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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


The land of these food-loving characters, Bengal is made up of the Indian state of West Bengal and the sovereign country of Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal or East Pakistan), altogether an area of 228,000 (88,000 sq. miles). Most of the terrain is flat, delta land, crisscrossed with rivers, with a few hills especially North Bengal and forests dotted here and there. Parts of North and bordered by the Himalayas and the Western part of neighboring State of Bihar. Overwhelmingly, though this is a flat green land, most of it cultivated and divided into fields, primarily growing rice, the staple food crop. In the Northern districts, of Bangladesh and West Bengal, the land is dried, a red laterite soil replacing the alluvial richness of the central areas. To the east where Bengal slopes down to meet the Bay of Bengal are the famous mangrove swamps, the Sunderbans, home of the Royal Bengal tigers and the huge gharial or Bengali crocodiles. Like the rain forests of Brazil, or the Evergreens of Florida ,(which they resemble in appearance), the Sunderbans are one of the few places where the mushy, beauty and terror of nature are still to be felt. Yet, men can coexist with nature, for these mangrove swamps are the home of a whole community of boat people who live by the catch they haul in from the Bay of Bengal.

The rivers of Bengal have served many purposes in sustaining life and prosperity. The great rivers – the Ganga, Padma, Meghna, Jamuna or Brahmaputra, Damodar, Ajay, Tista, Karnaphuli and others – have always been conduits for goods moving from one place to another, while the Bay of Bengal has provided a natural entry for the incoming seen trade. Their fascination has been perennial, whether in the imagination of the poet or the mind of ordinary peasant. Through the seasons their mood and appearance change dramatically. Attenuated in summer, they swell with life and energy with the monsoon rains and often become forces of destructive fury, only to be tranquil fullness under an autumn sky. In winter the waters start shrinking, yielding the best possible catch of many kinds of fish for the food lovers of Bengal. Though the raging fury of a great river in flood during the height of the monsoon strikes terror in the hearts of the people, those same floods leave rich deposits of silt when they withdraw, replenishing the earth which has been over-cultivated. Sometimes shoals of land appear in the middle of the river and traditionally people have fought and committed crimes over the control of this fertile plain of land and to Bengal acquiring the reputation of a golden granary in later years.

‘Sonar Bangla’ by Rabindra Nath Tagore.

The Bengali calendar is a solar one based on the six seasons – two months for each of Grishma, Summer; Barsha, Monsoon; Sharat and Hemanta, early and late Autumn; Sheet, Winter and Basanta, Spring. The year begins with the month of Baisakh in mid-April, when the heat of summer is on full-blast. The whole landscape looks parched, the leaves of the trees start dropping and any cultivated plot that is not irrigated seems for less. Of course in terms of felt temperatures and other natural manifestations, spring and summer overlap considerably. The heat of the summer is palpable even in March. The most important season in Bengal is Barsha, the monsoon, which lasts well into what is supposed to be early autumn. The torrential rains infuse the parched earth with new life and wash away the dust and grime of previous months. Everything glows with green vibrancy and the life-sustaining rice crop is planted, transplanted and lovingly nurtured throughout the season. Nothing can be more beautiful than stretches of emerald green rice fields under the slate-grey monsoon sky. The rivers assume their full majesty at this time, and rush along at full spate towards the sea. The autumn is a quite time when the excessive moisture of the late monsoon starts to evaporate and the golden harvest stands ready in the fields. This is followed by the slow aridity of winter when balmy temperatures makes the tropical delta a desirable resort.

Summer – Grishma :-
Food in a Bengali household takes on the summer pattern fairly early in the spring. Daytime temperatures are hot enough for the housewife to buy and serve ‘cool’ items to her family. They would serve vegetables like lau, white gourd, or okra or potol, the small striped gourd or parwal, in other parts of India, during the summer, with the these will keep the body cool. Meat, eggs, onions and garlic, on the other hand, are studiously avoided. Ginger, though, is encouraged because it is believed to increase appetite and aid digestion if taken before meals with a little salt. Ayurvedic practitioners which some local physicians practices will recommend potals, cucumbers and the two varieties of bitter gourd, karola and uchche. Neembegun – where small dices of aubergines are fried with the leaves of neem trees is said to have anti-chicken pox properly. This association of healthful properties with a bitter taste and the subsequent appreciation of that bitterness as a taste is a Bengali trait that outsiders finds incomprensiible. And especially for lunch menus during summer sukto (a stew of seasonal vegetables, with bitterish in taste) is an integral part of every household menu. And, among the other dishes which makes up the menu, are Moong dal, Masoor dal and lemon, Macher jhol, lau-chingiri, lau-ghanto, Rezela and Aloo posto being the favourites.

