When I tasted my best friend’s mother’s fish curry, it had tamarind in it. I was so horrified by a fish preparation that was sour that I had to wrestle with my better self not to spit it out”. That was my neighbour Sweta talking about her classmate who, like her, is Bengali. You wouldn’t expect such a yawning chasm between the cooking style of one family and another in the same state, would you?
However, approximately 40% of Kolkata’s Bengali population is not from West Bengal at all, but originates from across the border, in what is now Bangladesh. For both communities, their respective cooking styles are badges of honour—and difference—to be held aloft at all times, particularly during matches: both matrimonial and football.
Sweta’s side of the family is originally from Bangladesh, which makes her a Bangal. On the other side of the fence are the Ghotis, or those whose roots are in West Bengal. There’s little in common between these communities in taste: Ghotis favour the mild, sweet taste, while Bangals routinely use more chillies in their food as well as the assertive ground mustard paste that is known as kasundi. According to Sweta, Bangals have a far greater range of fish in their repertoire—pabda, bata, boal and the king of them all, the mighty ilish, or hilsa, of which the best specimens come from the river Padma in Bangladesh. Dried fish, or shutki maachh, is a favourite among Bangals, whereas no Ghoti worth his salt would ever touch it. The hallmark of Bangal food, says Sweta, is the laborious preparation that goes into each dish, but then, she can hardly be accused of being an impartial observer.
Hot favourite: For Bengalis of all hues, nothing can beat the hilsa. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
On the other hand, Ghotis prefer bigger fish, such as rohu and katla. They like the sweet taste in virtually all their food, so you can expect a smidgen of sugar in even a simple vegetable gravy. The contrary is true as well: They favour a certain amount of sourness too, including in fish curries, which makes Bangals gape in horror. Ghotis are extremely partial to maacher tauk, a gravy preparation that is distinctly sour. To Ghotis, chochchari is a vegetarian dish; to Bangals, it is incomplete without the addition of small fish (see recipe).
Nothing defines the cooking of the two communities as much as poppy seed. The mild, nutty spice—variously called khus khus and poshto—is used in sparing quantities in Bangal households. Sweta uses about 200g a month for a family of four, with a fair amount of entertaining. Her sister who has married into a Ghoti household, goes through no less than 4kg a month. Parval, or ridge gourd, and potatoes are cooked with generous quantities of khus khus, but there’s also ground khus khus chutney and deep-fried patties made of the spice.
Chochchari, the Bangal way
250g mourala fish, cleaned and left whole (or any other small fish which can be cooked whole and doesn’t require slitting or cutting)
½ tsp kalonji (onion seeds)
2 green chillies
1 medium-size onion
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp jeera powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
Salt to taste
Wash the fish, pat dry, then deep-fry till crisp and set aside. Cut potatoes and brinjal into thick, evenly-sized batons. To speed up the cooking time, you could pressure-cook the potatoes before cutting them. Fry sliced onions till translucent, then add all the spices. Add the vegetables and sauté, using as little water as possible. When they are almost done, add the salt and the fried fish and cook on low heat till all trace of moisture evaporates.
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