Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bon(g)  Appetit!

Its a given that Bongs love their adda over a piping hot cup of tea. Its also a given that no Bong celebration or festival is complete without the rendition of  the ever mellifluous Rabindrasangeet. But what is it between a Bong and food? Even the name of food is enough for a Bong to drool over, to slurp or even transport one to the savoury world of gastronomy.

A Bong's romance with food goes back a long way. Most recipes are hand-me-downs from the authentic kitchens of moms, grand-moms or even great-grand-moms and each recipe is characterised with its distinctive flavour and aroma. For example the moong dal or yellow lentil has to be bhaja or dry-roasted first and then boiled in order to bring out its distinctive flavour. Or a muri-ghonto (fish-head's curry) is ideally finished with a generous dose of ghee or clarified butter and a smattering of garam masala powder.  A breakfast or evening snacks is not a mean feat either. A Bong's kitchen can boast of a variety of kochuris, an entirely indigenous find straight out of the grandma's kitchen. Unlike the kachoris of Northern India, the Bengali kochuri is different both in look, taste and texture. Made out of a variety of stuffing inside a dough, flat rolled and deep fried in flaming hot oil, this is hardly hard-crusted unlike its North Indian variety. An accompaniment with these is inevitable. So one can have brinjal chunks pan fried or alur dum(potato slow cooked) or cholar daal(Bengal gram with shredded coconut). When it comes to variety, trust a Bong!

 It is also interesting to note the eclectic influence of erstwhile East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) in the present day Bengali cuisine. The array of ghontos and chorchoris is a direct import from Bangladesh. Again the ubiquitous Calcutta biryani is not  entirely its own, geographically speaking. It is distinctly different from its more popular cousins of Hyderabad or Lucknow, the latter famously fragrant for its spices and traditionally cooked on dum. Apparently it was the Nawabs of Bengal, who were ruling Bengal from Murshidabad, who brought the biryani to Calcutta. In fact it won't be an exaggeration to call it the "Murshidabadi Biryani"! What sets this biryani apart from all its other cousins is the copious presence of boiled potatoes, so much so, that this biryani is not considered to be 'complete' without the presence of the 'tuber'! From the nondescript road side stalls of Gariahat to the speciality restaurants of swanky malls this saffron streaked 'tuber' biryani is to be found literally every where today.

No Bengali occasion-big or small is complete without a feast. The menu is customised according to the significance of the occasion. So a lunch for an  annoprason, which roughly translated would mean a "rice-eating ceremony", would typically start of with a platter of steaming hot, long-grained fine basmati rice to emphasize the transition from liquid food to solids for an infant that would ideally begin with having the first grain of  rice.  Similarly a Bengali wedding's dinner would be grand just like the wedding itself with its three course meal which would be any foodie's delight. And no there should be no dearth of fish or chicken or goat's meat in the menu. If one is seeking to whet a Bong's appetite, promptly do so with fish; plain and simple, nothing fishy about it! While ilish or the 'hilsa' is considered to be the king of fish, prawns would undoubtedly rank a close second. In fact it is an eternal tug-of-war between these two varieties who fight tooth and nail for the first spot. Traditionally 'hilsa' is supposed to be a favourite among the Bengalis who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan(present Bangladesh) while prawns are known to be savoured by  those from the Indian state of West Bengal. But when it comes to food, expect borders to diffuse and let  a spicy and zesty flavour come in from the holy marriage of wet mustard and poppy seeds paste that these two fish are famously cooked in.

But am I missing some thing? Oh yes! How can one miss the sweets? A typical Bengali meal is incomplete without the variety of sweets that the dhoti-clad, pot-bellied, bespectacled 'bangali babu' loves to endlessly indulge in. But what if, God forbid, one is diabetic which most Bengalis incidentally are?  One must also keep in mind that it is next to impossible to keep a Bong away from sweets for long. So when the health gods and goddesses turn their backs at you and even the doctor is not of much help, trust your local sweet maker for innovation and here comes the sugarfree variety of sweets to meet a diabetic's sweet tooth! Here, one should not lose sight of the fact that a Bengali sweet ideally is not to be devoured at one go vis-a-vis technique of eating. Yes, there is the rosogolla and the pantua variety that is to be popped inside the mouth and there you go into the stomach kind of sweets. But the others like nolen gurer sandesh, chitrakuth, langcha etc. are to be eaten with much love and caress-slowly, relishing it, letting the savoury sweetness gradually dribble and fill one's mouth  until one is transported to seventh heaven.So next time one visits a Bong wedding, be prepared to come across many such Bong babus whose whiteness of the starched dhoti can only match up to the whiteness of the rosogollas in his dessert plate and whose love for the grub would compel one to say 'Thou Bong! Gastronomy is they second name!'

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