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Woman with Peacock - Kalighat Painting, c. 1800, Calcutta

Tamala Krsna: .....every place has its special fruits and vegetables.
Prabhupada: Yes.
Tamala Krsna: It seems in that respect that Bengal is very opulent in varieties of vegetables.
Prabhupada: And fish. They prepare varieties of preparation of fish. Mache jol, mache tal, mache dal, machera dorma.(?) They kill this jhasere koi (?) and paste with mustard and fry it in oil. (Bengali)
Bhakti-caru: (Bengali)
Prabhupada: They know more of fish preparation and also vegetable. (Bengali)
Bhakti-caru: (Bengali)
Prabhupada: (Bengali) Krsna bado doyamoy, koribare jihwa jay. Krsna-prasada... (Bengali conversation) The real fact is that this jivo jivasya jivanam. One life is food for another life. That is nature's way. But one has to pass through so many varieties of life, evolution. Jalaja nava-laksani. How many millions of years we'll take to evolve to become a human being. Then he gets chance of Krsna consciousness. Payeche manava janma, mano ranjanam alpa.(?) Bahunam janmanam ante. Emona janma, this janma, manusya-janma. And if we miss and don't get Krsna, again glide down. Mam aprapya mrtyu-samsara. Again you fall down. I'll eat you; you eat me. And the aquatic, 900,000 species, varieties of life. The same struggle, one fish eating another fish. Struggle within the water. A small fish can understand three miles away a big fish is coming. It is all stated in the Bhagavata. This struggle is going on.

Srila Prabhupada Room Conversation, Vrindaban, 07-17-77

Bengalis are famous for being great lovers of food. Nowhere is this truer than in devotional circles, where the Gaudiya Vaisnavas spread Krsna Consciousness worldwide through the preparation, distribution and enjoyment of Krsna prasadam.

In Bengal, food is categorized as being kancha (uncooked or unripe) or paka (cooked or ripe). Bengali meals take long hours of preparation in the kitchen, great mastery of cooking skills, and the best of fresh produce and foodstuffs. Meals are traditionally taken on the floor, where everyone sits on an asana, pieces of carpet or small cushions. On top of a large thali covered with a banana leaf are placed many small bowls filled with portions of dal, sabjis, chutneys and raitas, sweets, etc. Around the edges of the banana leaf one might find a bit of salt and a wedge of lime, a little dab of fried spinach and some fried potatoes, and perhaps a fried brinjal split lengthwise with the stem still attached. In the center of the thali a mound of rice is flanked with fritters or savouries, wedges of lime, whole green chillies and perhaps a bit of pickle. Finally, in the center of the rice mound a little hole is made and a spoonful of ghee is poured in, to flavour the initial mouthfuls of rice. A portion of maha prasadam may be added to each thali, or set at the center on special serving plates.

Each dish is taken separately with a little bit of rice so the full flavor and uniqueness can be experienced. The lighter, more delicate tastes always come first so the palate isnít overwhelmed by stronger tastes. Vegetables are the first item taken, and bitters are particularly placed first because they enliven the digestive system. We sometimes hear that sweets are also eaten near the beginning of the meal. Vegetables are followed by dal, which may be accompanied by savouries or breads. After this, the more complex sabjis are taken, along with chutneys and raitas. The tart chutneys also help the palate to anticipate the sweet dishes to come.

swadv-anna-triptan hari-bhakta-sanghan
kritwaiva triptim bhajatah sadaiva
vande guroh sri-charanaravindam

    "The spiritual master is always offering Krsna four kinds of delicious food [analyzed as that which is licked, chewed, drunk, and sucked]. When the spiritual master sees that the devotees are satisfied by eating bhagavat-prasada, he is satisfied. I offer my respectful obeisances unto the lotus feet of such a spiritual master."

    Sri Gurv-astaka

Bengalis usually eat everything with their fingers, and prefer to appreciate all the various textures rather than use silverware to get the food from thali to mouth. Each individual has their own unique way of handling the foodstuffs. While one person might very neatly pick up small portions of rice and vegetables, fingers barely touching the food, another will enthusiastically mash the foods together into manageable clumps. Still others artfully form bite-sized balls of rice and sabji in their palms before flicking with the thumb to pop the ball into their mouth. The rougher, 'village style' eaters might be seen licking their palms... all the way up to their wrists!

