How Bengal’s Love For Mutton Transcends The Ages
Image Credit: Shutterstock

What do Bengalis love to eat the most? Ask any non-Bengali and the prompt answer is usually fish, if not stereotypes like Rosogollah and Mishti Doi. Ask a Bengali, however, and an equally prompt and enthusiastic answer in general is mutton. In fact, ask a Bengali what their Sunday must-have dish is, and they are more likely to say Kosha Mangso with Luchi rather than any other dish. Ask them what their favourite biryani looks like, and they will describe one with mutton and potatoes instead of chicken biryani.  

The simplest fact of the matter is that while Bengali cuisine is seen across the nation and the world as being fish-dominated—which it honestly is, in an everyday ordinary as well as festive way—mutton holds a very special place in every Bengali’s heart and hearth. The region’s cuisine, whether it be Bangal or Ghoti or a blend of both, is jam-packed with mutton dishes. There are mutton dishes that Bengalis eat on Sundays, at weddings, on Eid, around Kali Puja and Durga Puja, during picnics, at get togethers and for all sorts of occasions that are considered special.  

However, this quintessential Bengali love for mutton is yet unknown and unexplored by people beyond Bengal. Slurrp caught up with three proud Bengali women, each an expert in Bengali cuisine and Bengali culinary history, to understand this Bengali love for mutton, how it has transcended space and time, and why food enthusiasts should be aware of it.  

Mutton: Always A Part Of Bengali Cuisine  

A common misconception people just foraying into this topic may have is that mutton probably made its way into Bengali cuisine after the Muslim rulers (the Turks, the Afghans and finally the Mughals) settled in the northern parts of the country and the rich eastern regions too. Prominent Bengali food historian, author and chef, Pritha Sen, says that this isn’t the complete picture. “We get evidence of mutton consumption from the medieval folk narratives Chandimangal, Annadamangal and Padmapuran,” Sen explains.  

“It was with the advent of Vaishnavism that non-vegetarianism took a backseat in West Bengal per se, not so much in the erstwhile East Bengal (current Bangladesh).” Whether mutton was consumed prominently and in a widespread manner among medieval and early modern Bengalis, she says, is up for debate, primarily because of the costs involved.   

“For mutton, an entire goat needed to be slaughtered, something that could be afforded by the very rich only till such time in the modern era when meat shops came up,” she explains. “Therefore by and large mutton eating took on mostly a ritualistic form — occasions like ritualistic sacrifices or weddings, etc where the entire community ate. Therefore, fish and game birds were the mainstay and mutton reserved for special occasions. This tradition has carried on till recent times where the Sunday mutton curry has become iconic.”  

But how can mutton, a non-vegetarian ingredient, be a part of Hindu rituals? This is a question that may come up in the mind of many, but Sen says that based on medieval texts and Shakta rituals, consuming mutton on Hindu festive occasions is very ordinary in Bengal. “Bengal is largely a worshipper of the Shakti cult. Goddesses Durga and Kali are meat eating deities who are also appeased with blood sacrifices,” she says. “Therefore, ritual sacrifice was a Shakta Hindu tradition where the meat is eaten as Prasad. The highest form of offering to the goddesses remained sacrifice of a goat or a buffalo. This practice still remains in certain temples and most certainly in rural areas of Bengal.”  

The Indomitable Mughlai, Awadhi & Nawabi Influence  

Sen says that until the Muslims arrived in Bengal, mutton was cooked without two key ingredients that the Turks, Afghans, Mughals and later the Nawabs of Bengal and Awadh popularized: onion and garlic. But even before this, she adds, Bengal had a thriving trade with the Arabs via the ancient ports of Chittagong and Tamralipta. The most prominent Muslim mutton dish that Bengal adapted during this time was the Qaliya. “The many kinds of Qaliyas prepared have all but disappeared, including the intriguing Jahazi Qaliya that would be made in jaitun ka tel or olive oil, primarily for preservation to be carried on the long Haj pilgrimages by ship,” Sen says. 

While a lot of the mutton dishes enjoyed during that era did leave an indelible mark on the history of mutton-eating in Bengal, one of the most celebrated legacies that has survived till date is that of Awadh’s last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, who spent the last 30 years of his life in exile in Calcutta. Manzilat Fatima, a descendant of the Nawab who is also a renowned home chef in Kolkata today, says that while mutton was always a popular delicacy in Bengal, the Mughlai and Awadhi influence just added more options and cooking methods to the Bengali mutton repertoire. 

