West Bengal and food are a match made in heaven. Delicacies that form the image of this land can be found in the smallest of dhabas and on the menus of the most prestigious restaurants. Food is the wave that flows throughout the state; the song that unites every Bengali; the light that brightens up the City of Joy; and the love that never ends.
But what’s so special about the food of West Bengal? What is it that separates this state from the rest of the world? Is it the spice or the sweet? Is it the simplicity or the richness of the dishes?
Let’s take a look at some unique dishes:
Jhaal Muri – The quintessential
Jhaal Muri is the ultimate snack in a Bengali household. Its versatility is unmatchable as it can be eaten at any time of the day and can be combined with so many different food products. From the local trains to the Ganga ghats, from the streets to the shopping malls, from the snowy hills of Darjeeling to the beaches of Digha, the Jhaal Muri is present everywhere and, in a way, represents what a Bengali is-Jhaal (spicy) – fierce, competitive, revolutionary; on the other hand, friendly, simple, and humble, signified by ‘muri’.
Hilsa—A Bengali’s Beloved
Bengalis’ love for Hilsa dates back many centuries. Irrespective of any sort of boundary and border, every Bengali’s heart holds the same amount of unadulterated love for the national fish of Bangladesh and the state fish of West Bengal. Hilsa and the monsoons have better chemistry than Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Titanic.” Through time, it has become a comprehensive part of Bengali culture, tradition, and lifestyle.
On Poila Boishakh (Bengali New Year), it is customary to relish a meal of Ilish (Hilsa) Maach with your loved ones. Despite it being very costly, sales never drop as it reaches its peak during the rainy season. Ilish bhaaja (fried Hilsa) along with Khichuri (fermented rice with vegetables) can fill the stomach as well as the heart of a Bengali on any given day.
Love for Hilsha has been reciprocated through art, literature, songs, movies, and eminent personalities of Bengal like Swami Vivekananda, Satyajit Ray, and Sunil Gangopadhyay, who have been vocal about it through their works. There are many multiferous varieties of Hilsa dishes like the Ilish Jhuro, Tetul Ilish, and newer innovations in the modern era like Anarosh Ilish, Ilish risotto, and baked illish. Recently, Bengal has conducted entire festivals dedicated to Hilsa, organised by hotels and the West Bengal State Tourism Department, such as the Ilish Utsav 2019, the 6th Sundarban Hilsa Festival 2019 and the Gongabokhe Ilish Utsab.
Pithe – The Sweet Beauty
The winter is witness to food items that balance out what the summer has to offer. Sweet vs. Spice. Pithe is a palm-sized winter-special sweet treat. It is a combination of fresh palm, date jaggery, scented rice flour, milk, and coconut. Mostly made indoors, a household isn’t Bengali if it doesn’t prepare pithe during the winter. It’s almost a tradition at this point as even guests are offered loads of pithe on their visit to a Bengali household. On the occasion of Poush Sankranti, the elder women of the house make pithe, which is enjoyed along with Rabindra Sangeet, poetry, and folklore.
Mishti Dhoi – A Sweet Tooth’s Paradise
It is impossible to talk about Bengal and not bring in Mishti Doi. It can be considered as the staple dessert of Bengal. The original brilliance of Mishti Doi can be found in the bhars (earthen pots) of the pandals during the Durga Puja. It is a wonderful dessert and is also very simple to make. Mishti Dhoi’s brilliance resonates all around the world. Bulgaria was the first European nation to introduce curd in Europe. The age-old, traditional techniques to make Mishti Doi never faded away, and hence, its originality was never compromised.