In another month’s time I will complete one year of being in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. Many dishes typical to Kolkata are identified as the main stay of the Bengali cuisine.
Bengal of yesteryears included the present day state of West Bengal and Bangladesh, often referred to as East Bengal. This undivided Bengal had been ruled by Mughals who made Dhaka their central seat. Kolkata rose to prominence under the British raj. Besides being a major trade centre, Kolkata was also a major centre of education, science, culture and politics.
Your History books will tell you how Lord Curzon partitioned the state of Bengal in the name of administrative reforms in the year 1905. The creation of East Bengal and West Bengal was a highly unfavourable move and Bengal had to be reunited in 1911. A second partition took place in 1947 when Pakistan was formed. East Bengal came to be known as East Pakistan and in 1971 was declared as an independent state of Bangladesh.
Till date the Bengali cuisine proudly bears various influences it has inherited owing to the trade relations with distant nations and as well as the impact of the colonizers. Many traditions from these varied cultures and communities have stayed on even after the original followers have left. Today these very traditions form an essential part of the Bengali kaalchaar.
Let us take the example of the tea ritual. An absolute English tradition, this must have been adopted by the Bengali babu with great élan. Today this tea break is an immensely important and revered time slot. Observed with great seriousness and often referred to as ‘Tiffin’ time, this tea break is accompanied with delicious preparations, generally of the savoury kind. The pound cake and the puffs are generally preferred over anything else at this point of time. Be it the maids, known as moushis, or the office folk, ritualistically catch up with the day’s gossip during the Tiffin time. The British also brought with them the chops and rolls and you will find a shack here and there all over the city selling these mini delights. These are up for grabs in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian segments though the non-vegetarian varieties generally find more takers.
Like I mentioned earlier, trade in its wake brought people from many communities to Kolkata. Among these, Jews was one of the prominent ethnic communities to call Calcutta home. Unfortunately the Jews of Kolkata are almost on the verge of becoming extinct and so are the bakeries that their families had once established all over Kolkata. The one that still stands tall is the Nahoum's Bakery in the New Market Area. Established in 1902 and housed in the same shop in the Hogg’s market since 1916 Confectioners Nahoum and Sons is famous for its fish pantras, cheese/ mutton samosas and rum balls. Packaging is not the sale mantra here, taste, flavour and aroma is. Nahoum’s is synonymous with Christmas in Kolkata but I am looking forward to repeating my experience a few times before that mega event.
(The post first appeared as a column on October 5, 2012, in The New Indian Express. Here is the link: http://newindianexpress.com/education/student/article1285960.ece)