Just in time for Pujo, Mustard, a new Bengali-French restaurant in Mumbai, is playing matchmaker by bringing contemporary cuisine from Bangladesh to our city, with the renowned Dhaka-based culinary expert Nayana Afroz and food historian Pritha Sen locking ladles.
“Food is about identity” said Sen, while hosting a table at the dinner preview of Undivided Bengal – a festival designed to celebrate the rich culinary history of Bengal (Bangladesh and West Bengal). Those profound words summed up beautifully what partition must have done to the people who went through it, and what resulted in a loss of identity and then the slow journey to build a new one.
Any Bengali, particularly those who have grown up in parts of the Bengal Province, has always faced the question of whether he/she is bangaal or ghoti. While such discussions often find colloquial parlance in evening banter or addas, the depth of this divide runs deeper than just tea-time humour. The river Padma is of significance in Bengal’s cultural, social and economic behaviours, and it is this that also reflects in Bengal’s rich culinary history.
While Bangladesh, the erstwhile East Bengal has predominantly relied on agriculture, like most of India, Kolkata (or Calcutta, in this context) flourished as a hub of trade and prosperity from early days. The then-capital of India became home to Bengal’s elite, and with it, grew its taste buds. Hence, what we know as the typical ‘Bengali food’ in today’s commercial sense is more often the fare that was developed and consumed in West Bengal, with Calcutta as its epicentre.
Bangladesh, on the other hand, has traditionally always been superior in terms of its food. The eclectic mix of spices, coupled with the use of fringe ingredients such as shredded, leftover peels of gourds, makes its food an experience to savour. However, this was not always the case, and what is now looked upon as a niche delicacy that finds its rare niche in fine dining across the world, was once the everyday food of the working class. The use of fringe ingredients arose out of necessity rather than luxury, and all of this comes together to flourish after nearly a century of the Bengal partition.
“Bangladeshi food was looked down upon because it was considered the food of the poor, what with them consuming peels of vegetables, dried fish and all. Their food was rustic and lacked lustre. But today, people know Bangladesh for their varieties of bhortas and the sense of pride derived from that is next to none,” explained Nayana Afroz.
I remember the first time I tasted a bhorta was when my friend and an exceptionally good Bengali home-chef, Tiyash Sen, also known as The Pressured Cooker, cooked an elaborate vegetarian Bengali meal for me. I cannot forget his reaction when I informed him that I hadn’t heard of bhortas except for the usual baingan ka bharta that is made in our Punjabi household. He told me how in his family they make bhorta of various vegetables, but what he didn’t mention was how that was an integral part of all Bangal households. The roasted capsicum bhorta that he made for me was one of the best I’ve tasted till date, and unfortunately it is a recipe he refuses to part with!
It is important to note that most of the popular Bengali dishes have different, regional variations. By origin itself, the food across West Bengal and Bangladesh are highly regional, adapting itself to where it is made. For instance, it is common on both sides to commence a meal on a bitter starter course – in West Bengal it is customary for this first course to be shukto, a dish complex in flavours, while in Bangladesh they prefer to have bitter herbs made in a bhorta style.
This cultural divide is oft referenced in Bengal’s everyday culture – debates, or torko-bitorko often trickles its way down to ancestral origins, and the story of East Bengal versus Mohun Bagan in India’s footballing history is a much-told story. Even in football, it is intriguing to think that these two, great, historic football clubs are actually signified through food – the great hilsa representing East Bengal, while golda chingri (jumbo prawns) represent Mohun Bagan. If one sits down to study how food has had a massive, cultural impact in shaping up ethnicities and regions, the now-divided Bengal province provides the ultimate reference point for any aspiring food researcher.
This Pujo, let’s celebrate the unity of Bengal with one of the most important elements that binds the two halves together – the love for a full, hearty meal.
About the Undivided Bengal festival being hosted at Mustard, Mumbai:
In this festival, you do not come across the usual kosha mangsho, lucchi, begun bhaja and the likes. Instead, you are taken on a culinary journey, where you discover the myriad bhortas of Bangladesh, and the Pujo Barir Thaala of West Bengal – all comprising lesser-known dishes from both sides of Bengal.
The hosts indulge you not just with food, but also their strong, innate hold on the nostalgia, history and knowledge of the region. It is a sheer delight to hear them talk, and at times, finish each other’s sentences. Speaks volumes about how food unites us all, doesn’t it?
The festival is a must-attend, if you are looking to experience the cuisine of Bengal beyond the usual, publicised fare, and even come back with an anecdote or two. The festival at Mustard commences on October 12, and runs till October 16.
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