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  • Bengali Gastronomy -- by Buddhadeva Bose (Parabaas - Buddhadeva Bose Section) :

    Bengali Gastronomy -- by Buddhadeva Bose (Parabaas - Buddhadeva Bose Section)





    Bengali Gastronomy

    Buddhadeva Bose



    There is no such thing as "Indian food"; the term can only be defined as an amalgam of several food-styles, just as "Indian literature" is the sum-total of literatures written in a dozen or more languages. And I think it is no less difficult for Indians to eat each other's food than speak each other's tongue; an "Indian" dinner which a Tamil and a Sikh and a Bengali can eat with equal relish is more of a dream than reality. This point was curiously brought home to me on one occasion during my travels in America. I had arrived rather tired after a jerky flight at some little university town; meeting me at the airport my sponsor told me with a smile that he had arranged for me an Indian meal with an Indian family. "I am sure it would be very much to your liking," he added. I at once asked, "Which part of India do they come from?" The professor did not know. The upshot of it was that I spent the night hungry, having been unable to consume anything except a few spoonful of plain rice and a cup of coffee at the table of the charming Tamil family, where the professor had piloted me from the airport. I hasten to add that no offense is meant to my gracious host of the evening, nor do I think I need apologize for my provincialism. I have seen high-born South Indian ladies ready to faint at the fishy odour issuing from a Bengali kitchen. It's a case of the fox and the stork, and you can't do anything about it Certain varieties of Indian diet are mutually exclusive.

    We cannot be sure whether there was ever a standard diet for the whole of India--available records are meagre, and no gastronomic counterpart of the Kamasutra is in existence. All we can guess the basis of literary evidence is that the ancients were a meat-eating, wine-tippling people, inordinately fond of milk-products and beef-eaters as well.[1]The Buddha himself did not impose a ceiling ban on flesh-eating, many of his followers (Bengalis?) ate fish habitually. The only strict vegetarians in ancient India were the Jains--a rather small and relatively isolated community with scant influence on the social life of orthodox sects. How and when both beef and pork came to be interdicted and the great schism between vegetarians and flesh-eaters arose on the Indian soil cannot be ascertained with any degree of precision; we do not even know whether these arose of religious or circumstantial pressure. Nor we can form a clear idea about the type or types of cooking current in the Vedic and epic ages. Homer describes each meal with meticulous care, dwelling on every detail from the slitting of the bull's throat to the hearty appetites of the heroes; but the great sprawling Mahabharata is remarkably--even annoyingly--silent on such points. The phrase randhane Draupadi--`a Draupadi for cooking' has come down to us and is cited to this day, but not once do we see this proud lady actually in the kitchen, not even during period of exile; the feeding of the wrathful Durvasa and his one thousand disciples was magically accomplished by Krishna, without any effort on Draupadi's part. Bhima, we are told, served a whole year as the chef in Virata's household, but as regards the delicacies he presumably concocted for the royal table, we are left completely in the dark. The Ramayana does a little better; we often see Rama and Lakshmana bringing home sackfuls of slain beasts (wild boars, iguanas, three or four varieties of deer. We are also told that their favourite family diet consisted of spike-roasted (shalyapakva), known nowadays as shik-kebab or shish-kebab);--unfortunately no other detail is supplied. Who skinned the carcasses or made the fire or turned the flesh on the spit, what were the greens and fruits eaten with the meat or the drinks with which it was washed down--all this is left to our conjecture. Nevertheless, we are eternally grateful to Valmiki for the passage describing the entertainment provided by the sage Bharadvaja to Bharata and his retinue; there is nothing to compare with it in the Mahabharatan accounts of the Raivataka feast or Yudhishthira's Horse-Sacrifice. For once in our ancient literature we find the courses itemized--savoury soups cook

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