The other day, I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a post from Mallika Basu (Food Consultant and Indian Food Writer) about traditional Indian staples that haven’t quite made it to the mainstream UK Indian Restaurant scene. And the first thing that came to my mind was the humble Bengali fish curry, or Bangalir Maachher Jhol. It made think, what is it about this dish that makes it such an important part of the Bengali culture?
Like many others, food is a very important part of the Bengali culture. So much so that sometimes it even defines the culture. It is not something is you just eat to survive or consume with your family within the walls of your home. It is something that brings the community together and fosters a sense of togetherness. In a land not affluent enough to share material gifts, it is something you give your friend, neighbours, and sometimes complete strangers, as a token to appreciation, affection and adulation.
In my personal experience and opinion, historically affluent cultures do not have a culture around food. It is more the non-affluent ones where food takes over the culture. When you think about the most popular cuisines in the world, it would normally involve Italian, Indian, Mexican or Greek – all countries that haven’t been very affluent in last few centuries. You don’t really hear British, American, Australian or Scandanavian cuisines stirring a storm in the restaurant scene, outside their native countries. I have no research to support this, but is that because the population of these countries became so obsessed with success on an economic field, they forgot to nurture the basic joys of life, such as good food? Perhaps a question to ponder another day.
Growing up in the Indian state of West Bengal, fish curry is something you cannot escape from. For the gastronomical Bengali race, a day without maachh-bhaat (fish & rice) is considered a day wasted. Personally speaking, I have never quite been the fan of a fish curry in India and hence, never quite understood the Bengali’s obsession with this dish. Although I am a big foodie myself, I have always preferred meat over fish. Perhaps it was the innumerable bones in the fishes my mother cooked which made it extremely difficult to eat or perhaps, it was simply a rebellion against the stereotype that got attached with Bengalis and the desire to break out from it, fish was never on top of my list.
But this all changed when I moved to England back in 2010. The longer I stayed here, the craving for a simple fish curry grew stronger. For the expats, like myself, food can be seen as a link to their cultural identity, and something that connects you to the motherland. In the constant internal (and sometimes external) struggle for cultural identity in a foreign country, food and religion are the two strongest identifiers that gives comfort to an individual. I am not much of a religious person (but like all good Bengalis, I do love Durga Puja), so food has become even more important to me to keep hold of my cultural identity. This is something that not just reminds me of home, but also who I am and keeps me grounded.
And perhaps that is the reason, the longer I stay here, the stronger is the craving. It is also a bonus that the fish we normally get in the UK hardly have any bones. I remember the first time I tried to cook a fish curry, it was probably around eight years ago (yes, resisted the urge for more than two years). I am primarily a self-taught cook, and don’t follow any recipes to the T. I let my heart take a lead on this subject, and often, the results are pretty damn good. Although I must admit that I do ask for tips from my mother from time to time.
Coming back to the fish curry, I do remember the first time I made a fish curry. Salmon was the fish of choice. Probably for the first time in my life, I was genuinely looking forward to maachher jhol and bhat (fish curry and rice) and I can honestly say that the result was absolutely delicious. I finally understood why this was a comfort food and was actually surprised that it brought me joy. For those who don’t really care about food or come from a non-culinary culture, this will be a very alien and probably confusing concept to grasp but, I am sure the others (like me) will be able to appreciate and connect with this. I have still not got to the stage of a typical Bengali who cannot survive a day without it. I am content with having it once a while, every few weeks or even months. But it is probably the one dish I want the most when I want to feel close to my Indian family, upbringing and culture.
So, the question is, why has the humble Bengali (and stress on the “Bengali” here) haven’t caught the imagination of the general public in the UK? I have never seen it being served in any Indian, Pakistani or even Bangladeshi restaurants. Is it because it is too simple for the clientele? Or is it because it goes away from the narrative created by the subcontinental chefs post-Independence that Indian food is all about making it super spicy and hot? I am glad that modern-day Indian restaurateurs and chefs are breaking that mould and creating dishes that are culturally and gastronomically accurate. Long may this continue. And hopefully, someday soon, Bangalir Maacch Bhaat, will come to a restaurant near us.