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     Volume 7 Issue 22 | May 30, 2008 |

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View from the Bottom

Shahnoor Wahid

A lot of commotion is raised by us Bangalis whenever anyone tells us to change our food habit. Any utterance about our food is considered intrusion on our Bangalitto; it is next to committing a cardinal sin, and we, hypersensitive Bangalis unite on this count to resist the proponents of the change theory. How dare anyone snatch away the bowl of rice and curry from us? We shall go on eating what we have been eating since our great-grandfather's time and even beyond. Our food is our culture and tradition. Our food is our legacy. Our food is our identity. Our food tells everyone that we are the proud Bangali race. And rice makes us predominantly the Bangali race.

But before we lunge at the throat of the change theorists, we must come to terms with certain facts. Can we really bet our last penny that whatever we are eating today has been traditionally Bangali food? I mean does this food go back 2000 to 1500 years? History does not say so. So, let us listen to Mr. History.

But first of all let me start with an instant shocker. It is about our favourite roshogolla, we so proudly claim to be our invention.

According to one website: “The rasgulla (roshogolla) considered a popular Bengali sweet by scores of people actually has its origin in the town of Puri in Orissa. Rasgolla, the name by which Rasgulla is known in Orissa has been relished by the Oriya folks for centuries. In fact it is said that the most scrumptious rasagollas in Orissa are those churned out by Bikalananda Kar in the town of Salepur and the ones prepared in the village of Pahala. It is further said that the amalgamation of this much-loved Oriya dessert into the cuisine of Bengal took place when the Ude Thakurs (Oriya brahmin cooks) came to be employed by the elite Bengali households. The Bengalis fell in love with this yummy dessert at once but were saddened by its short shelf life. In 1868, Nobin Das, a confectioner in the town of Kolkata started using arrowroot and channa impurities in the preparation of the channa balls. This extended the shelf life but with loss of some deliciousness as compared to the original versions.”

There goes our roshogolla to the Orias! Now, what about other food items we are eating today? Surely these are not what Bangalis ate 2000 years ago, not at least in the same style they are cooked today. The daily food in Bengal 2000 to 1500 years ago possibly was as dull and bland as can be imagined. Boiled rice, vegetables and watery lentil were the main dishes of the people of the land. Onions and garlic were not used in cooking. Many vegetables like potato and tomato did not arrive in this part of the world at that time. Many spices were not discovered by then. Only in some communities eating of fish and chicken was allowed.

But things began to change with the invasion of the land by as diverse peoples as the Mongols, Huns, Shoks, Spaniards, Portuguese, Turks, Mughals, Afghans, Pathans, Persians, Arabs, Chinese and later the French and the English. Therefore, the legend of beef, chicken, mutton and fish curry, roast, tikka, mussallam, biriyani, polau, payesh, phinni, kebab, sherbat, etc., as we see them today goes back only about 600 to 700 years.

The style of cooking curry with exotic spices has undergone changes over the past centuries with the arrival of the above mentioned marauders and settlers. They added their own ingredients to give a distinct touch to the style of cooking and its flavour. Then warfare, floods, famine and migration impacted on food habits. Those who abhorred fish one day, had to survive on it in later days. In communities where meat was forbidden, it became the most relished food item. Meat eating Aryans after settling down in the arid northern part of India had forbidden slaughtering of cows to conserve them. Gradually they turned into vegetarians. People living near rivers and creeks naturally became fish eaters. In the mountainous regions people ate rabbit, goat, wild fowl, birds and so on. Bangalis migrating to desert or mountainous areas had to forget fish on the menu every day.

Some light on Bengal's food habit has been thrown by writers on some websites. One has to say this:

“In the ancient days, Bengali food used to be cooked without onion or garlic, most traditional Bengali recipes don't use them; this is in stark contrast to the rest of the Indian subcontinent where almost every dish calls for onions and garlic. This has led to a definite slant towards ginger in Bengali food, and even in many common fish dishes.”

The Europeans came to modern Bengal soon after the Mughals, but in small numbers. The Europeans brought cooking techniques, but also new ingredients and food items. Bangladesh continued to develop a distinct cuisine of its own. Today, three generations later, Bangladeshi and Kolkata cuisines are quite distinct.

Culinary Influences
Bangali food today has some broad (though not so distinct) variations. The traditional society of Bengal has always been heavily agrarian; hunting, except by some local clans men, was uncommon. The rearing of animals was also not popular. This is reflected in the cuisine, which relies on staples like rice and daal, with little place for game or meat.

Fish is the dominant kind of meat, cultivated in ponds and fished with nets in the fresh-water rivers of the Ganges delta. The pãch phoron spice mixture is very commonly used for vegetables. A touch of gôrom môshla or hot spices, elachi (cardamom), darchini (cinnamon), lông (clove), tej pata (bay leaves), and peppercorn is often used to enliven food.

Traditional cuisine is very demanding in the kind of cuts of vegetable used in each dish, vegetables cut in the wrong way are often frowned upon. Furthermore, since different vegetables are usually cooked together, the wrongly cut ones could remain raw or become overcooked.

In Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal), the culinary style developed rather independently; it was not greatly influenced by the rest of India and Southeast Asia because of the difficult geography of the Ganges delta. Four characteristics stand out: fresh-water fish, beef (only for Muslims), the extensive use of parboiled rice and mustard oil. Daal is also a staple. Spices are used sparingly, and the methods of preparation are relatively simple -- steaming, frying or stewing. Floods are common in the region, so there is an extensive use of root vegetables and dried fish (shutki). Milk and dairy products, so widely used in the neighbouring India, are not as common here; the geography prevents large scale breeding of cows, thus making dairy an expensive indulgence. Notably, hardly any food calls for curd or ghee. However, sweets do contain milk and dairy products as well as jaggery and rice paste.

