Posted by: adventuressetravels | February 14, 2012

Bengali Cuisine: Food in India’s Cultural Capital

Indian cooking is as varied as the country itself.  The country where ten miles

can mean an entirely different language.  Each region has a different specialty, and another way to blend bright turmeric, spicy chili, cooling cilantro, and a rainbow of other flavors into fantastic creations.  I was lucky enough to spend my first week in India with a host family.

 

Calcutta:  Food in the Cultural Capital of India

Calcutta is my kind of city.  In this cultural capital of India, music, literature, and art flourish.   It is famous for its sweets and fish.  What more could I want?

Everything my host mother, Shamali, served was amazing; each dish titillating the taste buds in its own unique way.   Flavors I had never sampled plunged my mouth into a decadent world of bold tastes and scrumptious textures.   I couldn’t believe how much food there was – the dishes covered the table – and the variety was impressive:  rice, bread, and a plethora of savory dishes.  I marveled at the abundance and how much work it took, but Shamali would always just smile and say that it was nothing – all very simple.

I was skeptical.  But she explained that traditional Bengali cooking was had at least six courses and this was very simple compared to that.

What is a traditional Bengali meal?  I wanted to know.

Bengali meals are extremely vegetarian-friendly.  Traditionally they start off with a bitter flavor and ends with a sweet one, she explained.

Start with Bitter

Uchhe

Shamali hesitated to offer the little stars that the slices of lumpy bitter gourd, or uchhe, looked like, but in fact the vegetable was delicious.  I wouldn’t really describe the dark green vegetable as having a bitter taste, it was unquestionably distinct.

The second course consists of Leafy vegetables, steamed and sometimes cooked with other kinds of vegetables.

The third course is Dal, or spiced, cooked-down lentils and legumes with rice, and sometimes bread.

A fruit chutney is usually served with the Dal

Fish is a staple in Bengali cooking.  I had never had fish like this but every day fish cooked with different sauces and always delicious appeared on the table.

The fifth course is traditionally another meat.  On Sundays mutton is traditionally served, but often a second type of fish joined the first on Shamali’s table

Mango pickle – strong would be an understatement for the taste of this condiment, but it is delicious with papar, a cracker-like bread, or rice

Finish with a Sweet

India is a land of sweets, and particularly West Bengal.  The signature sweet of this state is the syrupy, spicily sweet Gulab Jammu.  These are fried spongy cheese balls with cinnamon and cardamom soaked in overpoweringly sweet syrup that the saturated balls drip with.

I am still not quite sure how the meals we had were less complicated, filling, or involved than traditional Bengali cooking.  Perhaps it was the order, rather than serving dishes by the course everything was just on the table.  There generally weren’t sweets either, but I couldn’t have eaten another thing after her sumptuous feasts.

Finger Food

One thing I never got used to, is the way food is eaten in India.  Everything is eaten with your hands.  Give me a piece of naan or chapattis and I’m fine: I had no problem when I could scoop the saucy dals up with rice and bread.   But I never graduated to the stage where I could mix the sauces and vegetables with the rice and eat that directly with my hands.  That’s not to say I didn’t try, but the ensuing mess wasn’t pretty.  I think that will take a good deal more practice.

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