You don’t have to look far on a Bengali menu for mouth-watering, traditional vegetarian fare. Although the Ganges Delta from which the cuisine originates is rightly famed for its freshwater fish dishes, there are also a whole host of plant-based options available.
The fertile river plains that have given rise to Bengali cuisine have also meant that all manner of vegetables and fruit can flourish. Rice, beans, lentils, papaya, sweet potato, gourd, pumpkin, banana blossom, aubergine and more can be seen bursting from the soil all across West Bengal and Bangladesh.
From the soil to the plate, today we’re going to take you through some of the best vegetarian dishes that the Bengali culinary tradition has to offer.
What to Expect From Bengali Vegetarian Food
Bengali cooking is known for its depth, spice, and earthy, complex flavours. These traits are by no means reserved for the meat and fish dishes, but extend to the vegetable curries, condiments, traditional breads, and dahls of the region as well.
Bengali cuisine has evolved from a variety of influences, including Persian and Islamic cooking from the Mughal empire, and other culinary traditions and produce that can be seen across the Indian subcontinent as a whole.
Mustard oil and poppy seeds are two distinctive Bengali ingredients that you’re likely to see crop up in a variety of non-meat dishes. Postol is a paste made from poppy seeds that can then be used to flavour all manner of vegetables, including pumpkin, potato, and gourd. Mustard seeds and mustard oil often impart an authentic, recognisable Bengali depth and warmth to many a fried vegetable dish.
Similarly, cumin, turmeric, chilis, coriander and whole spices are used to infuse the food with aromatics, causing vegetables and pulses to sing. For those who eat dairy products, there are also a number of Bengali dishes free from meat and fish but that utilise yoghurt, curd, cheese, or cream.
Rice continues to be the main staple of Bengali cooking and may appear in numerous dishes during a meal. Traditional meals themselves often follow a multi-course service in which dishes are served one after another, mirroring the course-by-course style of many Western European kitchens.
Traditional meals will often start with a bitter dish (shukto) and continue through a range of curries and vegetable plates. For those with a taste for dessert, sugar, jaggery, saffron and whole spices often combine to bring sweetness to the final course.
14 Vegetarian Bengali Dishes for You to Tuck Into
Let’s start with a traditional banquet opener, one that’s about as authentic a Bengali dish as you could hope for. Shukto is a slightly bitter, warming vegetable broth that can be made from carrots, sweet potato, papaya, drumsticks and hyacinth beans. The distinctive bitter edge comes from the use of bitter gourd, a popular and relatively inexpensive ingredient across much of the region.
When prepared traditionally, shukto won’t include onion or garlic. These ingredients are often shunned during certain religious festivals or holy observances. In some dietary traditions they are viewed as being foods that bring unwanted heat to the body and bodily senses, leading to an inflammation of carnal desire and reckless energy.
The tradition of starting a meal with shukto is seen as having been promoted by Ayurvedic authors in ancient times. Starting with something bitter is said to have cooling and palette-cleansing effects for the diner, laying a steady foundation for spicy, richer dishes to follow.
2. Begun Pora
When I think about begun pora, I often think of it as a traditional Bengali version of baba ganoush! The dish involves the roasting and then mashing of aubergines, providing a smoky, fleshy base. This is then flavoured and mixed with mustard oil, green chilis, onions and tomatoes. Other spices can be added to broaden the aroma and raise the heat.
This is perfect as a side dish accompanying roti or traditional Bengali breads such as radhaballabhi or luchi. I also find it keeps well in the fridge overnight and, although traditionally served warm, can be brought out as a light, chilled and versatile lunch on summer afternoons.
3. Dhokar Dalna
This is an eye-catching curry where the cooking experience can be as enjoyable as the dining.
Patties are formed from a mixture of chana dal (chick peas) and dried white peas. These are ground up, made into a paste, and then steamed. The resultant ‘cake’ can then be divided into neat diamonds, or any shape you like!