“Mutton dishes like Raan, Pasanda, Korma were all adopted into the Bengali cuisine due to the Mughlai and Awadhi influences,” Fatima says. “Even the iconic Bengali Kosha Mangso has certain elements that have evolved from the Korma, though the taste of onions is more prominent in Korma rather than in Kosha. The spices in Bengali mutton dishes are usually in powdered form, whereas Awadhi cuisine has a more prominent use of whole spices.”  

The Modern Bengali Palate For Mutton 

Observing the Bengali palate today, Fatima says that while many people she serves her dishes to do prefer chicken, most simply cannot do without mutton. “On a daily basis, I have seen that people do prefer Mutton Biryani over Chicken Biryani, and I only cook the latter when there is a specific order placed,” she says. “Mutton Galauti Kebab, Mutton Shami Kebab, Mutton Majlisi Pasanda, Mutton Rezala and Mutton Chaap are some of the dishes that Bengalis enjoy today.” The key behind these much-loved mutton dishes, she adds, is the Rewaji cut of mutton. 

“Rewaji mutton is a special cut of mutton which has a layer of fat,” she explains, adding that when this fatty mutton is slow-cooked, the flavours derived are incomparable. In case you didn’t know, it is this Rewaji mutton that makes Kolkata biryani—and especially the potatoes and rice in the dish—taste so amazing. “Apart from the Mutton Biryani, I use Rewaji mutton fat to make the Galauti Kebabs,” she quips. “For dishes like Kosha Mangso as well, Rewaji mutton is the preferred meat. The more Rewaji the mutton the tastier your Kosha Mangso will be.” 

Another important factor here, she notes, is the sourcing of mutton from the right butchers—and this is something Bengalis have mastered over time. “The best place to get mutton in Kolkata today, Rewaji or otherwise, is New Market,” Fatima says. “The butchers there have been around for generations, and they know all the traditional cuts. There’s also a shop in Khiddirpur called Rahamania where the butchers have great cuts for Awadhi-origin mutton dishes.”  

The art of getting the right mutton and cooking it to make Bengali delicacies is not limited to Bengalis still living in the region though. Nilosree Biswas, a well-known filmmaker and author of Calcutta On Your Plate who lives in Mumbai, says that many well-loved Bengali mutton dishes are not commercially available outside Bengal. This largely inspires Probashi Bengalis to source the mutton and cook them at home with spices and ingredients sourced from Bengal. “Even if commercially available, the way dishes like Mutton Chaap are cooked is very different in Bengali Muslim restaurants like Sabir and those in Mumbai,” she says.  

Iconic Bengali Mutton Dishes You Should Know About  

The most iconic Bengali mutton dish is undoubtedly Kosha Mangso, and this dish has an interesting history too. “Kosha Mangso was not something that came out of the household kitchen,” explains Sen. “It came about as street food, first making an appearance in the famous cafe-style cabins of Calcutta of the 1940s. The slow cooking with a lot of oil was a way to preserve meat cooked in large quantities for sale.”   

A few other age-old mutton recipes she brings up are Niramish Mangso (without onion and garlic), Patla Mangser Jhol (a stew with a thin gravy, Gorgorey Mangser Jhol (a stew with a thick gravy), Gota Moshlar Mangso (made with plenty of whole spices), Doi Mangso (made with curd), Posto Mangso (made with poppy seeds), Shorshe Mangso (made with mustard seeds paste) and Mangso Pitha. Quite a few of these dishes are not commercially available even today, and some are indeed rare or lost recipes.  

For Biswas, the light Sunday-special Mangser Jhol is a hands-down winner. “Mangso, when it comes in the form of Rezala or Chaap are also loved by Bengalis, especially during festivities and celebrations,” she says. “And of course, we have such a deep love for Mutton Biryani with potatoes that it transcends celebrations.” Other Bengali favourites that aren’t that easily available commercially—or even made at home any more—are Golbarir Mangso, Mutton Dak Bungalow, Mutton Ghugni and Bengali Mutton Pulao (which she explains, is very different from Yakhni Pulao). 

The fact of the matter, for Bengalis living in any part of the world is that love for mutton runs through our veins and is the result of centuries of evolution. It is just as much a vital part of our culinary DNA as fish, niramish or pure-vegetarian dishes and ingredients like poppy seeds and mustard. So, while it is a pity that so many Bengali mutton delicacies are no longer in vogue, Bengali cuisine’s mutton gems do need to be explored by modern food enthusiasts in greater depth.