In western parts of Bengal, more connected with the rest of India and dominated by the megacity of Kolkata since the late eighteenth century, a separate culinary style emerged. The delta is thinner there, with fewer rivers and more open plains. The food is much richer with various spices, the presentations are more elaborate and a significant feature of the cuisine is a vast array of sweets based on milk and sugar - the result of both better supply and the influence of traders from the milk belts of Gujarat and Benares. While fresh-water fish is still common, mutton is more common among the Muslim population than beef and dried fish. Wheat makes its appearance alongside rice, in different types of breads such as luchi, kochuri and porota. Mustard paste is extensively used, and so is mustard oil. There's a greater use of coconut, both in cooking and in desserts.

The tea-time ritual was probably inspired by the British, but the snacks bear the stamp of the substantial Marwari population in Kolkata -- chap, kachori, samosa, phuluri and the ever-popular jhal-muri.

Mughal influence
Islam arrived in Bengal in the first half of the thirteenth century, coming into force with the penetration of the Muslim rulers from the northwest.

The influence on the food was top-down, and more gradual than in many other parts of India. This led to a unique cuisine where even the common man ate the dishes of the royal court, such as biryani, korma and bhuna. The influence was reinforced in the Raj era, when Kolkata became the place of refuge for many prominent exiled Nawabs, especially the family of Tipu Sultan from Mysore and Wajid Ali Shah, the ousted Nawab of Awadh. The exiles brought with them hundreds of cooks and masalchis (spice mixers), and as their royal patronage and wealth diminished, they interspersed into the local population. These highly accomplished cooks came with the knowledge of a very wide range of spices -- most notably zafran (saffron) and mace -- the extensive use of ghee as a method of cooking, and special ways of marinating meats.

Specialties include chap (ribs slow cooked on a tawa), rezala (meat in a thin yogurt and cardamom gravy) and the famous kathi roll (kebabs in a wrap). The local population absorbed some of the ingredients and techniques into their daily food, resulting in meat-based varieties of many traditional vegetarian dishes, but by and large the foods remained distinct.

The Mughal influence is most distinct in preparations involving meat, especially mutton. However, even chicken and other meats became more prevalent. The influence was also seen in desserts; traditional desserts were based on rice pastes and jaggery but under the Mughal influence moved towards significantly increased use of milk, cream and sugar along with expensive spices such as cardamom and saffron.

Anglo-Indian or Raj cuisine
Anglo-Indian food isn't purely the influence of the British; Bengal was once the home of a French colony, and also hosted populations of Portuguese, Dutch, Armenians and Syrians. These collective western influences are seen in the foods created to satisfy the tastes of the western rulers. The result is a unique cuisine, local ingredients adapted to French and Italian cooking techniques -- characterised by creamy sauces, the restrained use of spices and new techniques such as baking. English and Jewish bakers such as Flury's and Nahoum's dominated the confectionery industry which migrated from British tables to everyday Bangali ones, resulting in unique creations such as the pêtis (savoury turnovers, from the English "pasty"). Another enduring contribution to Bangali cuisine is pau ruti, or western-style bread. Raj-era cuisine lives on especially in the variety of finger foods popularised in the 'pucca' clubs of Kolkata, such as mutton chop, kabiraji cutlet or fish orly.

The British also influenced food in a somewhat different way. Many British families in India hired local cooks, and through them discovered local foods. The foods had to be toned down or modified to suit the tastes of the 'memsahibs'. The most distinct influence is seen in the desserts, many of which were created specifically to satisfy the British - most notably the very popular sweet ledikeni named after the first Vicereine Lady Canning; it is a derivative of the pantua created for an event hosted by her.

Chinese food
Cantonese traders and sailors brought with them aji-no-moto (monosodium glutamate) and sweet corn. As the Chinese opened restaurants for Bangalis, they spiced up the bland Cantonese sauces with sliced chillies and hot sauces, creating unique dishes such as Chicken sweet corn soup, Chinese fried rice, Chowmein (noodles), Chilli Chicken and Manchurian dishes.

Bangladesh hosts a large number of Chinese restaurants. In Dhaka, the phrase Chainiz khaoa (literally 'to eat Chinese food') often simply means 'to eat out (at a restaurant)', as Chinese cuisine was the first widely-available food in Dhaka eateries. As with Indian Chinese food, Chinese food in Bangladesh has evolved much from its Cantonese roots, with greater use of chili and other spices native to Bengal.”

Well, then came the junk food; hot dogs, burgers, french-fries, pizzas and so on to change the palate of the people of Bengal. Now, many of our children would love to have junk food three times a day, never ever asking for daal-bhaat. Maybe this is not the food of the common people of the country but then again panta-eilish is not the daily dish of the urbanites.

In the early part of the 70s when the country was facing food crisis, people strongly resisted the government suggestion for eating more atar rooti (hand-made flour bread). People thought it was an insult to injury. But look around today! Many well-to-do families opt for atar rooti at night to keep fit! Food habit change? Yes.

Just look around your dining table and find out whether your grandparents ate the same stuff you are eating today. They did not have mixed vegetables with onions and garlic sauce, did they? Even today, they wouldn't touch macaroni, pasta or noodles your children eat like monsters. There was a time when tomato was resisted by the village folks in Bengal. But today it is used in almost every curry and even in daal. Food habit change? Yes.

So, spare the proponents of changing of food habit when they suggest we become less dependent on rice and rather take more potato, etc. Surely they did not commit a cardinal sin by saying so, did they? History is on their side.


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