‘Bengali Cooking’ Review: Chitrita Banerji’s Book Is Both Recipe Trove And History Lesson

Bengali food.

A Bengali spread. Photo: Ayanika Bera via Wikimedia Commons.

Bengalis who are nuts about food, which means practically the entire community, rarely tire of one debate. Who cooks better? Ghotis, that is, Bengalis from West Bengal, or Bangals, Bengalis with roots in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). Chitrita Banerji fuels this conversation in most of her books on Bengali food. The writer, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is well-placed to deliver an opinion on the matter. She grew up in Calcutta and lived on the other side of the Padma for seven years upon marrying a Bangladeshi. In her 1997 book Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals, a new edition of which has just been published, Banerji takes on the popular topic.

Like Banerji’s other books, this one is valuable less for her recipes than for her description of a way of life. It’s a portrait of traditional Bengali living, a large part of which involves rituals and rules governing cooking and eating. As it’s a way of life that’s gradually fading, deracinated urban Bengalis might find that some of the descriptions have the quality of a faraway echo. Many of those outside Bengal or in non-traditional homes may have never seen their grandmothers pressing kheer into sandesh or stirring pots of khichuri to celebrate Rathajatra.

Bengali Cooking is divided into seasons: basanta and grishma (spring and summer), barsha (monsoon), sharat and hemanta (early and late autumn) and sheet (winter). In every chapter, Banerji draws on texts (the ayurvedic treatise Charak Samhita; the novels of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay; eighteenth-century poems), folklore and her memories of growing up in Calcutta to talk about foods particular to each season. Summer is the season for bitter foods that are thought to cool the body such as neem leaves, bitter gourd and shukto, the vegetable medley so dear to Bengalis. Ghotis like shukto on the sweeter side, Bangals prefer a sharper taste. The summer months are also wedding season and across the pond in Bangladesh, kachchi biryani (in which raw meat and rice are cooked together) is served at feasts.

In contemporary times, the idea of seasonality is practically extinct as most vegetables and fruits are available the year round. But perhaps just a generation ago, eating and making certain foods was determined by seasons and astrological alignments that occurred in those months. For instance, kasundi, the sharp mustard sauce, is made on Akshaya Tritiya in the summer month of Baisakh. This is also the time pickles are made. Boris, little nuggets of dried daal, are made in autumn; the monsoon brings hilsa; and winter is when date palm trees are tapped for sap that will be cooked to make nolen gur, the famous Bengali jaggery.

During the days of Ambubachi, widows are forbidden from cooking entirely. Banjerji has written at length about widows in her 2001 book The Hour of the Goddess. Traditionally they’re made to follow a severely restricted diet, and are forced to abstain from foods that supposedly arouse passions such as meat, onion and garlic. Despite limitations, the food they turn out is delicious, flavoured mostly with simple spices.

Like a good patla macher jhol (thin fish curry), Banerji’s book is light and easy to digest. It’s full of nostalgic yearning for the past and for traditions that are too time consuming to follow today. This makes Bengali Cooking as much a historical document as a cookbook. It’s also a handy flint that can be used to spark the entertaining ghoti-Bangal debate. We happened to mention to a venerable Bangal that Banerji writes that while ghotis lightly fry fish before adding it to a curry, Bangals slip raw pieces of fish into jhol. “I’ve always fried fish first; she’s got it all wrong,” was her reply.

Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji, Aleph, Rs299.

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