Going beyond the rasgulla, we explore the classics of Bengali cuisine on Poila Boishakh

Poila Boishakh is for the East what Lakshmi Pujan is for the West. The day of Poila Boishakh marks the beginning of the New Year in the Bengali calendar, and also the start of the new harvest cycle in both parts of Bengal - Bangladesh (earlier, Purba Bangla) and West Bengal (earlier, Paschim Bangla). Poila Boishakh also coincides with Vishu, but unlike the Malayali New Year, the feast of Poila Boishakh is not a humble affair. For Poila Boishakh, Bongs cook up a veritable feast. “The festivities are all about food because Bengalis believe that if you eat well on Poila Boishakh, the rest of the year will be filled with abundance,” shares Sudeshna Banerjee, author of Cook Like A Bong.

The day of Poila Boishakh starts with offering prayers to Ganesha and Lakshmi, which is followed by a delectable spread of prashad—pieces of fruits and Bengali sweets. After offering prayers, the day-long feast of Poila Boishakh begins. “The day of Poila Boishakh starts very early and the breakfast platter consists of deep-fried Phulko Luchi (Poori) made with maida or refined flour, which is light and fluffy. Luchi goes very well with both Aloor Dum or Cholar Dal (Chana Dal), accompanied by sweets, preferably, Jilipi (Jalebi),” adds Sudeshna.

The festive lunch on Poila Boishakh is much more elaborate. It typically begins with Shukto, a mildly bitter-and-spicy medley of vegetables, including bitter gourd, raw banana, eggplant, pumpkin, drumsticks and, in some cases, jhinge (ridge gourd). Shukto, being bitter, is considered as a palate cleanser. The paanch phooran (five spices) is a medley of cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, radhuni (wild celery seeds), fennel seeds and kalongi (nigella seeds).

Due to the geographical location of this state, Bengalis are spoilt for choice when it comes to freshwater fish. Rui Kalia (Rohu curry), Parshe Machher Jhol (Mullet fish curry) to Tel Koi (curry made from climbing Perch) are part of the Poila Boishakh feast. Ilish (Hilsa), an expensive delicacy, is also a favourite during Poila Boishakh. To balance the flavours of the fish curry, the Poila Boishakh menu also features Bhaja (fried) vegetables that include Begoon (eggplant), Potol (parval) and Aloo. On Poila Boishakh, these are best savoured with Luchi (poori) or rice or pulao and dal.

Bengali sweets are popular across the globe and no meal on Poila Boishakh is complete without sweets and paan. On Poila Boishakh, Bengalis have the most exquisite spread of sweets to welcome the New Year—from mishti doi, sandesh, rasgullas and paayesh to name a few.

On the day of Poila Boishakh, shopkeepers and business owners practice the tradition of Halkhata, which loosely translates as opening a new book of accounts. As part of the Poila Boishakh traditions, they worship the Goddess of wealth, invite their loyal patrons and offer them a big box of sweets along with a Bengali calendar.

For mishti will ensure that all good things begin on a sweet note.

Images courtesy: Shutterstock
Illustration courtesy: Vartika Pahuja

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