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Fish Eyes and Fists: Bengali Cuisine

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on April 24, 2009 4 Comments

My mother often tells me stories of growing up in pre-Independence Calcutta (Kolkata), India, and I am always fascinated by details about Bengali (Bangali)* cuisine. I grew up in a (primarily) vegetarian household (where food was niramish), whereas the defining aspect of traditional Bangali cuisine is (traditionally freshwater) fish curry (machher jhol) and rice (bhaat). While Ma cooks mostly Bangali khabar (food), as prabashi Bangalis (Bengalis who live outside of Bengal), our food is shaped by other regional influences as well.

Ma grew up eating steamed Gobindo Bhog rice and fish curry for meals, along with dal (lentil soup), and sabzis (vegetable dishes/curries). While in Delhi our breakfasts are more “modern,” comprising toast, eggs and tea (only for my sister and I-not so for my parents, who don’t eat eggs, and don’t particularly like to start the day with bread-for them it’s generally traditional oatmeal in milk, or rotis with sabzi, if they eat breakfast, which they don’t always). Lunch and dinner tend to be elaborate affairs for us. Ma starts us off with korola bhaja (bitter gourd fry) generally, or with steamed okra. Then there’s dal, and sabzis, and shak (cooked, lightly seasoned leafy vegetables). On the odd occasion, my mother makes papad (fried wafers made of lentils), or the Bengali favorite aaloo bhaja (french fries), begun bhaja (eggplant fry), maach bhaja (fish fry) for my sister and I. Us siblings are also treated to heavenly Bengali non-veg dishes like ilish machcher jhol (hilsa fish curry), chingri machher malai curry (shrimp coconut cream curry, my ever favorite!), dimer dalna (egg curry), or a variety of meat dishes, like chicken or lamb curry. Sometimes Ma makes khichuri, rice and lentils cooked together, very lightly flavored. Then, during hot summer months there is chatney (chutney) made generally of kacha aam (raw mango) or tamator (tomato). Then there is the delicious mishti doi (yoghurt flavored with charred sugar), followed by the famed Bengali sweets (much rarer in my home than it is in Bengal) like rosogolla, shondesh, or pitthe. In West Bengal, the rice is often the “Gobindo Bhog” (short grained) variety; in my home (on my insistence), it is generally long grained, fragrant Basmati rice. During festival times and on special occasions we get to eat on stitched plantain leaf plates or banana leaf plates, and drink water from earthen glasses. Ah, the magic of eating out of those!

You can’t eat true Bangla cuisine with a spoon and fork. You use your hands. You have to roll your rice into little balls, curling your right hand into a fistful of food, mix it in with the gravy and the veggies/meat. But I do not seeing the point in using anything else. The food, I believe, tastes so much better when your fingers knead the food into manageable rounds…there’s the tactile, sensual pleasure in making that food your own before you eat it. It is a form of sensual prayer, saying Grace with your fingers. I recall someone once saying to me, “You know, most civilized people don’t eat with their hands.” And after the initial sting, I laughed. I commune with my food before I eat it…I savor its textures in the palm of my hand, feel the swollen, pregnant grains of rice, feel the gravy leaking around the edges of my hand, touch the contours, details of my food that are lost to me when I don’t.

Another time, in an Ethnolinguistics class, I remember the shock and disgust I sensed when I mentioned that the best part of the Bengali meal for me is the fish curry, especially the fish eyes. I had never seen that as anything other than natural…we eat everything except for the fins, bones, and innards; and most Bengali pick clean the fish’s head. And the fish eyes are always highly valued. I remember momentarily cringing with shame that day, and now I think back and think how our sense of what’s edible is so conditioned by what we eat. I try and remember that the moment I have a gag reflex working up when I hear of what I think of as “unpalatable dishes” from other cultures. I eat fish eyes. And I would not have it any other way.

* Bangla is the language, Anglicized as Bengali. Bangali refers to the people who speak the language (mostly from West Bengal), and also to the culture, Anglicized also as “Bengali”.

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4 Responses to “Fish Eyes and Fists: Bengali Cuisine”

  1. Aaminah on: 25 April 2009 at 9:35 am

    Yum! I ate fish head yesterday. It was deep fried yellow cod from Ranch 99. Don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it.

  2. Youki on: 25 April 2009 at 11:00 pm

    yeah it’s interesting how deeply ingrained conceptions of “edible” are. flashback, remember in “Blade Runner” how they had the test to identify androids? An individual would be asked several questions, most of them would be considered normal, but every once in a while a question would be asked that would make most humans respond with extreme revulsion. These questions would be syntactically similar to previous questions (they’d be formed in the same way), but certain words would be altered that have extreme cultural significance. For example, if you asked a human (living in that specific time period in that specific culture) if they liked eating slugs a negative reaction may be immediate, whereas an android would take longer to emulate the proper human reaction (the actual examples were a bit too extreme for me to write).

    It’s interesting how what we consider to be “cultural” actually has a deep impact on how our minds and bodies work. If I fed someone meat, told them it was chicken, and then after they’ve swallowed told them it was really (I’ll let your imagination fill it in) ________, the reaction would be immediate. It would be a horrible thing to do, but it would show how our brains have become re-wired culturally.

    Anyways, yeah, fascinating post Usree! very provocative!

  3. daveski on: 4 May 2009 at 3:24 pm

    This is a post that is almost begging for pictures, a picture dictionary of food maybe… But it’s refreshing here in a way for the language to do the work of describing textures, feelings, smells, tastes…all so ineffable.

    And about the tactile nature of eating…yeah I agree, reminds me of the pleasure of kneading bread. Somehow the ones that have been kneaded by hand always end up tasting the best too…

  4. Usree Bhattacharya on: 4 May 2009 at 3:29 pm

    I thought several times about adding pictures, but decided against it…images would have made the work of the imagination a little easier and-(I thought) less rewarding. I hope you’re inspired to try out some Bangla food…there’s rumored to be a great Bengali restaurant in the Bay Area, if you ever want to go!

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