It might be a shocker for many, but those pure vegetarian Bengali delicacies such as alu posto, dhokar dalna, and echor dalna, including labra, were born out of oppressive food restrictions imposed on widows in Bengal in 18th and 19th centuries
Born and raised in a Bengali family, developing an intense love for food is natural. How could a mere mortal being like me escape that? But, what differentiates me from many others is that chord which connects me to Bengali cuisine. Thanks to my mother and her elder sister (masi), who would often share fascinating narratives or unusual nuggets that shaped the culinary fare of Bengal. Significantly a few food habits, restrictions and norms followed by my masi or maternal aunt raised many questions in my mind. She lost her husband at a young age and refrained from decadent non-vegetarian delicacies. When we used to relish a grand spread of ilish maach and bhapa chingri, her plate would have only vegetarian curries and bhajas. That is when she would try to convince me that many such Bengali vegetarian grubs are tastier than their non-vegetarian counterparts. Kosha Echor, or raw jackfruit roasted curry, did prove her claims. As I grew, I started looking at how customs give birth to new recipes. And over the years, they have become an integral part of our food habits. Once oppressed with food choices, the widows of erstwhile Bengal had survived a rigid system and won it with their creativity and innovations to find little joy.
In the early 18th and 19th centuries, widows were strongly forbidden from consuming non-vegetarian food and were mandated to abide by several rites, including strict fasting and subsisting on a scant meal. Through experimentation, they created new recipes using vegetables that are still a critical feature of Bengal's vegetarian cuisine today. Here is a list of such dishes invented by widows of Bengal in yesteryears and now are the most devoured Bengali vegetarian culinary fare.
Alu posto with rice and dal, Image source: Instagram
This ingredient was a saviour for them. Using posto or poppy seeds, the dishes they created were like alu posto. The use of onion and garlic was forbidden for them. Thus, the alu posto we have today usually has kalo jeera or black cumin and green chill as tempering. After grounding the poppy seeds in traditional sil nora or grinding slab muller, the creamy paste gave the potatoes that richness.
The dish, which is now a mainstay in our pujo er bhog spread, has its genesis in those eras. The unprecedented transition from having elaborate meals as married women to restrictive diets as widows, led them toward labra. This dish was a medley of vegetables, and the combination made it appetising addition to their meals.
Due to a lack of options, the widows employed every part of vegetables given to them in their recipes, including the stems, shoots, roots, and seeds. Soon they started cooking bhaja and torkari or curry using the leftover peels from vegetables like potato, bottle gourd, ridge gourd, and pumpkin. One of the most popular dishes was alu er khosa bhaja with kalo jeera, or black cumin and red chilli. And Bengalis continue to enjoy these delicacies today.
Bengali Dhokar dalna, Image Source: Instagram
It would be news to many that this decadent recipe owes it origin to those women. Even the red lentil wasn't allowed to consume, justifying its high protein content. Thus, by using chola er dal or Bengal gram, they made a paste and fried them as tiny dumplings. And Dhoka er Dalna was prepared with ginger paste and garam masala. The dumplings would go into the gravy, soak the runny bit, and add their richness. A profuse garnishing with freshly grated coconut would often add to the aroma and taste. This is another Bengali vegetarian curry without using even garlic and onion.
To make up for the absent nutrition and taste, seasonal vegetables and unusual parts of plant-based foods were often used. Thor or white stems of banana plants, bhaja is a glaring example of it. Chopped thor used to be cooked with poppy seeds, yellow mustard, salt, turmeric, and mustard oil and made into a dry fry.
Kachkolar kofta curry, Image Source: Instagram
The widows' response to meatballs was kachkolar kofta. This incredible cuisine consists of edible balls prepared with boiled potatoes, unripe banana paste, and a small amount of all-purpose flour. They were deep-fried. These balls were then dunked in a stew made of grated coconut, salt, turmeric, sugar, green chillies, and vegetable oil.
Well, the list is endless. One may refer to books such as A Taste Of Time: A Food History Of Calcutta or A Calcutta Cookbook: A Treasury Of Recipes From Pavement To Palace and would be amazed to know how societal oppression led to culinary innovation in Bengal.