He himself was the culinary artist who could decipher every little nuance of Bengali food through his palate without knowing the rudiments of cooking. This essay of my father makes me realize that there indeed exists a connoisseur’s palate, which is able to detect every delicate difference in taste without having to know the actual recipe. My father not only enjoyed the connoisseur’s palate, he also had the rare creative genius to describe his personal gastronomical experience in superb language, taking his readers along that delectable journey.
When this long essay was being published in Ananda Bazar Patrika (1-4 Jan, 1971), my father received a huge number of letters and phone calls asking him for the recipes of the food preparations he talked about. But alas! while he could describe the various ways of Bengali cooking, he had no notion about the exact procedure of cooking them. So, he turned to my mother for the recipes and proposed to write a cookbook together. It was a great idea, but sadly, like many dreams of our lives, this dream of his also remained unfulfilled.
Thirty-three long years later I made the original Bengali version of this essay (Bhojonshilpi Bangali) into a little book and provided there all the recipes myself. It may not be the book Baba dreamed of, but it is certainly a dream book of mine as a publisher.
--Damayanti Basu Singh; Kolkata; 2005 ]
There is no such thing as "Indian food"; the term can only be defined as an amalgam of several food-styles, just as "Indian literature" is the sum-total of literatures written in a dozen or more languages. And I think it is no less difficult for Indians to eat each other's food than speak each other's tongues; an "Indian" dinner which a Tamil and a Sikh and a Bengali can eat with equal relish, is more of a dream than reality. This point was curiously brought home to me on one occasion during my travels in America. I had arrived rather tired after a jerky flight at some little university town; meeting me at the airport my sponsor told me with a smile that he had arranged for me an Indian meal with an Indian family. "I am sure it would be very much to your liking," he added. I at once asked, "Which part of India do they come from?" The professor did not know. The upshot of it was that I spent the night hungry, having been unable to consume anything except a few spoonfuls of plain rice and a cup of coffee at the table of the charming Tamil family, where the professor had piloted me from the airport. I hasten to add that no offense is meant to my gracious host of the evening, nor do I think I need apologize for my provincialism. I have seen high-born South Indian ladies ready to faint at the fishy odour issuing from a Bengali kitchen. It's a case of the fox and the stork, and you can't do anything about it Certain varieties of Indian diet are mutually exclusive.
We cannot be sure whether there was ever a standard diet for the whole of India--available records are meagre, and no gastronomic counterpart of the Kamasutra is in existence. All we can guess on the basis of literary evidence is that the ancients were a meat-eating, wine-tippling people, inordinately fond of milk-products and beef-eaters as well.The Buddha himself did not impose a ceiling ban on flesh-eating, many of his followers (Bengalis?) ate fish habitually. The only strict vegetarians in ancient India were the Jains--a rather small and relatively isolated community with scant influence on the social life of orthodox sects. How and when both beef and pork came to be interdicted and the great schism between vegetarians and flesh-eaters arose on the Indian soil cannot be ascertained with any degree of precision; we do not even know whether these arose of religious or circumstantial pressure. Nor we can form a clear idea about the type or types of cooking current in the Vedic and epic ages. Homer describes each meal with meticulous care, dwelling on every detail from the slitting of the bull's throat to the hearty appetites of the heroes; but the great sprawling Mahabharata is remarkably--even annoyingly--silent on such points. The phrase randhane Draupadi--`a Draupadi for cooking' has come down to us and is cited to this day, but not once do we see this proud lady actually in the kitchen, not even during the period of exile; the feeding of the wrathful Durvasa and his one thousand disciples was magically accomplished by Krishna, without any effort on Draupadi's part. Bhima, we are told, served a whole year as the chef in Virata's household, but as regards the delicacies he presumably concocted for the royal table, we are left completely in the dark. The Ramayana does a little better; we often see Rama and Lakshmana bringing home sackfuls of slain beasts (wild boars, iguanas, three or four varieties of deer. We are also told that their favourite family diet consisted of spike-roasted (meats) (shalyapakva), known nowadays as shik-kebab or shish-kebab); --unfortunately no other detail is supplied. Who skinned the carcasses or made the fire or turned the flesh on the spit, what were the greens and fruits eaten with the meat or the drinks with which it was washed down--all this is left to our conjecture. Nevertheless, we are eternally grateful to Valmiki for the passage describing the entertainment provided by the sage Bharadvaja to Bharata and his retinue; there is nothing to compare with it in the Mahabharatan accounts of the Raivataka feast or Yudhishthira's Horse-Sacrifice. For once in our ancient literature we find the courses itemized--savoury soups cooked with fruit-juice, meat of the wild cock and peacock, venison and goat-mutton and boar's meat, desserts consisting of curds and rice-pudding and honeyed fruits, and much else of lesser importance. All this is served by beauteous nymphs on platters of silver and gold, wines and liqueurs flow freely, there is dance and music to heighten the spirit of the revels. Granted that the whole account is somewhat fantastical--it was the gods who had showered this splendour on that forest hermitage--a splendour that rivals that of Ravana's palace in Lanka; but this at least tells us what Valmiki thought a royal banquet should be; evidently he had experience of a highly sophisticated culture.
