"Bhojon koro, kono drobbo noi," the words of Sukumar Roy, a renowned Bengali poet, echo through time, sending a strong message that we should have food first, keeping all our worries at bay. His words are right on the spot, capturing the emotions that Bengalis associate with food. For Bengalis, food is more than just a survival tool; it's an emotion meant for bonding and an expression of their vibrant culture.
Even before the Mughal, Persian, and Turkish eras, the culinary landscape of Bengal resonated well with indigenous flavours, and it remains the same now. Since then, Bengali cuisine has thrived on its fertile soil and abundant rivers. While the fertile lands of Bengal were more suitable for rice cultivation, the intricate network of rivers teeming with a profusion of freshwater made fish a cherished part of their diet.
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As fish became an integral part of the Bengali diet, it symbolized prosperity and good fortune. The mere sight of fish was considered an auspicious omen, finding its way into various rituals and ceremonies.
It is not just an item on the Bengali plate; instead, it is a revered tradition. Especially during pre-wedding celebrations, a sumptuous spread of fish dishes adorns the feasting tables. Right from the delightful custom, Tattva, a part of the haldi ceremony, one can see a splendidly decorated Ruhu fish taking centre stage, symbolizing the collective hope for a future filled with luck and happiness. Even when a bride enters her new home, fish is traditionally presented as a heartfelt blessing for a joyful and fulfilling married life in Bengali culture.
Let's take a step back and talk about the pre-wedding traditions where "Aiburobhat" takes the prime role on the feasting tables. Here, unmarried couples are treated to a lavish spread, and at the heart of this feast is, of course, fish.
Hilsa fish always holds a special place in Bengali culture and is even considered the state fish of West Bengal! The iconic Hilsa is seen as a symbol of pride and a culinary treasure here.
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When it comes to taking care of yourself, Bengalis believe in 'mach Khao budhhi barbe,' meaning 'eat fish; it will increase your intelligence.' Well, this is justified by a study that revealed 'those who ate more than 10 grams of fish per day had markedly better test scores and a lower prevalence of poor cognitive performance than those who ate less than 10 grams of fish per day.'
Now, let's take a closer look at the various fish dishes Bengalis make to tantalize their taste buds. Freshwater fish varieties such as Katla, Rui, Bhetki, Pabda, and Ilish are considered the stars of a Bengali's daily meals. The daily meal revolves around 'mach and bhaat,' or fish and rice. The fish is often paired with mustard oil or gawa ghee, and sometimes paanch foron, a blend of five spices (nigella, cumin, aniseed, fenugreek, and radhuni), which add layers of flavour to the cuisines.
A visit to the fish market counts as a day-to-day affair for Bengalis. Conversations in these markets revolve around freshness, people negotiating the best deals, and the availability of the catch. But it also bustles with stories that are shared, bonds that are made, and traditions that are handed down. These markets could be the place where grandmoms and grandpas pass down their time-tested techniques for assessing a fish's quality to their grandchildren.
Even when Bengalis are away from their hometowns, they still follow the traditional culinary culture. Fish is not just food for Bengalis; it's a way to connect to their roots and a commitment to upholding the traditions that define their culture.
The love for fish in Bengali culture is not just about meals; it's about emotions, traditions, and a deep connection to their roots. It's about the past enriching the present, and it's about savouring every bite as an ode to their vibrant culture. So, the next time you relish a Bengali fish delicacy, remember that you're not just enjoying a meal; you're experiencing a slice of Bengali life, where food is love, and love is food.
About the author: Karan Puri is an author and freelance journalist, specialising in the food and lifestyle industry.