Maach, Mangsho & Mishti: Bengalis and Their Relationship with Food Is an Eternal Love Story
If you ask a privileged Bengali what’s the one thing they can’t live without, they’ll say food before they say water. I mean, tell them that they have to fast for a week during which they’ll only be allowed to eat fruits and dairy products, they’ll call you a hototchara (idiot) and ask you to kindly get lost. Bengalis love their food as much as they love Dada (Sourav Ganguly), football, and Durga Puja. In fact, as a fat woman who has been struggling to lose weight all her life, I blame my Bengaliness and my parents for a slow metabolism. Before you roll your eyes and judge me as just another lazy person with excuses, allow me to explain myself and my culture.
In a Bengali household, most conversations revolve around food. When we are eating our meals, we discuss everything from the puffiness of the luchis that were served with aloo’r dom (spicy potato curry) in the morning to the freshness of the rui (rohu) maach that was devoured during lunch and dinner. Even when we aren’t eating food, you’ll often find us getting nostalgic about the crispy fish fingers we had eaten on one of Kolkata’s many food streets, the perfect spongy rasgullas that our grandmothers made, or the oil and spice-laden mutton kosha that our mothers make on Sundays and holidays. Basically, no matter what you’re discussing with a Bengali, politics, cinema, or life in general, at some point you’ll find yourself getting a full-blown guide on how to buy fresh fish every single time and the many different ways in which you can cook them. Also, if you want to establish a bond with a Bengali, know that the route to that will go through a lot of food and if you’re a foodie, you won’t regret it.
Coming to my house, my fondest childhood memories comprises of my father going to the market with a green grocery bag and coming back with the freshest catch of the day. My brother and I would then look forward to lunch where we would be treated to a soulful plate of hot maach bhaat (fish curry and rice). To be honest, it’s the best feeling in the world, which should be followed by an afternoon siesta. Sure, the belly would grow an inch larger but as long as there’s fish and rice in it, does it really matter?
If you still aren’t convinced about the extent of our relationship with food, let me tell you that the main USP of our festivals is food. Call us whatever you want but come Durga Puja and you’ll find even the most health conscious Bengalis giving up their diet for four to five days of feasting on maach, kosha mangsho, luchi, payesh, and a wide variety of sweets. Of course, in between there’s the endless supply of tele bhaaja (deep-fried snacks), egg rolls, and cha, which keep up our spirits till the main course is served. So, when you see Bengalis being sad around Vijayadashami, do know that it’s partly because their days of guilt-free binging are over for the year. When it comes to other festivals, we have designated food items that must be devoured on the specific days. For instance, it’s khichuri and labra during Lokkhi Pujo and mutton during Diwali. Yes, yes, we have no regards for Hinduism and all its alleged vegetarian ways.
So now you know what I was trying to say when I said that I have a complicated relationship with food. I want to give up my carbs-laden diet (thanks Maa for telling me that rice is rice and roti can never replace it) but then I think of the joy that rice brings and I slowly find myself giving up. Recently, my colleagues were discussing the benefits of keto diet and I had only one question at the end of it, “How can I eat fish without rice?” Another day, my editor, who’s also a Bengali, and I were discussing how our families could have bought a lot of property with the amount of money they have spent on food and feeding others. And how the two of us would have probably ticked off some things from our bucket list if we weren’t spending so much of our salaries on food.
To sum it up, people from a lot of states hate the stereotypes attached to them (as they rightly should) but, a Bengali probably secretly smiles every time they’re accused of being foodies and maach-mongers. Because, a huge part of the Bengali culture revolves around food, often topped with a healthy dose of politics and sports. Don’t believe me? Just watch Piku and you’ll understand just how much we have to pay for being in love with food. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and eat something because writing about all this food has made me hungry and that’s not very good for my Bengali consciousness.