A Bengali Meal: 16th century

Today’s post is weirdly long and personal, so if you’d prefer to switch off now I won’t blame you. We always think people are more interested in our backstories than they actually are, and I’ve definitely fallen into that trap with this post. Go and watch the TV. Go outside and enjoy the sun. Hell, lie down and stare at the ceiling for 10 minutes – I can guarantee it will be a more interesting use of your time.

For hardcore fans (hi dad), or those too lazy to click off – don’t say I didn’t warn you.

My grandad was born in India, in West Bengal in the 1930’s. Back then it wasn’t called West Bengal; it wasn’t until 1947 that Bengal was partitioned, with the Eastern section becoming part of the newly created Pakistan and the Western section, the part my grandad’s family lived in, remaining in India. Grandad used to say he remembered sitting on the roof of his parents’ house watching a seemingly never ending line of Hindu migrants – his family – who had found themselves on the “wrong” side of partition, walking down the road towards the house and wondering what on earth they were going to do. All these displaced aunts, uncles, cousins…where would they sleep? Would there be enough food? Would they be staying long?

Grandad aged 8 and getting ready for a festival. Have you ever seen a less excited child?

A few years later he moved to Britain to do post-grad research having already graduated from the University of Calcutta. The post-grad also allowed him to avoid the threat of an arranged marriage he didn’t want to be a part of. In Britain he worked as an inventor and sent sketches of his inventions to be turned into blueprints at the draft department of the company he worked for. After a year or so, one of the draughtswomen made a mistake with the measurements and he visited the department to help fix it. Six months later he was engaged – this time of his own volition – to the draughtswoman who had cocked up the measurements (though she maintained it was his dodgy drawing that was at fault.) The rest of his time was spent convincing his new mother in law that a mixed marriage wasn’t the end of the world and that yes, actually, people with darker skin and foreign names (the horror!) could be just as intelligent, funny and kind as the white people she met with to drink tea and judge others. In his case, more so. Great grandma came round to having “one of those Indians” in the family eventually…

Britain wasn’t always hugely accepting of immigrants in the 50’s. Or 60’s. Or 70’s. Or… you get the picture. I know there were some dark periods for grandad and so, to try and lessen the target on him and his family he Anglicized as much of himself as he could. He changed his name to one that sounded more English. He rarely spoke Bengali again and didn’t teach it to his children. He accepted jobs at engineering firms that required him to regularly relocate to new countries in order to “get rid” of him while still benefiting from his labour. He took it all in his stride and ironically ended up with a work history so rich and international that by today’s standards it would be akin to that of a successful global businessman.

By the time he retired he had become a public serving and well respected member of the community and he began to revisit his Bengali roots. When my sister and I visited as children he’d tell us folk stories from his own childhood, play old Indian records for us and we’d try on my aunt’s bindis and saris. We’d have brilliant but bizarre “fusion” dinners of samosas, dal and spag bol followed by rasmalai and apple crumble and there were always plates of Bengali sweets bought from the Asian market which he’d encourage us to wolf down before our parents came to collect us. At the time I thought this was the greatest thing ever but now I’ve had a child and can imagine the sugar-hyped car journey home, it seems like an unbelievably evil thing to do to my mum and dad.

Adorable but irresponsible actions aside, I only knew him as grandad. Sweetie junkie, “Big Giant”, king of farting and blaming it on the dog – this one’s for you. Miss you.

Medieval India…

…was not like medieval England, I have realised (give me my PhD now.) I admit, this might seem obvious to everyone given the thousands of miles between Britain and India – not to mention the size difference in land mass. But it’s more than that. Even the term “medieval India” is problematic because from a British-centred world view it implies conformity with Western dates, which isn’t necessarily the case. What’s called “medieval India” spans from roughly the 6th-18th centuries CE, with numerous and complex eras as part of this lengthy time period.

