A Curious Cuisine : Bengali culinary culture in pre-modern times

This article is written by Somshankar Ray. It was originally published on www.sahapedia.org an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India.

The Proem: It is often said, half-jokingly, while others eat to live, the Bengalis live to eat. All Bengali rituals and festivities end up with one thing, hearty feasts involving an astonishing number of intricately prepared dishes. In this essay we try to analyse the development of Bengali cuisine in the early modern age, i.e., the 18th and early 19th centuries, an era when colonial influence was still not predominant. We focus primarily on the Indian state of West Bengal, and mainly discuss the history of cooked food.

The 18th and early 19th centuries are crucial phases in Bengal’s history, when Bengali culture emerged in many of its present aspects. Rooted to its indigenous elements, it was also heavily influenced by the Mughals and the Europeans who were prominent in Bengal by 1650. In the 18th century, the class of bhadralok, who would play a decisive role in Bengali society and culture from the 19th century, started taking shape (Ray 1994:128, Mullick 1910).[1] Members of this class were Hindus, mostly of high caste, literate, employed in the offices of Mughal officials and zamindars or teaching institutions, and cultivated the cosmopolitan Mughal culture. Also, Shakti worship, a typical feature of the Bengali Hindus, started becoming popular around this time. All these developments influenced the shaping of the culinary culture in pre-modern Bengal.

Bengali culture started taking a recognizable form from the 15th century. The food habits of the Bengali people between the 15th and 17th centuries can be inferred from contemporary literature such as the Mangal Kavyas and the Vaishnava texts. The Mangal Kavyas were poetic compositions about local deities which were very popular among rural masses. They played an important part in consolidating Hindu identity in medieval western Bengal. From sources like Manasamangal we come to know that the Bengalis freely consumed meat and wine. Wine was made from milk, coconut water, palmyra juice, sugarcane molasses and rice.

According to Narayan Deb’s Manasamangal, at the wedding of Behula 12 types of fish and 5 varieties of meat were cooked (Banerjee 1908:408).[2] In Ghanaram Chakravarti’s Dharmamangal we see that the kings entertained even the monks with meat (Ghosh 2003:16).[3] However, the influence of Sri Chaitanya transformed Bengali habits to a great extent. Sri Chaitanya and some of his associates appreciated good food but were strict vegetarians. Here one can cite an example of the menu of a Vaishnava feast where many vegetarian items were prepared:

Rice with ghee, shak, muger dal, mixed curry with patal, bori and other vegetables, fried fresh neem leaves, fried brinjal,bori and mochaghanto (banana flower), coconut, dense milk, payes (sweetened rice with milk), banana, dahi (sweet curd), milk and dried rice (chire) etc.

Pratulchandra Gupta, Itihaser Golpo (1986:114)

Potato was still not a part of the Bengali diet, onions and garlic were also considered unfit for consumption. Influenced by Chaitanya’s way, many of the respectable Bengalis did not consume non-vegetarian food, even the Shaktas partook of mutton and fish only on specific occasions. However, they sometimes ate deer and lamb meat (Ray 1876:33).[4] This attitude persisted in the 18th and even in the 19th century. In water-body–dominated East Bengal, fish eating was more prevalent. According to Bijoy Gupta, a composer of Manasamangal, people there enjoyed diverse fish like kharsun, prawn, rui,chital,bain and shol. They were cooked with rich spices like green/red chilli paste and cumin. Turtle meat and eggs were also in demand (Banerjee and Das 1943).

The Transition: In the 18th century, we find some important changes in food habits of Bengali. A large number of sweets, both fried and made of posset or cottage cheese (chhana), entered the cuisine. Till the 16th century, Bengalis could not be termed connoisseurs of sweets as they were satisfied with simple dudh-chire (milk and flattened rice), dudh-lau (milk and gourd) and monda. Some country-made crude pulses (mung) and coconut products were also available. Many attributed the sudden development of the sweet industry in Bengal to the Portuguese. It is impossible to think of Bengali food without sweets made of posset or cottage cheese; rossogollasandesh and chumchum are inseparable parts of Bengali culture.  Actually, one cannot find any mention of cottage cheese in Bengali texts till the 16th century, as among the Hindus curdling the milk to make posset and cottage cheese was considered improper. Cottage cheese made in Portugal is almost identical with the Bengali version of cheese (chhana), so many credit the Portuguese with importing cottage cheese to Bengal. The Portuguese introduced three types of cheese in Bengal: cottage cheese, Bandel cheese and Dhakai paneer. However, one may attribute the improvement of Bengali confectionary in the 18th century to urbanization and the growth of a cosmopolitan urban culture. In this era, Murshidabad, Barddhaman, Bishnupur and Krishnanagar in western Bengal, along with Dhaka and Natore in eastern Bengal became major urban centres. Naturally, a landed and professional elite (bhadralok) populace grew up there which was not satisfied with simple country-made products and demanded more sophisticated food products. Later Bhabanicharan Banerjee noted how in the early 19th century urban centres such as Janai, Shantipur and Barddhaman were becoming well known for specific sweets like raskara, moa and ola.

