On whatamieating.com there is the biggest and most comprehensive Bengali-English food dictionary in the world. It has nearly 700 Bengali food terms, with names of foods and descriptions of dishes. It has particularly good information about fish, going back to Latin names, many with photographs and guidance as to what can be done with each one. The Bengali script is provided as well as the English phonetic pronunciation. For this I am grateful to Siddhartha Dasgupta who has given his help very generously.
Bengal is an area of north eastern India and Bangladesh, girdling the great river deltas of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Padma, and with uncountable rills, streams, lakes, marshes and rice paddies, all of which harbour fish, the mainstay of the Bengali diet. Famous among these areas are the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans. The land is extremely fertile, and there are mango, coconut and banana groves, palms and acres and acres of a multitude of different spinach-like greens.
The original population of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) consisted of both Hindus and Muslims. The people of this area are Bangaals. The people of West Bengal are called Ghotis. During the birth of India and Pakistan in 1947, great migrations (and, sadly, massacres) occurred and today Bangladesh is primarily Muslim with a much smaller Hindu population. Food served in Bangladeshi restaurants is primarily Muslim in origin. Historically those dining out were inclined to go out for a Chinese or Indian Mughlai meal. Now there are many restaurants in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) serving home style food which bears a close resemblance to the dishes served in homes, despite the difficulties of producing it.
Siddhartha gives details of a typical Ghoti lunch:
• Rice - the main starch with all items (usually the parboiled thicker grain - not Basmati)
• A fried item - either vegetable or fish - vegetable will be in some batter while fish might be marinated in turmeric and salt only
• A leafy green - usually there would be several varieties - spinach, mustard greens, and others such as pui shaak, kolmi shaak, lal shaak and danta shaak
• A dry vegetable preparation such as shukto, labra, chocchori or ghonto
• A vegetable preparation with some gravy like dalna or dolma (both in the case of festive occasions - but more likely one of these two on a daily basis)
• Fish curry. There are probably 20 different types of fish consumed in equal (or almost equal) proportions - so each family would rotate the type of fish on a daily basis. Each fish can also be cooked in multiple types of curry, so the variations are endless. Most fish would not be filleted, though bhetki is an exception. Fish would be bought whole and cut into quarters. The head is a particularly desirable part of the fish.
• A lentil preparation. In some households this is eaten early, in others it might come last
• A chutney preparation. Again, there are lots of types of chutney ranging from tomatoes to unripe mango or unripe papaya to pineapple to plum.
• On festive occasions this will be supplemented with sweet curd - known as mishti doi - and a sweet. Bengalis are well known for their sweet tooth to the extent that every block in a city is likely to have its local sweet shop selling at least 20 variants of sweets. Classic Bengali sweets include rasogolla and chom chom.
One of the defining flavours of Bengali cuisine has traditionally been mustard oil. Again, Siddharth provides fascinating information. The pungency of mustard oil is from a compound called allyl-iso-thio-cyanate. This is attractive to Bengalis but others may find it too pronounced. Unfortunately mustard oil also contains erucic acid, which is a low grade neurotoxin. It turns out that long term heavy use of mustard oil is injurious. All mustard oils imported to the US (from India or Bangladesh) have to be labelled "For external use only". For many years Australia tried to grow a low erucic acid variant, but this was not successful.
Rape seed, a relative of mustard seeds from which the mustard oil was extracted, has similar beneficial properties. Mustard oil has equivalent benefits to olive oil in terms of health and, like olive oil, has a very low smoking point. Rape seed oil has similar properties but does not contain either the pungent chemical or the injurious one. Rape is grown successfully in Canada, but under the name Canola as rape is not an acceptable name. It is called rape in the UK.
Because of the injurious chemical, consumption of mustard oil has decreased. It will still be used in special dishes such as "tel koi" and "begun pora". At the same time the use of clarified butter known as ghee has decreased for health reasons.
Bengalis love fish and it is crucial to the Bengali diet. In general very little sea fish is consumed in West Bengal or in Bangladesh. Most of the fish are caught in fresh water sources - rivers, ponds, lakes, even rice paddies. The main exceptions are pomfret and hilsha though the latter is anadromous, spawning and dying in rivers but spending its life in the sea. It is caught in rivers like Ganges or Subarnarekha in India, and Padma in Bangladesh. Nutritionally, sea fish is better than river fish, but the best nutrition is obtained from eating whole fish including the head - and in Bengal, unlike any other region, there is a large consumption of smaller varieties of fish that are cooked and eaten whole. These include koi, pabda, bata, parshey, morolla, magur, punti and topshey. According to Siddharth, the variety is practically endless.
There are some other distinctions between Ghotis and Bangaals. The former use more sugar in their cooking, so many of the dishes will taste sweeter than customary to Bangaals. The Ghotis are also more likely to cook with poppy seeds known as posto, and enjoy chocchoris, labras and so on.
Sadly, all these distinctions are being lost as the young of today are not learning how to cook with their mothers and grandmothers, and the basic knowledge and skills are disappearing.