Whereas post-10th century medieval England was ruled over by one king and one king only, the same was not true for India, which maintained local and regional dynasties throughout this period. Some historians, such as Ram Sharan Sharma, have drawn comparisons with the European feudal system; local Indian rulers were given power and land in exchange for service and loyalty to the dynasty. These dynasties were shaped and developed by various cultural traditions, including agriculture, but also by religion. It’s impossible to overstate the complexity of the history of religion in India, but if you thought religion in medieval and Renaissance England was fraught and exhausting, you’re going to want to take a breather before seeing what was going on in India at the same time.

It won’t be a surprise to learn that the cuisine of 16th century India wasn’t unified either. As a vast country benefiting from lots of different climates, the people of Bengal – which I’m focusing on – would have had access to different ingredients than the people of, say, Punjab.

Early 11th century texts such as the Charyapadas describe Bengal as being a region of fishing, hunting and of growing rice – but make no reference to dal at all. In fact, it’s not until the 15th century that dal is mentioned as a dish. Chitrita Banerji commented that the abundance of fish in Bengal made dal unnecessary as a source of protein and that its introduction to Bengali cuisine in the 15th century coincided with the Bengali emergence of the Vasishnava Bhakti sect – a branch of Hinduism that promotes vegetarianism.

Fortunate is the man whose wife serves him on a banana leaf some hot rice with ghee, mourala fish, fried leaves of the jute plant, and some hot milk on the side.

From the Bengali text Prakritapaingala, c. 1400

To this day Bengal remains a region devoted to rice, fish and sweets. There’s even a proverb: Machhe bhaate Bangali – a Bengali is made of rice and fish. Pre-colonial Bengali cuisine was also exceptional among other Indian cuisines because it evolved a set-course structure, with one dish being served after another, while other regions favoured serving dishes at the same time. A Bengali meal would generally start with Shukto: a bitter dish, followed by Shak: leafy veg, followed by Dal: pulses, followed by vegetable or meat dishes, followed by Chatni: chutney, before finishing with sweet dishes.

There are a few “medieval” Indian cookbooks – but most references to food and meals comes from literary works of the time such as the one I’m using today, the Chandimangal. The Chandimangal is a mangal kavya – a narrative poem about the deities as they established their cults on earth. The genre was hugely important to “medieval” Bengali literature and flourished during the 13th-18th centuries. In the Chandimangal there are literally hundreds of references to food – all described in vivid detail from the tantalising “jhasha fish in tamarind sauce” to the unappetizing “nasty porridge made from old rice-dust” to the downright confusing: “[Dhanapati] ate yogurt and treacle with a crunching noise.”

20th century painting of scenes in the Chandimangal by Ajit Chitrakar. Credit: V&A Museum.

It’s important to remember the foods of the Chandimangal represent the diet of the wealthy – the Brahmins and Kshatriyas of the Hindu caste system. Ordinary Hindus – Vaishyas and Shudras – wouldn’t have had everyday access to the wealth of meat, spices, fruit and sugar mentioned in the text (and the “untouchable” Dalits would never have had any access at all.) As is often the case in this time period, the voices of the poor have unfortunately been lost.

I really wanted to recreate some of the fish dishes but it was impossible to get hold of any of the fish mentioned in the Chandimangal in my area of the UK – I’m not even sure Heston Blumenthal has access to clownfish, which are lovely fried in mustard oil, apparently. In the end it was whittled down to seven dishes from the text – a 16th century Bengali feast in honour of my grandad.

Dal.

The first thing I wanted to get started was the dal. The Chandimangal recipe for red lentil dal was so simple I could have wept tears of joy. Red lentils, black gram, cardamom, cloves and a pinch of pepper. That was it!

