Is Bengali cuisine in decline?

In the Telegraph of Kolkata published this Sunday, Amit Chaudhuri laments the decline of Bengali cuisine. The immediate spark for Chaudhuri’s angst is two encounters with less than stellar food at a Kolkata restaurant quite uncreatively called “Oh! Calcutta.”

I thought of this essay when I realized that almost the only restaurant that served anything like consistently good Bengali food — Oh! Calcutta — had lapsed into mediocrity.

Chaudhuri then reiterates what countless Bengalis reflect on from time to time:

I suppose I should start by saying that Bengali cuisine is a great cuisine, although it’s a great unknown. I mean, besides the one restaurant I’ve cited, there are no retail chains or outlets on a national scale to promote Bengali food; only, in various cities, private delivery services set up by someone’s aunt. In this, it’s like two other distinguished Indian cuisines that, in spite of their delectable quality, have never been properly marketed — the Goan and the Parsi… But, until not very long ago, Bengal didn’t even have a proper Bengali restaurant.

Chaudhuri then broadens his concern over the imminent demise of Bengali cuisine by citing a specific example – that of food served at a Bengali wedding.

The venue for the best Bengali food — the wedding — is now a nightmare. There’s the hybrid catered food, of course, whose advent began 25 years ago with chilli fish fry; but, even when Bengali food is served, it’s often served cold. The sensory outrage of cold food and gravy is something that Bengalis, with their ‘good boy’ exam-oriented values, seem wholly indifferent to.

Chaudhuri also puts the wide vegetarian repertoire in Bengali within a historical framework

I mean the cruel dietary regime imposed on Hindu widows, forbidding them not only meat and fish, but various things including the putatively aphrodisiac onion and garlic. These bizarre strictures (now, surely, less adhered to) have led to a vegetarian repertoire unparalleled, I think, in its subtlety, with a range of condiments, ingredients, and approaches peculiar to the region.

Finally, Chaudhuri distinguishes the decline in Bengali cuisine to trends with respect to other facets of Bengali life.

I wish to distinguish, quickly, between the decline I’m suggesting here and the well-worn tale of decline that is now Bengal’s. Unlike Bengali literature, cinema, music, and even science, Bengali food is a well-guarded secret.

Although each of these points superficially does seem to indicate that there is a discernable decline in Bengali cuisine, it is worthwhile examining Chaudhuri’s thesis in greater detail.

First, before we decide if Bengali cuisine is in decline, we must establish a framework describing what exactly Bengali cuisine comprises. I think it is safe to say that Bengali cuisine is the cuisine of the Bengali people, and here I define a Bengali person as someone whose native language is Bangla. My definition is linguistic and not necessarily patrilinear. Chaudhuri’s comment on the decline equates Bengali cuisine to that of a very specific subset of the Bengali populace – the predominantly upper-middle class, Hindu bhadrolok from West Bengal for whom Kolkata is the litmus test of culture. Apart from a minor comment on East Bengali cuisine in decline in Bangaldesh, Chaudhuri makes no mention of the vast majority of Bengalis who live in Bangladesh belonging to any religion, Muslim Bengalis in West Bengal, or the rural poor all of whom have – to use Chaudhuri’s term – “approaches peculiar” to their own subcultures.  Chaudhuri’s comment is therefore disappointingly similar to saying that Punjabi cuisine is in decline because a popular dhaba near Jalandhar disappoints on two occassions.

Why is this important to mention? Unlike Bengali literature, cinema, and music which can be judged solely on the basis of intellectual merit, the cuisine of a people should not. The illiterate may not read, the uninterested may not watch films, and the tone-deaf may not listen to music, but everyone must eat. Therefore, in any sweeping analysis which will be subjective anyway, a distinction between haute cuisine and that of plebeians is not unwarranted.

Contrary to Chaudhuri’s limited analysis of Bengali cuisine, within this broader framework, I actually find it to be rather vibrant. I’ve enjoyed scrumptious vegetarian dishes cooked by poor who can’t afford fish and meat and Bangladeshi dishes which make plentiful use of pabda and hilsa in their country (in contrast to the limited supply which Chaudhuri laments in Kolkata, West Bengal).

