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Bengali Food [split from LA]

Thanks suvro that brought a lot of questions up for me, if you don't mind to helping answer--I don't mind responses from others also.

Is that the restaurants here? Or is Bengali food of East Bengal actually, " much more oily, and most gravies taste the same with the same muddy texture"? Especially their home cooking? How does it compare to restaurants in Calcutta and West Bengal? You mentioned home cooking. Is Bengal part of South India? I always thought there were a lot of cultural similarities between South Indians and Bengalis, but I didn't think Bengalis considered themselves apart of South India.

Thanks for the recc-ies . . . Happy belated Independence Day for India . . .

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  1. Hi apple7blue. I am happy to answer the question - even if a day late.

    Q. Is that the restaurants here?
    A. I suspect so - though I have never been to Bangladesh, so cannot compare with restaurants there serving food today. I have one more point of comparison - UK. My cousin who lives in Birmingham says that the food in the Bangladeshi restaurants there is also very oily. And my wife's nephew who lives in London also has similar sentiments, though he is not a Bengali. His wife is Bengali and so I trust their judgment about food in the Bangladeshi restaurants there.

    Q. Or is Bengali food of East Bengal actually "much more oily...."?
    A. The original population of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) consisted of Hindus and Muslims. During the birth of India and Pakistan in 1947, great migrations (and killings, sadly) happened and today Bangladesh is primarily Muslim with a much smaller Hindu population. The food now in Bangladeshi restaurants is primarily Muslim versions - so without first hand experience, I would not be able to say what it would be in homes in Bangladesh.

    Q. Especially their home cooking?
    A. See above

    Q. How does it compare to restaurants in Calcutta and West Bengal?
    A. Interestingly growing up, there were practically NO Bengali restaurants in Calcutta because Bengali food culture did not lend itself to eating out - most people went out for Chinese or Indian Mughlai food. Now there are many restaurants in Calcutta serving home style food - and the 2-3 times I have eaten, it has been quite close to the pure clean flavors of most home cooking - quite an impressive feat considering it takes a lot of effort to prepare even the simplest dishes. I will give a couple of standard menus below and links to a few restaurants in Calcutta - the menu will look quite unlike anything you will see in any Indian restaurant in North America, or even UK.

    Q. Is Bengal part of South India?
    A. No. It is eastern India. There are some similarities in food between Kerala and Bengal (primarily use of coconut in cuisine, fresh fish, etc.) but they are vastly different cuisines. Similarly Andhra cuisine (Hyderabad) is very spicy hot and different, while Tamil food (Madras/Chennai) is again very different. I don't have much experience with the fourth South Indian state Karnataka (Bangalore) cuisine - but I doubt it has much overlap with Bengali cuisine.

    A typical lunch menu would go something like this:
    rice - the main starch with all items (usually the parboiled thicker grain - not the Basmati)
    some fried item - either vegetable or fish - vegetable will be in some batter or like fish marinated in turmeric and salt only
    a leafy green - usually there would be several variants - spinach, mustard greens, and several other variants whose English versions I don't know (in Bengali - pui, kolmi, lal, danta, etc.)
    a dry vegetable preparation
    a wet vegetable preparation (both in case of festive occasions - but more likely one of these two on a daily basis)
    fish curry - there are probably 20 different types of fish consumed in equal (or almost equal) proportions - so each family would rotate the type of fish on a daily basis - each fish can also be cooked in multiple types of gravy preparations - so the variations are endless - most fish would not be fillets (except one called bhetki) - they would be bought whole, or cut into parts
    a lentil preparation (in some households this comes early - in ours it comes last)
    a chutney preparation - again lots of variations ranging from tomatoes to raw mango to raw papaya to pineapple to plum etc.
    on festive occasions this will be supplemented with sweet curd - known as mishti doi - and a sweet - again Bengal is well known for its sweet tooth and often each block in a city would have its local sweet shop selling at least 20 variants of sweets

    Bhojohori Manna - chain - great food - menu at http://www.bhojohorimanna.com/bhojoho...

