It isn’t just fish, meat, and rice? How did Bengalis’ love for vegetarian food evolve? One of India’s most celebrated cuisines isn’t as one-dimensional as most assume.
You’ve either been on the giving or receiving end of “Tumi maachh khabe?” (Will you eat fish?) at some point. Forever accused of being fish and meat reliant, you’d be surprised to learn that a typical meal in a Bengali home is incomplete without a bhaja (fried vegetable) and a chorchori/torkari (vegetable curry).
So, isn’t Bengali cuisine all about fish?
A cuisine develops through the convenience of consumers. Given the abundance of small and major rivers flowing around, the agriculture of the past evolved accordingly. With plentiful fish and record quantities of paddy, it’s obvious that a normal Bengali meal is rice (bhaat) and fish (maachh), given the availability and affordability.
However, to limit the cuisine to fish and rice would be sinfully unfair.
“People outside Bengal have always looked at Bengali cuisine largely based on fish – ‘macch bhaat’. It has been touted, documented and discussed as part of the fish eating community largely because of the sweet water fish we regularly eat and also because of its proximity to the sea. I think Kerala or Goa eats the same amount of fish but nobody tagged them like that,” says Delhi-based celebrity Chef Saby Gorai.
Bhakti Movement shaping up the cuisine
The origin story for vegetarian food supremacy in Bengal came only during the 15th century. With the rise of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, an Indian saint and probably the foremost Bengali social influencer and his Vaishnava Bhakti movement, the coinage of the term ‘anti-slaughter’ gained popularity.
It was his followers who invented khichuri (khichdi). But unlike the regular khichdi, Bengali khichuri has gobindobhog rice, moong dal, and a variety of spices and vegetables. Not just a vegetarian delicacy, khichuri is also offered to the deities.
An evolved vegetarian revolution
Since the time of Chaitanya, Bengalis living in the districts of Nadia, North 24 Parganas, Burdwan, Jessore (Bangladesh), and Mymensingh (Bangladesh) began innovating in the vegetarian department.
Prior to the revolution, meals at a wedding traditionally consisted of rice, ghee, mourola (river anchovy) fish, katla fish, mutton, and sweets. However, with the advent of the herbivorous tide, the menu made room for delicious additions. While shukto would be the star performer, there was also the ghee-fried helencha leaves (watercress), moong bodi (lentil dumpling), til-kumda (pumpkin in sesame), and paltar shaak to look forward to.
“Interestingly, after the Southern tiffin cuisine, Bengali cuisine has the maximum number of vegetarian dishes. Also, you will notice that not just breakfast, Bengali cuisines offer vegetarian variety of dishes across all meals,” adds Chef Saby.
It’s all about balance
“If you look at something as simple as Shukto – this bitter-sweet and very balanced dish. It’s a bizarre thing but full of interesting flavours and textures with the addition of bori. I also like the fact that Bengali cuisine uses yoghurt in a very interesting way. My personal favourite would be Doi-Potol (Yogurt-Parwal). Also, Dhokar Dalna – the lentil cake is way better in texture and flavour than any koftas,” added Chef Shaun.
Zero Waste Kitchen
“Today we are talking about sustainability and zero waste kitchens where food waste needs to be minimised. Yet the Bengali kitchen always practised the same. We eat everything – from tubers to fruits to flowers to leaves. If you have noticed, our dishes are made from all parts of a tree. Like the whole banana plant, from the flower to the stalk form our delicacy. Even the [banana leaves] we use to bake fish,” says Chef Saby.
He adds, “Even Khoshar Chochori is a beautiful dish where we take all the peeled skins of seasonal vegetables and cook. Bengal is probably one state where you get seasonal vegetables for all six seasons.”
Fortune born of an unfortunate history
When it comes to vegetarian food in Bengal, great food came from a rather unfortunate legacy. Young Hindu girls were married off to polygamous old men, only to be widowed as teenagers. Outcast by society in the pre-renaissance period, the young girls were instructed to follow a very strict, vegetarian diet. Additionally, they weren’t permitted to eat onion, garlic, or even masoor dal.
Devoid of any delicacies, these widows started re-inventing vegetarian cuisine to match the rich flavour of meat. As a result, Bengalis are indebted to these magician widows for creating cult-favourite dishes such as aloor dum, dhokar dalna, chanar dalna and even koftas.
Furthermore, the love for onions and garlic didn’t come around until the 17th century. Thanks to traders flocking in for jute, the once averse upper-caste households adapted to their palates on the recommendations of their cooks. These cooks, being labourers who often shared accommodations with people from the traders’ communities, gradually got introduced to various new ingredients and took it forward to their place of work.
One interesting point to note about Bengali cuisine is its adaptability with time. Right from the Mughals to the British, there’s been a significant amount of influence and adaptation.
In 1889, Bipradas Mukhopadhyay, a food critic of that era, deduced an ideal Bengali menu comprising dishes originally borrowed from British, Mughal and Portuguese. The platter consisted of chanar luchi (fried cake made with cottage cheese), begun bhaja (fried eggplant), khasta kachori, gulel kebab, fried bhetki fish, choka, prawn cutlet, sweet omelette, mugger daler muri ghonto, fish pulao, fish malai curry, haj paj mangser hari kebab, matsamanjari, spicy papaya chatni, kashmiri sweet pulao, and ras-mundir.
The Final Course
Having experienced colonisers and traders since the late twelfth century, the cuisine has undergone several makeovers. There are several intertwined reasons why potatoes from Spain, papaya from the Philippines, sweet potatoes from Brazil and okra from Africa gradually entered the Bengali kitchen.
“I think Bengali vegetarian dishes are the pride of Bengal. If you ask me, Kosha Magsho might be celebrated but it’s no different than other meat preparations in the northern belt with some sugar in it. In fact, Bengali vegetarian food could be the most fascinating vegetarian food in India, if you would ask me. There are so many distinct flavours that nobody in India could dream of. Unfortunately the Bengalis dismiss it almost as if it doesn’t exist. In their home they love eating but they just don’t talk about it,” says restaurateur and Chef Shaun Kenworthy.