Food evokes a whole lot of feelings. Eating and talking about food are the two most important past times of Bengalis. ‘Bhojon-rasik’ is a definite Bengali identity.
“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”
“Bengali food is a product of the home and family-ties, of personal relationships - as much of science as of human affection, as much of age-old wisdom as of an intuitive response to Nature.”
It is universally known that Ma is the best cook, not because she uses high quality ingredients, but because she knows what her children like, as well as dislike. ‘Didima/Thakuma’r Rannaghar’ has no parallel.
I am recalling here a very interesting incident that happened many years ago. Those days door-to-door selling of ‘fresh’ vegetables was so common. One late afternoon, during summer vacation at Kanpur (where I grew up), I found my Didima reprimanding a ‘sabjiwala’ (vegetable vendor): Tumhara himmat kaise hua itnaa sada-gala baigan aur kaddoo hamare ghar lanay ka (How dare you brought such rotten vegetables to my place). The Sabjiwala, in all humility said, Mataji, main samjha chacchari banane mein kaam aa jaayega (Mataji, I thought it will be good for making chachchari).
Many people think that Bengalis eat everything. Of course, they eat everything. There is nothing like ‘waste’ for them. They respect food.
Some of my favourites (hopefully yours too): rice (basmati), shukto, lau-ghanto with coconut, bhaja muger dal with a slice of less juicy but fragrant lime, alu-posto, dhokar dalna.
A no-fish meal is no meal for most Bengalis. I don’t like fish but that doesn’t take away any of its charm. It seems there are more than fifty varieties of freshwater fish in Bengal. There is Rui (more popular because of ceremonial and ritual status), there is Chingri, there is Ilish, and there is Parshey (oily specimens with bulging bellies). So much emotions are aroused when Ghotis and Bangals fight over the superiority between Chingrir malai curry and Bhapa ilish.
No meal is complete without Bengali sweets. One of my friends used to say, mithai raja ki sawari hoti hai, jahan jaati hai apni jagah khud hi bana leti hai’ (sweets are like King’s chariot; wherever they go they make their way). This description fits in so well with Bengalis. Howsoever full your stomach may be, if you see Rosogolla’, Sandesh, Pantua, Chum-Chum, and Mishti Doi staring at you, it is hard not to let them enter into your stomach. Paan goes very well with the bulging belly.
Most people believe that eating right makes one strong and healthy, not Bengalis. Ask a Bengali, if he would care for some fruits. Very likely he would say, Na. Reason: Bengalis think fruits are meant only for the sick and convalescing.
One of my acquaintances often comes to Jaipur. Since he retired a few years ago, I thought he has started working again. He said, I come to Jaipur not for work but for Dahi-Vada at LMB. Is not it strange, someone traveling 270 km just for Dahi-vada! It is little difficult for me to digest, as if someone is coming to Garia Haat from Garia, or from Hauz Khas to CR Park, or from Birhana Road to Arya Nagar.
One of my students lives in Alabama. He wanted to come to Chicago to meet us during one of our visits. I hesitantly advised him not to take so much trouble, being so far. “No problem Sir. We often go to Chicago on weekends to buy fish as we get better quality there”, was my young friend’s reply.
Bengalis are hujugay, I know, but they can travel any distance for good quality fish, I did not know.
They are well known for pet kharap (stomach upset, in fact this is one of the favourite topics of discussion). No wonder they undertake travel for health purposes; mostly to get rid of the problems associated with pet kharap.
Bengali’s love and passion for travel is well known. They not only love to travel, their concern for the fellow travelers is noteworthy. One interesting letter written hundred years ago by Akhil Chandra Sen to the Railway Department, Sahibganj Divisional office goes as follows:
"I am arrive by passenger train Ahmedpur station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with ‘lotah’ in one hand and ‘dhoti’ in the next when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female women on platform. I am got leaved at Ahmedpur station. This too much bad, if passenger go to make dung that dam guard not wait train five minutes for him. I am therefore pray your honor to make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big report to papers."
This letter of Akhil Babu apparently led to the introduction of toilets in the Indian Railways. We all must most sincerely thank Akhil Babu for his timely intervention. Because of him we are spared of the wrath he faced.
Do you know that that the secret of our big brain is cooking. Evolutionarily speaking, there was a time when our ancestors had to make a choice between ‘better food’ and ‘better food processor’. They chose better food. They preferred to use better techniques to extract more energy with less effort. They invented fire and cooking. Cooking is one of the most important innovations for softening food. This is perhaps the reason we are called coctivores (those who love to eat cooked food). Changing the diet from raw to cooked food decreased the energy requirement for chewing, and the energy thus spared was used to build our bigger brain.
Food scientists say, “Our dental anatomy is actually made, not for tearing down raw meat from bones or chewing fibrous leaves for hours. It is made for a diet which is soft, mushy, which is reduced in fibers, which is very easily chewable and digestible”.
If there was no cooking, our ancestors would literally be chewing the gathered food for the rest of the day to get enough calories to survive.
Thank God, sometime around 250,000 or 300,000 years ago cooking really got going. Once cooking happened, it showed us completely new ways of utilising our resources. We began to look at the environment with new eyes.
Cooking Alu-Posto and Macher-Jhal have never been a waste of time.
Joy hok bjojon rosik bangalir.