Along with the Portuguese, another group of people who profoundly influenced Bengali culture were the Mughals. Before the Mughal conquest of 1576, Bengal was ruled by Muslim rulers of foreign origin who had no connection with Delhi, and therefore were susceptible to indigenous influences. However, after the Mughal victory, Bengal became a peripheral part of an all-India Empire and its regional identity was subsumed. The governors and their officials were inhabitants of north India and returned after their terms in Bengal. Hence they never became accultured. Influenced by them, many among the Bengali elite started practising north Indian customs and rituals (Banerjee and Das 1943:429). By the late 17th century we note the presence of a number of Mughal-influenced items in the Bengali repast. Bharatchandra Ray penned an authentic picture of the early 18th century Bengali life in his Annadamangal, which gave a list of dishes popular among the Bengalis. Here we find mention of turtle eggs fried with spices (boda) and sheek kababs (Ghosh n.d.). Another writer Nehal Chand in his Paus Parban talked of kalia, kebab, kofta, kormapolaudum and bhuna as Bengali favourites (Banerjee 2010[1966]:262).  Meat cooked with onion, garlic and rich spices in Mughlai style became a part of the Bengali culture in the 18th century and continued till the early decades of the 19th century.

Iswar Gupta, the poet recorded the fascination for mutton among contemporary Bengalis (Samad 1991:165).[5] Around the same time the demand for better quality of fish was growing amongst the urbanized Bengalis. Bharatchandra lists bhetki, bacha, kalbos, pabda and ilish among the species of fish eaten by his contemporaries. Significantly, these names are not found in earlier, more rural poetic compositions. However, most of the Brahmins maintained some orthodoxy. On festive occasions they partook of luchi, kachuri, vegetable preparations like chhakka and shak bhaja, and a variety of sweets. Mutton was cooked in their kitchens in simple style, without garlic, onion or rich spices. An example of the elaborate meals which the zamindars or the landed elite consumed daily may be found in Byanjan Ratnakar, a classic cookbook compiled at the behest of Mahatapchand, the Maharaja of Barddhaman. This work was inspired by the recipes written down by Niyamat Khan, the chief cook of Emperor Shah Jahan. It listed 18 types of kebab and 19 types of kalia which were regularly gluttonized by the Barddhaman Rajas (Mullick 1910:379).

Thus we see that by the 18th century the mainstream Bengali cuisine with which we are familiar was gradually assuming recognizable shape. However, there were still some important differences with the present-day courses. Potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage were still not popular. Meat was not prepared during festive occasions like marriage and the thread-wearing ceremony (upanayana). Even other dishes were not cooked with salt, as food containing salt was considered contaminated. Salt was presented to the invitees in a separate container and they added it to their food according to need.

Among vegetables to be fried, brinjal and patal (pointed gourd) were still not popular, though pumpkin was. Among fruits, mango, jackfruit, banana, berry, tamarind, pomegranate, myrobalan, sugarcane, fig and date were found aplenty. Pineapple and papaya were products imported by the Portuguese from South America. Consumption of mangoes was made popular among the elite by the Mughal officials who promoted its cultivation in North India. Banana was a favourite within the Vaishnavas who partook of it along with milk and country sugar. Vaishnavas, being vegetarian, encouraged fruit consumption. Bengal was a fertile region, so even poor people had enough to eat. They consumed one meal every day which consisted of coarse rice, ghee, three types of vegetable dish, including pat shak and ghonto (mixed vegetable). The poor often immersed various vegetables and lemon in a water-filled pot through the night and consumed them the next day with salt. They also had the meat of hedgehog, mongoose and iguana. Another dish popular among them was muri (puffed rice), mixed with ghee, onion and green chilies. Sour curd was consumed to neutralize the hot flavour of green chilies.

