Bengali Food – a Culture of Evolution and Adaptation

In October of last year, Chitrita Banerji gave a talk on Bengali cuisine at an event held by the Culinary Historians of Boston. A transcript of the talk appeared in their newsletter and they have kindly allowed us to reproduce the text here.


The region of Bengal includes the modern state of West Bengal in India and the country of Bangladesh. This greater Bengal was divided in two during the Partition of India in 1947, when East Bengal became East Pakistan because it was a Muslim majority area. After the 1971 war of liberation, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Both sides of the Bengal region share a common language, many common cultural practices, and a basic tradition of food and cooking, enlivened by numerous local variations. It is a densely populated area—90 million in West Bengal and 163 million in Bangladesh. These current figures are high, but even in medieval times Bengal was densely settled because of its geography. A fertile delta crisscrossed by numerous rivers big and small, it was blessed with an agricultural fecundity which gave rise to the moniker, “golden Bengal.” The phrase was used by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in one of his songs, which has now become the national anthem of Bangladesh.

Despite being a delta, Bengal is not simply a flat plain. It reaches up in a narrow spit toward the Himalayas, an area that is perfect for tea estates producing the legendary Darjeeling tea. It also extends westward toward the neighboring state of Bihar, where dry desert-like conditions prevail—an area that was mostly inhabited by tribal people who were skilled hunters. To the south, Bengal is bordered by one of the great mangrove forests of the world—the Sundarbans, home of honey gatherers, fishermen, and the royal Bengal tiger!

Given this natural bounty and resultant economic prosperity, it is not surprising that Bengal developed a rich and varied cuisine. Bengalis are reputed to be obsessed with food and cooking, much like the French. It is often said that you cannot put two Bengalis together in a room for half an hour without the conversation veering into the subject of food. When the British colonial rulers moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, many of the Bengali administrative staff also had to relocate. Pretty soon, the word went around that you could tell a Bengali home in Delhi by the fact that the smoke from the cooking fires started coming out at four a.m. and didn’t die down till midnight.

So it is not surprising to find that Bengali texts from early medieval days provide detailed documentation of what people ate. A thirteenth-century manuscript describes the ideal meal for an ordinary person: “Fortunate is the man whose wife serves him on a banana leaf some hot rice with ghee, crisply fried mourala fish (a small, freshwater fish), sauteed greens from the jute plant, and a bowl of milk to finish.” This is not too far removed from a typical meal in a middle-class Bengali home today.

Rice was and is the main staple around which meals are built. Three rice crops are cultivated per year, the main growing during the monsoon season and harvested in the autumn. A prosperous person can have multiple dishes with rice, while a really poor person can make a meal out of rice, chillies, an onion or two, and salt! The importance of rice in the Bengali imagination is evident in the countless literary and poetic references to the beauty of rice fields—emerald green during the monsoon, glinting gold in the autumn. The quantity and variety of rice in Bengal was noted throughout India, and the Mughal emperors who ruled India from the 14th to 17th centuries provisioned their armies with this bountiful product of Bengal. Unfortunately, many of the old cultivars have died out due to a variety of factors—loss of arable land, growth of urban areas, modern methods of agriculture that emphasize quantity and uniformity over small-scale production of different crop types.

Bengalis have always been non-vegetarians, fish being the protein of choice because of the presence of so many rivers. Meat and game were also eaten, usually by the wealthy and usually to mark special occasions. At its most basic level, the modern Bengali meal is rice with machher jhol, a delicious but light stew that includes fish and vegetables, the latter varying by season. When we say fish in Bengal, we don’t mean seafood. In fact, fish from the sea is traditionally considered inferior food, only eaten by those too poor to buy freshwater fish, or those who live in the coastal areas and prefer to eat what they catch—a small minority.

As expected, fruits and vegetables are plentiful in a tropical land and the seasons are marked by particular foods which feature in specific festivals. The majority of the Bengali population was Hindu, until the advent of the Muslim rulers. For them, feeding the gods was just as important as feeding themselves. Fruits, rice, and cooked vegetables were usually offered to the gods, not fish or meat, except for a rare occasion when a goat might be sacrificed to the goddess Kali. The other important offering for gods, milk, was also an important component of the people’s diet. An agricultural society valued its cows and utilized the milk. With the growth of cities and loss of land, the number of cattle has also diminished, making milk an expensive source of protein.

