The Bengali kitchen

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Covid-19

Having had the privilege to spend this time during lockdown at home, I have grown fond of the sense of togetherness and bond that cooking Bengali food with my mother evokes. Having been born and raised in Britain and being ethnically Bengali compared to my mother who was born and raised in Bangladesh, our cultural and national identity is quite different. Cooking with her however brings a sense of mutual identity and togetherness. This feeling of a raised consciousness perpetuates itself in the form of a shared space, with my mother orally exchanging recipes, that have been passed down to generation to generation of women in my family, who stem from the Indian subcontinent and Western Asia.

Measure with your eyes

In a typical Bengali kitchen, the chef never measures ingredients. They estimate the amount that is needed during the cooking process and add it along as they go. My mother calls it: measuring with your eyes. In a typical western kitchen, the cook will usually stand at the table counter top, using a knife to chop up meat, poultry, fish, vegetables and herbs. When you think of a Bengali kitchen, the poignant image of a women wearing a sari sitting on the floor, cutting and chopping up greens and fish using a large knife that is elevated (called the dao, daar, bonti or boti depending on regional dialect) comes to mind.

Even though I have seen my mum slice up various meats, fishes and vegetables using her daar over two decades now, it still amazes me that at her age, she can still use her daar with such precision. She does not even need to look at the blade whilst slicing. For those whom aren’t familiar with the daar, it is a curved blade, raised on an elevated metal platform or at times, a wooden base. My mums daar is set on an iron tripod. The daar comes in many different sizes and shapes of both the blade and the base. To use my mum’s daar, one must squat on the floor hovering over it whilst one foot remains on the bottom of the stand to maintain it.

Even though my mother has lived in Britain for over thirty years, she is so accustomed to her daar and her traditional methods of cooking. She never ever uses knives, peelers or graters. She has a designated spot in the kitchen for her daar, and a designated cupboard for all her spices, stored in jars and containers away from daylight to preserve them. And within those jars and containers, spoons which aren’t used for measuring, but just as a tool of carrying the spices from the jars to the pan when cooking. If I ask my mum how much turmeric or garam masala she uses in her chicken curry, she wouldn’t be able to give a precise numerical measurement. The amount of spice she puts in her curry depends on her, how much she thinks is enough. It is very subjective. And even now, whilst I always used to laugh at this trait growing up, of not measuring spice quantities, but rather ‘measuring with your eyes’, I myself now do it too. I don’t know how much spice I put into my curries. I just stop until I can hear my ancestors’ voices in my head telling me ‘That’s enough’.

Communal acts

Cooking, just like hair oiling and braiding is a communal act. Growing up, I would see my mother, cousins and aunties gathered in the kitchen cooking together, and having a lot of fun whilst doing so. One person would be in charge of slicing the onions and vegetables, another person in charge of slicing the meats and fishes, another in charge of making the fragrant spiced rice, another in charge of caramelising onions in different pots and pans, placing designated spices for mutton in one, fish in the other, aloo ghobi for the one in the far left, and one person, heating a wok filled with oil, getting it ready to fry the pakoras and bhajie’s. Though I love my chicken curries and tandoori, my favourite Bengali dishes are indeed hutki chatni (dried fermented fish pickled with spices), gwal mas (a type of fatty fish rich in omega 3, usually cooked with beans) and dhal (lentils). Due to Bengal’s Hindu ancestry as well as its geopolitical state, rice, fish and lentils form its staple dishes. This is another custom my mother carried with her when she came to Britain. Though she cooks poultry dishes, lamb biryani’s and mutton, the only time my mum will eat meat is on Eid or other special occasions.

The floor is your friend

Traditionally, people sat and rested on mats on the floor or raised elevated platforms. Sofas, chairs and tables only entered the Bengali household with the presence of British colonialists.[1] To this day, the tradition of sitting on the floor has been maintained, even for those Bengali’s who migrated to the West, who carried their cultural customs with them. When I was a child, I went to Bangladesh with my family during the British summer. When we came back, mine and my sister’s skin had a golden hue. My Bangla was impeccable. And I to the dismay of my mum, would refuse to eat any of her cooked chicken because I had befriended a chicken back home and claimed it as my best friend. The same chicken which happened to be served as my dinner after many weeks of growing fond of it. My sister spent a lot of her time playing out with the older kids in the village who used the trees that covered the valleys as their climbing frames. In the British autumn of that year, she would frequently climb trees in our local area in inner city London, and swing from them at my parent’s dismay, who were worried that she would hurt herself.

Diaspora

At home, my sister and I persisted to our mum that we would like to eat whilst sitting on the floor, as was the traditional etiquette back home. My mum would always lay out a rug for us at dinner time and place our plates and cups of water on it. Even now, many years later, when we do have large family gatherings at my brother’s house, it is such a common image to see him coming down the stairs with a large white rug, lay it across the floor of the living room and all of us help to set out the floor with the wide variety of meat, fish, chicken and vegetable dishes he and his wife have prepared. The whole idea of sitting on the floor comes from being closer to the earth and leading a simpler life. Truth be told, eating Bengali food whilst sat on the floor with my hand, is the most comfortable and comforting way for me to eat. It brings a sense of togetherness and community. Everyone can sit around in one big circle, with the food at the centre. There are no chair hierarchies. This motion not only represents and holds intact a tradition maintained for centuries; it also evokes deep fond childhood memories of mine.

To finish

It’s interesting how this conception of a shared ethnic identity exists regardless of national barriers, and cultural differences. This ambivalent notion of diaspora holds within itself centuries of social and historical exchanges, with words and language being the most powerful tool of them all to maintain these tales of tradition.

 

[1] Banerji, Chitrita (2001) The Hour of the Goddess: Memories of Women, Food, and Ritual in Bengal. India, Seagull Books p.79

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