The Localities – western Bengal: In this section we will look at the emergence of distinct savouries in some of the major localities in West Bengal. By the early 19th century the rarh region and the adjacent areas had developed a culinary pattern. The more affluent people partook of fine rice (processed with husk pedal), mung pulse with grated coconut, a variety of fish preparations like jhal and jhol, pickle, dahi and sandesh. Famiies with more limited means had rice, kalai dal (pulses), various dishes of locally cultivated vegetables, posto (poppy seed), ambal (liquid pickle) and fish. The dishes prepared here were lightly spiced and gently tasty. Barddhaman is a large and ancient district of Rarh which occupies the heartland of modern West Bengal. In older times, Barddhaman Bhukti and the Barddhaman Raj used to embrace a broader area including much of Hooghly, Howrah and Medinipur. The traditional specialities of Barddhaman consists of, along with rice, kalai dalpostobori (dried pulse ball), kachu-kumror ghonto (mixed vegetable dish cooked with pumpkin and erom), machher ombol (fish chutney). Posto- chingri (prawn cooked with poppy seed juice) is a local delicacy. These items must have been in vogue from medieval times.

Among the sweets of the district, sitabhog and mihidana of Barddhaman proper and langcha of Shaktigarh have achieved almost international fame. However, they are of comparatively recent origin, and possibly became popular only in the late 19th century. Traditional sweets which go back to the 18th century include monda, batasa and kadma, all made of country sugar, chhana bora (cottage cheese balls) and coconut preparations (Chaudhuri 2010b).

Nadia district has an extremely rich cultural heritage. It is famous as the abode of Vaishnava scholars. So naturally Nadia has a glorious tradition of sweet making. Most of the famous sweetmeats of the district are made of cottage cheese and sugar. So it seems that they must have originated in the 18th century. The list includes well known dainties like sarpuria, sarbhajasartakti (all made of milk cream), along with dedomonda (made of cottage cheese and khejur gur or date juice syrup), nikhuti of Shantipur, chhanar jilapi of Muragacha and pantua of Ranaghat. All these are basically made of cottage cheese fried in ghee and dipped in sugar syrup. Late 19th-century preparations include variants of rossogolla and chumchum (Anonymous 1940:197). The district of Murshidabad is famous for its Nawabi culture. However, apparently no independent cuisine could emerge here. The Muslim nobility of this place consumed biryani,kebabs, other meat dishes, raita, and firni. Among the sweetmeats of the place, only chhanabora deserves a special mention (Mitra 1948:932). This sweet assumed its familiar shape in the 18th century as Murshidabad became an urban centre. The nearby district of Maldah is distinguished for its pre-modern desserts like mohunbhog, khaja and rasakadamba, a primitive variant of rossogolla (Chandra 2004:298). Hooghly is a district neighbouring Barddhaman. This tract is unique because a number of European nations such as the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Danes and even the Armenians and the Germans had their settlements there. Hooghly was also the home of many small principalities which were autonomous till the early 18th century, when they were swallowed up by the Barddhaman Raj. Naturally, the cultural tapestry of Hooghly is of colourful and complex design. Each major habitat has its own distinct savoury, such as monohora of Janai, khaichur of Dhaniakhali, sandesh of Guptipara, pantua of Jangipara, karakanda of Khanakul, jilapi of Kamarpur, rasakara of Gaurhati and gunpho sandesh of Srirampur (Chaudhuri 2011:15–16).

These are the preparations which developed in the 18th and early 19th century independently of Calcutta’s cosmopolitan urban milieu. Bankura too had its separate confectionery culture which emerged under the Malla Rajas of Bishnupur. The Malla Rajas became Vaishnava devotees from the 16th century. Then they actively encouraged the growth of a sweet-making industry based on milk products. It is said that the Rajas settled one milkman (goala) and a confectioner (modok) near each of the numerous Krishna temples that they constructed. Thus the art of sweet making boomed in Bishnupur during the 17th and early 18th centuries. The noted sweets which came into being then included mithai of chholar besan (gram flour) and ola made of dola Sugar. However, the pièce de résistance of Bishnupur is matichur, a smaller and more delicate version of bonde. No artificial color was added to this sweet (Chaudhuri 2010:196–97). Sadly, but inevitably, this sweetmeat, like many other country products, has disappeared with the advancement of industrial society based in Kolkata.

