Over the next few weeks we will be publishing interviews with some of our fantastic authors. First up is Chitrita Banerji — novelist, translator, and one of the very few Indian food historians in the world. We asked her about her book, Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals and the changing reception of Bengali cooking in the West.
You grew up in Calcutta but also spent many years in Bangladesh. How does Bengali cuisine differ between what used to be West and East Bengal?
The Muslim influence is very strong in the cooking of modern Bangladesh. That is evident in the preponderance of meat items in both daily meals and festive menus. Vegetables are accorded a distinctly secondary place and hardly appear in the meals served at weddings or during big religious festivals. The use of onions is ubiquitous, almost as if it were salt. Not surprisingly, there is far greater variety in the preparation of meat dishes than in West Bengal.
The Hindus of East Bengal (many of whom eventually migrated to West Bengal) are noted for the diversity of their fish preparations. Their cooking is also marked by a greater use of spices and oil. While the culinary culture of West Bengal also includes many fish dishes (as well as meat) the use of spices is more moderate. There is a far greater range of vegetable dishes here, probably a lingering influence of the vegetarianism promoted by the sixteenth-century Hindu reformer of the Vaishnav sect, Sri Chaitanya. The addition of small quantities of sugar in savoury dishes is also a characteristic of West Bengali cooking. However, many of these distinctions are ebbing, given the increasing tendency of eating out, preference for meat, and interest in the cuisines of other parts of the world.
You have been settled in the United States since the early 90s. How has American interest in Bengali cooking changed over the years and what has the role of Indian emigrants to the United States been in that
Bengali cooking is still largely unknown in the United States. There are Indian restaurants that mostly serve northern Indian food, sometimes adding a few items from southern India (such as dosa) or items from the coastal cuisines of Goa or Kerala or Mangalore. That is what the American consumers are familiar with. The few restaurateurs who have tried to specialise in serving Bengali food have not succeeded. This is a wide open field, awaiting a committed, knowledgeable entrepreneur.
Many people in the United States and the UK will know Bengali cooking largely through restaurant food. What do you think they may find surprising about Bengali home cooking?
Although Bengali cooking is really not known in the United States the situation is different in the UK, because of the greater number of Bengalis living there. Even so, I don’t think too many people are aware of the range and nuance of authentic Bengali food. The good thing is that now some really enterprising Bengalis are opening small-scale, home-based restaurants to serve traditional Bengali food. In Bengal, we think of “bhat-machher jhol” (rice and fish stew) or “dal-bhat-aloobhatey” (rice, dal, and mashed potatoes seasoned with mustard oil and chopped green chilis) as quintessential Bengali meals–simple, yet exquisite. You hardly ever see that outside of Bengal. New restaurants like Calcutta Streets in London are attempting to serve such items and, from what I hear, their customers are both surprised and delighted. I hope more of them come up and people begin to realise that chicken tikka masala is not necessarily an accurate representation of the vast variety of India’s regional cuisines.
Are there any common misconceptions about Bengali cuisine that you feel need challenging?
Once people in Western countries recognise what Bengali cuisine is, it would be important not to conflate the cooking styles of the two Bengals–Bangladesh and West Bengal. I would also like to stress that the notion of any and every Indian food being heavy on spices and chilis is an erroneous one. Many Bengali dishes are very mild and their taste depends on the flavour imparted by a selection of whole spices rather than heavy-duty ground masala or a combination of onions and garlic and tomato.
If you had to choose just one recipe to recommend from your book which would you choose and why?
Although Bengalis, by and large, are not vegetarians, the one recipe I would like people to try from my book is a vegetarian one—Chholar Dal (in the chapter on Early and Late Autumn). It is absolutely delicious. The taste is complex and the fragrance of garam masala permeates every mouthful. It is substantial; you can almost make a filling meal out of this dal served with some rice or paratha or luchi (Bengali fried bread). The addition of fried coconut chips to the dal adds both texture and nutrition. And given the current trends towards vegetarianism and veganism, this is a recipe that anyone can try!
Find out more about Chitrita’s book here.