“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 class-mate. The surprising thing is that both Sweta and her friend are Bengalis, so you wouldn’t really expect such a yawning chasm between the cooking of one family and another in the same state.
However, approximately 40 percent of Kolkata’s Bengali population are not from West Bengal at all, but originate from across the border, in what is now Bangladesh. And the cooking styles of one community and the other are enormous badges of honour – and difference – to be held aloft at all times, but particularly during matches: both matrimonial and football.
Sweta’s side of the family is originally from Bangladesh which makes her a Bangal and thus, on the other side of the fence from the Ghotis, or those whose roots are in West Bengal. There’s little in common between tastes in both communities: 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 kashundi. According to Sweta, Bangals have a far greater range of fish in their repertoire – pabda, bata, boi and the king of them all, the mighty hilsa, of which the best specimens come from River Padma in Bangladesh. Dried fish, called shutki maach, is a firm 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.
On the other hand, Ghotis prefer large fish like rahu, katla, pooti and mourola. They like the sweet taste in virtually all their food, so that you can expect even a simple vegetable in gravy to have a smidgeon of sugar added to it. The converse is true as well: they favour a certain amount of sourness too, including in fish curries, which makes Bangals stare in horror. Ghotis are extremely partial to maacher tauk, a gravied preparation that is distinctly sour. No self-respecting Bangal would touch it. To Ghotis, charchari 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 does. The mild, nutty spice – variously called khus-khus and poshto – is used in sparing quantities in Bangal households. Sweta uses about 200 grams a month for a family of four, with a fair amount of entertaining. Her sister, however, who has married into a Ghoti household, goes through no less than four kilograms per month. Parval, 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.
Charchari, the Bangal way
250 gram mourala fish, cleaned and left whole
Half tsp kalonji (onion seed)
2 green chillies
1 medium sized onion
150 grams potatoes
250 grams brinjal
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp zeera powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
Salt to taste
Wash the fish, pat dry, then fry till crisp and remove. Cut potatoes and brinjal into thick, evenly-sized batons. To speed up the cooking time, you could pressure cook the potatoes before cutting them. Add sliced onions and fry 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 leave to cook on a low heat till all trace of moisture evaporates.