure golden mustard oil, the pungent Bengali cooking medium is stored in zinc lined tins. Ghee (clarified butter) was usually stored in large glass jars. Spices are kept fresh in glazed brown and white jars. Also, some identical jars were used for storing chutneys and pickles.

Before cold storage days, some of the shelves were lined with a layer of sand on which the new potatoes were laid in neat rows. During the mango season spaces was found for baskets of these summer delights from the mango orchards of North Bengal.

Clay pots of molasses, casein and homemade sweetmeats were suspended on giant hooks from the ceiling safe from marauders of all kinds.Times have changed and the storerooms have shrunk to a cupboard, tucked away in a corner of an apartment in multi-storied complex anywhere in the concrete jungle. The contents remain the same on a diminishing scale with addition of varieties of patent sauces, pastas, soup cubes and packets of pre-cooked foods.

Use of brass, copper and bell metal has gradually replaced the lighter aluminum until health hawks began to pontificate on the hazardrous reaction of the containers and contents. The convenience of packed spice powders has almost silenced the gourmet’s cry for the finesse of freshly ground spices. But, die-hards insist on hard-grinding mustard with chilli and a little sugar and salt to dispel the bitterness and bring out the real punch. While, food processors and blenders have wiped away the tears from chopping and grinding onions, the twin corner stone of most Calcutta kitchens is the sil-nora.

It is really amazing that in a mega-city at the end of twentieth century heads pop out of the windows whenever the cries of bikriwala (rag-and-bone-man), the quilt-maker, the knife-grinder and the grinding stone cutter are heard in the street below. The stone cutter re-notches the geometric patterns and the lucky fish motif worn smooth by use of the heavy sil, the pentagonal stone slab. The Nora is the smooth black stone moving partner. The inseparable pair is often handed drawn from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. With the nuclear family gaining ground, a housewife setting up her home will take along an experienced matron to buy the best silnora at the fair.Calcutta’s annual religious melas (fairs) are among the many rural vestiges that the city will never outgrow. Many of the villages in West Bengal are identified by a particular craft, usually utilization and always beautiful. Crafts persons come into setup shop at the charak mela at Poddoppukur in South Calcutta and on Beadon street in the north. The accent is on traditional kitchenware of stone, clay, wood and bamboo. Old wooden chaki-belan (round party-board and rolling pin) are replaced. And one of the crazy item of these fairs or melas is munching of bhajas, starting from begun bhaja, to papor bhaja and all sorts of varied bhajas.

In traditional joint families, the ginni sits cross-legged before her own personal boti. The cutting of vegetables is an important facet of her preparation. Each dish, demands that its vegetables be cut in a particular shape. Gourd, brinjal, wax gourd and potatoes must be cut uniformly cubed for chhenkki, quartered for jhole and halved horizontally for dalna, with a mental calculation, as to how much for jhole, and how much for bhaja.

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