Of potol and poshto

July 2016

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
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