The Indian state of West Bengal has a fascinating, rich history, peppered with the influence of a variety of different cultures, and nowhere can this be seen more than in the delectable cuisine of the region. From the British colonists who left their mark on the state with their Western eating habits and adaptations of Indian recipes, to the Chinese and Burmese people who crossed the border bringing with them interesting new culinary techniques and intriguing ingredients, the cuisine of West Bengal has benefitted from its multi-cultural heritage over the years.
There are a few key characteristics of the food of West Bengal. Saltwater and freshwater seafood plays an important role in the cuisine, as does the variety of vegetables that thrive in this part of the sub-continent. Additionally, the Bengali people are famed for their sweets – an irresistible collection of confectionary that no festival or celebratory occasion would be complete without.
When sampling Bengali cuisine, you will most likely notice the distinctive combination of sweet and spicy flavours. You will also notice that fish is the number one ingredient on the Bengali menu. Sweet, spicy fish dishes dominate the daily Bengali diet thanks to the intricate network of waterways that typify this part of India. Shimmering lakes and rivers offer up an abundance of rohu, hilsa, shrimp, crabs and koi – all of which play a key role in the Bengali kitchen.
There is, however, one fish that rules them all – at least, in the traditional cooking of West Bengal. The hilsa is a popular fish due to its versatility. It makes its way into a number of signature dishes, from spicy curries, flavoured with turmeric and plenty of salt, to steamed banana leaf parcels, marinated in a yoghurt and green chilli paste.
Rohu is also a popular fish at the dining tables of West Bengal. It is used to create maccher jhol, a spicy fish soup flavoured with lashings of mustard oil, cumin, turmeric, coriander and hot chilli paste.
Of course, as the old saying goes, a Bengali cannot live on fish alone (although with the wide range of dishes available in West Bengal this might not actually be strictly true), and to this end there are a variety of other traditional options to sample should you tire of fish.
A popular breakfast choice is luchi, a deep-fried ghee and flour preparation that is served besid a helping of duma loo. Duma loo is a potato dish, flavoured with mustard oil, spices, onion, tomato and occasionally thick yoghurt.
In fact, yoghurt and milk are extremely important in Bengali cuisine. Dairy produce tends to be from the milk of the water buffalo and if you intend to dine like a Bengali, you can expect to enjoy plenty of dairy-based desserts. Ras malai is one of the more famous dishes, a rich dish made from soft cheese soaked in sweet milk. Another is chum chum, a velvety sweet made from paneer and popular amongst younger Bengalis due to the delightful rainbow of colours the confectionary comes in.
To experience some of the most authentic Indian cuisine you will find in the UK, pay a visit to one of London’s best Indian fine dining restaurants and enjoy flavours from all over the sub-continent.