Barsha – Monsoon :-
During the last few days of summer, each longer than the previous one, the endurance of man, land, animals and vegetation is stretched to the breaking point. As the people of Bengal live through this scorching humid hell, waiting for Barsha – (Monsoon) to find some comfort, the first day of Barsha is generally honoured with the eating of a special meal, made enjoyable by the drastic drop in temperature created by the rains and cloud-covered sky. The most well-known Bengali dish associated with the monsoon is Khichuri, rice and dal cooked together and panchphoran and ghee. This is the housewife’s response to sudden arrival of monsoon rains or heavy rain at any other time of the year. Though simple, it is a superb dish that requires care and does not survive neglect or in attention and probably one of the oldest dishes in the Bengali repertoire. From, the beggars, who begged for their food, to various religious orders that observed a strict simplicity of diet, countless people have depended on khichuri for there balanced diet. Without any trimmings, it can be even rice and dal boiled together in a pot. Slum dwellers in Indian cities can still be seen doing that on the sidewalks. With the delicate, refinements of certain spices, it became a delicacy. After 200 years of colonial rule, the British also took it back with them as kedgree. Like the curry, kedgeree probably was a contribution of the Indian (often Muslims) chef working in the British officers’ home. The simplest form of khichuri can also be used as a porridge course.

There are of course many kinds of khichuris, depending on what kind of dal is being used. The consistency may be thin, thick or dry and fluffy like a pilaf, plain or with seasonal winter vegetables like new potatoes, green peas and cauliflower added to the basic rice-dal mixture. The one constant factor is the use of atap rice, usually of the short-grained variety. Although khichuri is almost a complete meal in itself, most Bengalis would be disappointed not to have certain well-loved accompaniments; slices of aubergines or halves of patols deep-fried, papors and red chillies. Among the other monsoon vegetables that Bengalis love are

varieties of kachu or taro, pumpkin, kumro, green like shashni shak, puishak, kachu shak. The monsoon is also associated with the ilish, called hilsa by the British, that Bengalis have given the name ilish guri, the hilsa’s life-cycle is something like that of salmon. After starting life in the sea, the fish comes to spawn, in the estuarine waters where the rivers meets the Bay of Bengal, and slowly moves upwards along the rivers to the northern regions of India, in the Hooghly basin, growing in size upto 2.5 kg. Many of the hilsa caught during the monsoon are big with roe, which is a delicacy in its own right and considered a cavair of tropics, though the Padma specimens of Bangladesh are considered to be an absolute delicacy.

The monsoon is the most dramatically beautiful season in West Bengal and the emotional Bengali Express himself through, recitations, songs and eating. Football is another monsoon madness and office attendance is even thin on the afternoons when two are rival teams. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, kick-off on the Maidan. Victory for East Bengal means a run on hilsa as fans get together to celebrate with shorsey ilish (Hilsa in Mustard). Prawns hit the high-water menu when Mohun Bagan wins.

Sharat – Hemanta – Autumn :-
As an old Bengali proverb says that if the Kash has started flowering, you know that rains are over and the autumn has begun. More than spring, it is this season, compounded of early autumn or Sharat and late autumn or Hemanta, is a time of hope. One more monsoon has been lived through. One morning harvest awaits the grower of rice. In the countryside the white, broom like kash flowers grow besides the ponds and rivers mirroring blue skies with fleecy white clouds.

