Food For Thought: Are Traditional Bengali Dishes No Longer The Craze?

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Kolkata: Bongs are big foodies. In fact, cinema and food are the twin obsession of this community not to mention literature and Robindro songeet. They can hold forth on any of these subjects with a rare panache for hours on end. And when it comes to food, they can teach you a thing or two on the preparation method of Bengali dishes like macher jhol, bhapa ilish, dhoi mach or mutton curry. Rabindranath Tagore rightly said, “Do not blame the food because you have no appetite.’’ It is said his first lines as a child were about food. In fact, as a child, he had developed the taste to appreciate good food.

Every region throws up its own share of popular cuisine that stands the taste of time. When it comes to Bengali dishes, there is a cornucopia of choices — both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Some of the famous vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes of Bengalis are Jhol (light gravy containing vegetables), Ambol (tangy appetiser primarily containing unripe mango), Bhaja (vegetable fritters like brinjal, potato, ladies finger that are consumed with dal), Chochhori (mixed vegetables), Chhechra (fish head with vegetables), Sukto (appetiser containing an assortment of vegetables), Pithepuli (sweet dish), desserts etc.

Home-cooked dishes disappearing

The traditional popular food items that our thakumas (grand moms) dished out with so much effort are slowly giving way to more newfangled food items available at your nearest mall or food stores. The millennial generation seems to have taken a liking to these junk foods like burger, chowmein and similar other such item to satisfy their taste buds. “There was a time when Muri, chira, khoi, luchi, roti had been our staple breakfast items.  But my grandchildren don’t like them. They prefer corn flakes with milk and banana and so do their parents,” said Seba Sarkar, a resident of AB Block, Salt Lake. “I love to gorge on pizzas and pastas. They are so yummy,” said a seven-year-old Rajrupa Dutta of Kankurgachhi.

Lack of time and patience

Is the gradual disappearance of joint family sounding the death knell for traditional cooking? Lack of time and patience to cook traditional food items that used to be di rigueur in Bengali household once is becoming a thing of the past. The traditional recipes have always been passed down from generation to generation but in the age of nuclear family, this tradition is slowly coming under threat. In joint families, the adorable grandmas would take great pains to cook a variety of recipes much to the delight of all members of the family. The aroma of sarse maach (fish cooked in mustard) or, say, sarse hilsha would waft through the entire house.

food traditional bengali dishes bengal culture
A famous traditional Bengali dish– Bati Chacheri

“I learnt cooking from my thakuma (grandmom). She taught me how to cook various veg and non-veg food dishes. Since I have great interest in cooking, it wasn’t that difficult mastering the art,’’ says Papree Ghosh, who came with her two-year-old daughter for shopping.  When eNewsroom asked her whether her mom-in-law stays with them, she said no. She also felt that unlike her grandma, she won’t be able to pass on the tradition to her daughter due to time constraints and other priorities in life. “Women are now spending considerable period of their time looking for jobs and improving their financial condition, so cooking seldom figures in their scheme of things,’’ adds Ghosh.

So in nuclear families where mothers are working women, it is quite difficult for them to juggle both cooking and office work with equal ease. As a result, employing a cook is the easy way out. So Gen Next is left with no option but to gorge on ‘instant’ food.

However, there are women who lament the dying tradition of home cooked foods. Take the case of Sushma Banerjee of FD Block who prefers to cook at home despite having a busy social life. “Cuisine defines the cultural identity of any community and Bengali cuisine being no different. But today’s young parents mostly believe more in eating in restaurants with their children rather than relish home-cooked dishes,’’ adding sweets made of nolun gur (jaggery) is a delicacy here during winter months. “Do we get such items anywhere?’’ she asks.

Eateries galore

Kolkata has some of the finest addresses to check out for traditional Bengali cuisine like Aaheli, 6 Ballugunge Place, Bhojohari Manna to name a few. The road side eateries are nonetheless popular as they are pocket-friendly. “I have been serving traditional items like daal, bhaja, sukto, dhokar dalna, maacher jol for more than a decade. I keep it simple, tasty and nutritious,” said Siddharta Ghatak of Aborani.

Pithebilashi, Kolkata’s only eatery that specialises in Pithe has experimented with pithe, along with stocking a range of traditional items at their store. “To keep up with changing tastes of Gen Next, we had to improvise a lot. But this has only made our outlet popular among young and old.  Aam noler puli, ice cream gokul pithe, baked patisapta, illish, bhetkti, prawn patisapta, chicken  and mutton pitisapta, veg patisapta, roti made up of Gobindabhog rice with Pahari mangsho (chicken and mutton) polanno etc are the most sought after items. We stock the traditional items as well,” said Nabanita Chatterjee of Pithebilashi. She is confident that the Gen Next will develop a taste for traditional Bengali food sooner rather than later.

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