When I make dal in ordinary circumstances I often add chopped onion but very early Indian texts don’t mention onions at all. Since 1500 BCE, onions, which had been introduced to India from South West Asia and Afghanistan, were seen as the food of hated rival tribal populations and foreigners and though they grew well in India, they weren’t mentioned in any of the Vedas at all. As Colleen Taylor Sen speculates, this may have been because they were associated with “despised indigenous people” or were seen as unclean because of their smell and eye watering properties. The avoidance of onions would continue well into the 16th century where they were used more often, but always with a whiff of taboo. A quick check of the Chandimangal showed me that onions were entirely absent in the text, so I knew it wasn’t a hidden ingredient to add at my discretion, but rather one which had been deliberately omitted.

I heated the spices in a little ghee to release the flavour while the lentils cooked in salted water. Once they were soft the whole lot was mixed and seasoned with a pinch of long pepper – a type of pepper native to India and which is sometimes called Bengal pepper; I took this as a pretty solid sign it would have been used in this dal. (Also I’d bought a tin of it for a previous experiment at a stupid price and wanted to prove to my husband that it hadn’t been “yet another expensive ingredient you’ll never use again.” I know he loves this hobby of mine really…)

Shukto.

Next it was the Shukto – the bitter dish usually served at the start of a meal. I heated asafoetida, fenugreek and cumin in ghee before frying broad beans and diced aubergine. The text also mentioned the addition of neem leaves, which I didn’t have, so I used curry leaves instead to mimic the appearance of neem leaves and moved on to the next dish. So far, so simple.

Mango Chutney.

After this it was time for mango chutney. All I had to go on in the text was that it was meant to be “yellow coloured”. “Well it’s just chutney,” I thought to myself. “How much could it have changed in the past 500 years, really?”

Turns out the answer is: a lot. Loads. There are over 28 million hits if you Google “mango chutney recipe”. I had to find a recipe that used only ingredients mentioned in the Chandimangal, or sort of make it up. I opted for a mix of both. After peeling and chopping two mangoes, I ground mustard seeds in a pestle and mortar until they were an oily mush, which I heated in a large frying pan. To this I added turmeric, fennel seeds and ginger that I’d pounded into a fibrous paste. Once it was heated through I added the mangoes, some salt and sugar and covered with a cup of water, leaving it to reduce for about an hour until it was a lovely thick golden yellow. This was the part of the meal I was looking forward to the most.

Liquid gold.

Shor Bhaja.

At least, it was the part I was looking forward to the most until I saw what I could make for pudding: Condensed. Milk. Sweets. These were mentioned numerous times and I got so excited when I saw them. People who know me for five minutes will know that I think of condensed milk as being a Very Positive – nay, an entirely necessary – part of life, but the milk sweets in the Chandimangal didn’t require any English condensed milk at all. It was a much more literal meaning – condensing a pan of milk down to cream by boiling the liquid off, exactly as shor bhaja are made today.

First I brought a litre of full fat milk to just simmering and as the cream floated to the surface I gently pushed it to the edge of the pan where it clung to the sides, drying. Once the creamy dregs stuck to the pan had dried out I scraped them out and onto a plate, where they sat like scrambled egg, congealing in a quiet and disgusting way. I couldn’t help notice that after twenty minutes I had the most minute scrapings on the plate and still a litre of milk to get through. Still, I was sure things would pick up soon.

Three and a half hours later I scraped off the last creamy dreg. My feet ached. My back ached. I hadn’t left the pan for longer than two minutes – it was 25 degrees out but in my little kitchen, with steam rising off the pan and a window that only half opened, it felt like 250 degrees. In the time it would have taken me to make eight trays of muffins (and eat them all), I had just enough cream solids to fit in my palm. What kind of sick culinary joke was this?

I angrily shaped the cream into a rectangle and cut out ten small squares, which were then dusted in rice flour and fried in ghee until golden brown. I ignored the alarming amounts of ghee seeping off the fried shor bhaja as they sat on sheets of kitchen paper, and got to work on the sugar syrup. As ancient Bengal had been famous for its superior quality of cane sugar, I mixed golden caster with water and added cardamom pods to flavour the syrup, which were mentioned in other sweets in the Chandimangal so may have been used here too.