Daily Meals

Breakfast: Just before breakfast, a deputed family member is likely to take a little moori (puffed rice) and beverage before making the morning trip to market. Breakfast on weekdays is typically comprised of roti or paratha with tarkar, or perhaps just a quick meal of moori with milk, or ghugni with bread. Weekend breakfasts might also include puri with alur dam and some sweets.

Lunch: In the typical Bengali household, lunch is the main meal of the day. The menu varies with the seasons. In the hot months, cool beverages are taken along with bitters, which have a cooling effect, followed by rice, dal and sabji. In very hot weather, just dal, rice and chapati might be taken. Khicuri is a favorite during the monsoon, taken with tarkari and pickles. The colder the weather, the heavier the preparations.

Snacks: A variety of snacks might be taken after lunch, including fried potato tikkas or fritters, tiffins, or handfuls of crunchie fried nibblers.

Dinner: Dinner is not a big affair in typical Bengali households. Lunchtime leftovers might be taken, along with a little sabji or bhaja. In place of rice, breads like roti or poori are likely to be taken.

Methods of Cooking

Bengalis have a number of cooking methods that are used according to the availability of seasonal ingredients and the state of the weather itself. For example, when the summer temperature and humidity is raising, Bengalis enjoy taking light stews, while during monsoon season they prefer fried savouries and khichuri. In the winter, thick curries and more breads are enjoyed. Some of the unique Bengali cooking methods include:

Bhapa: Steaming foods, including vegetables

Phoron: A uniquely Bengali type of tempering, often used in dals.

Bhaja: Pakora or other fried savouries dipped in besan batter and fried.

Ambal: A sour tamarind base dish with vegetables. Ambals are often taken at the end of a meal, before sweets, and are more common in summer.

Bhaja: Anything fried by itself or in batter.

Bharta: Vegetables that are first boiled whole, then mashed and seasoned with ghee or mustard oil and spices.

Charchari: Mixed vegetables that are often seasoned with phoron, and sometimes may be cooked to dryness.

Dalna: Vegetables in a thick gravy seasoned with ground spices and ghee.

Ghanto: Chopped or grated vegetables cooked with both a phoron and a complex masala, often with boris added.

Korma: Vegetables cooked in a mild yogurt based sauce and ghee.

Pora: Vegetables are burnt over direct fire, mixed with oil and spices.

Bengali Sweetmeats

"Sweetmeats occupy an important place in the diet of Bengalis and at their social ceremonies. It is an ancient custom among Hindus to distribute sweets at pujas. Sweets are also distributed at the end of Muslim milads. Traditionally, Bengalis distribute sweets among neighbours and relatives on a variety of occasions such as births, engagements, weddings, success in examinations etc. Because Bengali sweets are made from curd, they form an important part of the daily diet. The sweetmeat industry has flourished because of its close links with social and religious ceremonies. Competition and changing tastes have helped to create many new sweets, and today this industry has grown not only within the country but has also spread abroad.

In ancient times, sweets grew around the cultivation of rice paddy and sugar cane. Bengalis entertained guests with gud (sugar candy), made from sugarcane, palm or date juice. A variety of sweets were made by mixing gud with coconut and chida (flattened rice) or mudi (puffed rice). Several other dishes and cakes were made by adding gud to dishes made with milk and unboiled rice flour or broken rice grains. Sweets were also made from powdered pulses, to which coconut and gud were added. These traditional sweets continue to be made at home.

In addition to home-made sweets, Bengalis also buy sweetmeats prepared by mairas, or sweetmeat makers. Unlike northern Indian and Pakistani sweetmeats which are made of ksir (thickened milk), Bengali sweetmeats are made from curdled milk. The discovery of the process of curdling milk dates back to the Middle Ages. This discovery revolutionized the sweet culture of Bengalis. Since the 16th century, Bengali sweets were used in abundance by the Vaishnavas as they were vegetarian.

Various methods are used to make sweets attractive and tasty. For instance, cassia leaves, cardamom powder, raisins, cashew nuts and orange rind are used for flavour, variety, and decoration. Different colours are also used. Various moulds are used to give attractive designs and shapes to sweets, especially sandesh (sandesh), a form of sweetened cottage cheese.

