The cuisine of a place is often reflective of how a community adapted, fought back and survived over the years. Not just geography, but food is also shaped by socio-economics. A plate full of Bengali delicacies has several stories to tell. Khichudi, Googli, Kochur Saag, Muri and Fain Bhaat are an inseparable part of the modern Bengali cuisine. But what lies behind the comfort of these dishes cooked by our grandmothers is the need to survive on whatever was available during the Bengal famine of 1943. A famine that killed more than 3 million people, it is only obvious that it not only swayed, but shaped how Bengali cuisine looks like now. 

The Holocaust of the Bengal Famine

The 5 years long famine in Bengal started in the year 1941 and reached its peak in 1943. However, the scarcity of food was largely manufactured by then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to prevent Bengal from falling into the hands of the Japanese. Janam Mukherjee’s book ‘Hungry Bengal’ explains in detail how food supply was cut short and all the surplus was directed towards Culcutta, so that the Japanese access to resources would be curtailed. Boats were taken away in case there was an infiltration from Burma. Amartya Sen wrote in his book ‘Poverty and Famines’ that “starvation is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat, but of some people not having enough food to eat”. Bengal was starving and it was being deprived of 2 things that were its staple – rice and fish.

Picture credit:Fried onion and fish innards with namjim- Anumitra


The Impact of the Famine on Bengali Cuisine

Prior to the famine, rice was consumed by Bengali people across the caste, class and economic divisions of the society. But as the shortage of rice rose multifold, it soon became a luxury to the point that rice starch, called fain, became inaccessible to people. Cries of children asking their mothers to feed them fain echoed in rural Bengal. Today, we have the luxury to eat fain bhaat with an expensive prawn or hilsa, but it comes from a history of starvation. Similarly, all the roots, stems and peels of any and every vegetable that is stir fried and eaten in the Bengali cuisine is because people had to fend for food and eat whatever edible green that they could find. Lauer chhilka, which is the peels of bottlegaurd and kumror phool, which is pumpkin flower, are still eaten extensively across Bengali households.

Khichudi, which is the ultimate Bengali comfort food, has evolved into its current runny texture from being served at the refugee camps when there was nothing else to eat. Because of the lack of boats, the fishermen could no longer catch fish. In the absence of that, they replaced fish with snales found in freshwater ponds called googli. Fish innards and potatoes were cooked along with googli to survive. Even today, rural Bengal eats a light googli jhol with rice. Similarly, the diverse variety of tok (sour) jhol that is a part and parcel of Bengali cuisine comes from the need during the famine to desalinate the water available for cooking. One the most famous street foods, jhal muri (spicy puffed rice) is also an ornamented version of muri that was eaten as a replacement for rice. Even aatar ruti, popularly known as roti, was made from grounded wheat and was seen as a last resort to fill hungry stomachs.

Picture credit: Kumro Phool or Pumpkin flower fritters | Instagram - @pinkfluencerr


The Famine has had a far-reaching impact on the food habits of Bengalis for generations. Adding starch to gravies to thicken them is seen as a food hack now, while it was a way to cope during the famine. The stern scolding from our grandparents who told tales about how Goddess Annapurna punishes kids who waste food stem from bitter experiences of having nothing to eat. The ordeals of hunger got documented in movies like Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket and Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Shandhane which showed the permanent imprint of the famine on Bengali culture.

So, the next time you bite on a kumro fooler bhaja, enjoy a bowl of comforting khichudi, or order mochar ghonto from a fancy Bengali restaurant, remind yourself that it is not just a delectable meal on your plate, it is trickled down history from the darkest times in Bengal.