Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Raj Rammohun Roy are few of the legendary figures you associate with the Bengal renaissance. It took some of these erudite gentlemen to shed light on the plight of women in erstwhile Bengal, because women couldn’t do so for themselves at the time. The undivided Bengal that stretched till Burma to the east was a melting pot of cultures, art and dissenting voices. The British divided Bengal to increase tension between two major religious communities, the Hindus and the Muslims. I can only imagine how the ‘addas’ in Bengal felt when the nation was embroiled in a fight for independence from the colonial rule, when their fortunes depended on the beck and call of the cartographers. This was also the time when women began to read, write and venture into the world. A relatively ‘modern wave’ had swept ‘a Bengal in crisis’, a wave that reached the shores of widows much later. 

Even though the discourse of widow remarriages and their inclusion in society began in the late eighteenth century, they were viewed as a liability for the longest time. Many, willingly or unwillingly, took to ashrams. Even those who stayed back were barred from dressing up in colourful clothes or indulging in spicy food. Lentils like masoor and parboiled rice were out of bounds too, along with, of course, every non-vegetarian item such as fish, meat and eggs. Onion and garlic were also eliminated since they were considered ‘threatening’ to a celibate’s life. 

Inside The Kitchens Of Bengali Widows

A lot of these widows were also pretty young, unfortunate girls. They started recreating dishes with whatever limited resources that were around. There were also attempts to mimic the meat-like texture with jackfruit and lentils, and as per legends, one such dish borne out of the kitchens of the widows is ‘Dhokar Dalna’. “They would create the cakes as such that it would fill in the void of any meat”, Chef Pradipt Sinha of Crowne Plaza Okhla, New Delhi, tells us. However, the word ‘Dhokar’ also creates a sense of illusion or misdirection. 

Dhokar Dalna: The When, Where And How

The dish is essentially a bunch of diamond-shaped lentil cakes cooked in a warm gravy with cumin and ginger. Initially, the dish was purely Satvik, and now, of course, there are many renditions of the dish. To make the cakes, lentil (chana dal being a usual suspect) is soaked overnight and blended into a fine paste. The paste is then combined with cumin, ginger and mild spices and allowed to cool. Furthermore, they are poured into a deep plate and cut into diamond or square-shaped pieces, where they are allowed to cool further and harden. Finally, these cakes are fried and tossed in a lovely gravy infused with ghee and lip-smacking spices.  

Dhokar Dalna is a work of patience, but it is worth every effort. If you think Bengali cuisine is all about maach and meat, you have to give this vegetarian marvel a try. Here’s a recipe you will enjoy.