To read the same passage in the medieval vernacular versions is to be transferred to altogether another world--a world hedged in by scruples where the cult of Kama--the pleasure-principle of life, which was highly honoured in the heroic age, had fallen into desuetude and the epic tales were used as vessels of unrelieved piety. In both Tulsidas and Krittivas many details of the original are suppressed or glossed over; in both, the vegetarian bias is strong. Tulsidas vaguely mentions "many luxuries", but lists no more than roots and herbs and fruits; the only drink he names is "undefiled water". Krittivas begins and ends with milk-products. Both poets, living in impoverished rural-agricultural communities, recoil from magnificence and reduce Bharadvaja's feast to a modest meal, which their public would find both tempting and innocuous
It is refreshing to turn from Krittivas to Kavikankan and watch the huntsman Kalketu wolfing his dinner--putting away huge mounds of rice with the aid of crab-meat and one or two leafy vegetables. We almost hear him crunching the crab-shells and spitting out the well-chewn remnants; we admire the authenticity of the remark he flings at his wife: "You have cooked well, but is there more?" Yet we cannot accept this as typical of the daily Bengali fare in Kavikankan's time; the eater's taste reflects his off-track occupation rather than the norm. Bharatchandra's famous line, "May my children thrive on milk and rice" must not be taken literally, for "milk and rice" is a metaphor for prosperity and well-being. It is only in our prose fiction from Rabindranath and Saratchandra down to the present times that we find adequate accounts of what the Bengalis eat, each according to his station in life and individual taste. Menus are often mentioned, variations noted; some lady-novelists have done us the additional favour of describing methods of cooking. Of food as a means of characterization there is a fine example in Rabindranath's novel Jogajog. Madhusudan has made his millions by honest toil, is aggressively proud of his wealth, is fond of vain display, his dinner service is all silver; yet his favourite diet is coarse rice, one of the inferior varieties of dal, and a mash of fish-bones and vegetables. The addition of this little gastronomical detail makes it all the more clear what a "tough guy" the poor ethereal Kumudini has to confront in her new home. On another level food has made its way into Bengali verse--and not merely for comic effects as in Ishvar Gupta. In a poem entitled Nimantran ("An Invitation") and addressed to an unnamed lady, the aged Rabindranath imparted a touch of his lyricism to mundane food, albeit half in jest and with a slant on the "modernist poets. "No golden lamps or lutes are available now," (I am giving a rough rendering of the passage.) "but do bring some, rosy mangoes in a cane-basket covered with a silken-kerchief, ... and some prosaic food as well--sandesh and pantoa prepared by lovely hands, also pilau cooked with fish and meat--for all these things become ineffable when imbued with loving devotion. I can see amusement in your eyes and a smile hovering on your lips; you think I am juggling with my verse to make gross demands? Well, lady, come empty handed if you wish, but do come, for your two hands are precious for their own sake." The last two lines lift the poem to a non-material realm, but the reality of the mangoes and pilaus remains undiminished.
