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Aug 6, 2009 02:40 AM

Bengali Food Saltiness? (re: Gram Bangla, London)

Hey folks -

My girlfriend and I have moved to London temporarily and the first place we tried on a chowhound tip was Gram Bangla, a Bengali joint on Brick Lane that's much discussed on this board.

Our high-level reaction was that we didn't like it because we found all the dishes oversalted, so much so that we grabbed a bit more food from elsewhere on the way home because we couldn't eat our fill at Gram Bangla. We tried three dishes: a fish curry (yes, one of them; I don't know its name), keski mas, and a vegetable dish of those split long green-bean-like things. The fish curry had good enough flavor that we managed to finish it (including pouring its sauce on rice) despite the saltiness. The keski mas, with all its salted fish, we could barely eat a quarter of. The vegetable dish, topped with dried shrimp and dried fish, was similarly salty, and we left most of it. We did, however, take the keski mas home because we thought it could be good if diluted substantially, such as chopped finely and mixed into scrambled eggs.

Neither of us had eaten Bengali food before. We're both adventurous eaters and handle spiciness well (I really like Sichuan food, for instance), and we definitely know the difference between spices and salt and these dishes were just way too salty for us.

Here are my questions: is the saltiness an intrinsic quality of Bengali food and its apparently heavy use of (especially dried-) fish/shellfish? Or, is the saltiness something about Bengali food as served in London? Or, is it something particular to Gram Bangla in particular? Or, did we hit Gram Bangla on a bad night? If you think we might like Bengali food in general, can you recommend a different place? (Forgive me, but we're not going back there.



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  1. Hmmm...the first thing to say here is that Gram Bangla serves Sylheti food. Sylhet is a northern province of Bangladesh, with a cuisine which is totally different to much of the rest of Bangladesh. Bengali usually refers to in Indian side of Bengal, ie. the Indian state of West Bengal, which is predominantly Hindu. Bangladeshi pertains to the nation of Bangladesh, which is predominantly Muslim. 'Bengali' food in the UK is almost exclusively Bangladeshi and mostly Sylheti, as Sylheti immigrants are at the forefront of the 'Indian' restaurant business in the UK.

    Justin (JFores) is currently in China I think, but he is an expert on Gram Bangla and will be able to tell you if they just overseason everything chronically or whether you caught them on an off day. I've lived in West Bengal for 12 years and noted that especially amongst the working class (which I believe Gram Bangla caters to), the tendency is to eat a small portion of fish or vegetables or lentils with an absolute mountain of white rice. In order for the meal to be sufficiently tasty, the food had to be very highly seasoned and spiced. There is a very pungent Sylheti fish pickle called shutki, and I have seen people demolish a whole plateful of rice with just a teaspoon of shutki. My gripe with Gram Bangla is that the portions of food are small for what they charge, but looking at it from another perspective, one portion was enough to last me 3 meals, because I had to pad it out with rice as it was so oily/spicy. I don't recall the food being incredibly salty.
    If you want to give Bengali cuisine a second shot, you might like to try Calcutta Notebook in Southwest London


    I've never been (I cook Bengali food at home and only go to a restaurant to source a dish too complicated to make at home, eg fish kofta curry at Gram Bangla). I'd call ahead to see that they still exist!

    8 Replies
    1. re: medgirl

      excellent post.

      i'd add that it's the same in a lot of india: good working-class meals might just be a small quantity of pickles eaten with a mound of rice or thick chapati.

      finally, whatever the indian cuisine, a plate has to have balance. it is difficult to explain that over the boards, but the idea is to build around chapati/rice as the center and then the things that you're going to combine, dab etc. are at the preiphery and make sense relative to one another. so when you order at a restaurant, you do so mindful of how the plates will be constructed - its not about ordering seperate things you like and eating a mish mash. a thali is just a formalized version of this concept and the way to see this in action is to see how indian (those who've actually lived in the sub-continent) people construct their plates at a buffet. you can always tell a 'foreigners' plate apart from an indians.