It’s the season of festivity. First too come is Lord Biswakarma (god of tools) in which day fire is not lighted in any household. So, all the foods are cooked a day prior and hard. Next, to come is goddess Durgagoddess of deliverance. Daughter of Himalayas, she symbolizes the triumph of good over bad. The day of astami is purely vegetarian, whereby for lunch we have khichuri, with papors and pickles, and at dinner after spending the whole evening Pandal hopping, there would be round golden fried luchis, puffed up like a balloon. However, if a lot of fat is observed during the process of making the dough, the bread instead of becoming puffy becomes flaky and is known as khasta luchi. Though luchis, can be eaten with anything, the two classical vegetarian dishes associated with this ceremonial occasion; a potato dish called alur dam, and a dal made with yellow splitpeas and tiny pieces of coconut. Alur dam to Bengali means a dish of potatoes, usually whole or quartered, cooked with a thick spicy sauce. It is usually eaten with luchis or wheat-flour chapatis, but not rice. And the dessert course being kheer (simply reduced milk) or payeesh (rice cooked in milk and cardamoms flavour). Navami, being the last day of Durga’s stay, is gastronomically opposite of Ashtami, meat eating is the order of the day, but without any onion or garlic. And on the evening of Bijoya Dashami, the images in the community pandals are loaded on to trucks and taken to the nearest river, the Hooghly in Calcutta, for the final site of bhashan – throwing them into water. It is then in the wake of departed Goddess, that the most beautiful aspect of Bijoya Dashami comes discarding all ill-feelings of hostility, anger and enimity. Within the family the younger people touch their elders’ feet (pranom) and receive their blessings, while contemporaries embrace each other with good wishes. As the evening deepens, relative's friends and neighbours drop in to convey their Bijoya greetings. They are offered sweets, which cannot be refused and even the diabetics put fragement into their mouth to honour the custom. The most commonest sweet is the sandesh, because it is dry and easy to carry. But there is nothing to stop you from bringing an earthen pot of rosogollas swimming in syrup, or even like rajbhog or pantua. Next comes Lakshmi Puja (goddess of rice) and then the Kali Puja.

By the end of the month of Kartik (October), urban Bengalis resume there normal pattern of life in school, college and offices. But in rural Bengal this is a time of great expectation. For the following month, Agrahayan (November), is also the time to harvest the rice that gave the region its soubriquet, ‘Golden Bengal’ (Sonar Bangla). The name itself, Agrahayan, is compounded of two words – agra (best or foremost) and hayan (unhusked rice).

In the countryside, Agrahayan is full time of hard work outdoors. In good years, when the monsoon has been just right, the fields are full of the standing rice crops that needs to be harvested and brought home. Under the bearable autumn sun, the peasants cut the rice with their sickles and tie it in golden bunches to be transported by bullock carts. Slowly, as the days progress, the once golden fields become stretches of shebbles, the dead remnants of the plant being later gathered for animal feed and supplementary fuel. In the evenings, as the first chill of oncoming winter is felt, some of the rice straw is used for small fires in front of which people can sit and warm themselves. Once the rice has been harvested and stored in woven-straw, covered bins, the work of threshing, husking and milling begins. Once the rice has been harvested and stored in woven-straw covered bins, the work of threshing, husking and milling begins.

In the olden days, before mills or any kind of technology, it was the women who did the backbreaking job of husking the rice. The tradition Bengali instrument of taking the husk off the rice is called dhenki, a long wooden board mounted on a short pedestal, in the middle, much like a sea-saw. One end of the board has a short pestle-like attachment ground where the unhusked rice is kept. It requires two women to handle a dhenki. One stands near the end without the pestle and presses it down with her foot. As soon as she releases her foot, the board dips down to the other end, the pestle hitting the rice with force, thus separating the husk from the grain. As she press with her foot and lifts the board from the rice, then other woman turns the rice over with her hand, so that all the grains can be hit evenly. It is an infinitely time-consuming process, and is no longer viable. But, some food aficionados claim that rice husked by a dhenkis far superior in taste to rice processed in a mill. This may be based on the fact that the dhenki always leaves some of the inner husk on the grain, whether parboiled or atap, thus making it more nutritious.

Once the rice has been harvested, rural Bengal propitiates the gods for their bounty through the joyful festival of nabanno, which literally means ‘new rice’. An offering to god of milk, gur, pieces of sugar cane, bananas and above all the new rice.

Puja holidays are also the time for picnics. When, the weather is very pleasant, gentle cool breeze blowing and the sun shinning with the utmost modest, any outing besides running streams, in dak bungalows or in the mangrove forests, seems to be an ideal destination. And despite the presence of driving cars, the best part of this journey usually consisted of opening up your ‘tiffin carrier’ and consuming the luchis, alur dam, dry curried meat and the mistis brought from home. Added to it, the tranquil fullness, of nature in the autumn also imbues the water of Bengal and people can sometimes indulge themselves with amateur fishing, and spending contemplative afternoons with bait and live.

Bori making is another way of living exclusively feminine art, during the months of autumn. As with all art, the boris reflected the hand that made them. The consistency of the dal, the degree of spicing and the intensity of whipping the paste before making the pellets, all varied from woman to woman. Kalaidal (urad dal) for instance, is used to make variety called phulboris, which are feather light and melt in the mouth once fried in oil.

And with the chilly winter ahead, everybody quite unwillingly let the autumn pass by and wait for the advent of sheet – winter.