Chaudhuri wonders why upscale restaurants serving Bengali cuisine were such a rarity in West Bengal until recently. There has always been a problem of appearance. Millions of poor and middle-class communters do indeed eat a cheap dish of rice, macher jhol, bhaja, and tomato chutney before heading into work. It is also a well-known fact that many Bengalis can’t do without their regular fare (which Satyajit Ray whimsically pointed out in Joy Babu Felunath), and hence the preponderance of  “Bengali hotels” serving maachbhaat from Khajuraho to Kanyakumari. For the longest time, because Bengalis ate elaborately cooked Bengali food at home, it is possible that no one thought that anyone would prefer it to high-end Mughlai or Indian Chinese while eating out.

And who are we to dictate that chili fish fry is an abomination? All cuisines, except of those belonging to the most insular cultures, are a form of fusion. The Bengali cuisine which Chaudhuri fondly remembers is different from the cuisine of the nineteenth century and perhaps unrecognizable from the cuisine of the riverine folk who had not been exposed to New World crops such as the potato, the chili pepper, and the tomato. One cannot deny that the rate of syncretism in the current age is vastly accelerated, but that does not, in itself, argue for a decline.

Like many micro-cultures, certain dishes are definitely getting lost. My grandmother, who was married off at the age of sixteen, knew techniques and recipes that had been passed on to her which she refined over more than five decades. When she passed on much of it was lost. Because so little of Bengali cuisine has been written down, the fear that much of it will be lost is genuine. Perhaps, a concerted effort to collect these recipes is warranted. But that is a simple task compared to romanticizing all the misogynistic horrors associated with forcing half of society to innovate in the kitchen because they had no place elsewhere.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

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6 thoughts on “Is Bengali cuisine in decline?

  1. But, are you not trying to say that food in other parts of Bengal is better than that in Kolkata (perhaps through not a very fair comparison)? Can you claim that the food you so enjoyed was the same and not better on the average twentyfive years ago? Everyone I know, irrespective of age, seems to think the food they had in their childhood was better than the food they get now … some of this is most likely nostalgia, but there could be a plausible decline which would be logically expected.

    Elaborate recipes almost universally require time, and with changing lifestyles, that is something that people can ill-afford. True, the changing lifestyles may be slower to creep into some parts of Bengal, but surely one hopes it will eventually do so (since they are correlated to advantages that should not be shunned).

    This is where the Bengali inability to “sell” the cuisine can hurt. Unlike some other cuisines, the most elaborate dishes will not be preserved in recipes made by chefs (who will always have the time) and experimented upon in trying to do better. This is partly attitude … the Bengali, while relishing his panta-bhat will never offer it to a guest, leave alone thinking of it as a restaurant recipe. But look at how every Italian eatery carries Minestrone’ .

    • Food for thought! Thanks for your illuminating comments!
      🙂

      But, are you not trying to say that food in other parts of Bengal is better than that in Kolkata (perhaps through not a very fair comparison)? Can you claim that the food you so enjoyed was the same and not better on the average twentyfive years ago?

      Actually I am not trying to say that food in other parts of Bengal is better than in Kolkata. Chaudhuri is saying that the food in a Kolkata restaurant does not match up to his expectations which is indicative of a decline. I am saying that even if that single restaurant is symbolic of all of Kolkata it can not necessarily be equated with Bengali cuisine.

      This is where the Bengali inability to “sell” the cuisine can hurt. Unlike some other cuisines, the most elaborate dishes will not be preserved in recipes made by chefs (who will always have the time) and experimented upon in trying to do better.

      I emphatically agree with this point. Elaborate recipes require time and lifestyles are changing. I do think there needs to be an encyclopedic effort to curate all the different culinary styles and recipes. And restaurants can most certainly play a role in maintaining elaborate dishes.

      But other cultures that “sell” their cuisines (French, Italian, etc) also value cooking as a hobby and as a profession. If we can begin to think of a chef or even a randhuni with exquisite skills as a professional on par with other celebrated ones (and pay him/her accordingly), I’m sure that will go a long way in improving the image we have of the profession itself.

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