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Bangladesh @ 50: How food mediated the battle between the two Bengals

Between ghoti filiation and baangaal roots, between koi maachh and rui maachh, who wins the culinary battle?

Written by Kaushik Das Gupta |
December 12, 2021 6:10:46 am
gettyA man inspects fish kept in the sun for drying in a fishing village near the Bay of Bengal in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh (Getty Images)

Baangaal na Ghoti? (Are you a “baangaal” or a “ghoti”?) My sister’s response would vary according to the relative who had posed this query. There was always a candy or two to be had from the maternal relatives, who felt that their young niece had vindicated them by acknowledging her ghoti (Bengalis with roots in West Bengal) filiation. And there were goodies, too, from the baangaal (Bengalis with roots in what was before the Partition, East Bengal) relatives from my father’s side of the family if she played along with them.

Having found ways to use this one upmanship to our advantage, we weren’t clear though about what the fight was about. There were stray references to the rustic ways of the baangaals from opaar Baangla during family gatherings, about the excessively hot and spicy kosha mangsho. The compliment was returned by mocking the ghoti practise of adding sugar to maachher jhol. All these seemed so confusing. On most days, grandmother (we called her Maa) oversaw cooking. The mangsho she cooked almost every Sunday, the epitome of the love she bestowed from the kitchen, wasn’t hot — jhaal — at all. Almost always, it was preceded by the shukto, a bitter but delicate stew of vegetables infused with a nutty poppy-seed paste, which if the claims of our ghoti relatives were correct, shouldn’t have been in grandma’s kitchen.

Maa, though, did throw in references to the food cooked at her in-laws’ place in opaar Bangla. But it wasn’t the famed hilsa: To be brainy you need to have koi, tangra and pabda. Developing a taste in these offerings from her kitchen took time. We would much rather have the rui maachh in the mustard and nigella seed-infused gravy. That to her was an indulgence. “Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar honed his grey matter by having koi maachh every day,” was one of Maa’s frequent refrains. Much later, I realised that in her attempt to tie the Jessore heritage of her in-laws’ place with healthy food, Maa had probably mixed up things — or, perhaps, deliberately chosen to. There was indeed a fabled association of Vidyasagar with koi maachh. But it was not what Maa had made it out to be. The 19th-century polymath was often called Jessorer Koi, apparently because of the shape of his head.

fish Ilish or Hilsa famous bengali fish curry with mustard seed

Maa was born in Barisal. And, though she made very few references to her parent’s home, pride was writ large on her face when she talked of Barishaler barir chingri maachh, a delicacy cooked in coconut milk, that was ruled out at home courtesy my food allergies. Grandma did satisfy her other nostalgia on the rare occasion when a relative arranged supplies of paat saag (jute leaves). Papery crisp paat saag, redolent with the aroma of mustard, was a lip-smacking appetiser to the coriander-flavoured pabda maachher jhol. But the baangaal fare actually began with a ghoti quintessential:Rice and aaloo posto, a potato mash throbbing with the pungency of poppy seeds. Such forays into culinary eclecticism were very few: even in the early ’80s, jute had become a rare commodity.

After leaving home, first Barisal and then Jessore, Maa accompanied her husband to Lucknow, where she became part of the broader Bengali community that downplayed the baangaal-ghoti rift. Grandma learned the use of boris — tiny dumplings of dried lentils — that would be a staple in several of her vegetable medleys, stews and curries. “Maashima-r haather cholar daal as hadharon,” (Aunt cooks the best chana dal) was the accolade often lavished on her from the relatives she had acquired through her son. And, from her daughter-in-law, she learnt koraishutir kochuri — a puri stuffed with mashed pea teeming with the flavour of a masala mix comprising cumin seeds, green chillies and asafoetida.

My mother says that in her last days, grandma confided her longing for shutki maachh — sun-dried and fermented fish that had been banished from the aristocratic home of her in-laws at Jessore. On a few occasions, Maa had got friends to sneak it in. But apparently, my grandfather found it appalling. It’s a cultivated taste, my mother would say.

Two decades after Maa had passed on, on a visit to Bangladesh, I requested my hosts for some shutki maachh. You may find its smell repulsive, Rafiq da told me. But arrangements were made: Steamed rice, piping hot masoor dal, a potato mash with ghee and green chillies and a tomato-rich gravy in which the dried fish announced its presence to the senses. As I licked my fingers, I thought of grandma.
Perhaps, the new fashion in fermented foods might bring back shutki maachh, Rafiq da said.

Yes, I thought, the battle between baangaal and ghoti food is over. It’s time for good food. After all, it’s the hilsa from the Padma river that’s priced the most in markets here.

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