Fruity and mildly spiced, Bengali food is largely based on a diet of rice, dal as well as tasty fresh water fish and several regional vegetables.
With an emphasis on fish, vegetables and lentils served with rice as a staple diet, Bengali food is known for its subtle (yet sometimes fiery) flavours, and its huge spread of confectioneries and desserts. It also has the only traditionally developed multi-course tradition from the Indian subcontinent that is analogous in structure to French cuisine, with food served course-wise rather than all at once.
Rice is the staple, with many regions growing speciality rice varieties. Bengalis are somewhat unique in their food habits in that nearly every community will eat meat or fish. Milk is an important source of nutrition, and also a key ingredient in Bengal’s plethora of desserts.
The nature and variety of dishes found in Bengali cooking are unique even in India. Fresh sweet water fish is one of its most distinctive features; Bengal’s countless rivers, ponds and lakes teem with innumerable varieties of fish such as rohu, hilsa, koi or pabda. Prawns, shrimp and crabs also abound. Almost every village in Bengal has ponds used for pisciculture, and at least one meal a day is certain to have a fish course.
Almost every part of the fish (except scales, fins, and innards) is eaten; unlike other regions, the head is particularly preferred. Other spare bits of the fish are usually used to flavour curries and dals. More than forty types of mostly freshwater fish are common, including carp varieties like rui (rohu), koi (climbing perch), the wriggling catfish family—tangra, magur, shingi—pabda (the pink-bellied Indian butter fish), katla, ilish (ilish), as well as shuţki (small dried sea fish). Chingri (prawn) is a particular favourite and comes in many varieties—kucho (tiny shrimp), bagda (tiger prawns) or galda (Scampi). The salt water fish Ilish (hilsa ilisha) is very popular among Bengalis and can be called an icon of Bengali cuisine.
The most preferred form of meat in Bengal is mutton or goat meat. Bengalis also excel in the cooking of regional vegetables. They prepare a variety of the imaginative dishes using the many types of vegetables that grow here year round.
The use of spices for both fish and vegetable dishes is quite extensive and includes many combinations not found in other parts of India. Examples are the onion-flavoured kalonji (nigella or black onion seeds), radhuni (wild celery seeds), and five-spice or paanch phoron (a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, kalonji, and black mustard seeds). The trump card of Bengali cooking probably is the addition of this phoron, a combination of whole spices, fried and added at the start or finish of cooking as a flavouring special to each dish. Bengalis share their love of whole black mustard seeds with South Indians, but unique to Bengal is the extensive use of freshly ground mustard paste. A pungent mustard sauce called Kasundi is a dipping sauce popular in Bengali cuisine.
Popular Bengali Dishes
Fruity and mildly spiced, Bengali food favours the sweet, rich notes of jaggery (palm-sugar), daab (young coconut), malaikari (coconut milk) and posto (poppy seed). Typical Bengali curry types include the light, coriander-scented jhol, drier spicier jhal and richer, ginger-based kalia. Strong mustard notes feature in shorshe curries and paturi dishes that come steamed in a banana leaf. Gobindobhog bhaat (steamed rice) or luchi (small puris) are the usual accompaniments. More characteristic than meat or chicken (murgir) are chingri (river prawns) and excellent fish, particularly white rui (rohu), fatty chital, cod-like bhekti and tasty but bone-filled ilish (hilsa). Excellent vegetarian choices include mochar ghonto (mashed banana-flower, potato and coconut), doi begun (eggplant in creamy sauce) and shukto, a favourite lunchtime starter combining at least five different vegetables in a milk-based sauce.
Bengali desserts and sweets are legendary. Most characteristic are mishti dhoi (curd deliciously sweetened with jaggery), rasgulla (syrupy sponge balls) and cham-cham (double-textured curd-based fingers).