Exploring The Niramish Flavours of Bengal’s Sheherwali Cuisine
Image Credit: Wikimedia Common

The food in India is so diverse that there is always an interesting story lurking around the corner. The story of the Sheherwali community and their cuisine is one such story. The community of Jain traders migrated from Rajasthan and other parts of North India in the 18th century. 

It is believed that their migration to Bengal was a result of the opportunities the then Nawab of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan, presented to them. Murshidabad, at the time, was the hub for the trade of muslin, silk and other items. The Sheherwali community were mainly traders and in Murshidabad, Bengal, they got the opportunity to showcase their commercial acumen and thrive.

What’s interesting is that, over time, they adopted the local culture and also managed to preserve their distinct religious and culinary traditions. Their cuisine has the most unique cultural identity and is an interesting fusion of Rajasthani flavours with cultural influences from Bengal. The result is delicious vegetarian dishes that retain the community's ancestral recipes but are modified using ingredients from Bengal. 

The dishes are both sweet and spicy and are cooked keeping Jain principles in mind. This means avoiding root vegetables to prevent harm to microorganisms in the soil so a meal made without onions and garlic. These are replaced with other flavourful ingredients such as ginger, fennel and asafoetida (hing). Fresh, seasonal ingredients are used often so that the dishes are nutritious as well.

The community is also known for their love for mangoes. They grow many varieties and one of them is a mango called Kohitoor. The mango is rare and its tree bears fewer fruits compared to trees of other varieties of mango. Sheherwali cuisine is known for the art of slow cooking and long, elaborate prep and cooking times.

Spices such as cumin, coriander, fennel, mustard seeds, and ajwain are usually the stars in this cuisine. Fresh herbs, such as cilantro and mint, are also commonly used. In Sheherwali cuisine, apart from the regular spices, you will find ingredients like mustard and local vegetables that are prominently featured in Bengali cuisine, used with traditional Rajasthani spices.

Video Credit: Bari Kothi Azimganj

While mustard and the Bengali spice mix called Paanch Phoron are used in Sheherwali cuisine, you will also find the use of saffron, rose water and dry fruits that were used in the royal kitchens of the Nawab, adapted in the Sheherwali cuisine.

On Diwali and Paryushan, an annual holy event for Jains, a variety of traditional dishes are prepared. The Sheherwali meal usually starts and ends with sweets. Here are some vegetarian dishes from the community that combine the spice-rich heritage of Rajasthan with the subtle, sweet, and tangy flavours of Bengal.

Lachha Kachori: Almost like the Lachcha Paratha but in the form of flaky, layered kachoris, this dish is stuffed with a spicy filling made from lentils and spices. The snack is deep-fried and mainly served hot and crisp at tea time.

Aloo Ka Rasa: This  light and flavourful potato curry is cooked without  onions and garlic and seasoned with green chilies, and a mix of aromatic spices.

Kacche Aam Ka Kheer: A favourite among the Sheherwali community members, this kheer is enriched with grated raw mangoes. The mangoes are boiled before being added to the kheer. In Nawabi style, saffron and rose water are added to this dish.

Aam Kasundi: This dish sees a prominent influence from Bengal. It’s a tangy mango mustard sauce, often served as a condiment, showcasing the Bengali love for mustard and seasonal fruits. There are also chutneys made with amra ( hog plums) and mustard and one sweet and spicy chutney made with raw mangoes, sugar, and spices, all inspired by Bengali culinary techniques.

Khichdi: The Sheherwali community makes their own version of the Khichdi with rice and lentils, mildly spiced and served with generous amounts of ghee.

Chhanar Dalna: This is a Bengali-style curry made with fresh paneer that is cooked in a tomato-based gravy. The dish is usually cooked with onions and garlic but the Sheherwali community cooks it without them.

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Malpua: One of the most popular sweets made by the community, these sweet, deep-fried pancakes made from flour, milk, and sugar and soaked in sugar syrup are delicious and cannot be missed.

Kheere Ki Kachori: This kachori, which actually looks like a gujiya because of its shape, is stuffed with an unusual savoury filling of yoghurt and cucumber mixed with spices.

Chhena Poda: A baked dessert made in Bengal and Odisha, the Chena Poda is made with fresh paneer, sugar, and semolina, similar to a cheesecake but infused with Indian flavours.

Chhaata: In this Sheherwali special, six layers of lotus pods are peeled and then cooked. This is then made into a tarkari (vegetable) or added to khichdi.