    6 Ballygunje Place - even though this is a Calcutta restaurant chain, looks like their website points to the one location in Bangalore - the menu is at http://www.6bp.in/starter-maincourse....

    Oh Calcutta - this belongs to a branded group that also runs several other cuisine restaurants - see the brand website at http://www.speciality.co.in/aboutus.php - does not have menu unfortunately

    Aheli - this was the first Bengali cuisine restaurant to open in the Peerless Inn in Calcutta - they don't have the menu, but the Inn's website is at http://www.peerlesshotels.com/Kolkata...

    Hope this answers your questions. Probably more than you asked for! :-)

    4 Replies
    1. re: suvro

      The thing about forums is that you can answer a week later. It definitely not more than I asked for. Thanks for the great reply. I lived in London and Bangladeshi seemed to run the majority of the Indian restaurants. From what I hear, they do so in Japan also. They were mostly serving Mughlai food--all those that I been to were actually.

      1. re: suvro

        Greetings suvro, luckyfatima - where can I find authentic Bengali recipes from both sides of the border ?

        1. re: osho

          Hi Osho, I recommend these two books:

          http://www.amazon.com/Bengali-Cooking...

          and

          http://www.amazon.com/Rannaghor-Benga...

          The first contains recipes and food-culture info from both sides of the border.

          The second is purely a cookbook but contains simple and good recipes from West Bengal. It has recipes for all of the iconic dishes.

          1. re: osho

            There is a cooking show on one of the Calcutta TV channels - at the end of the video they give the recipes - you can watch many episodes and see what recipes you like. The show is called Ranna Ghar (Kitchen in Bengali) - http://www.mypopkorn.com/lifestyle/re...

            Another web source for many Bengali recipes is http://sutapa.com/

            If you want to buy books, then besides the one that luckyfatima mentions, I also like Meenakshi Dasgupta's book - see http://www.amazon.com/Bengal-Cookbook...

            Or search in Amazon for "Bengali cookbook"

        2. Some thoughts on Bengali foods:

          I don't know much about West Bengali food, but a few things distinguish it for me: mustard oil is one. From what I understand, mustard oil used to be more widely used in North India, but not so much any more, except with Bengalis who make all of their wet curries (jhol) with it. It has a very strong and distinct taste, and suppose you were to make a wet fish curry without it, it wouldn't really have that Bengali taste. The second thing that stands out to me is the use of pastes of mustard seed and white poppy seed (posto). You see whole mustard seeds in the rest of India, typical tempering seasoning, but in Bengal (and Bangladesh), you will find preparations of veg/fish actually cooked in fried ground mustard paste. White poppy seeds are used roasted and ground in small quantities very extensively in Pakistani and North Indian Muslim and Hyderabadi Muslim cuisine to give perfume and denseness to many kababs and curry gravies. However, in Bengal you find that a whole curry paste base may be 1/2 ground mustard and 1/2 ground white poppy seed, rather than the single teaspoon in the other Muslim cooking. I would bet a lot of money that unless a Bangladeshi resto has a special Bangladeshi menu (many do) there are none of these mustard seed or posto pastes in their faux-Mughlai tikkas and creamy curries. It is not Bengali food that they serve. Look out for some Bengali dishes common on this type of resto menu though: rizala, a rich wet "curry", and fried paabda maach or pomfret. I have never been to L.A. but I have seen this type of resto in Dallas, Queens, NY, and London, so I am guessing it would be the same formula.

          The Mughlai type food in those London restos and other Mughlai restos run by Bangladeshis in my opinion does not resemble the cuisine in Bangladesh. It is a restaurant genre of food not found in anyone's home and that style of food is the same whether the resto owner is Punjabi or Bangladeshi, all those tandoori dishes and chicken tikka masala and butter chicken and all...Bangladeshi cuisine has the Mughlai influence because the portion of India that became Bangladesh had the same Muslim influences as Southern Hyderabad and other parts of North India...note that Dehli Muslim food is not the same as Lahore, not the same as Lucknow, not the same as Hyderabad, because you have the Transoxianan Muslim influence but expressed differently with the local contraints of these diverse regions. Same with Bangladeshi food: So you have the haleem (though Bangladeshis eat their haleem with muri or puffed rice, which is unheard of in say, Lahore) and biriani, pullao, and fried onion, yoghurt and garam masala gravies. But you also have a lot of distinct indigenous dishes like the love of fish and more fish, especially ilish (hilsa) and all these shrimp curries and fish curries and also greens (kolmi or water spinach mentioned by shuvro comes to mind). To me this food tastes nothing like the rest of North Indian Muslim or Pakistani food and is distinctly Bangladeshi.

