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What’s Your Favorite Bengali Dish?

Bengali food is one of India’s most celebrated cuisines, known for its myriad of extraordinary dishes. This cuisine is heaven for seafood lovers but equally offers flavorsome and appetizing vegetarian dishes.

What is Bengali Cuisine?

Bengali cuisine is the culinary style of Bengal that consists of the country Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. The region’s history and climate have a major influence on the food. In addition, Bengali cuisine was influenced by Arabic, Persian, and Mughali food.

West Bengal and Bangladesh share many similarities but also inherent differences.  West Bengal has a heavy population of Hindus that are mainly vegetarians. Bangladesh has a predominantly Muslim population who  are non-vegetarian. Therefore, Bengali cuisine is a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.

Rather than food being served all together, Bengali cuisine follows a multi-course tradition where food is served course-wise, usually in a specific manner.  It resembles the à la russe style of French cuisine where food is brought out in sequence and served in portions. The cuisine is divided into four different types of dishes, charbya (food that is chewed), choṣya (food that is sucked),  lehya (foods that are licked), and lastly peya (drinks).

Fish and rice are a staple in Bengali cuisine. The two most sought and popular fish dishes include hilsa and rohu. There is heavy use of mustard oil which adds a pungent flavor to Bengali dishes. Bengali cuisine uses a unique blend of spices called paach phoron. Panch phoron translates to “five spices”. This mixture is made of equal parts of five whole-seed spices: mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, and cumin seeds.  This spice blend is used in most Bengali dishes, making them very aromatic and flavorful.

From starters to main entrees to desserts, Bengali cuisine has it all. We strongly recommend that you try the following Bengali delicacies:

1) Shukto

Shukto is a vegetable medley cooked in mustard and poppy seed gravy, usually served at the beginning of the course. Shukto has different variations and can be prepared in many ways. It is often made with bitter gourd, sweet potatoes, green bananas, papaya, eggplant, drumsticks, and beans. First,  the vegetables are boiled and set aside. In a pan, bay leaf, ginger, red chili pepper, green chili pepper, turmeric, panch phoran spice mix, and paste made of poppy seeds and mustard seeds are cooked thoroughly together. 

Milk is added to the cooked vegetables and brought to a boil.  Shukto is served hot with roasted cumin seeds and ghee on top. Shukto tastes bitter and has an acquired taste.

2) Macher Jhol

Mach refers to fish and jhol refers to gravy-based curry. This is a spicy and simple fish curry. It is normally made with lakewater fish, however, it can be made with cod, salmon, or halibut.  First,  fish is marinated with salt and turmeric for a few hours. The fish is fried in mustard oil and set aside. The gravy is prepared with onions and tomato, and ginger garlic paste along with spices such as nigella seeds, turmeric, red chili powder, cumin powder, and coriander powder.

Once the gravy is ready, fried fish is added with a pinch of sugar and cooked for about 10 minutes. It is garnished with slit green chilies and cilantro and served with steamed rice. Machar jhol is one of the most popular dishes, and an integral part of Bengali cuisine.

3) Chingri Malaikari

Chingri Malaikari is a signature Bengali delicacy made with jumbo-sized prawns and coconut milk.   Prawns are thoroughly cleaned and marinated with salt and turmeric for half an hour. The prawns are fried until golden brown and set aside. In the same pan, bay leaf, cardamom, cloves, and cardamom are first added. Onion paste, tomatoes, red chili powder, and turmeric are added to the gravy. Once the gravy has become thick, coconut milk and sugar are added.

Lastly, the fried prawns are added to the gravy and cooked for about 5 minutes. A dollop of ghee and garam masala is added before serving. This is a popular dish served during special religious occasions and weddings. Chingri Malaikari is every Bengali’s favorite dish.

4) Misti Doi

Misti doi translates to sweet yogurt. One of the most beloved desserts of Bengali cuisine that requires only a handful of ingredients. Milk is thickened, sweetened with jaggery and combined with yogurt. The mixture is then left to ferment overnight in clay pots. It is garnished with saffron and nuts. Misti doi has a rich and velvety texture and melts in the mouth.

Other popular Bengali dishes include alu bhaate (mashed potatoes), begun bhaja (fried eggplant), and maach bhaje (fried fish).  Bengali cuisine is known for its scrumptious desserts like rasgulla, sandesh, and ras malai.

Bengali cuisine is very versatile and is definitely worth exploring. Most dishes are super easy to make and require very minimal preparation. The next time you find yourself in a Bengali restaurant, be sure to try out some of these popular dishes listed above. You will be pleasantly surprised at how delicious it tastes.

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About the author:

Hira Shaikh is a die-hard Chicagoan residing in Texas. She is an avid foodie and travel enthusiast who also enjoys creating new recipes in the kitchen. Besides her corporate job, her sweet tooth and passion for food lure her to hunt down instagrammable restaurants and cafes to try and critique.

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