Despite the evidence of continuity in eating and cooking through many centuries, Bengali food has been significantly shaped by historical events. Until the 11th century, the region was ruled by Hindus, supported by high-caste clergy, except for a period between the 8th and 10th centuries, when a Buddhist dynasty called the Palas held sway. Since Buddhism in Bengal didn’t advocate vegetarianism, the basic structure of the meal—rice, vegetables, fish, and milk in some form—remained unchanged. From the 11th century onward, a series of conquests by Muslim rulers from Afghanistan, Turkey, Central Asia, and Iran led to the establishment of Islam as the second major faith in Bengal. Along with that came some of the traditions of food and cookery from those parts. Meat became a much more important part of the diet for those who could afford it. Cooking techniques like grilling or roasting meat entered the kitchen. Elaborate items like pulao, biryani, rezala, murgh-musallam, became de rigueur in royal households and were served at weddings and festivals. Not surprisingly, this Islamic influence is more prevalent today in the food of Bangladesh where most of the population is Muslim.

A counterpoint to this incorporation of meat and rich foods came after the emergence of a sixteenth-century Hindu religious reformer called Chaitanya. A Brahmin scholar, born and raised in the strict Hindu hierarchy of caste, Chaitanya, after some kind of an epiphany, became a preacher who said that God is accessible to anyone who chants his name. You don’t need Brahmin priests to perform rituals and impose penance to find God, he declared. As expected, the Brahmin aristocracy hated him and belittled him in every way they could. So did others. But he kept on preaching the one lesson he considered essential—chanting the “Hare Krishna” mantra in order to commune with God—and eventually, people began to follow him in droves. Along with his spiritual message, Chaitanya strongly advocated vegetarianism. We see from this point a remarkable blossoming of vegetarian cooking in Bengal—again documented in loving detail in the long narrative poems written during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The idea of vegetarianism was not new in Bengal. Hinduism from ancient times imposed a cruel sanction on widows. Not permitted to remarry, these women, often very young, were condemned to a lifetime of domestic drudgery, and forbidden to eat fish, meat, eggs, lentils, onion, garlic, and even certain vegetables. Some of those who survived the cruelty and deprivation of their existence managed to make a virtue of necessity and created a corpus of vegetarian dishes that are renowned throughout the region. Chaitanya’s teachings, however, lifted vegetarianism out of the restricted domain of widowhood into general practice. One result of this was the increased presence of legumes—lentils, mung beans, pigeon peas, chickpeas—on the Bengali platter. They provided an alternative source of protein, along with products like milk and yogurt.

After the medieval period, there came a second great wave of external influences that shaped the food of Bengal, as well as that of other Indian regions—the advent of European traders. The Portuguese were the first, with the landing of Vasco da Gama in Calicut on 20th May, 1498. They came to muscle in on the international spice trade, but ended up establishing a colonial domain on the west coast of India, with Goa being their capital. Although Bengal did not adopt the Portuguese meat and fish preparations we see in Goa today, such as, vindaloo, sorpotel, xacuti, carno assade, it did benefit from an enlargement of repertoire. For the Portuguese introduced a variety of new crops from their domains in the New World and Africa. The ubiquitous potatoes and chilli peppers, without which no Indian kitchen can function today, came with the Portuguese, as did items like okra, cashew nuts, and peanuts. Once again, we can look at the evidence presented by medieval Bengali narrative poems to realize the degree of difference in food after the arrival of the Portuguese. All the starchy foods mentioned in those poems are of the taro family and spiciness is achieved by the use of ginger and black pepper. The other notable western influence on the food and culture of Bengal (and India) was that of Britain. By the middle of the18th century, the British East India Company had established itself as the de facto rulers of Bengal, having defeated the last native ruler at the 1757 Battle of Plassey. From then until independence in 1947, Bengalis and all Indians were constantly exposed to the policies and culture of the British. The culinary influence was not as extensive as that of the Muslim conquerors or the Portuguese. What was significant in the Bengali kitchen was the increased use of vegetables the British seemed to prefer—tomatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, green peas, lettuce—as well as dessert items like cakes, custards, puddings. The local cooks working in British households also popularized terms like chops and cutlets, but the Bengalis took the words and applied

