Deep, rich, spicy, and world-renowned – Bengali cooking has travelled a long way from its birthplace within the Ganges delta and now holds its own as a prized international cuisine. The variety and complexity of dishes that make up this broad tradition have evolved out of an equally varied and complex history.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at that history as well as some of the stand-out traits of Bengali cuisine. We’ll also be exploring some dishes you need to be trying out in your own kitchen or at your local Bengali restaurant.
A Brief History of Bengali Cuisine
Bengali cuisine has its origins in the area of the Indian subcontinent which today spans the Indian state of West Bengal and the nation of Bangladesh. Prior to India’s independence and partition in 1947, this region fell within the British Empire. Before that, the region was ruled by a succession of Mughal Emperors.
Mughal and broader Islamic influences continue to be seen in Bengali cuisine today. When the Mughal Empire first established itself in Bengal in the mid-sixteenth century, it helped introduce Persian cooking methods as well as cementing many Islamic cooking traditions that were already established there by the previous sultanates and dynasties.
The use of expensive, decadent spices such as cardamom and saffron would have continued to develop during this period. This may also have been when mutton, chicken and venison started to make their way firmly into the enduring Bengali tradition, as well as the use of cream, milk, and sugar in desserts.
During British rule in India, exiled nawabs, or Indian lords, often travelled to the region for refuge, many of them settling in Kolkata. They brought with them retinues of experienced cooks and expert spice mixers, professionals with deep and extensive knowledge of flavours and cooking techniques. Saffron, mace, nutmeg, the use of ghee, as well as the technique of marinating meats in chilli and yoghurt dressing may all have been brought to the region by exiled dignitaries.
Kolkata, the modern-day capital of West Bengal, has also historically served as a bustling mixing pot of other culinary influences, including Chinese and Marwari, an Indian ethnic group originating from the Rajasthan region of Western India.
Underpinning all this diversity is the nutrient-rich and bountiful Ganges delta upon which the Bengal region depends. The region is also fed by the vast Brahmaputra river.
The plethora of tributaries and bodies of freshwater, as well as the nutrient-rich silt carried down from the mountains, mean that this region of the world is historically bounteous in fresh fish, rice, and other agricultural products blessed by the fertile soil. All of this natural wealth has fed into the breadth and depth of Bengali cuisine as it is known and loved today.
India’s independence and the partition of 1947, whilst signalling a welcome end to British colonial rule, also caused regional and sectarian divides to be drawn across regions that were previously seen to be geographically united.
In Bengal, the lines that sprang up following partition and the resultant displacement of people often ended up dividing Hindus from Muslims. Today, Bangladeshi cuisine is more influenced by Muslim tradition and religious observance, and could be seen to have retained more Mughal influences than culinary styles across the border.
Dishes of West Bengal can be seen to adhere to Hindu religious observances. One common example is the greater demand for beef in Bangladeshi cooking when compared to the kitchens of West Bengal, which serve a predominantly Hindu population.
What to Expect From Bengali Cuisine
Despite these regional variations, there is far more uniting Bengali cuisine than there is dividing it. Expect rich, complex, earthy flavours, often spicy and frequently fish-based due to the freshwater region in which many of the dishes originate.
Mustard oil, poppy seeds, chilis, cumin, turmeric, and roots are all used to give depth and warmth to dishes.
Yoghurt, cream, milk, and sugar are also used liberally, particularly when it comes to desserts, many of which combine sweetness with the pungent aroma of spices such as cardamom and saffron. Rice continues to be the staple of Bengali cuisine, often appearing in numerous dishes throughout the meal.
The method of serving meals itself is remarkable when seen within a broader Asian context. Bengali dining, unusually for the continent in which it is located, has developed a traditional multi-course system of food service. In many respects, this mirrors the course-by-course serving style of Western Europe, in which dishes are brought to the table one after another, rather than all at once.
As such, you might expect 6 or 7 successive courses in a traditional Bengali banquet, rather than a table full of different pots all at one time. This will often open with shukto, a slightly bitter vegetable-based starter commonly prepared with bitter gourd, followed by shak, a leafy vegetable dish, meat, fish or egg curries, and finally a sweet dessert.
Fancy giving this a go yourself? Here we take a look at a few Bengali classics worth firing up the stove for.
14 Bengali Dishes You Must Try
1. Aloo Potol Postol
This Bengali favourite has pointed gourd as its central ingredient, a popular and inexpensive vegetable grown across much of the Indian subcontinent. A poppy seed paste is then prepared, sometimes with added coconut, before being cooked with turmeric, chilli, and mustard oil.
This lightly spiced delicacy is extremely popular during the summer months, when fresh pointed gourds are widely available.
2. Ilish Macher Jhol
‘Jhol’ refers to a curry in which sauce or gravy is used to impart flavour and tenderise the ingredients. The ilish, also known as the hilsa, is an extremely popular species of fish prized across the Bengal region. It is in fact the national fish of Bangladesh as well as the state fish of West Bengal state.
In this recipe, it’s cooked in a light broth of nigella seeds, chilli and turmeric, resulting in a simple but elegant fish curry that’s widely held up as a classic of Bengali cuisine.