          Apparently there are huge cultural and culinary distinctions between West Bengalis (known as ghotis) and Bangladeshis (Bangalis) but to be honest I don't know enough about West Bengali cuisine to give details of salient differences. But I will say that the distinction is not strictly Hindu vs. Muslim because there are millions of Indian Muslims in Indian West Bengal who are culturally ghotis and proud Indians, and not Bangalis, and also there are Hindus who came from what is now Bangladesh who are Bangalis. Also, barring beef, Hindu Bengalis eat a lot of meat, of course fish but also mutton and chicken. I recall reading that Bengal is one one of the regions where even many Brahmins eat meat or at least fish (Kashmir is another such region). Someone told me before that a main ghoti vs. bangali contention is which people think ocean fish is superior to river fish.

          About the oily thing, Indian resto sort of faux-Mughlai Punjabi food is creamy...but authentic Pakistani/North Indian home food is not at all creamy but appears to be oily by American standards. You can actually see oil floating on it, especially in Muslim cooking. So perhaps if they are serving more traditional dishes, they will seem oily.

          4 Replies
          1. re: luckyfatima

            Not entirely correct. Yes - mustard oil was a salient feature of Bengali cooking (I am a Bangaal - not ghoti - my ancestors immigrated from erstwhile east Pakistan; but I have a lot of ghoti friends so I know about their cuisine also). But of late people have reduced their use of mustard oil (because of adulteration) as they have reduced their use of ghee for health reasons. So it is not uncommon to find gravies cooked in non-mustard oil. Mustard oil will still be used in special dishes such as "tel koi" and "begoon pora". But you can't say any more that mustard oil is one of the salient features of the Bengali cooking.

            The use of mustard seed and poppyseed paste is indeed as you say - much larger proportions than in other regional cuisines of India. But the vast majority of dishes do not use that. More likely in fish and meat preparations the sauce base is made of onion and ginger paste.

            The difference between river (actually more correctly freshwater) fish and sea fish is NOT the distinguishing feature of bangaals and ghotis. In general. very little sea fish is consumed in West Bengal. Most of the fish are caught in fresh water sources - rivers, ponds, lakes, even rice paddies. The main exceptions are pomfret and hilsa, though the latter is anadromous - spawns and dies in fresh water, but lives life in salt water - and is caught in rivers. Nutritionally, sea fish is better than river fish, but the most nutrition is from eating whole fish including the head - and in Bengal, unlike any other region, there is a large consumption of smaller variety of fish that are cooked and eaten whole - ranging from koi, pabda, bata, parshey, morola, magur, puti, topshey - the variety is practically endless.

            There are some other distinctions between ghoti and bangaals - the former use more sugar in their cooking - so many of the dishes will taste sweeter than customary to bangaals. The ghotis are also more likely to cook with posto, cook chochhoris, labras, etc.

            All of this is sadly getting lost - because today's generation is NOT learning cooking from their mothers and grandmothers, and also the subtle distinctions are getting lost.

            1. re: suvro

              Very interesting, thanks for the corrections and expansions. I must say that the few West Bengalis I know are still mustard oil fanatics and that is why I mentioned that. They are not living in India, though, so maybe that is why they retain that usage.

              Oh, hey, I also realized that panch phoron wasn't mentioned above. That's the prototypical Bengali seasoning, besided gorom mashla, since we are talking about Bengali food.