The novelists know what they are talking about and have all the words at their disposal, but I am now constrained to use a language utterly unsuited to my purpose. In course of my sporadic attempts to translate Bengali fiction into English, I have found the food words the most intractable. There are three possible ways to deal with them: to retain the originals and add explanatory notes, to invent neologisms, or to slur the matter over: none is satisfactory. Generations of Bengali cooks (mostly women) have devised and developed a variety of dishes belonging to the same genre but each with a specific name and distinctive in taste and flavour, all which, to the eternal amusement and irritation of the true-born Bengali, are lumped in Anglo-Indian English in that ubiquitous and imprecise word "curry". A "dalna" is no more like a "'chachchari" than a horse is like a goat; to label both of them as "'curries" is just like using the term "quadruped" when the goat or horse is meant. "Payasanna" is generally rendered by Sanskritists as "rice-pudding", but "'anna" means any kind of food, and Bengalis cook their payesh also with semolina or vermicelli or casein balls. It would take a dozen English words to distinguish between "amsattva" and "amshi" (both products of mangoes), or between the thick ginger-flavoured "chatni" and the bland liquid "ambal", both sour-based desserts. It's a pity one must use "lentil-cakes" for both "daler bara" and "daler bari", for they differ not only in size and shape, but also in the technique of preparation and their use in cookery. Even that dailiest of daily items, "machher jhol", remains inexpressible in English; to translate it as "fish curry" is an insult to Bengali culture, and that is the only word available.
I have often been appalled by the limitations of Bengali vocabulary, which does not permit us to name al1 the shades of colours or parts of the human body except with the aid of Sanskrit words seldom used in conversation. But, now that I come to think of it, I realize that my native tongue has a marvellous array of food words--single words, I mean, unadorned by any of those adjectival or descriptive phrases which constitute the glamour of a French menu. A dish of spiced potatoes may be called by no other name except "dam", but if you add sweet pumpkin, it at once becomes a "chhaka". "Dolma" is an exclusive term for stuffed patols , just as "dhoka"  is reserved for fried lentil-cakes served in a thick gravy. No one knows why this is so, but such are the ways of the language; evidently the Bengalis have a passion for affixing a new name to every creation of their kitchen--even where the dishes are variations on the same theme. The "ghanta" and the "chachchari", for example, are both pot-pourries, both composed of vegetables plus chipped fish or fish-bones, or of vegetables only; the only difference seems to be that a chachchari may be cooked with mustard and a ghanta may not. Yet another variety of pot-pourri is the "labra" which, being a favourite of the Vaishnavas and served in their ritual feasts, mustn't ever be contaminated with animal products: according to one lexicographer, it is a hash of six vegetables--the trunk and the flower of the banana, sweet pumpkins, kidney beans, radishes, and brinjals. Likewise there are many variants of the so-called "fish-curry", of which the most common are the "jhol", and the "jhal" or "kalia", distinguished by their relatively bland or sharp taste. Cooking styles are determined by the size, the flavour, and the texture of the fish; each one of the numerous varieties eaten in Bengal has appropriate spices and vegetables assigned to it--special techniques have been devised for dealing with the smallest kinds. There are even specialties prepared with only one particular kind of aquatic food, such as the "dai-machh", which is really "it" only when the fat part of a mature rohit is cooked in sour curd with cinnamon and raisins, or the "muthia" (an emanation of East Bengal), of which the only possible base is the lean part of the chital. As for hilsa, that noble and most versatile of fish, the hilsa alone is capable of yielding as many as five courses with delectable gradations in taste. You begin with the cool tender gourd seasoned with the head of the fish, the spare bones have gone into your mungh dal which comes with the meaty neck-bone fried brown and crunchy; then follow a mild jhol with slices of the green pumpkin and dotted with seeds of the black cumin, and a pungent "bhate" or "paturi" steamed in a sealed jar or braised in a covering of banana-leaf, thickened with oil and mustard-paste. And finally, just for "cleaning your mouth", comes the tail-end of the fish--the least appealing part but made most pleasant with sweetened lime-juice and the green chili. And to get the best out of it all, you must make the slices triangular and never allow onions or ginger or potatoes to approach this queen of fishes, for cooking hilsa with any of them is a worse offence than cooking rohit-kalia without them.
