Bengali food: Culture and taste appropriation

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I’m a foodie, but also a student of Anthropology and Indology, with my foot firmly in Bengal and Switzerland – I get to experience a multicultural overview of cuisine and its overlaps. Which automatically feeds my curiosity about people, food, and culture. Mind you – I kept food separate. Cause food goes way beyond culture.

Food is the actual heart and soul of a region. It makes history, it creates tradition, airs religious practices, can also be a basis to analyse social structure, and can even solve a conflict. Even in love, a way to your lovers’ heart is through their stomach – doesn’t matter if it is a man or a woman, any gender, any race, any class, any caste – we have a strong connection to food. Or so I was always told by my grandmother as she taught me to cook traditional Bengali food – and some very regional specialities.

First of all, one must understand that much of Bengali cuisine is either European inspired or has inspired European cuisine. A topic that is barely explored. Food in this aspect overlaps with taste and cultural appropriations on both sides, which again date back to the history of the region. Bengal and it’s ancient Bengalis, as the Greek writers called them, were known as “Gandaridae” (Diodorus), “Gandaritae”, and “Gandridae” (Plutarch). This was the region that Alexander the Great had to retreat from after his soldiers refused to take an expedition because of the strong war-elephant force. This happened around some 330 B.C. (not sure of the exact date).

Since then, Bengal was not just a part of the Silk Road, but also southern kingdoms, Mughal/Muslim conquest, Dano-Norwegian colonial possessions, French colonisation, and the British East India Company. Over two millennia, multiple regime changes have taken place in this region, driven by both open and covert methods of control from colonisation to the postcolonial period. What better way to see this aspect than to recognise patterns in the regional food culture of both the coloniser and the colonised?

Now keeping in mind some of the colonial overlaps mentioned before, Bengal was once the home of a French colony, and also hosted populations of Portuguese, Dutch, and other Europeans. Thus, one dish that baffles me by its global reach and popularity is the “Chaler Payesh” or “Kheer” (also known as “riz au lait” in French, “rice porridge” in English, “arroz con leche” in Spanish, “phirni” in Urdu), was a part of the ancient Indian diet, offered as a staple Hindu food that still remains a religious offering in temples, and is mentioned in the Ayurveda.

Another one is “porota”, or flatbread made in Central Bengal (Bardhaman district) style. Main ingredients include flour, milk, a pinch of sugar, malai, salt and ghee. A similar way of “porota” making can be seen in Central Asian cuisine for flatbread – Shelpek. Today porota or paratha has innumerable varieties, out of those the most important variety (still native to Bengal) is the “Mughlai Paratha” – a popular Kolkata street food that is believed to have originated in Bengal Subah (Burdwan/Bardhaman district) during the time of Mughal Empire for Mughal Emperor Jahangir. It is stuffed with minced meat, egg, onions and capsicum (or similar ingredients).

This apart from the fact that the Mughals conquered Bengal around the mid-thirteenth century, bringing with them Persian culture and cuisine is undeniable – when we look at popular eateries in Kolkata that feature chap (slow cooked ribs), rezala (meat marinated with yoghurt and cardamom gravy) and kathi roll (kebabs wrap), it is obvious how meat (particularly mutton) is an integral part of the mainstream Bengali cuisine. That apart, momo (dumplings), thupkas (noodle soup), fried pork rolls are Sino-Indian (Chinese of Kolkata) influence on Bengali cuisine. 

Recently, while talking to my childhood friend MJ of “Hearth & I”, we discovered another dish, a speciality from Bagnan (Uluberia subdivision in Howrah district in the state of West Bengal), called: “Mamlette’r Jhol” or “Omelette Curry”. Which is also a Goanese roadside speciality called Ros Omelette! How it reached Goa or how just happens to be a Bagnan speciality? No one knows. Franco-Portuguese influence perhaps?

This also takes us to the whole other dimension of mustard loving Bengalis, and the variety of gravies and fish delicacies that are made with mustard. So, all I can say and conclude is this – watch out as Bengali food is not just any Indian cuisine, it is a mixing pot of taste appropriation and colonisation. To be honest, no food truly is limited to a region. Perhaps food is our first subconscious globalisation? Perhaps food is a way of showing us that we are all culturally/historically/religiously/taste-wise related? 

Words by De.B. Dubois

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