Cream, fried in ghee, drowning in syrup. I do not see a problem with this.

Balls of coconut and molasses.

The next sweet dish mentioned was blessedly easy – coconut and molasses. To half a bag of desiccated coconut I added four teaspoons of molasses and rolled it into golf sized balls. I wasn’t sure whether they should be cooked or eaten raw so I tried one and winced at the pungent treacly flavour. I ended up baking them for 10 minutes or so to toast the coconut which I hoped would lessen the strength of the molasses.

Balls of syrup and fruit or nuts had been around for millennia and it’s likely that these coconut and molasses concoctions had been influenced by earlier dishes. From tablets dating to about 1750 BCE, we can see the existence of mersu – a popular ancient Babylonian dish of dates and nuts chopped up and rolled into balls. In 529 BCE the Achaemenid Persians took control of Babylon, formally ending the Babylonian empire. The Persians preferred to assimilate conquered civilisations into their empire rather than destroy them, so production of Babylonian food like mersu continued under early Achaemenid rule. As a form of taxation from the regions they conquered, Persian kings would insist on lavish banquets being laid out whenever they visited. Herodotus tells us that Xerxes demanded such lavish banquets wherever he went that if he stayed in one region for longer than a day he risked bankrupting the area (my kind of guy.) Herodotus also tells us that the Persians were excessive in their love of sweet food, so when Darius I invaded the Indus Valley in 518 BCE and incorporated parts of India into the Persian Empire, it’s likely he brought sweets like mersu with him, which may have been the inspiration for these coconut balls.

Though these were just coconut in sugar, somehow they still weren’t the sweetest thing on the table.

Sweet rice pancakes.

The final dish to be made was sweet rice pancakes. These were mentioned several times and it wasn’t always clear what their function was. Sometimes it seemed like they were being eaten as a dessert, sometimes as a snack and sometimes they were eaten with chutney. I decided to serve them with the other desserts, but they may have had multiple functions in a meal rather than just pudding.

Modern day Bengali rice flour pancakes are called patishapta and look a bit like crepes stuffed with coconut and thick milk filling. I’ve never tried one, but they sound delicious. The only thing stopping me making them for this experiment was that there was no mention of a pancake filling in the Chandimangal. In fact, from the references to being eaten with chutney it made me think that the pancake shouldn’t be too crepe-like, but more of a sturdy tool to scoop chutney and sauce up with.

The modern day malpua pancake seemed to fit this description and an early form of it called apūpa had been eaten by people since the Vedic period. Malpua are incredibly popular in West Bengal today and there are many variations of them. More importantly, malpua can be enjoyed with a variety of dishes, which fits in with the slightly ambiguous use of them in the Chandimangal.

In order to be as historically accurate as possible I mixed rice flour with a little barley flour, since barley and rice (not wheat) had been staple crops of Bengal since ancient times, then added milk, jaggery and fennel seeds and mixed it into a thick batter. After letting it rest for a couple of hours, I heated up yet more ghee in a deep frying pan until it was very hot and spooned a large dollop of malpua batter into the sizzling fat. Each side was fried for two minutes before being lifted out and left to drain on kitchen roll. Traditionally, malpua are served with syrup, but there wasn’t a reference to syrup being eaten with them in the Chandimangal, so I didn’t make one.

Delicious with or without chutney or syrup.

Going to tell us what it all tasted like?

I’ll try and wrap it up quickly.

It was all delicious.

Too quick?

Rather than serve the dishes one by one I chose to break Bengali tradition and served the savoury dishes all together, followed by the sweets. It just seemed easier and to be honest I’d chosen the hottest day of the year to spend in the kitchen over pans of boiling ghee and milk, so I didn’t have the energy to keep trotting back and forth with bowls of food.

