By Naini Setalvad
The delectable Bengali cuisine has several health notes strung through it, including its use of mustard oil, poppy seeds, and fish, says Naini Setalvad
Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet of Bengal, once said: “Life’s greatest sacrifice is to deny one’s taste-buds”. This gives us an insight on the Bengali’s attitude towards food. A common sight early in the morning is of men shopping in the market, for this task is only done by the head of the family, who takes great pride in selecting the best of fresh produce.
The land of Bengal is blessed with lush greenery, paddy fields and rivers flowing and coursing through it, with many a local fisherman casting his net from his boat. There is ample fresh sweet water fish due to immense water bodies coursing through the state. No wonder the staple food consumed is fish and rice. Fish is known to be heart-friendly, rich in vitamins, proteins and minerals. Rice is easy to digest and gluten-free. This apart, Bengalis have a lavish amount of home-grown leafy vegetables such as palak saag, pui saag, kolmi saag, laal saag, and notey saag. The other high point of Bengali cuisine is its unique style of cooking food with mustard oil, imparting an extraordinary flavour to the food.
Bengali food also makes prodigious use of turmeric, poppy seeds and onion seeds. Turmeric is one of the most healing spices known to mankind. Curcumin, a flavonoid found in turmeric, is anti cancerous and its anti inflammatory effects were found on par with the drug cortisone. Turmeric is also a blood purifier, stimulating the liver, increasing red blood formation, inhibiting red blood cell clumping and increasing circulation, which, in turn, boosts immunity and energy. Turmeric makes the skin supple and beautiful, which explains the lovely Bengali complexion.
While North India uses garam masala to add flavour to the food, the Bengalis use a combination of five spices, panch-phoran, to season their food. The ingredients are seeds of cumin, nigella (onion seed or kalonji), fenugreek, fennel and black mustard seed.
Mustard seed and mustard oil traditionally used in Bengal are prized for their characteristic pungent and sharp flavour. Mustard oil is healthy as it has 30 per cent protein. Packed with lower levels of saturated fats, cholesterol reducing and anti-oxidant properties and even essential vitamins, switching to cooking in mustard oil could well be your wisest health investment. Tocopherols present in mustard help to protect the oil from rancidity, thus contributing to a long shelf life.
The Bengalis make a masala of ground poppy seeds and green chilli which they use with vegetables, especially potatoes and padwal (potol), to make their delicious poshto. Poppy seeds are rich in B complex vitamins, are a good source of antioxidants and oleic that promote heart health, help reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, plus helping you to go to sleep. Their other favourite, kalonji (onion seed), reduces bad cholesterol and is rich in anti cancer properties, especially colon cancer cell mutation, reduction of tumours in the breast, and protection of brain tissue from radiation damage.
Some of the vegetables commonly used are pumpkin and the entire family of gourds including bitter gourd. Their top favourite is the padwal which they call potol, without which no meal is considered complete. This vegetable is cooked in a variety of ways including using poppy seeds and mustard. The entire gourd family is very light, easy-to-digest and low in calories, beneficial for diabetes, especially bitter gourd.
Brinjal is another top favourite, affordable, low in calories and fats and rich in soluble fiber containing a good amount of vitamin A and potassium. Often when children refuse to have the brinjal, one would hear the elders say “Nai goon begoon? The prompt retort would be that eggplant has “bishesh goon!” (lots of benefits). The Bengalis fry everything (not one of their healthiest habits), and they simply love deep fried brinjal with turmeric powder and spices.
The light gourds are usually accompanied by potatoes, which, though not the healthiest of vegetables, is definitely one of the tastiest. One surprise vitamin in your potato is Vitamin C which makes protein easy to digest. No wonder it is part of a Bengali meal, which is quite high in protein. Potatoes also boost the immunity. In addition, it is extremely easy to digest, even with a stomach upset..
