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One of the biggest misconceptions about Bengali food is that it is all about fish and meat.
Yes, we Bengalis do love our machher jhol (fish curry) and are partial to our kosha mangsho (slow cooked mutton) but there is an array of Bengali vegetarian dishes too. Interestingly, most Bengali vegetarian dishes don’t have onion or garlic in them. This is because the Bengali kitchens of yore were run by the eldest lady in the family who was often a widow. Bengali widows had many dietary restrictions and were allowed only vegetarian food without garlic and onion. This influenced the dishes that they cooked.
Most Bengali meals are not one-dish meals. They are multi-course affairs and the initial courses are vegetarian.
1. One of the most popular traditional breakfast dishes in Bengal is vegetarian. This is luchi with chholar dal. Luchis are soft maida based Bengali versions of puris (fried Indian breads) and chholar daal is a slightly sweet Bengal gram based dish specked with pieces of fried coconut.
2. The Bengali meal often starts with a shukto which is a mixed vegetable stew that gets a bitter taste from the presence of karela (bitter gourd) in it and is considered to be an appetite stimulant.
3. Begun bhaja or aubergines slices smeared in turmeric and salt and fried in mustard oil is a popular start to a meal with daal and rice.
4. Alu posto, cubed potatoes cooked in crushed poppy seeds, is probably the most famous Bengali vegetarian dish. The jury is divided on whether turmeric should be added to it (traditionalists say it should not). Bengalis love potatoes which were introduced to them by the Portuguese. The use of poppy seeds was a fall out of the time when the British encouraged poppy cultivation in Bengal during the days of the Opium War.
5. Mochar ghonto: This dish, made with finely-chopped banana blossoms and coconut, is fast disappearing. It is laborious to cook and one has to be dependent on indulgent grandmothers to make the dish at home. The modern Bengali woman finds it too tedious to clean and chop banana blossoms. Thankfully, Bengali restaurants still serve this dish!
Kalyan Karmakar authors the popular award winning blog, Finely Chopped and is an authority on the food of Mumbai. His extensive knowledge of the city's food scene has been featured in publications such as Femina, Mumbai Mirror and BCC Good Food. He was one of the founding critics of EazyDiner's Mumbai team.