The other notable western influence on the food and culture of Bengal (and India) was that of Britain. By the middle of the18th century, the British East India Company had established itself as the de facto rulers of Bengal, having defeated the last native ruler at the 1757 Battle of Plassey. From then until independence in 1947, Bengalis and all Indians were constantly exposed to the policies and culture of the British. The culinary influence was not as extensive as that of the Muslim conquerors or the Portuguese. What was significant in the Bengali kitchen was the increased use of vegetables the British seemed to prefer—tomatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, green peas, lettuce—as well as dessert items like cakes, custards, puddings. The local cooks working in British households also popularized terms like chops and cutlets, but the Bengalis took the words and applied them differently. Instead of specific cuts of meat, the chop and the cutlet signified either a potato cake stuffed with meat or fish or vegetable, or diced meat and fish that was breaded and deep fried. An interesting example of the democratization of the conqueror’s food can be seen in the numerous tiny eateries in Bengali cities and towns today that specialize in “chop cutlet.” The two word are used together to denote a particular type of food to be eaten either as a main dish or as an accompaniment for afternoon tea.

Sandwiches were another item popularized by the British, along with tea—a drink that Indians had never heard of until the British started experimental cultivations in different parts of the country. The success in growing different kinds of tea in Darjeeling, Assam, the Nilgiris, and other areas, was followed by an intensive marketing campaign to induce Indians to accept tea as a daily beverage. Afternoon tea, long a British institution at home and in the colonies, also became part of many Bengali homes, accompanied by dainty sandwiches. This desire to emulate the ruling elite was also behind the adoption of eating utensils like knives, forks, and spoons by upper-class Bengalis. Traditionally, food had always been conveyed by hand to mouth, a practice which gave rise to the jocular Bengali phrase of “sinking one’s wrist into the food” to indicate a particularly hearty meal.

An extraordinary instance of adaptation by making a virtue of necessity resulted from the British presence in Bengal. Having discovered that the best quality opium was that grown in eastern India, the British forced many farmers in Bengal and its neighboring states to convert all their agricultural land to poppy cultivation. The aim was to sell opium in the vast market of China where the emperor had forbidden the product. The two Opium Wars that the British fought with China, one between 1839 and 1842, the other between 1856 and 1860, are well-known. What is less known is the culinary impact of enforced opium cultivation. Once the poppies were processed and the opium extracted from them, the Bengali peasants were left with huge quantities of poppy seeds. With unexpected flair, they made a prized ingredient out of it. Ground poppy seeds, mashed with green chilis, mustard oil, and salt have become a favorite starter with hot rice. The same is combined with small cubed potatoes and ridge gourds to create a delectable vegetable dish. Among Bengali Muslims, poppy seed paste is often combined with lamb or chicken to produce a thick sauce with an exquisitely delicate flavor.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of adaptation and evolution can be seen in the domain of Bengali sweets, the history of which is marked by a clear before and after. Well into the 18th century, the written description of sweets indicate ingredients such as wheat flour, rice flour, coconut, evaporated milk, mung beans, sesame seeds, as well as candied fruits. There is absolutely no mention of fresh-curd cheese, which, today is the prime ingredient of most Bengali sweets. In the absence of hard written evidence, some historians have speculated that it was the presence of the Portuguese in Bengal that led to the adoption of fresh cheese as a raw material for sweets. The Portuguese never ruled Bengal, but being skilled navigators, they sailed around the coast of India from west to east and established a busy trading post in Bengal from where they traded in textiles, spices and other goods.

There is some reason to think this way. Traditionally, in Hinduism, milk, the product of the sacred cow, is also considered a semi-sacred food. So the idea of deliberately cutting it with acid to make cheese might have seemed repugnant. Yogurt was eaten, but somehow that transformation was considered a natural process. Paneer, so common in northern Indian cooking, came with the Muslim conquerors and was adopted slowly in the areas where the Muslims first conquered and converted. Bengal, somehow, retained its cultural belief about milk for a long time. I feel that like the Bengali cook, the Bengali confectioner was also an adventurous soul who was inclined to experiment. The Portuguese made and sold fresh cheese to their own community as well as other Europeans settled in Bengal and once some local confectioners encountered this new material and were bold enough to try it, they created a legendary collection of sweets that are now renowned throughout India. That spirit of innovation is still evident in the confections of Bengal. The basic ingredient of fresh-curd cheese is combined with newer and different ingredients to expand a repertoire that is astonishingly fresh and familiar.

Find out more about Chitrita’s book here.