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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Bengali Cuisine..a closer look

(Pic:courtesy Google images)

While I have been posting glimpses of Bengali cuisine on and off, in the past one month of food blogging experience, never have I given an introduction to the basics of Bengali cuisine.

A typical Bengali meal is eaten course by course....starting off on a bitter note and culminating in the sweetness of desserts.

The BITTER may be simply fried bitter gourd with some potato & pumpkin or a duet of tender neem leaves with tiny pieces of brinjal fried together or the more elaborate Shukto (a moist semi-dry mix veggies of predominantly bitter-sweet flavour). Strangely enough Shuktos are eaten ONLY during lunch. The DAAL or LENTILS (Mushurir Dal being the everyday staple) accompanied by a BHAJA or FRIED DISH (Brinjal, Potato, Potol being the most common fries. Often fried fish accompanies the Daal.). This is followed by some form of VEGETABLE DISH. It may be the dry chhechki/chorchori or semi-dry ghonto (here 1, 2) or the moist gravy veggie dish ..the Daalna (here 1, 2). And last but not the least ..the focal point of the MAIN COURSES is of course the Fish. Once in a while the fish is substituted by the Mutton Curry or Chicken Curry or the Paneer Dish ....the Chhanar Dalna. On special occasions, more than one fish preparation or a combination of fish and chicken/mutton is quite common. With the main courses over, the beginning of the end is the sweet & sour tasting CHAATNI/TOK.
CHAATNI (here-1)is something of what the rest of India calls chutney but not quite. Made in most cases of fresh stuff like tomatoes, raw papaya, Pineapple, grapes, olives, sweet potatoes, either in combination or as a single component dish, the taste is often enhanced by addition of dry fruits like cashew/raisin. Often enough for everyday meals, the Chaatni is substituted by the TOK or AMBOL, which like the Chaatni is a sweet&sour dish but of thin consistency (almost like soup). The Simplest and most common being Aamer Tok/Ambol (Tok made of Raw mango). But Maachher tok (made of Fish) is also not uncommon!!!! On completion of the sweet-sour penultimate course, comes the final DESSERT...Doi - mishti (here-12, 3).

Well, we are through....time to get up, wash our hands, tuck a paan and proceed to curl up for an afternoon siesta!! is bliss!

This six-seven course gastronomical bonanza is tough to dish out on a regular basis in today's lifestyle where speed is of utmost value. But the balanced diet provided by this elaborate, low on spice meal cannot be denied. In traditional Bong cuisine the focus is less on spice and more on retention of the authentic taste and flavour of the vegetables. Most are just tempered with the Phorons and apart from a dash of turmeric here and ginger there, a touch of bay leaf, garnishing by whole green chillies, we let the veggies speak for themselves!! Its more of steaming or letting the vegetable cook in its own moisture. Garlic is almost taboo. Fish in its myriad varieties is omnipresent. Each variety of fish again has various preparations. So the fish saga is never ending...
Some families who are sticklers for tradition or are connoisseurs in their own small way continue the elaborate several course meals even till this very day. My parents belong to the genre of foodlovers and amongst the women of both my parents' families... my grandmothers, mother and aunts, cooking is considered fine art and is never ever delegated. The Kortree (the lady-in-chief of the inner domains of yesteryears' joint family system) performs the art of cooking! I being more of the lazy kind, love my food but not the cooking. But more often than not the love for good food overshadows the limited liking for the cooking and the result is mostly moderately tasty food. I stick to my 3 course dinner (Lunch being a packed affair eaten at our respective workplaces) it's daal, fry(bhaja)/(Torkaari)vegetable dish and of course fish/chicken/paneer. SD & AD love curd shaada doi (plain home made yoghurt) is a must with every meal. Weekends are a bit more elaborate....a shukto and a Chaatni/Tok are often added. And of course on Sundays we try not to miss out on the afternoon siesta!!!! ;)


Pradip Biswas said...

Are you a Bangal or Ghati like me? It appears you are a Ghatti. I shall be leaving soon from field session and be with my wife at barrackpore flat. For a long days I did not eat these items managed from tin food or Jungle food.

SGD said...

Now I'm curious...what made your think I'm a Ghoti!!
As a matter of fact, I am a hardcore Bangaal....jaake Banglaae bole "KAATH BANGAAL" ;)))
But I would love to know what made you think I'm NOT a Bangaal...the ubiquitous Bangal-Ghoti pseudo conflict never ceases to fascinate me!!!

Sumit said...

This would be one of the best descriptions I have come across of the traditional bengali meal. Was asked the other day by some friends of mine, who are unaware of the myriad cuisines of India, and had some trouble explaining them the concept of shukto. I think, I'm going to redirect them over here :)
btw, I too for one have never understood the ghoti-bangaal debate, though my folks tell me am supposed to be a bangaal.

SGD said...

@Sumit-Welcome to my Blog!
Thanks a ton ... I'm glad my post could be of help to explain to your friends the highlights of our Bong cuisines...
Dont you think, we have a perfectly balanced diet ... I wonder why in spite of such a fantastic cuisine are 'Pet roga'!!! ;)))

Oh !! The ghoti bangaal debate , i guess is more the fun thing for our generation and yours too!!
The ghotis , traditionally, love to have their daal-maachh-torkari mishti mishti while the Kaat-khotta (rustic!) Bangaals are more in favour of the hot & spicy variety...

Nivedita said...

actually, I am a kaath ghoti married to a kaath bangal (:D) and I understand the reason why Pradip felt that you (SGD) might be ghoti :) !!
1. I think ghotis can not do without a tok in their daily food intake -- bangals -- at least people I have come in contact with, are not so paricular about it. Chutney is fine, tok is not so common.

2. Also, ghoti-s are very particular about shukto, the preparation you mentioned; bangals call a lot of things shukto (:D) - like lau shukto, pepe shukto etc.

But truly I eat all -- and what is in a name as long as we like it :) So I like and cook (pretty well, if I may add) loitya shutki; which my father-in-law can not have -- my mom, mom in law and sis and hubby love :)!
So that should make me more bangal than many!!

Keep posting -- I really love your recipes.

PreeOccupied said...

Very well-written, Sharmistha.

chandrani said...

hahhaaa... though I have given up on the afternoon siesta with the rabibashorio in hand , for abt 6 yrs now, and miss being pampered with a 7 course rabibarer menu, your description brought back all those memories back in a flash...

Good old days!!