              1. re: luckyfatima

                I am too. Everytime I go to Kolkata, I bring 2 tetrapacks (the plastic packages) of mustard oil, because the ones we get here are not very good. Recently, I have run out of this - and have resorted to buying from the Bangladeshi store in LA because the Indian grocery stores do not carry good brands. But I use it sparingly - mainly for some fish dishes, sometimes raw on baigan bharta (begoon pora) and in some tuna tartares.

                Incidentally, mustard oil has some interesting chemistry. It has erucic acid, which is a low grade nervous system toxin. As a result, all mustard oil sold in US has to have the label "for external use only". I don't see that in the mustard oil I buy at the Bangladeshi grocery store - so I am not sure how they bring them in. The Australians tried growing a low erucic acid mustard variant, because mustard oil has good fats like olive oil, but it did not succeed. The Canola oil is from rapeseed, a variant of the mustard family, and that is why it is healthy. Because of the name rapeseed, the Canadians branded it as Canola. Finally, the pungency of the mustard oil is from a compound called allyl-isothiocyanate. That is what makes it so flavorful to those that grew up consuming it. Mustard oil has a low smoking point, so unfortunately not much heat capacity.

                1. re: suvro

                  Wow, really interesting info. Thanks. I know some people swear by the health properties as well as antiseptic properties of mustard oil, so maybe there is a lot more to that.

          2. With regard to restaurant food in the UK, the vast majority of "Indian" restaurants are owned by Bangladeshis (although there are more Pakistanis the further north you travel - representing a different pattern of immigration here). That said, the food in the vast majority of cases has little to do with any regional cuisine of the sub-continent and can be taken to be "restaurant creations". Of course, there are exceptions where individual chefs are trying to stand out from the crowd - but, the "stand outs" are more about refining a cuisine ("modern Indian", if you will), than trying to reach backwards towards something more like homely "authentic" food.

            1. I am off to Whitechapel Food Market in London on Saturday to talk to Bengali market traders and photograph fish which they import especially and various foods. Can't wait!

              10 Replies
              1. re: Foodlexi

                Will the piccies be on view anywhere?

                1. re: Harters

                  I had taken some pictures of the fish available in my father's neighborhood fish market in Calcutta in January 2009. These pictures with captions of the names can be viewed at http://picasaweb.google.com/suvro2006...

                    1. re: suvro

                      These are great pictures. Would you mind very much if I use them on my website http://www.whatamieating.com? It is a free on-line food dictionary. I have about 550 Bengali food terms, though I would love to increase thisl I have just been photographing Bengali fish in East London where there is a large Bengali community, but the fish were all frozen and so the pictures are rather dull - unlike the ones you have posted!

                      1. re: Foodlexi

                        Sure - you have my permission for using them.

                        1. re: suvro

                          @suvro - Many thanks indeed. How would you like me to acknowledge you under the images?

                    2. re: Harters

                      I have been working on identifying them...... The pictures are not great as they were all imports from Bangladesh and frozen. Adobe has been helpful in injection a little colour into them, but hey are not the same as the pictures by Suvro on this thread..

                      1. re: Foodlexi

                        Wonderful thread-Thanks to everyone for their detailed even scholarly contributions (!)

                        1. re: Sam Salmon

                          Best bengali food in toronto is swagata's kitchen. For menu just send them an email: swagataskitchen@gmail.com

                          1. re: Sam Salmon

                            Sorry for the belated response to this nice comment Sam Salmon. I have now updated the Bengali food list on http://www.whatamieating.com with a lot of help from wonderful Suvro. If you are interested in seeing any of the foods he sent me yet more pictures after a recent visit to Kolkata and has added the Bengali script to all my phonetic entries. The Bengali list is in pretty good shape now. It is used by a group of medical workers, nutritionists and so on at The London Hospital who are conducting a study of diet and disease in a Bengali population based in the East End of London and for whom they have had great difficulty working out what they are eating. They know now!!

                    3. http://ishitaunblogged.com/2012/10/15...

                      Someone posted this blog post in a Bangla language learning forum I participate in on Facebook. I thought I would share it since it is rich an deliciously detailed about West Bengali (mainly Kolkota) cuisine.