Sheet – Winter :-
Brief, invigorating, with vibrant colour standing out in a dry and rough landscape, winter in Bengal is like the perfect love affair. It is our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, two short months of bliss. The flowers of winter are not like the demure white blossoms of the monsoon and the autumn. Crimson roses, yellow and bronze chrysanthemums, blazing marigolds and multicolored dahlias clamor for attention. In the country you can feast your eyes on fields of mustard awash in yellow blossom, on patches of maroony-red lalshak, on the subtle greens of cabbages on the earth and the climbing vine of the lau spreading over thatched roofs and bamboo frames. In the city markets the rich, purple aubergines are offset by snowy-white cauliflower's peeking from within their leaves, carrots, tomatoes, beet, cucumbers, scallions and bunches of delicate corriander leaves invite you to stop cooking and make only salads. And the infinite variety of leafy, green spinach, mustard, laushka, betoshak, muloshak, methishak – makes you wonder if the impoverished Bengali widow is to be pitied or envied for her vegetarian diet.

All this should have inspired an artistic frenzy of still lifes on canvas. But somehow the most important and joyful thing about winter to a Bengali is the opportunity and ability to eat far more abundantly than during any other season, to indulge in all the rich meats, prawns, eggs and fish dishes. The colonial years have left behind the festivities of Christmas and New Year which the Bengali has enthusiastically adopted and the early winter month of Poush sees the pithaparban, a folk festival designed specially for the making and eating of large quantities of sweet. And even if cannot afford too much of these, he still has a wonderful array of vegetables and fruits from which to choose.

The olden days menus, consisted of bitter shukto made with aubergines, shim (flat beans) margosa leaves as a first course; a combination dish of aubergines, our native pumpkin, jackfruit seeds and phul boris, all seasoned with the juice of ginger, mustard greens and betoshak fried in pungent mustard oil, two kinds of dal, ghonta made with moan, boris, flavoured and cumin and sweet chutney of sour karamcha.

But where are the cabbages, cauliflower's, potatoes, tomatoes, beets or green peas? Nowhere in sight, and the Bengalis managed very well without them. Many vegetables, which are now part of the daily diet, were imported into Bengal during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Dutch, French and Portuguese traders. Like the potatoes as most scholars concede, were the contribution of the Portuguese, while the cabbage was got from the Frenchmen, the tomatoes known as ‘English aubergine’ used in fish and vegetable recipes to create a sweet and sour taste, can definitely be attributed to the British presence. The concept of serving raw vegetables as salad was introduced by our colonial rulers. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the culinary genius of Bengal slowly developed the modern vegetarian classics by combining the old and the new. Cabbages, potatoes and peas became the base for a spicy winter ghanto which rivals the mochar ghanta has been a favourite since medieval times. Cauliflower's, combined with potatoes, were made into a rich and fragrant dalna that was a wonderful variation of the summer specialty, the potal and potato dalna. As for green peas, the Bengali spurned the plain boiled version served on the dinner tables of his British ruler and made delectable savories like matarshutir kachuri or chirar pulao or the filling for shingara (Samosas) with them, aside from adding them to other vegetable dishes.

But, the most amazing import of course is the potato. And, next to the Irish, Bengalis are probably the largest potato eaters in the world, and yet this is such a relative upstart in the hierarchy of our food. With rice, it is an inevitable daily ingredient in the diets of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, alike. And, in no other time does the Bengali do as much with the potatoes as in winter, when the small new potatoes are available in addition to the old ones. From the plain boiled potatoes, to bhaja, bharta to alur dam all are savoured by the Bengalis.

Perhaps, one of the major festivals of winter is the Saraswati puja – goddesses of books and the official harbinger of spring. During Saraswati Puja, eating of Gotasheddho is compulsory, whereby none of the vegetables are cut and one just boiled whole. The goddess is offered fruits like apple, shakalu, sugar-cane bits, bananas, dates and kul (a kind of plum) that would be offered to the goddess. The bananas offered to Saraswati are special type, very sweet, but full of large black seeds. The kul cannot be touched before being offered to the goddess. Since, it has very short season, Bengalis eagerly look forward to the sanction to eat this sweet and sour fruit. This variety of kul is called a narkel kul. A sour red species, the topa kul, can be made into lovely sweet pickles with gur or salted and dried in the sun.

Like all other goddess, Saraswati also leaves in the evening for the final ceremony of the immersion in the river.the lavish garlanding of marigold round her neck, signaling the blazing sunshine of the summer to come – summer too is waiting to pounce, behind the immediacy of spring.

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