Walking down Rue des Trois Frères in Paris, I settled in a café to spend the evening. It’s half past six and I have some good two hours to kill. Already full from the late lunch, I wanted to check with the waiter, if there’s anything vegetarian in the menu. The server, whom I had met the day before, asked with a visible confusion in his face, “Madame, aren’t you well?” I had a déjà vu. Flash back to Maidan in Kolkata during my sophomore years, while returning from the National Library, I had walked into a cosy-looking small Bengali speciality restaurant that had opened recently. It was a Sunday and I was craving some
chhanar dalna (cottage cheese curry). While placing the order, the owner, a Bengali bhodro-mohila in her fifties, looked concerned and asked me, “You won’t have mutton on a Sunday? Is your family vegetarian?” Paris and Kolkata aren’t only connected over their sepia-toned, vintage facades, but they also share a bond over preference of non-vegetarian cuisine as well. So is Bengali cuisine all about machher jhol and mutton kosha?
Bengali cuisine has evolved over the years. An oft-iterated proverb goes:
Machhe bhaate Bangali (A Bengali is made of rice and fish). It was more about convenience over food choices. The alluvial plain of Bengal (including today’s Bangladesh) would produce paddy and numerous rivers crisscrossing the plain provided a rich habitat for an unlimited source of different kinds of fish. But what chef René Redzepi did recently, Bengalis have been doing since ages – not just eating the vegetables but including leaves, seeds, stems and even roots of various plants, be it banana or pumpkin or gourd.
It’s a fact that Bengali cuisine is predominantly meat-driven so there is
aamish (non-vegetarian) its vegetarian counterpart, with a prefix, nir- aamish. Looking back at history
Bengali cuisine didn’t have dal (lentils) until the fifteenth century. It was only in texts like The Mangalkavyas that we get to know of lentils and the process to cook them. With the advent of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the ascetic Hindu monk, and his Vaishanava Bhakti movement with the preaching of anti-slaughter philosophies, Bengalis started adopting a vegetarian diet, mentions scholar Suvajit Halder of JNU. Chaitanya’s followers stopped consuming fish and meat and popularised the Khichudi (popularly known by its north Indian name Khichdi) made from dal, rice and spices, which also became an integral part of the
bhog offered to the deities.
In the sixteenth century, Bengalis took vegetarian food quite seriously. Medieval Bengali poet, Mukundaram Chakrabarty writes in
Chandimangal about vegetarian dishes ranging from shukto (a curry made from bitter gourd, neem leaf and an assortment of vegetables), fried jute leaves, kasumbari (lentil cakes), to biliti amra (hog plum) with spinach, chalta tok (elephant apple) and phulbori.
Even at weddings, vegetarian courses were expanded. While
shukto was an integral part already, new elements like fried jute leaf, helencha leaf fried in ghee, moong dal, moong bodi, til bada, til-kumda, singari fried in ghee, mawya aloo, paltar shaak got introduced.
As lentils made a late entry, it was moong that came the last. Mashkalai and biuli pulses were mostly consumed. Malka masoor, being popular more with Muslims, conservative Hindu Bengalis didn’t let that enter their kitchen.
How widows shaped Bengali vegetarian cuisines
Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta of Kewpie’s in an early interview had elaborately explained how widows shaped Bengali vegetarian delicacies. Married off at pre-teen age, these widows were almost out-casted by society during the pre-renaissance. Their diet was devoid of masoor dal, onion, garlic and of course, any kind of meat or fish. Bengalis today relish aloor dom, baati chochchori, dhokar dalna, chhanar dalna, which were all, in fact, invited in the kitchens of widows. Shunned from eating fish or meat, they would try to emulate those flavours by making
niraamish deemer dalna (vegetarian egg curry) and niraamish mangsho (green jackfruit curry). This is when we realise that most Bengali vegetarian delicacies were brought into our daily menu by these women at home rather than khansamas or bawarchis of the Nawaab. Modern Bengali vegetarians
The cuisine has evolved and shaped over centuries. An ideal Bengali vegetarian course today would be luchi, chholar dal (chana dal), basanti pulao (yellow pulav), begun bhaja (eggplant), aloor dom, steamed rice, shukto, dhokar dalna (lentil cake curry), chhanar dal (cottage cheese), doi potol (pointed gourd), aloo posto (poppy seeds) followed by chutney and a long queue of sweets in waiting made with cottage-cheese. It was post 17
th Century, after Muslims invaded the land, that the use of garlic and onion was adopted in Bengali dishes. It was also the manual labourers that started consuming them which gradually entered the upper-class Brahmin household. However, since the beginning, non-vegetarian wasn’t prohibited for Brahmins, unlike other parts of India.
Being a largely coastal area, Bengal has encountered colonisers and traders since the thirteenth century. This gave the cuisine a chance to interact with global food. And that’s one of the prime factors of vegetarian dishes getting potato from Spain, papaya from the Philippines, sweet potato from Brazil and Okra from Africa. Even cabbage and cauliflower that are quintessential Bengali winter delicacies not just in curry but also in the shingara (samosa) arrived with the British.
So, the next time you are in Kolkata, don’t forget to gorge on the street-side tele-bhaja, which are predominantly vegetarian and of course, jhinge posto, potol dorma, lau ghonto, bati chochori and beyond.
These are one of the most indispensable places to try vegetarian food in Kolkata – Aaheli, 6 Ballygunge Place, Kasturi, Kewpie’s, Saptapadi, and Kopai.
Sayantani Chakrabarty explores cuisine, culture, and geography with an honest fervour.