Fish, as we all will agree, is the foundation of the Bengali diet. Fishes like Rohu and Katla find their way to a Bengali dining table daily, sometimes twice a day. Not only does the Bengali menu, but also the Bengali culture as a whole is incomplete without fish. Not just our food but our essential rituals like weddings involve fish in some form or the other.
Although Bengalis are true foodies and there are many more delicacies to garnish the Bengali menu, Fish and Rice have been an indispensable part of this diet for ages. Hence the title ‘maachhe-bhaate bangali‘ has found its name.
Types of Fishes Bongs love
Bengalis savor fish according to their mood, health, and sometimes the calendar. Yes, no matter how bizarre it sounds, it is true. For instance, rohu, katla, bata, tilapia could be the fish for the weekdays. However, chingri (prawns, although they don’t fall under the fish category, Bengalis like to consider it one), pabda, pomfret are to be relished on weekends or special occasions.
I don’t mean to discriminate or generalize here, but there is also a hierarchy of fish consumption in Bengal. While the Elite menu must include Bhetki, Pabda, and the royal Ilish (hilsa), the middle-class menu consists of rohu, katla, pabda, chingri, etc., and the commoners (mostly from the villages of Bengal) find comfort in puti, loita or lote, bata, etc. The common link in meals of every class is the presence of rohu and katla as they are economical and wholesome too.
Delicacies to Relish
As I said earlier, Bengalis’ love for fish is as real as the legend goes. We enjoy our fish from top to bottom. The bongs have a shedload of fish recipes from curries to fries for every season, occasion, mood, and health condition. For example, rice and maachher jhol (light curried fish) is mostly a staple, relished as comfort food. Likewise, there are recipes that are particularly associated with one or two species of fish. For instance, Rohu and Katla will be cooked in a soup or curry or Kalia (A rich curry), Hilsa would either be steamed marinated in mustard paste, wrapped in a Taro or banana leaf, or cooked in mustard gravy, fish like Pabda and Pomfret will be in a jhaal. The fish heads are also enjoyed in muri ghonto.
Bengalis did not stop at curries and gravies; there are numerous other forms in which fish is consumed in Bengal. Yes, I am talking about cutlets and fries. Bengalis love their telebhaja or fried items. The Bong addas (Bengali style get-togethers) are incomplete without a hot cup of cha accompanied with some chop-cutlets and muri (puffed rice). No wonder fish fries and cutlets are the most loved in Bengal. Cutlets came in Bengal with the Britishers. They taught their Bengali cooks how to make the delicacies they used to have back in Britain, and then the Bong cooks improvised and added some Indian magic to it. Such an item is the popular Kolkata snack Kabiraji which got its name from the word coverage as the cutlets have a chiffonade over them made up of eggs. Back in the days, kabirajis and cutlets were extensively served in the café-style cabins in Kolkata.
While Bengalis mostly like fresh fish, they are also a sucker for fermented fish AKA’ shoontki’, especially the Bengalis from the other side of the border.
It’s All in the Geography
It’s known to all that geography plays a huge role in influencing the food and lifestyle of the inhabitants. Topographically, Bengal is interweaved by rivers like the Ganges, Damodar, Hooghly, Bhagirathi, Teesta, etc. The Bay of Bengal is also there, creating the great Ganges-Brahmaputra delta in the Sundarbans region, opening the possibilities of earning through fishing and foraging. Apart from that, fishing along with agriculture is done in almost all the villages of Bengal for a living. The Gangetic planes are very fertile for agriculture too. That is one of the reasons why rice and fish are still considered soul food and are available in every nook and corner.
The plenitude of water bodies like rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, and canals is one of the significant reasons why fish is an integral part of the Bengali culture.
Influenced Culture and Traditions
The geographical influence led fish to be an important part of our culture. Fish is considered lucky auspicious, and it signifies prosperity. In a Bengali wedding, a fish is sent to the bride’s house on the day of the wedding as it is believed that it would bring good luck to the couple. In the past, a guest would always get mishti (sweets) and a whole fish, especially while visiting one’s in-laws. Some parts of Bengal relishes ‘jora-ilish’ or two hilsas on the day of Saraswati puja. Often Bengalis are backlashed for eating non-veg during Durga Puja or offering fish to God. No wonder we cannot live without fish as it is not just food for us but a vital part of our culture. In the famous Tarapith Mandir, one of the 51 Shakti peeths (situated in Tarapith, a town in the district of Birbhum, W.B.), Maa Tara or goddess Kali is offered fish in bhog every day, and it is a tradition there.
Hilsa is called the silver crop in both east and west Bengal, i.e., Bengal and Bangladesh. Monsoon is the time of Hilsa, and one can witness Ilish Utsavs or Hilsa festivals happening here and there in West Bengal.
With time, geography blended into the culture that created customs and thus became a habit. A habit of consuming fish almost every day. Still, most households have vegetarian food at least once a week where even onion and garlic are considered non-veg for their warming properties.
Conclusion – Why Is Fish Popular In Bengal
I, too, as a Bengali, cannot help but associate myself with fish. I am not a big fan, and that would definitely raise a few Bengali eyebrows, but I consider myself lucky to be a part of such a community that takes food so seriously and cares about it so much. There is a good thing about food-loving communities – they would never insult or tolerate any insult to their food. In my opinion, a diverse country like India can only be united by the love for food of different communities. Respect for food is synonymous with respect for other communities. Thus, Bengalis love their fish, food, and that too unapologetically.