But it is only once in a while that a Bengali would eat hilsa from the beginning to the end of a meal: his general fare is much more varied. Thanks to the natural resources of his homeland, the researches of the ancients, the no-longer exotic fruits and vegetables introduced by European adventurers, and the admixture of Shakta and Vaishnavic strains in his blood and of Brahmanical and heterodox elements in his culture, the Bengali has developed a philosophy of food which is both eclectic and sensible. I know that a la carte menus in Chinese and European restaurants can be fantastically long and elaborate, yet I do think that Bengali food has a wider range than any other I have experienced. What I mean is that Bengali food is designed to cover the entire range of the palate and satisfy every need of human body-chemistry. The Chinese eschew bitters and avoid milk or sweets; in the Occident you may find the bitter or sour taste only in alcoholic drinks, but never a hint of either in any food. The thought that whole areas of sensation should be expelled from the art of cooking would have pained the ancient Hindus who recognized six primary tastes--sweet, sour, saline, bitter, pungent, astringent---along with sixty-three minor variations. Now Bengali food embraces the six primary tastes and many of the variants as well, has room for both animal flesh and the fruits of the earth, can compete with Swiss fare in the variety of milk-based or fruit-based desserts--in short, comprehends all available edibles except the one or two kinds of flesh forbidden by custom. It is wonderful to relate that the dessert itself has two sections in Bengal--first, a sour or sweet-and-sour course, and finally a sweet dish made of casein  or thickened milk (ksheer). "From shukto to payesh", was Rabindranath's phrase for a complete Bengali meal, and this is only another way of saying that one must begin with bitters and end with sweets.
Actually, there are three different ways of beginning a meal. You can eat your first few handfuls of rice a la Brahmannaise, with heated ghee and a pinch of rock-salt, or with the so-called "bitter" dal---green mungh cooked with the karala fruit, which is slightly and delightfully hitter. The third alternative is the shukto  commended by the great poet or a green or red sag, of which there are as many varieties as of sandwiches in Scandinavia. As for the finish, it must be made with some "white stuff"----either plain milk-and-rice in the plebeian style of Madhusudan in Jogajog, or sour or sweet curd preferably prepared at home or some more sophisticated product of milk. And between the two extremities may be rowed five or six courses--the salines and the pungents and the sours, fish, meat, and meaty vegetables---each with a different combination of spices and a different appeal to the tongue.
A Hungarian lady married to a Bengali poet once said to me, "You Bengalis use too many spices in your food---by your style of cooking, you could make a pair of old shoes edible." Her remark was both unjust and just. It is true that Bengalis (and especially East Bengalese) sometimes ruin the flavour of the original substance by an excessive use of "hot" spices like cloves or seeds of the smaller cardamom. An example of this is the aforementioned dhoka which a1most loses its identity in layers and folds of spice.
But perhaps this is only natural. What I have mentioned as a drawback of Bengali food is really also its virtue; if you cannot commercialize it, you cannot vulgarize it either. Any attempt to put it on the Universal Common Market would mean a violation of its dharma, an outrage on the very it-ness of it. It 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. The food of every region is related to the local climate, but where the techniques of refrigeration and transportation have been perfected, one can eat almost anything one likes any day of the year---out of cans and packs, of course---a situation unthinkable in India. Lacking the blessings and the bane of an advanced technology, India still remains a land where food is attuned to the seasons and even the fluctuations in weather. A whole system of seasonal foods prevails in Bengal, of which our foreign friend can form no idea, unless he has lived in a Bengali home where life is "traditional and ceremonious"---not as an aloof paying guest but a member of the family, and eaten the same food as the others. In order to know what Bengali food is, you must welcome the spring by beginning your mid-day meal with a few fried margosa leaves, which retain their delicately bitter taste for only a week or two in early March, and end the meal with a sour-sweet ambal of green mangoes. The thing for the height of summer is a spoonful of pure stinging home-made kasundi  which must be mixed with a dark-green sag and, again, your first mouthful of rice. Summer is also the time for tasting the real bitter watery hingcha, an excellent aperitif, as refreshing as a glass of iced Campari on a June day in Rome. A day of crashing rain evokes the kedgeree---rice and lentils boiled together with eggs and potatoes and the sweet onion, enjoyable even without fish or meat. The mark of autumn is the tender arum-stalk cooked with gram and coconut-chips, and the slippery-tasting astringent chalita fruit stewed in molasses. In winter you must eat a portion of the big buttery brinjal  scorched in a charcoal fire, and slices of the tangy red radish embedded in your dal or ambal. And in case there is an orthodox widow in the family, you must---absolutely must---beg her to give you samples of what she cooks for herself. Have no fear about approaching her; for even if she doesn't let you enter her kitchen she will be generous in hospitality.