This dish is often served as a starter during traditional multi-course Bengali meals, particularly at special ceremonies or weddings. It is prepared using bitter gourd, ‘drumsticks’ – taken from the moringa plant – and other vegetables.
The tradition of starting a meal with something bitter is often viewed as having its origins in ancient times, promoted by Ayurvedic authors and considered as holding medicinal benefits. It can also be seen as having a cooling effect on the palate, setting the stage and clearing the way for spicier, hotter dishes.
4. Mutton Biryani
Biryani appears in different forms across different Asian culinary traditions and has made its way around the world and back again. This is the Bengali speciality that has gained global fame and still stands as a cornerstone of Bangladeshi and North Indian cooking.
Ensuring that the meat is tender and properly marinated beforehand, usually in yoghurt and oil, is crucial to the dish reaching its full potential, particularly since mutton can be tough if it isn’t prepared properly. A jumble of fragrant rice, spices, tender mutton and steam, this is perfect on a sharing platter for parties, special occasions, and hungry kids.
5. Alur Dom
Alur dom, also known as aloo dum, is a lightly spiced, faintly sweetened potato curry made from a mixture of tomatoes, spices, and onions. This, in many ways, is the Bengali version of curried potatoes which can appear in many different forms across India.
The use of mustard oil imparts a great deal of the traditional Bengali flavour to this dish, so try to use it if you want to bring as authentic a taste as possible to your plate.
Luchi is a type of puffed bread that appears like small, golden, fluffy chapatis when deep-fried. They are made using maida flour which is white and extremely fine, perfect for making light pastries, breads and cakes.
Luchi can be served alongside a range of curries and sauces, including the aforementioned alur dom. Luchi’s popularity reaches across the entire Bengal region as well as throughout Bangladesh.
7. Chholar Dahl
This Bengali lentil dish is made primarily from chana, or chickpeas, which are then cooked in a creamy mix of coconut, cinnamon, curry leaves, and light spices.
This often forms an earthy and hearty accompaniment at many a Bengali banquet, wholesome and warming, perfect for mopping up with rice, flatbread, and other carbs. It’s also a cheap, healthy, and easy-to-prepare dish for time poor households.
8. Lau Ghonto
Another identifiably Bengali speciality, ‘lau’ refers to the bottle gourd vegetable that forms the centre of this dish, whilst ‘ghonto’ essentially means a curry involving cut up and mixed produce, often vegetables.
In this version, lau ghonto is made by cooking bottle gourd with peas, a few light spices, and coriander leaves. It is ideal served alongside steamed rice and a creamier dahl, to add sauce alongside this slightly drier dish.
9. Mochar Ghonto
Another ghonto on the list, this time the main ingredient is banana blossom, subsequently cooked with coconut, ginger, cumin, ghee and mixed spices. The flaky texture of the banana blossom is ideal paired with a topping of freshwater prawns, another traditional Bengali touch.
In the UK, you can often find banana blossom already prepared and ready to cook from cans or jars in Asian grocery stores and supermarkets.
10. Kosha Mangsho
This is a thick, rich, spiced mutton curry, where the meat is marinated, fried, and then simmered in order to tenderise and impart flavour to the sauce.
A classic Bengali main, the heady characteristics of this dish are driven by cloves, cinnamon, onion, garlic, and sumptuous gravy.
11. Steamed Pabda Fish
The pabda fish is another freshwater favourite of the river-rich Bengal region. It is a tasty form of catfish much prized throughout the Ganges delta and here prepared using spices and fresh coriander. This dish does not traditionally make use of onions, tomatoes, or garlic, instead allowing fresh herbs and spices to infuse the fish with flavour. The cooking results in a fish that is light, aromatic, and flaky.
It is wrapped in bottle gourd leaves after being marinated in the relevant spices and herbs, before being steamed. This results in an unbelievably fragrant, delicate, healthy dish, perfect for summer garden dining and impressing your neighbours.
12. Macher Matha Die Moong Dal
This specialised form of moong dal involves fresh carp head being cooked amidst roasted lentils and spices.
This nutritious and complex dish is popular at special ceremonies, weddings, and social occasions. Some believe that eating the head of the carp gives the diner greater intelligence!
13. Ilish Paturi
Remember the hilsa fish, the state fish of West Bengal and the national fish of Bangladesh? In this version, rather than being cooked in a curried sauce, the fish is marinated in mustard seeds, turmeric, ginger, mustard oil and beaten yoghurt, before being wrapped in banana leaf and cooked on a hot griddle.
It’s another way to prepare delicate, local Bengali produce, with the wrapped spices and hot griddle imparting a smoky fragrance to the plate.
14. Begun Bhaja
Begun refers to a spicy, vibrant, but simple marinade formed of chilli powder, lime and turmeric. Salt and mustard oil help season and bind it together. Baja is just another way of saying ‘fried’ and can be applied to a variety of vegetables or meats.
Aubergine is a favourite in Bengali cuisine, often sliced thin, coated and marinated, then deep or shallow fried. Covering it with rice flour before cooking but after marinating will seal in flavour whilst also giving it a crispy snap in the mouth.