Despite its moniker as “the bitter dish” the shukto wasn’t bitter at all. It was pleasant and aromatic, but bitter it certainly wasn’t. I wonder if aubergines of 16th century India were more strongly flavoured than they are today. Sprouts have famously been cultivated so that the bitter ones die out; could something similar have happened to aubergines? If anyone knows (or has any fancy theories), let me know.

The dal was glorious, as dals often are. I was worried it would be a bit bland but it wasn’t at all. Creamy, thick and rich with a lovely fragrant cardamom and clove heat to it, this was something we ended up eating cold the next day for lunch.

The mango chutney went particularly well with the dal. It was nothing like shop bought chutneys, which are often very sugary. This had a fruity sweetness to it and was much thicker than shop bought chutneys. It also packed a punch! There was a definite heat and firey aftertaste that built slowly at the back of the throat thanks to the mustard oil and a sprinkling of dried chili flakes. After making this it’s very obvious to me why chutney was served as a dish on its own; I could have eaten a whole bowl of it without needing anything extra.

A bowl of white rice with ghee made a good accompaniment to the meal and was mentioned numerous times in the Chandimangal. It’s unlikely the rice of 16th century Bengal would have been basmati rice, though, as basmati would struggle to grow in the Bengali climate, more likely it would have been boro or aman – neither of which were available to me.

So good I can’t even think of a funny thing to say.

Then it was time for the desserts.

The shor bhaja were obviously what I was most intrigued by – cream fried in butter with sugar syrup sauce? I made sure I had paramedics on speed dial for when the heart attack began, and took a bite. It was unlike any Western food I’d eaten. So hard to describe. Imagine taking the crust off clotted cream, then deep frying it (I know that’s already hard to imagine) so you get that buttery doughnut fried taste. Instead of rolling the shor bhaja in sugar like a doughnut, though, they were dipped into lightly cardamom spiced syrup which glazed each piece and oozed into every pore. Thank God the four hours’ work only yielded ten delicious pieces because these were literally lethal.

Baking the coconut and molasses balls had done little to alter the taste, but they were much drier than when raw. They weren’t unpleasant but were definitely an acquired taste, as treacle can be. I could only manage half a ball but my husband, who has invincible teeth, ate four in one go.

And finally: the rice flour malpua. These were a bit of a standout, actually. Faintly sweet but with a subtle anise-like flavour in the background, these pancakes were incredibly moreish. They were crisp and buttery on the outside but snapped open to reveal soft pillowy centres of sweet rice-y goodness. On their own they were delicious, but with mango chutney they were divine.

Heaven on two plates, at least.

So what would grandad have made of all this? Well, though he loved eating Bengali food, he wasn’t much good at cooking it himself. When my dad brought my mum home to meet his family for the first time, grandad said he’d cook a curry to mark the occasion. And he did – with a chicken and a jar of HP Curry Sauce.

Happy eating – I’m off to lie down for a week.

E x

Dal

320g red lentils
250g black lentils
7 or 8 cardamom pods
7 or 8 cloves
Ghee
Black pepper/Long pepper

  1. Cook the lentils in water until soft – about 20 – 25 minutes.
  2. While the lentils are cooking, heat the spices in a pan with the ghee to allow the flavours to mingle. Bash the cardamom pods a little to release the seeds.
  3. When the lentils are done and the spices have been heating gentle, add the lentils to the ghee. You may want to remove the spices from the ghee before hand to save you having to watch out for them during the meal.
  4. Sprinkle over a little pepper and serve.

Shukto

1 aubergine
500g broad beans (unpodded)
1 teaspoon asafoetida
1 teaspoon fenugreek
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Ghee

  1. Heat the spices in ghee to release the flavours.
  2. Dice the aubergine and pod the broad beans (but keep them whole.)
  3. When the spices are heated, add the aubergine and broad beans and fry for 7 or 8 minutes.

