There was a time, about a decade and a half back, when I would hear a lot of this. “You know, in a lot of ways, they are like us”. This was a Bengali seeking the comfort of commonality with a Gujarati. Drilling down on the point would reveal that the resemblance stopped at a mutual affinity for the sweet taste. “They put so much sugar in their cooking, you know”, would be the next gush of coyness. Desperation of a culture in seeking a bedfellow (that too in one that is perched at the other end of the country’s map) is perhaps the first sign of debilitation. But then we Bengalis have so often prided ourselves on our self proclaimed loneliness on a self anointed cultural peak. “We are different, baba, bujhbe na (you won’t understand)”. We allow a single political party – Communists – to rule our state for more than three decades, drive a marquee car factory out of the state (to Gujarat, no less), support South Africa when a Sourav Ganguly-less Indian team plays at the Eden Gardens – we are indeed different, baba, bujhbe na. So frenzied has been our zeal to not be bracketed with the “bourgeoisie” and “decadent cultures” that slowly the world has happily left us alone in our cubbyhole
Hence it does not come as a surprise when Bengali cuisine gets the same treatment and is allowed cessation from the culinary milieu of India. “Bengali food” is an institution by itself and in a way has meandered away from the mainstream (as you can see from the photograph that adorns this post. This was taken at Puri, Odhisa). The divergence starts right from the mustard oil that is used as the cooking medium (until recently before clever marketing moved the dial a bit towards the vegetable and sunflower oils. Actually, I have this thumb rule of determining a higher concentration of Bengalis in a given Bangalore locality – check the shelves of the local Foodworld for Dhara mustard oil). And goes right down to the Ravi Shastri wire when the venerable (and hence by definition lonely) mishti-doi is served after the meal. Loneliness is fine so long as others are aspiring to reach that vaulted spot, but that clearly wasn’t what was happening with Bengalis. We got left behind and elements of our culture never made it past the Bengal-Jharkhand border. The story was the same with Bengali cuisine, until chains like “Oh, Calcutta” and “6 Ballygunje Place” did their bits as culinary ambassadors, reaching out to metros other than Calcutta (though, I must confess, a large part of their clientele are Bengalis residing in those metros)
Richness of the Bengali cuisine is accentuated by the fact that it is also an international culmination of two very culturally rich heritages – that of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and the traditional West Bengal (immortalized in popular parlance as “bangal” and “ghoti” owing allegiance to East Bengal and Mohun Bagan respectively in club football). It really has no reason to go around looking for vague similarities and extend shameless “friend” requests – to use a Facebook metaphor – eking out frivolous culinary similarities in other cultures. Cultural exchanges, including culinary ones, happen out of a feeling of mutual respect – not condescension.
Perhaps the revolution can start at Puri.
Wouldn’t it be poetic if the said “Draupadi Hotel” specialized in five cuisines and not three?