How Widows Of Bengal Paved The Way For More 'Veg' Dishes
Image Credit: From shukto to dhokar dalna, the Bengali cuisine is replete with vegetarian dishes.

It is quite interesting to note how most of us assume that all Bengalis love eating fish. In a recent interaction with a Bengali chef, Oindrila Bala, she revealed how she doesn’t like eating fish because of its smell. The reeking aroma of fish is what gets to her and she just cannot stand the sight of it. In fact, she loves having vegetables so you’ll find her fridge stocked up with all kinds of greens. Bengali cuisine is known for its variety of fish, chicken and mutton curries. The kosha mangsho is a vibrant mutton curry from the region. Then you’ve got plenty of meaty delicacies thronging the Bengali households on festivals and even routine meals. 

So, where does the vegetarian cuisine come in then? While the non-vegetarian delights are referred to as aamish, it is the vegetarian dishes which comprise of a niramish meal. Shukto, Labra, aloor dom and plenty of other dishes are laid down on a Bengali table when they are in the mood for a vegetarian feast. The intriguing bit is the origin of these vegetarian dishes. The widows of Bengal have been credited for bringing the delicious vegetarian fare on the Bengali platter. Surprised much? We’ll tell you how. 

The Historical Connections 

For the longest time, dals and vegetarian foods were not an essential part of Bengali food. It is believed that two important events led to the introduction of vegetarian food to Bengalis. Widows of Bengal were one of the pioneers in this regard. The early-age marriage often resulted in early widowhood. The strict rules and regulations in the Bengali culture did not allow these widows to consume onion, garlic or any sort of non-vegetarian food. Even masoor dal was prohibited. With so many dietary limitations, the widows had to make do with whatever was available around them.

The difficulties and atrocities of the lives of widows in Bengal finds mention in A Taste Of Time: A Food History Of Calcutta, wherein Mohona Kanjilal quotes, “In a secluded corner of the cookhouse, a widowed relative sits over her own stove. She has added delicate nuances to the rich vegetarian cornucopia of Bangla ranna”, from A Calcutta Cookbook: A Treasury Of Recipes From Pavement To Palace. This highlights the situation of the widows during that century. 

The concept of utilizing everything, from stems to shoots and roots was a result of this situation. The widows creatively used leftover peels of vegetables for making dishes that Bengalis love to devour today. These include alur khosha bhaja  (a preparation of leftover potato peels which are fried black jeera and red chillies) as well fried lauer khosha bhaja (bottle gourd). In order to bring the taste of the meaty dishes back to their taste buds, they devised a way of cooking niramish dishes that tasted like meat. Take the vegetarian egg curry or niramish deemer dalna which is made from cottage cheese, which is often given the shape of boiled egg. Another delicious recipe from the kitchens of the widows was the jackfruit curry which resembled the taste of a kosha mangsho. 

Balancing nutrition with taste, these widows were able to sustain their lives during that difficult period of time due to these novel inventions in the kitchen. However, there are those who believe that the Bhakti movement contributed towards this shift to vegetarian food. The followers of Chaitanya, who were known as Vaishnavas, took the philosophies of their leader into consideration. His ideas of anti-slaughter brought about a realization among them and the followers gave up meat and fish. This was also the time when Khichdi or Khichuri became a popular vegetarian dish, so much so, that it was even offered to the Lord as prasad.