Mango Chutney

2 mangoes
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
Thumb’s worth of ginger
1 table spoon vegetable oil
Fennel seeds
Turmeric
30g sugar
Salt
Water

  1. Peel and chop the mango into slices and cover with a pinch of salt.
  2. Crush the mustard seeds in a pestle and mortar to form a paste. Add the paste to a pan with the vegetable oil and fennel seeds and heat.
  3. Pound the ginger to a fibrous paste and add it to the mustard oil. Heat for 2 or 3 minutes.
  4. Add the mangoes and turmeric and cook for 10 minutes on a low flame.
  5. Add just enough water to cover the mangoes and add the sugar.
  6. Cook until the water has reduced and the chutney is the desired consistency.

Shor bhaja

1 litre gold top milk
250g sugar
150g water
4 or 5 cardamom pods
Plain flour (a tablespoon or so)
Ghee for frying

  1. Make a sugar syrup by boiling sugar, water and cardamom pods together until it reaches syrup consistency (about 110 degrees c). Set aside.
  2. Put the milk in a non stick pan and bring to just below simmering.
  3. As the cream rises to the top, gently push it to the sides of the pan so that it clings to the side and begins to dry out.
  4. Once dried, scrape the cream from the sides of the pan and transfer to a plate.
  5. Repeat the process until the milk has evaporated and you have a pile of cream solids. It will take approximately 3 – 4 hours. In between skimming the cream off and waiting for it to rise again, gently scrape a spoon along the bottom of the pan to help prevent milk from burning on the bottom.
  6. Once you have got all the cream solids, shape it into a rectangle and cut into small squares.
  7. Dust each square with a little flour.
  8. Heat ghee in a frying pan until very hot.
  9. Add the shor bhaja one at a time and fry on each side until golden brown.
  10. Transfer the cooked shor bhaja to a plate and drizzle over the sugar syrup.

Coconut and Molasses Balls

600g desiccated coconut
4 or 5 teaspoons molasses

  1. Preheat an oven to 150 degrees C.
  2. Combine coconut and molasses in a bowl and rub together using your hands. You may find using a rubbing motion with fingers and thumbs helpful, as when making crumble topping.
  3. When the mixture can be rolled into balls, roll out golf ball sized portions and bake in the oven for no more than 12 minutes until the coconut is toasted.

Rice Pancakes

180g rice flour
90g barley (or plain) flour
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
300ml milk
45g sugar
Ghee for frying

  1. Combine flour, sugar and fennel seeds in a bowl.
  2. Gradually add the milk and combine until a thick pancake batter is formed.
  3. Heat ghee until very hot.
  4. Drop one dessert spoon of batter into the ghee and spread it out to the size of a small saucer.
  5. Fry on each side for 2-3 minutes until golden brown.

11 thoughts on “A Bengali Meal: 16th century

  1. This is brilliant! Those gluten-free pancakes will have to get made. I’m very intrigued by the shor baja. There is a recipe for fried milk in Forme of Cury. I shall have to compare them. I loved the personal history too. Not dull in the slightest. Love the pic of your ‘excited’ grandad as a boy 😁.

    Like

    1. Thank you, you’re very kind. I’m always wary of writing very personal bits in case people find them dull…and then there’s always the risk that the quirks that make a person entertaining in life don’t translate well when being written down. But I’m happy this one seems to have been successful.
      The pancakes were brilliant (as were the shor bhaja, would be interesting to see if there are links to F.o.C!)
      I think you could leave the sugar out if you wanted a savoury one, or add a little more for more sweetness. And then you could always make the syrup that’s supposed to go with them if you wanted an outright dessert.
      Pics of grandad, especially when he was a child or young man, he’s rarely smiling in. I think it was just not the done thing to smile in formal photos back then. But as he got older he got sillier… I have a pic of him in a glorious Hawaiian shirt with a bright pink bucket hat on standing by a BBQ looking like he’s in his element!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m fairly certain aubergines have got less bitter. When I first started cooking them, all the recipes told you to salt the aubergines for a time before cooking to get the bitter juices out. Newer books sometimes mention this, but say not to bother.

    Liked by 2 people

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