Rasagolla (literally ball in sugar syrup) was first made by Haradhan Maira, a confectioner of Phulia, during the Bengal renaissance. These white cottage cheese balls in sugar syrup created a revolution in the sweetmeat industry and set the trend for the main sweets of today. Nabinchandra Roy of Bagbazar, Kolkata, was the first to make 'sponge' rasagolla in 1868. Several other sweets such as rajbhog, rasmalai, ksirmohan, raskadamba, danadar and chhanar mudki are transformations of rasagolla. The names of many historical personalities are associated with this industry. A kind of brown sweet is called ladycanny, in honour of Lady Canning, wife of Lord Canning (1856-1962), a governor general of India. A darker version of ladycanny is known as kalojam (literally blackberry).

Different regions are renowned for different kinds of sweets. In West Bengal, Krishnanagar was famous for sarbhaja and sarpuriya, Burdwan for sitabhog and mihidana, Midnapore for babarshah, Birbhum for morabba, Maldah for raskadamba and Jalpaiguri for chhanchi dai. In Bangladesh today, Porabari in tangail is famous for chamcham, muktagachha in mymensingh for manda, comilla for pyada and rasmalai, faridpur for malaikari, natore for kanchagolla and dhaka for amrti, jilipi and pranhara.

Porabari chamcham goes back about 150 years. The modern version of this sweet was inspired by Raja Ramgore of Balia district in Uttar Pradesh. It was further modernised by his grandson, Matilal Gore. This oval-shaped sweet is brownish in colour and of a denser texture than either rasagolla or ladycanny. It can also be preserved longer than these two sweets. Granules of mawa or dried milk is sprinkled over chamcham. Muktagachha is known for its manda, a kind of soft sandesh.

Pyada is made of thickened milk and sugar. Rasmalai is a kind of rasagolla, but the cottage cheese 'balls' are smaller in size and cylindrical rather than round. Instead of floating in sugar syrup, the 'balls' float in thickened milk. Rasmalai is also made in Dhaka and rangpur, but the cottage cheese balls are round like rasagolla. The word malai is derived from the Persian balai, which means cream of milk. Rasmalai is light almond in colour. The malaikari of Faridpur is a kind of flattened rasagolla, covered with thick cream or khir. Natore's kanchagolla is a kind of rasagolla made by soaking curd in thick sugar syrup, which is later strained through a sieve. Raskadam of rajshahi is a dry round sweet, made of curd mixed with mawa. It is covered with tiny white beads of sugar and resembles the kadam flower, common in Rajshahi and Maldah and a recurrent image in vaisnava literature, folklore and ballads.

Bogra Dai is a specially rich, sweet yoghurt from Bogra. In the past, during the dry season, large temporary cowsheds and buffalo sheds used to be erected in pastures in North Bengal. Around these sheds grew a flourishing yoghurt industry. These sheds were called bathan or bhawa which gave rise to the famous bhawaiya songs. To make yoghurt at these bathans, farmers used to boil milk and render it down to one-fourth its original quantity. This is why Bogra yoghurt is almost like khir. Rasagolla of savar is also famous. Overcooking gives it the colour of burnt clay but it is very soft and delicious to eat.

Two old specialties of Dhaka are sweet and crisp amrti and jilipi. Powdered pulses and flour are made into a batter. The deft hands of the sweetmeat maker twirl the fine stream of batter into hot oil. The fried amrti and jilipi are then soaked in sugar syrup. Dhaka is also famous for pranhara (literally, losing one's heart), which is a soft sandesh, made by mixing mawa and essence with curd.

The oldest makers of sweetmeats in Dhaka are Maranchand and Sons. Their fame has travelled beyond the borders of Bangladesh. After the death of their founder, the quality of their products suffered but they are still among the best known sweetmeat makers. Other well known sweetmeat makers are Alauddin Sweetmeat, Muslim Sweetmeat, Vikrampur Mishtanna Bhandar, Banaful, Jadavghosh and Mohanchand. [Mahmud Nasir Jahangiri]"

Excerpted from Banglapedia Dictionary

See the Regional Index of Recipes for a host of wonderful preparations from Bengal.