The final step is to cook these in a hot and rich gravy of onion, tomatoes, and blended spices. It’s another traditional Bengali vegetarian dish, packed with heat and depth, with protein coming from the ground pulses.
Chaat is an Indian culinary tradition that spans the entire subcontinent, a form of fast-food that attempts to be spicy, salty, tangy, crunchy, smooth, sweet, and sour all at the same time! Ghugni is Bengali chaat at its best.
Built from yellow matar, or whole yellow peas, it is then topped with tamarind chutney, chaat masala (a spice blend specially mixed for chaat dishes!), chopped onions, and coriander-mint sauce. For a true chaat experience, and to keep all the taste buds firing at once, try adding crispy noodles or roasted peanuts for extra crunch and saltiness.
Quick to eat and versatile, Ghugni is often enjoyed as part of a Bengali breakfast as well as a snack or lunch.
5. Doi Fulkopi
Doi fulkopi is a sophisticated vegetarian dish often served at respectable Bengali restaurants. You can also wheel this out at dinner parties when you’re looking to impress your guests!
The centrepiece is the delicious and nutritious cauliflower, made rich and creamy after being gently cooked in yoghurt. This also gives it a slight tartness, balanced out with generous amounts of garam masala for warmth.
The dish can also be sweetened slightly, to give a sweet and sour edge to the overall effect. A true Bengali classic that shows you don’t need meat or fish to show off your skills in the kitchen.
6. Chhana Dalna
Sticking with dairy products for the moment, chhana dalna is a gravy-thick curry using cottage cheese or curd. Chhana is a traditional type of Bengali cheese curd, not to be confused with chana, the commonly used term for chickpeas!
Authentic chhana can be made at home by hand, by boiling whole milk, adding vinegar, and allowing the curds to separate from the whey. Perhaps a more time-efficient and still delicious way of preparing this dish involves using store-bought paneer, available in practically all Asian grocery shops and supermarkets in the UK.
Paneer and other forms of Indian cheese are often mild, meaning they require bold, rich settings in order to truly shine. Chhana dalna is cooked with generous amounts of tomato and spice, to ensure the cheese is properly infused with flavour. Good chhana will be porous enough to truly soak up any curries or sauces that it’s cooked in.
7. Aloo Potol Postol
Let’s return to truly plant-based recipes now, focusing on another true Bengali classic. Aloo potol postol involves potatoes and pointed gourd being cooked in postol, a traditional poppy seed paste famous throughout Bengal and beyond. The paste is then cooked with mustard oil, turmeric, and fresh green chilli to give it its distinctive taste.
The use of potatoes and gourd brings earthiness as well as a faint bitterness to the dish, a popular combination in traditional Bengali cuisine.
If you like postol, you can use the paste as a base in which to cook a whole host of vegetables. Why not experiment and see what else you can throw in there?
8. Potoler Dolma
As you may have noticed, gourds of various shapes and sizes crop up in plenty of Bengali dishes, particularly vegetarian ones. Pointed gourds are a popular crop and can be found at markets and street stalls across the breadth of Bengal. This particular variety of squash is less commonly used in Western cooking, but it infuses many Bengali plates with a characteristic bitterness that UK diners may find intriguing.
In this recipe, pointed gourds are traditionally stuffed with some form of minced meat. However, a healthier, leaner, and just as tasty version can be made by using grated paneer, dried fruits, curried vegetables, mashed potatoes, or pulses. The dish can act as an impressive showpiece at the centre of a vegetarian banquet.
9. Dhonepata Bata
This is technically a side dish or condiment, but we’ve decided to include it on the list because it packs a delicious, aromatic punch and can go well with a huge variety of vegetable dippers, crackers, breads, and rice dishes.
Dhonepata bata is a smooth, vibrant paste made from coriander leaves, green chilis, and tamarind. The tanginess brought by the latter matches the freshness and heat of the herbs and chilis, resulting in a perfect topping for chaat dishes, or as a side plate to spice up more wholesome, earthy flavours.
