It always bugs me when people start to ‘group’ food from certain regions of the world together like its just one big generic buffet. It’s disrespectful to the years of culinary artistry that has been practiced and passed down. It doesn’t consider the history of centuries of influence from different empires and cultures. Also it’s just straight up ignorant!
Bengali food generally cops this. People know and like Indian food and even understand different regional Indian food. However when I mention ‘Bengali food’ to people, they start saying things like “Oh yeah I love Chicken Tikka” or “do you guys have Butter Chicken?” However I do have a manager at work (white British man) who once told me that every time he goes to an Indian restaurant he asks where the chef is from and if he’s not Bangladeshi he won’t eat there. I thought that was kinda interesting.
So if you’re Bangladeshi, from West Bengal or have roamed the streets of Brick Lane in London, I guess you might know the subtleties and processes involved with cooking particular Bengali dishes. One of these favourites is the Kacchi Biryani which is now a famous wedding dish cooked with parboiled rice cooked with layers of raw mutton pieces, steamed in a sealed pot slowly over wood fire until the mutton and rice are cooked perfectly together. Trust me it’s fucking hard.
The culinary influences of Bengali cuisine ranges from the Mughals, the Europeans, the Chinese right down to the partition of Bengal in 1947. West Bengal was a refuge for many exiled Mughals such as Tipu Sultan who brought with them hundreds of cooks and spice mixers but as their wealth diminished and their royalty faded, these next level cooks dispersed into the local population, spreading with them dishes like korma, biryani and bhuna. These guys had specialised knowledge of a range of spices like saffron, used ghee as a method of cooking (anything cooked with ghee is the bomb) and special ways of marinating meats.
Bengal was also home to the French, Portuguese, Dutch and other Europeans so they created food to appease the western rulers. Local ingredients adapted to French and Italian style cooking, through using creamy sauces, restraining spices and baking. English and Jewish bakers dominated the confectionary industry introducing snacks like pêţis, basically a savory turnover. Another one of my favorite discoveries that just tripped me out is the western style bread pau ruţi, which pretty much became a staple Bengali word that I’ve heard almost every day since I was a kid but never knew its derivation.
The Chinese influence is particularly interesting because “Bengali Chinese” food actually tastes nothing like proper Chinese food. Pretty much everything is different apart from the use of soy sauce. Growing up as a kid in Bangladesh my understanding of Chinese food was limited to deep fried chicken wings, spicy chow mein and chicken and corn soup, with fuckloads of chilli. Let’s just say my world turned upside down when I first discovered dumplings and ‘xo’ sauce. Apparently when the Cantonese traders first came to the Bengal region they made up names for dishes like ‘Manchurian’ or ‘Chilli Chicken’ to attract customers. The phrase Chai-niz khawoa literally meaning ‘to eat Chinese food’ has become a popular phrase in Bangladesh and now translates colloquially to just ‘eating out’.
Bengali immigrants have started porting this ‘Bengali-Chinese’ situation abroad to the UK, USA and Australia. If you live in Sydney and you are looking for a good fix of this crazy fusion you can drive yourself down to Lakemba or Rockdale and try all sorts of scrumptious dishes at Fuska House, Banoful Restaurant or Hut Bazaar. Having had many gluttonous feasts at these joints I have to admit that they are like an oasis of Bengali cuisine, geographically so far away from its roots that it makes my insides very happy (and bloated).
by Arka Das of Trekalo; an online travel community launching soon.
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