      1. re: medgirl

        Medgirl - great post which goes a long way to illuminate the question of "authenticity" in restaurants. Some cuisines clearly need to be adapted to make it into the mainstream restaurant model because their roots are cheap food for poor people. Thus the strong sauce with mountains of rice will mellow to a less strong sauce with a modest portion of rice as it evolves into a restaurant dish. Purists will bemoan the fact the dishes have changed in the evolution from the home to the restaurant, but to me it seems to be a natural evolution. Authenticity is a noble pursuit but as we push the frontiers of food "authentic food" will tend to come from economically challenged areas. Another good example is "roast beef and yorkshire puddings" now a pub staple but originally the yorkshire pudding was served with gravy as a first course to fill people up before a small portion of meat was served, I suspect it would have few takers if served in this "authentic" way.

        The evolution of these foods into the mainstream will be interesting, one of my local curry houses in Bath (Mouchuck) does a great Syltheti Sabji, I have no idea how authentic it is but it tastes great. They are also adding more Syltheti dishes and so far all have been good. However, none were as salty as the OP found at Gram, I suspect Mouchuck has adapted them.

        1. re: PhilD

          Thanks howler and PhilD. I actually ran the salt question past my mum and she brought up the interesting fact that people living in very hot and humid climates often oversalt their food to make up for the salt they lose in sweat. Many Indian drinks, such as lassi, have salt, sugar and cumin added to act as rehydrating and cooling agents in hot weather.

          1. re: medgirl

            It was the same when I was in Mongolia last month (do I get a prize for travel name dropping?!) I was given tea which the hostess had dropped a spoon of white powder in which I just assumed was sugar, took a big slurp, to find out it was actually salt...added to the fact she'd also stirred butter in it was quite an 'interesting' taste sensation...

            I used to work in confectionery and basically you find the taste for sugar vs salt correlates with climate. So in the UK, we have a sweet tooth, because our snacks were taken with hot tea to warm us up; in the US, more snacks are savoury and salted, because they went with cold drinks like Coke to cool people down. Over time obviously this is all blurring.

        2. re: medgirl

          Since I happen to be staying nearby, I swung by the address of Calcutta Notebook. It no longer exists. There clearly used to be an Indian restaurant there. There are signs above the storefront saying "Indian Restaurant" (I didn't see any other name; I think this might've been the most recent name of the place) and some tables and chairs inside, but the place clearly has been closed for some time. There are weeks (or maybe months) of mail pushed under the door, there's no posted menu or hours or any sign of recent life.

          1. re: Mark P

            That's disappointing. I was hoping to go there at some point. I guess it closed from lack of business. Bengali food is one of the lesser known regional cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. I guess you should ask JFores for advice. He is the UK Chowhound boards resident expert on Bengali/Bangladeshi food.

            1. re: Mark P

              Calcutta Notebook was part of the mini-empire of Chef Udit Sarkhel. That empire also included Sarkhel's and Dalchini. Not sure exactly what happened but CN and Sarkhel's are no more whereas Dalchini is still going, being run by Veronika Sarkhel (Udit's wife) and serving Hakka Chinese cuisine (worth sampling if you haven't tried it before).

              As for Udit, he's resurfaced as a chef at this place in East Sheen:


          2. I've never really had a salt issue with Gram but they switch off cooks a lot so I could see where problems arise. Bangladeshis tend to be salt fiends. They usually cook with a reasonable amount of it and then pour (yes pour) it on at the table, though. That's why it's a bit odd to hear it was so salty because it's usually something each diner does individually. I think that they're used to having to preserve food in a very hot and moist climate (plus rehydrate) so now they just happen to like it that way. I cooked for one Bengali family a few times and while everything tasted perfectly good to me they would go at it with salt shakers for the next 5 minutes or so.

            Medgirl's post is also completely relevant.