Having a pot of this in the fridge is great – you can use it for dipping carrot sticks, celery, crisps, naan, roti, or anything else lying around in the pantry. Why not get a bit inventive and use it as a spread for sandwiches or wraps? It’s also simple to make, involving little more than chopping, blending, and seasoning. A dash of lemon or lime can add a punch of zest if required.
10. Bengali Khichdi
You may also see this dish referred to as bhaja muger dal khichuri. It’s a humble and wholesome one-pot meal, frequently served at religious festivals such as Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja, and Lakshmi Puja. These pujas often involve worship rituals where offerings and prayers are given to deities, guests of honour, or to spiritually celebrate special occasions. Khichdi can sometimes appear as a food offering during such ceremonies.
It is also an earthy, balanced and nourishing vegetarian dish to be enjoyed at any time of the year. Moong lentils are mixed with rice and various vegetables, traditionally potatoes, cauliflower, peas or carrots. The lentils are roasted first to add depth and fragrance.
As with traditional shukto, onions and garlic are not involved in this recipe, nor is there an intense blend of hot spices. For aroma and flavour, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, Indian bay leaf and cumin seeds are tempered. Turmeric is also added.
11. Chhoto Aloor Dum
This is an extremely popular winter favourite for Bengali families and Bengali food lovers. Some might see it as Bengal’s answer to popular potato curries found throughout India.
It is often a lightly spiced, faintly sweetened dish, prepared using a trusted mixture of tomatoes, spices and onions. The inclusion of mustard oil imparts an authentic Bengali flavour to the plate.
It’s also exceptionally versatile, can be kept for days in the fridge, and can be served hot or cold alongside luchi, roti, or naan. Aloor dum will often form a side dish during many traditional Bengali meals due to its simplicity, affordability, and ability to leave you feeling thoroughly well fed.
Labra is a classic vegetable curry, Bengali-style, and is a popular, reliable favourite amongst vegetarian diners visiting the region or sampling its cuisine from abroad. Slow cooked pumpkin and potato are often a must, but you can also include spinach for extra nutrition and texture, other vegetables for variety, and even sweeter additions such as unripened banana.
Labra is a popular dish during Durga Puja, a Hindu festival traditionally celebrated in several north eastern Indian states, including West Bengal, and the neighbouring country of Bangladesh.
Paanch phoron, a popular five-spice mix used in various Bengali dishes, also makes an appearance here. Traditionally, paanch phoron is made up of mustard seeds, fennel, cumin, nigella seeds, and fenugreek.
13. Mochar Ghonto
If you see ghonto on a menu, it means some form of sumptuous curry. In this version, tender banana blossom takes centre stage amidst a range of aromatic spices.
I’ve always thought banana blossom is an underused gem in the UK. It has a light, flaky, delicate texture that makes it a perfect substitute for meat or fish when used in curries. It can often be bought in good Asian supermarkets, ready to be cooked from the tin.
Other popular forms of Bengali ghonto include chapor ghonto, a vegetable curry made with fried lentil patties for texture, and lau ghonto, a popular summer dish made with bottle gourd. If you want to add texture and flavour to any of these, try garnishing with shaved coconut.
14. Sojne Dantar Chorchori
This dish involves cooking with drumsticks. We’re not talking about chicken drumsticks here (or musician’s drumsticks) but pods from the moringa plant. Nutritious, fun to eat, and seasonal, these popular South Asian greens can be used in curries and various fried vegetable dishes.
In sojne dantar chorchori, the drumsticks are prepared with a flagship Bengali blend of mustard oil and poppy seeds, simmered gently to tenderise and infuse them with flavour. They go great with plain basmati rice for a simple but delicious lunch, or serve them as part of a range of dishes during an impressive, mix-and-match Bengali banquet.