The cuisine also makes a chutney of raw mango pulp, high in vitamin C fibre and Niacin which lowers cholesterol levels. For easy digestion in summer, the Bengalis make a watery mango chutney called ombol during summer months, sometimes even with the head of the fish hilsa, and tamarind water with mustard seeds as seasoning which is usually taken at the end of a meal.
Another popular vegetable is unripe papaya, which contains papain and chymopapain helping digest fat, carbohydrate and protein. Kaancha pepper tarkari (raw papaya vegetable) or papaya curry is often made. As a common cure for jaundice, papaya is boiled and consumed in Bengal. In summer to aid digestion raw papaya is a daily part of the food. Raw papaya has natural abortive qualities and is used in rural India to prevent pregnancies.
Lentils form a huge part of their diet in the form of dal and are prepared daily. When lentils are eaten with rice, they compose a complete protein. Lentils contain amino acids and lean protein which are good for muscle tissue. Dals are also packed with vitamins and minerals like potassium, calcium, zinc, niacin and vitamin k, folic acid and iron.
A common practice in Bengal is parboiling rice with the outer rough husk intact. This practice enables the rice to move the B vitamins from the outer bran into the center. Thus parboiled rice has more B vitamins than plain rice. Rice is, at times, eaten with hot ghee poured on it. Or often with kashundi which is a pungent sauce of mustard seeds, yellow and black, mustard oil, green mango, green chili, turmeric, and salt.
A Bengali meal is unimaginable without fish at least once a day, a protein which even Brahmins partake of liberally. Some common fish are rohu, and bhekti. The king of fish is ilish mach, a fresh water fish, and chingri (prawn). Fish is a high protein food, low in calories and good for the heart, and eye. It is also considered to be a good brain food as it’s rich in omega 3 fatty acids. So when Ma said “Maachh khele booddhi hobe” (eat fish, your brain power will improve), she was right. Bengalis cook every part of the fish from head to tail which gives you vitamin A and D plus iodine. Fish could be fried, roasted or steamed over cooking rice or wrapped in a leaf and steamed. The fish in mustard sauce is one of the highlights of their imaginative and delicious cuisine.
When struck with indigestion, they have a light fish curry with slices of baby rohu, raw banana and papaya for lunch, and dry fried poha for snacks.
Milk is a key ingredient of the desserts, often sweetened with nolen gur, fresh date palm jaggery. Some of the sweets of Bengal are far healthier than other sweets, especially the popular sandesh and rasgullas which are basically made from curdling milk, and can be sweetened with nolen gur, a far better choice than white sugar. Jaggery is also an natural anti acid.
The most popular snack sold on street corners is the healthy muri aka puffed rice flakes. Toss it with mustard oil, green chilies, lemon, onion, salt and chanachur and it becomes the delectable jhalmuri.
Simple Bengali food is a perfect balance and blend of health and taste. Get yourself invited to a a puja and partake of the delicious kichadi and tomato chutney served on biodegradable and eco-friendly leaf plates. Sweets and hot beverages are often served and sold in small earthen pots. At the end of a meal Bengalis freshen their mouths with betal leaves which are an amazing digestive aid.
2 cups grated raw papaya
1/4 tsp kalonj
1 green chili
1 – 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/4 onion, finely sliced
Pinch of turmeric
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tbsp coconut grated
Salt to taste
- Grate half of a medium sized raw papaya in a grater.
- Heat mustard oil. Temper the hot oil with kalonji and slit green chillies.
- Follow with a clove of garlic finely minced and quarter of an onion thinly sliced. Saute till onion becomes soft.
- Next add the grated papaya. Sprinkle some turmeric powder, red chilli powder, salt and mix well.
- Add 4-5 more slit green chilli and saute at medium heat. Cover and cook until papaya is almost done.
- Add some grated coconut. Mix well and cook till everything is done.
- Serve with rice.
About the author : Naini Setalvad is a nutritionist, specialising in lifestyle and immunity disorders. Her foundation, Health For You, throws light on healthy food habits.