Ghoti Or Bangal, The Bengali Food Narrative Should Be One...

Early on in our marriage, I learnt that not only were there differences in my native Odia and Bengali (my husband’s native) cuisines, there was another unspoken divide (for want of a better word) within the latter, between the cuisines of Ghotis, those belonging to West Bengal,  and Bangals, who belonged to erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh. 

My father-in-law was from Bagerhat, which is now in Bangladesh, while my mother-in-law was from Howrah, West Bengal. And though unfortunately I did not have the privilege of meeting the former as he died early, I did hear of the differences in styles of cooking from my mother in law, every now and then.  At our present home in Hyderabad, we eat like most modern nuclear families, a combination of North-South Indian, Odia, Bengali, Maharashtrian or Hyderabadi (the latter two courtesy our Muslim maid who is a Maharashtrian) so I have never really paused to reflect on the differences between Ghoti and Bangal styles of cooking. I mean, I know that the Ghotis are fond of using sugar in their cooking and posto too, while the Bangals love their Padma Nodir hilsa, chillies, and shukti maach or dried fish.

But how rare and distinct the Bangal cuisine can be was brought home to me at a Bengali New Year or Nobo Borsher food pop up at a star hotel recently.  The 24-hour dinery which goes by the apt name of Golkonda Pavilion, thanks to its bidri-inlaid columns, had a predominantly Bengali buffet and on it was a dish which looked deceptively like Posto but was titled Kumro Beej Baata, which roughly translated means Pumpkin Seed Paste. 

Intrigued, I tried some of it with some plain steamed rice and was rewarded with a distinct taste, creamy and sublime, but not quite having the grainy texture of posto. On inquiring, chef Apar Chatterjee, who is actually the Italian CDC at ITC Kohenur, Hyderabad, updated me that it was a family heirloom recipe of his mother in law who was originally from Bangladesh.  Pumpkin seeds are roasted first and after cooling, the outer shell is removed and the inner seed is ground on sil batta (for better taste) though a mixer-grinder these days is de rigeur, for how many of us own a grinding stone? After its ground into a paste with salt and freshly grated coconut (optional), a seasoning of mustard oil and green chillies is added, and lo and behold, the dish looks just like posto but tastes distinct! 

In fact, Posto is rarely used in Bangal cuisine, while it is a common dish in Ghoti kitchens, almost on a daily or at least weekly basis. 

According to food historian and consultant Pritha Sen, east Bengali cuisine (as she would prefer calling Bangal food) has a much larger repertoire than West Bengali (or Ghoti) food, not necessarily because of their culinary skills, but the unique geography and natural produce available. East Bengal or erstwhile Bangladesh is naturally endowed with plenty of vegetables, including leafy greens like Kochu Shaak (taro leaf) and a number of fish varieties, including the prized Hilsa maach, and East Bengali cuisine is focused on small fish.  West Bengalis, on the other hand, are content with their large fish varieties, like Rohu and Catla, prawns are also favoured. But it is only now that they are adopting more exotic fish dishes belonging to the Bangal repertoire, like the Chital Maach (knifefish) Muitha or steamed fish balls, simmered in an onion tomato gravy. The present generation is much more aware of Bangal cuisine, and the fine line between both cuisines is getting blurred, thanks to increasing number of inter-marriages between both sides, feels Sen. 

Fish curries in east Bengal are light and can be made with minimal ingredients like a smattering of nigella seeds, salt, turmeric and mustard oil, while west Bengalis have mustard paste as the base of most of their fish curries. Also, while Ghotis use more of the yellow mustard seed variety, which has a less sharp aftertaste, it is the black, pungent mustard seed variety which is used in Bangal fish curries to make them fiery and distinct!

In present-day Bangladesh or erstwhile east Bengal, the number of estimated fish varieties is at around 500, thanks to its riverine nature of terrain, with the three major rivers being, Padma (the main distributary of Ganga), Jomuna and Meghna. Padma Nadir Hilsa Maach or the Hilsa fish from Padma river is much coveted and worth its weight in gold, even in India. In fact, hilsa or Ilish has a geographic indicator (GI) tag in Bangladesh now, and was banned from being exported for a while almost a decade ago, until hilsa fish diplomacy intervened with the Bangladeshi president Sheikh Hasina lifting the ban briefly last year for allowing hilsa fish to be imported into West Bengal during Durga Puja festivities in October. 

While it is known that Ghotis love their food a tad sweet by adding sugar, and Bangals love their spice, with fiery fish curries, what is not much known is that the latter also lessen the spice quotient in some recipes like Ilish Bhaapa by adding grated coconut to it. Hilsa is also had steamed, baked, fried and smoked, and the smoked fish version was added by the Mog cooks from Chittagong who used to cook on steamers plying in east Bengal. 

Sen, who is a partner consultant at a couple of restaurants including one in Singapore says she tries to offer her clientele the best of both cuisines, so while she has included an Aloo Posto made the Ghoti way on the menu, she has also included a Maacher Kaalia from the Bangal stable, made with a thin, light gravy even though the recipe uses onion and minimal spices and vegetables like potatoes and cauliflower. 

Whether it is Bengalis from this side or that side of the border, fish and football occupy centrestage of lives, and this food difference is carried out on the football field too, between the two reputed teams of Mohun Bagan (supported by Ghotis) and East Bengal (supported by Bangals). It is said that on the day of the match, either team’s supporters are on standby mode to celebrate their club’s victory, with Ilish Maach (Bangal) or with Daab Chingri, preferably made with big-sized Golda Prawns, depending on which side won!