Those were coal-oven days; only the rich households of Calcutta had gas stoves. A lower middle-class family like ours did not. A familiar image, still bright in my ‘childhood folder’: my mother setting up the oven and lighting it in the morning. It was an elaborate process that resulted in thin wisps of smoke slowly spiralling out from the top of the oven before becoming a thick pipe of white fumes that headed up into the morning blue. The fire took about twenty minutes to settle down after which ma started her cooking.
Rice, daal, a vegetable and a fish curry used to be ready by nine. My father ate and left for his office by half past nine. That was the routine till he retired from his job. Often, on Sundays and holidays, ma left home for her Party meetings after putting on the rice. She gave me the responsibility of handling the rice and I was proud as she had preferred me over my studious brother, who was eight years older than me. I monitored the rice while ma was busy convincing local people about the greatness of communist ideology. Making the rice in a Bengali household is not that easy. ‘Properly cooked rice is perfectly boiled but not sticky. You should be able to count the grains,’ my father often said. This is how I was initiated into cooking, when I was barely ten, and I’ve cooked perfect rice since then.
Both my parents came from refugee families that migrated to Calcutta from East Bengal (later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh) in 1946, a year before the partition of India. Even during my childhood in the late 70s, the mutual contempt between Ghotis, the so-called original inhabitants of the city, and Bangals, the intruders, the refugees, was rampant. The heat was often felt in discussions on food. It was a given that a fish-addicted race like the Bengalis would quarrel over different recipes of cooking the same fish. When the Ghotis extolled the richness of a local recipe Bangals would dismiss it, insisting on the far greater subtlety of theirs. The debates could ignite to the point where Ghotis abused the Bangals, calling them “uncouth intruders” and “encroachers”, only to face the retaliation of being called ‘lazy losers’.
Till the mid-80s this identity conflict extended to the game of football. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan are two of the main clubs in this football-crazy city and Bangals always identified with East Bengal while Mohun Bagan was the obvious choice of the Ghotis. Whenever these two teams met, Calcutta went into a state of frenzy. Again, the fish swam into football: if East Bengal lost the game, Mohun Bagan supporters would come home proudly swinging a bunch of big prawns, golda chingri, in their hands. If the result was reversed, a couple of buttery hilsa would light up East Bengal supporters’ homes that evening. This phenomenon had an impact on the local markets, when the price of either chingri or hilsa would shoot up if the game produced a result. A draw would be a dampener for everyone – it left the supporters dissatisfied and the fish sellers out of pocket.
Across time, Calcutta has changed and the food culture of the city taken new turns. In the last two decades, western foods, like pizza, pasta, burgers, cheese, sausages and other frozen foods have been added to the middleclass Bengali’s diet. The new generation has embraced Kentucky Fried Chicken and speed-cricket over fish and football. But the fish markets still thrive, as fish has remained an intrinsic part of the Bengali’s daily gastronomy.
There is a popular notion in the rest of India that the Bengalis spend half their lives in cooking and eating. What is interesting is that Calcutta didn’t have any Bengali restaurants till about twenty years ago – why would you go out to eat what could be made best by your mother at home? But now, with increasing numbers of people eating out, Bengali-cuisine restaurants have proliferated. Most of them are up-market, catering to the well to do and the tourists. On the menus you will find various traditional items like, Bhetki or Hilsa Paturi (smoked fish in mustard and coconut paste wrapped in banana leaf), Chitol Petir Jhaal (portion of the belly of the fish cooked in a spicy gravy), Mochar Ghonto (finely sliced banana flowers cooked with mild spices), Kosha Maangsho (a rich Mutton Curry) and Postor Bora (fried poppy seeds balls) all served with pomp and style an often eaten at weddings and other celebrations.
There are other kinds of eateries which offer you authentic food far more cheaply. Pice ‘hotels’ are a Calcutta institution. Some are seventy years old, some nearing a hundred. Every item is priced separately, starting from a piece of lemon or a small earthen glass for drinking water to a belly piece of Chital fish. The prices are low enough that even a lower middle-class person can afford a wholesome lunch here, but these places actually attract a great mix of clientele. Visiting a pice hotel for lunch, I have seen an elderly business executive in tie and jacket masticating a huge Katla fish head sitting opposite a construction labourer. On the benches next to me could be filmmakers, theatre workers, small manufacturing unit technicians, sales people, old couples or taxi drivers. These places look shabby and a bit ancient but they produce a very affordable, authentic local cuisine that concedes nothing to the limited tastes of the wealthy or the tourists.
Even today a middle-class Bengali household will regularly have at least six courses if not more, balancing the ubiquitous fish with lightly cooked vegetables. Rice will be accompanied by shaak, some seasonal leaf mildly fried with spices or garlic, with kashundi, mustard sauce, on the side. Or you could have shukto, a finely balanced mix of bitter and sweet vegetables. This will be followed by daal being added to the rice, the fulcrum of any normal Bengali meal. Fish follows the daal, (or a mutton gravy if it’s a special occasion), rounded off by a sweet and sour chutney of tomatoes or green mango. Bengali sweets are legendary around the country, the confections very light and often based on chhanna, cottage cheese.
Like most of the Bengali families we also ate fish every day of the week. My father used to visit the market early every morning to buy fresh fish for the day. We had no refrigerator and so the fish had to be eaten by the evening itself. This led to close partnership between cook (mother) and shopper (father). It was an adventure to go with my father to the market. Slowly, I began to identify different types of fish, got to know which vegetables to buy for making a particular dish and so on. This knowledge laid the foundation for my grasp of Bengali cooking. I watched my mother cooking what we had bought from the market, I remember seeing the raw material transforming and the taste of it while eating. Watching her initiated me into the art of Bengali cookery.
We never lived luxuriously or wastefully, but in that simplicity, there was a hidden richness that has stayed with me in these times of supermarkets and processed foods. It is now up to us, my generation and the coming ones, to remember and to preserve the age-old gastronomic culture of our land and city.
Nilanjan Bhattacharya is a filmmaker and writer based in Calcutta. He writes on food
and Calcutta’s public culture. He can be reached at <email@example.com>