November 9, 2021
The romance of the Bengali queen of fish, hilsa, starts in the sea waters of the Bay of Bengal, from where it travels to the freshwater rivers. Here, it gains its fulsome flavor, ripe for embalming with mustard paste and steaming for lunch. At London’s Chourangi, the first international outpost of the Oh! Calcutta group of restaurants, chefs painstakingly remove the fine bones before cooking the fish in traditional bhapa style — a taste of Bengal for the uninitiated.
The food of Bengal is a confluence of cultures like no other. Calcutta attracted traders, rulers, and settlers across centuries, owing to an enviable location on the Hooghly River. As these visitors arrived, Bengali cuisine absorbed their recipes, tastes, and cooking methods. The Portuguese penchant for curdled milk helped create many Bengali sweets. While Calcutta was the capital of the British Raj, Indian cooks pleased colonial employers with inventive dishes that used ingredients from all across India: pork vindaloo drenched in mustard oil, khichdi with smoked fish, jalfrezi to give a fresh lease of life to leftover roasts.
The exile of the last king of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, to Calcutta gave birth to Mughlai food, which Calcutta historian Iftekhar Ahsan told me was “not Mughal or Awadhi or Bengali” but a mix of all three: Calcutta kati rolls, chicken rezala, Mughlai paratha, and, of course, Calcutta biryani (which uniquely features potatoes that disbanded cooks of the royal household added when they started restaurants for higher margins). The Hakka Chinese community created Indo-Chinese magic, migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar brought addictive street food like jhal muri and puchka, and Armenian merchants gave Bengal potoler dolma, or stuffed pointed gourds.
Bengalis rarely talk about their cuisine without a twinkle in the eyes, passion in the voice, and a rumbling in the belly. Yet, most will rarely find Bengali cuisine — in all its diversity — outside of the Bengali home. But that might soon be changing with Chourangi. Is this a sign that global appetites are changing, or will Bengali food take longer to make its well overdue mark?