New Delhi: Bengalis are known for their extraordinary degree of food fixation. Thus food and its vivid description always found an important place in Bengali literature stretching all the way back to medieval times and even earlier, said a well known food writer here.
"Bengali poets seemed to find it impossible to avoid the subject of food, whether they were writing about mythological themes or narratives of romantic love, or accounts of heroic exploits and bold adventures," Chitrita Banerji said here in an absorbing session 'A Very Bengali Passion - Food Beyond the Kitchen' at the India International Centre Tuesday evening.
She has extensively written on Bengali cuisine and authored some famous books like Eating India: An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices and Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals among others.
Apart from literature, food also remained an important topic in Bengali idiom, music, humour, art, religion, secular rituals and social exchange.
She quoted a couplet from a Buddhist text written in Bengal around 1400 AD 'Prakritapaingala', which said: "Fortunate is the man whose wife serves him on a banana leaf some hot rice with ghee, crispy mourala fish, fried jute greens, and some milk on the side."
In narrative poems like the Chandimangalkavya, authored by Mukundaram Chakrabarti in the 16th century, food is not only a manifestation of life's bounty, it is also a pleasure that bridges the human and divine worlds, Banerji said.
"One of the most detailed descriptions of a Bengali vegetarian meal is the one that the god Shiva asks his wife Gouri to cook for him. The menu includes the iconic Bengali starter, the shukto, made with eggplant, broad beans, and bitter neem leaves. This is followed by a dish combining white gourd, taro, eggplant, jackfruit seeds, and delicately whipped boris or dumplings made from urad dal, all seasoned with the juice of fresh ginger," she added.
In the 18th century poem, Annadamangalkavya, the poet Bharatchandra gives us a list of 51 varieties of fish that appeared on the contemporary Bengali plate. Great 19th century Bengali novelists Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay also had some remarkable references to food in their writings.
Bengal's most famous writer Rabindranath Tagore often used food as a medium for ironic and satirical observation of human character.
"For instance, in one story, the presentation of a well-cooked and judiciously timed meal becomes a manipulative tool by which the usually subservient wife hopes to bring her husband to agree with her point of view," Banerji added.
The offerings to the gods during rituals did not consist of a few sweets and fruits only.
"It is a proper vegetarian meal, including items like khichuri, a potato dish called aloor dam, a vegetable medley called chhanchra, another called labra, rich pilafs studded with raisins and nuts, a spicy dish of cabbage, chholar dal, luchi or fried bread, and chutneys made with tomatoes or papayas or plums," she added.