An Introduction to Food from Eastern India
Eastern India as a cuisine-rich region is not familiar to a large population of food lovers across the world. This article hopes to provide some basic introduction, some concepts about the way food is treated, processed and eaten in this very unique part of India.
Food is a very integral part to the people of Eastern India. To give an idea, 3 sumptuous meals and at least 5 snack breaks…which is eating once every 2 hours over a 16 hour waking period! Call that lifestyle choice, simply availing of existing resources or just plain old gluttony…FOOD is dominant.
Eastern India consists of the states of West Bengal, Orissa, Sikkim, Assam, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram. Of the names listed here, Assam through Mizoram together form the Seven Sisters. The Seven Sister region is dominated by verdant valleys, lush green hills, abundant rainfall, clear mountainous rivers and a weather that in some ways is similar to the Northern Isles of Britain – which prompted the erstwhile colonial rulers of India to set up many an idyllic holiday home in this region.
The food therefore is influenced primarily by the topography of the land, the vegetation, the seasons and thousands of years of cultural influences that has caused the cuisine of this area to develop in an unique manner that is at once startling and yet gastronomically rich.
In order to familiarize the curious and epicurean reader, this article may evolve into a seven part article that will attempt to study the distinctiveness of the cuisine of each of these states.
For today, it will be advantageous to turn the spotlight to Bengali food because of its astounding variety.
The Bengal region (ancient name Gaud) today comprises of the state of West Bengal which is in India and the country of Bangladesh. This region stands on the delta of the Ganges that opens into the Bay of Bengal. Centuries of silt carried from the Himalayan Plains and the shifting of the river course has blessed this region with an uniquely fertile soil that is capable of producing the widest variety of crops and choicest vegetables. Apart from this, ancient Bengal had a seaport around present day Haldia (close by is the ancient port of Tamralipta – literally that which is bound by copper) which exposed the fertile region to external influences, in the form of the sea-faring Chinese, the later day Europeans and even the medieval Iberians.
Ancient texts reveal the interesting variety of the Bengali cuisine. Legend has it that when Lord Shiva asked the Goddess Parvati on a rainy day in August to cook him healthy and tasty food – the Goddess rustled up a menu that was both varied and innovative in ingredients and recipes. Vegetables simmered in light mustard sauce, use of clarified butter and milk, a few sauteed items and the most fragrant of rice.
The natural question then is how was the food healthy and tasty on a rainy day when one’s digestive capabilities will be on the downside? The answer – the clever use or non use of spices. And that is where Bengali food is so distinct from the rest of India.
The most influential from among Eastern Indian food, Bengali food has the most dominant number of recipes and ingredients. In fact, Bengalis and their Eastern Indian neighbors are the only known Indians who have the dubious distinction of having developed the most elaborate non-vegetarian dishes! Eastern Indians are renowned for their love of fish – the sweet water variety aka river fish.
The other thing that is distinctly Bengali – the thousands and thousands of varieties of sweets and deserts. The average Bengali is legendary for his love for sweet water fish and sweet.
Just a sweet sweet way to live life, right?