Eastern Bengal: Coming to Eastern Bengal, Dhaka the metropolis of the region, had developed a distinct food culture of its own by the early 19th century. It was famous for its amriti jilapi, malai, chhanapranahara sandeshpat kkhir wrapped in banana leaves, kkhir malpoa, sweet doi (curd), goja,khaja, lalmohan,nadankhara and bakharkhani sweetened breads (Bose 2004:34–35). Dhaka was a socio-culturally developed and naturally fertile area. So refined vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisine could flourish here. Buddhadeb Bose, writer originally from Dhaka, wrote with nostalgia about the traditional delicacies of Dhaka which came into vogue by the early 19th century (Chaudhuri 2002:275). They included kachubata (erom paste) cooked with sarshe (mustard), dhanepata (coriander leaves) and coconut, kasundi (mustard sauce), khensari dal with saluk dantagime bada with fried neem leaves. Women of Dhaka could cook easy-to-digest delicacies with even the skin of potatoes, pumkin and gourd. Among the fish preparations mourala fish with uchhe (bitter gourd), kacki fish crispy fried, koi in mustard oil with cauliflower, mung pulse soup with muro (head) of rohu fish, prawn in coconut sauce, spicy balls (muittha) of chital fish, pabda fish with coriander and dried pulse balls (bori), magur fish cooked richly with onion, garlic and chillies and of course a large variety of hilsa dishes. Among the food products of Dhaka, fragrant kalojire rice and white, fine chire made from it were famous. Food was generally very cheap. However, the dishes of coastal Bengal which were coarser and influenced by the Burmese and the half caste Indo-Portuguese, often did not find favour with the mid-land Bengalis. Iswar Gupta, the poet, wrote a travelogue about various districts of Bengal. There he noted that the fish available at Chattagram were not fit for bhadralok consumption. They include shuntki (dried small fish), rotten prawns, lakshatopse and loitta. Owing to lack of communicaton, fresh products are not found in the markets. So the fish there were stale and costly. Sweets, clarified butter, jaggery and flour were of bad quality. So the Bengali bhadralok could not have any dining pleasure there. The only good point was that meat was available aplenty as chicken, goats, lambs and pigs could be procured easily. However Bengali bhadralok then did not appreciate meat (Majumdar 1979:17). He also made adverse remarks about Barisal-Bakharganj. He wrote that people there did not know how to cook. They mixed raw fish with oil, onion, garlic and other vegetables and prepared repulsive dishes like rasa. Crab and turtle meat cooked with grated coconut were considered delicacies. It seemed that the people of coastal Bengal had an inclination towards rice rather than flour products like roti. The food generally was hot and spicy, forming interesting contrast with that of Western Bengal. The other parts of Eastern Bengal also had distinct culinary culture. On festive occasions the people of Mymensingh prepared a number of dal (pulse soup) dishes. They included soup with bitter gourd, soup with vegetables and soup with muro (fish head). Sylhet was known for its lali treacle and sweets made of coconut. Even in the late 19th century sweets made of chhana like sandesh and rossogolla were not prepared there.

Signing off: Eighteenth-century Bengali cuisine went through some important modifications. During this time Bengal was in communication with the Mughals and the Europeans, Vaishnava and Shakta ideologies became more clearly defined, and increasing urbanization and the growth of urban culture was also significant. This led to a curious combination of culinary cultures developed in 18th century Bengal which is relevant to an extent even today.

This article is written by Somshankar Ray  and is a part of the larger multimedia module called ‘Food Traditions of Bengal’
For the complete module,
visit: www.sahapedia.org/food-cultures-of-bengal


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Banerjee, Asitkumar. 2010[1966]. Bangla Sahityer Sampurna Itibritta. Kolkata: Modern Book Agency.

Banerjee, Brajen and Sajanikanta Das, ed. 1943. Bharatchandra Granthaboli. Kolkata: Bangiya Sahitya Parishat.

Banerjee, Kaliprasanna. 1908. Banglar Itihas: Nawabi Amal. Kolkata: Students Library.

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———. 2010a. Chattagramer Itihas. Kolkata: Dey’s Publishers.

———. 2010b. Murshidabader Itihas. Kolkata: Dey’s Publishers.

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[1] See also Banerjee and Das (1943), ‘Preface’; and Banerjee (1943), Chapters 12–14.

[2] Narayan Deb possibly composed his poem in the late 15th century. It was very popular in Mymensingh and Srihatta. So the food habits of those places find expression in his work. However, Manasamangal texts written by other authors also mention meat, fish and wine.

[3] Ghanaram composed his text in the early 18th century. He was an inhabitant of Barddhaman.

[4] For the formation of the recognizable Bengali Shakta ideology in the 18th century, see Chakraborty 1989 and Ghosh 2010. Bijoy Gupta composed his work in late 15th century. He was a resident of Barisal. However, many other unnamed authors added to this work in the later centuries. The earliest known manuscript of this work is dated 1695 CE.

[5] Banerjee in his magisterial survey mentioned Iswar Gupta as the last noted Bengali poet of the old school. Modernity was never significantly evident in his outlook.

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