If there’s one thing all Bengalis have in common, it’s their incorrigible love for food. The Bengali table is laden with all kinds of scrumptious delicacies, ranging from fish to meat and vegetarian preparations, all with the perfect blend of sweet and spicy flavours. While we are well aware of the strong hints of mustard, the popular varieties of river fish like hilsa and bhekti as well as the rice that goes with the traditional Bengali meal, the way Bangla cuisine changes from West to East Bengal is quite interesting.
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If there’s one thing all Bengalis have in common, it’s their incorrigible love for food. The Bengali table is laden with all kinds of scrumptious delicacies, ranging from fish to meat and vegetarian preparations, all with the perfect blend of sweet and spicy flavours. While we are well aware of the strong hints of mustard, the popular varieties of river fish like hilsa and bhekti as well as the rice that goes with the traditional Bengali meal, the way Bangla cuisine changes from West to East Bengal is quite interesting.

Cooking up a storm

The founder of Bengalicuisine.net, Sudeshna Banerjee, whose grandparents moved from Bangladesh to India during Partition in 1947, points out, “While the spices are very similar in both the cuisines, the cooking techniques are somewhat different.”

Though her parents were born in India, the cooking habits are still mostly derived from Bangladesh. “After marrying my husband, Kalyan, whose parents are from the Bankura district of West Bengal, I noticed quite a few differences between my mother and my mother-in-law’s style of cooking,” she admits.

A little probing reveals that people from Bengal (Ghotis) are quite liberal with their use of sugar. Be it a fish curry or a spicy mutton recipe, the use of sugar is almost a must. On the other hand, people from Bangladesh or those like Sudeshna’s parents and grandparents who have come to India during Partition or later (Bangals), use sugar not so much for the sweet flavoUr but to add that reddish caramelised colour to the curry.

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The Nawabi connection

Chef Sirajul Rahaman from Novotel Kolkata, an expert in Bengali as well as other Indian cuisines, confirms that while there are many similarities between Bengali and Bangladeshi food, there are some striking differences too.

Taking us through his specially-curated menu for Pet Pujo Jalsa, Sofitel Mumbai BKC’s Bangla food festival, he tells us that food in East Bengal has a stronger Mughal influence, which makes Bangladeshi dishes richer than their West Bengal counterparts. Oily and heavy, this cuisine makes use of a lot of ghee, cashew nuts, coconut milk and other rich ingredients. “And no tari (a type of oil mixed with red chilli powder that floats on the gravy) means no mazza,” Chef Sirajul explains. Without the generous use of oil, Bangladeshis will liken the meal to hospital food!

“The most authentic Bangladeshi food is found in the streets,” says Chef Sirajul, “but looking at the oil, you might think twice before eating.”

Bengali food is certainly less calorific in comparison, but it earns its richness thanks to the use of the famous Jharna ghee. No bong would ever leave home without it. “The popular brand of cow milk-based ghee from the Sundarban Dairy is a reminder of home,” says Chef Sirajul.

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Meat matters

Bengalis, in general, are also hardcore carnivores and Chef Sirajul admits that, at a buffet in Kolkata, the vegetarian items are sometimes likely to go untouched. From Murgh Do Pyaza (chicken cooked in onions and tempered with mustard seeds) to Bati Chingri (prawns cooked with mustard gravy and spring onions), non-vegetarian dishes are absolutely intrinsic to Bangla cuisine. In East Bengal, however, the love for meat is taken to a whole new level.

“The food here features egg and meat even in dals and vegetables,” says Chef Sirajul. “It’s not surprising to find items like kaleji or bheja (liver or brain) on their breakfast menu too,” he continues.

The Mughal Empire in Bengal is also responsible for the heavy dependence on beef in Bangladeshi cooking. In fact, the popular Kosha Mangsho was once upon a time a beef delicacy that originated in Dhaka. But with the end of the Mughal Empire in Bengal, their cooks realised that beef would not sell as well as mutton on food carts for religious reasons, and so they modified the dish. Nevertheless, like Bengalis love their mutton, Bangladeshis still love their beef.

Sudeshna tells us that another significant example of the Mughal influence on the cuisine of Kolkata is the addition of potatoes in biryani.

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When it comes to vegetarian food, Bengali cuisine offers quite a variety of pure vegetarian dishes including Chanar Dalna (a cottage cheese preparation), Kumror Chokka (pumpkin and black chickpeas cooked in mustard oil), Phulkopir Kalia (cauliflower cooked in mustard paste) and Sobji Dal (lentils cooked with vegetables). “One key difference though is that Ghotis like to cook vegetables to a point where they are almost mashed up in the curry, while Bangals like it al dente,” Sudeshna adds.

For the love of fish

Thanks to their location within the Ganges delta, both West Bengal and Bangladesh have one thing in common: the fish connection. “In Bengal, people are not just concerned with what fish is served but also where it is from,” Chef Sirajul reveals. Hilsa from the Podda River is most popular in Bangladesh, and the head of this fish is often used in some vegetarian preparations. On the other hand, “the tastiest bhekti fish is caught in the Digha River of Kolkata and a true Bengali would always choose the gondhoraj variety,” he informs.

As Ghoti families simply cannot do without posto or poppy seeds in their cooking, Posto Maach (fish cooked in poppy seed paste) is quite a delicacy. “Bangladeshi cuisine, however, boasts of the famous Shutki (dried fish curry),” Sudeshna says.

Let’s sweeten the deal

Finally, neither a Bangladeshi nor a Bengali meal is complete without dessert. Common to both is the well-known paayesh (kheer), but this sweet dish also enjoys a little variety as it travels from West to East. The Bengali paayesh is made with glutinous rice, milk and sugar, while the Bangladeshi one makes use of coconut milk and semolina. Both versions are usually enhanced with almonds, cashews and other dried fruits, as well as cardamom and saffron in more sumptuous meals.

All in all, despite the differences, whether you are eating at a Ghoti or Bangal home, you are bound to be served a delectable array of dishes that will wow your tastebuds, so don’t forget to wear your stretchy pants!

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