Thought for Food Books

Flavours of Bengal

The cookbooks tell you everything about Bengali food—from fritters and fish curries to luchi and sandesh.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

In one corner of my otherwise disorderly bookshelves is a neat pile of Bengali cookbooks, written in English. It’s orderly because I often need to consult them. Friends who come home tend to demand Bengali food, for they believe that a half-Bengali with a Bengali wife will know everything that needs to be known about Bengali cooking — how to, say, cut pumpkins for chorchori, a vegetable mix; when to add curd in doi maachh, or yoghurt fish; and how thick the poppy seed paste should be in aloo posto.

I get by, not because of the Bengali connections, but because of these wonderful cookbooks. They come in all sizes and shapes, and are full of drool-worthy pictures. And they tell you everything about Bengali food — from fritters and fish curries to luchi and sandesh.

My Bengali recipe books underscore a long-held belief of mine — that when it comes to food, Bengalis are more passionate than their compatriots elsewhere. Where else, but in Bengal, will you get football clubs to fight over food? An East Bengal victory leads to a celebration of the hilsa; a Mohun Bagan win means a spike in prawn prices. Not surprisingly, a cookbook in a Bengali home is as important as the harmonium in little Tutul’s room.

New addition

Last week, I added to my collection a new book — called Bengali Cooking: Seasons & Festivals. I first met its Bengali-American author, Chitrita Banerji, about 12 years ago when she was in Delhi researching for her book, Eating India: An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices. I met her again some months ago, and she told me that Bengali Cooking, earlier published as Life and Food in Bengal, was making its India début.

‘Bengali Cooking: Seasons & Festivals’ by Bengali-American author Chitrita Banerji.

‘Bengali Cooking: Seasons & Festivals’ by Bengali-American author Chitrita Banerji.  

It makes for a delightful read because it is not just about food. The recipes are woven around stories of people and places. It speaks of differences in the food habits between those from East Bengal and West Bengal, special dishes cooked during festivals and the impact of the seasons on the kitchen. And every now and then, she writes about a dish that makes me want to rush to the nearest fishmonger’s.

I have been marking out recipes that I hope to try out someday. If I am not lynched by the hilsa-loving family — which believes that doing anything experimental to the fish is like adding a moustache to the portrait of the Mona Lisa — I will try out a Bangladeshi dish of hilsa cooked with coconut milk Banerji recommends.

My first attempt at cooking Bengali food, however, was with the traditional doi maachh. I found the recipe in a cookbook called Curry Curry Curry. Written by Ranjit Rai (who was, despite the misleading surname, a true Punjabi), it includes some easy recipes for Bengali dishes (along with food from other regions). And the doi maachh always turns out well.

Another favourite of mine is Minakshie Dasgupta’s Bangla Ranna: The Bengal Cookbook. Its lau chingri — shrimps and bottle gourd cooked with masalas and a bit of ghee — is a constant hit.

What I love about these volumes is that many of them are not just cookbooks. The Calcutta Cookbook by Minakshie Dasgupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha, for instance, chronicles the city, with food as the protagonist.

In the Bengali language, I am told there are food books for all occasions, so much so that if you line them up they will snake up from Delhi to Chittagong. I do not read Bengali, but I am happy with the books in English. And the way they are proliferating, one day I hope they’ll cross Thanjavur.

The writer, who grew up on ghee-doused urad dal and roti, now likes reading and writing about food as much as he enjoys cooking and eating. Well, almost.


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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 2:46:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/flavours-of-bengal/article18435294.ece

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