Wonderful products, these, based on formulas which may differ from district to district and even from family to family, but even these are of lesser importance than widow-style vegetarian food. For it is there--among a community of nun-like women living on one meal a day and observing numerous fasts, that Bengali cooking reaches its height of finesse, in spite of the dietary restrictions ordained, or rather because of them. It is, I think, a beautiful style---beautiful because it is frugal, adroit in the use of edibles generally despised, and is both varied and consistently suave. The humble pumpkin-flower in the kitchen garden, chipped husk of the gourd, stalks of the water-lily, the meanest of sag and vegetables: things like these become delicious when they come from the widows' kitchen. You can taste a lentil pate' which melts on your tongue, the succulent vine of the pumpkin laced with undercooked whole grain, fricassees of the slightly astringent green banana with fleshy smooth slightly sweet roasted jack-fruit seeds, velvety mashed arum touched up with raw mustard-paste and the fragrant green chili---delicacies as rare as Japanese raw fish or the truffle of France. And the rice---you will have no idea of what rice can be until you have tasted the "food-of-the-god" variety , served not on china or brass, but on a black stone plate---the only kind permitted to widows.
Some years later, on being invited by a West-Bengalese friend to an evening party held in honour of his betrothal in his Calcutta home, I witnessed a ceremony the like of which I had never seen among East-Bengalese families. In the entire Bengali-speaking area, fish is an inseparable part of any feast connected with a Hindu wedding, but this Brahmin family had evidently a different tradition regarding betrothal feasts: the entertainment was pure vegetarian---and a wonder to behold. We---some fifty guests of us --- sat on grass mats or woollen rugs in a long verandah overlooking the inner courtyard of the house; in front of us were red-brown earthen plates and tall glasses of the same material filled with keya-scented water; the food was served in tiny little bowls of which there was apparently an endless series---everything was spotlessly clean and attractive to the eye. I did not count the dishes, but I was told there were exactly thirty-two of them (or maybe sixty-four!)---that being the auspicious number prescribed by tradition. They came in marvellously diminutive quantities, in a fixed order of succession, without a touch of animal substance anywhere, without any meaty vegetables, even---an extraordinary array of greens cooked with mysterious combinations of spices and grains, according to recipes which, I imagine, were among the most complex invented by man. I could not identify all the dishes, and I no longer remember what were the ones I did recognize, nor whether I relished them all, but I must say that this meal---and the vegetarian lunch at the Tagores' residence---are aesthetically the two most satisfying meals I have ever eaten in my life.
2. Derived from Tamil kari, a meat sauce. The root of the Bengali word tarkari (which is used with a similar lack of discrimination) is Persian tarah, a sag, vegetable, or meat. No dictionary says whether the second half of the Bengali word is related to Tamil.
In Sanskrit, the generic term for cooked food (except rice and desserts) is vyanjana, a term of literary criticism denoting effective expression. A vyanjana as cooking term means food which has been made effective by art. This "correspondence" of poetry and cookery was also noted by Baudelaire.
5. I do not know of any other part of India or the world where milk is turned to casein--the Bengali word is "chhana", and I'm not sure if the English expression is quite accurate. "Chhana" is the base of all the famous creations of the Bengali confectioner. Its nearest Occidental equivalent is cottage cheese.
6. The sag and the shukto are both concoctions of bland or bitter leafy herbs and vegetables--nomenclature depends on the style of cooking "Sag-bhat" is the set phrase for the poor man's diet, also euphemistically used when one invites a friend to a banquet. The first thing served in a wedding feast is a sag.
9. It may seem paradoxical that this deprived sisterhood should be sanctioned the finest rice. The fact is that most Bengalis prefer parboiled rice whereas the sacerdotal sun-dried variety is enjoined on the widows. Actually, the latter is finer and more fragrant, but is believed to be less nutritious. Of this, however, there is empirical evidence-- the average widow lives until old age in excellent health.
Translated by the author himself from the original Bengali Bhojon-shilpi Bangali. The translation has been published in the daily newspaper The Hindusthan Standard of Calcutta. The Bangla article, first titled "Bhojan-Bilasi Bangali" but later changed to "Bhojon-shilpi Bangali" appeared in 4 daily installments in the Ananda Bazar Patrika of Calcutta, during January 1-4, 1971. Recently, in 2004, this has been published in book form by Vikalp, Kolkata. The illustrations, by well-known contemporary artist Ramananda Bandyopadhyay, have been taken from this book.
Published in Parabaas October 25, 2005