Did you know that dals were virtually unknown in ancient Bengali cuisine? This is one stark difference between the ancient and contemporary foods of Bengal. The superabundant supply of fish, thanks to its terrain meshed with rivers, delayed the use of pulses as a rich source of protein. Dals made their presence felt much later, towards the sixteen century. Perhaps it was the spread of the Vaishnav Bhakti Cult whose disciples were primarily vegetarian that dals got introduced much later to the cuisine.
If there’s one thing that you cannot take away from a Bengali from, it’s fish. Let me rephrase – Name two things. Pat the answer will be “Rice and fish” unless you’ve asked a vegetarian. The other day, when Sapna, my Bengali cook walked in she was in rather high spirits. “Shubo Noboborsho! ” she said with a twinkle in her eyes and a smile that suddenly brightened up the room. The three days that she had taken off to celebrate the Bengali New Year had definitely done her good. “Quickly give me money. I’ve to buy fish. I’m going to cook you something special.” she beamed as she said it. She returned a while later with Rohu fish, with its head neatly chopped off. The rest of the body lay in a separate packet cut in uniform slices.”That’s for fish curry but why the fish head, Sapna?” I enquired. “Macher Matha Diye moong dal, Madam. I’ll put the fish head in the dal.” She smiled.
I love the Bengali cuisine for one thing particularly. They make full use of the vegetables and fish. The banana flower or Kolar Mocha can be had as fritters( Mocha bhaja) or Bengali Mocha Chingri with shrimps. The banana leaves are an integral part of rituals or for steaming food. Crisply fried banana peels make a good snack while the fruit is eaten by all. The fish head is one of the tastiest parts of the fish; enriched in flavours, tender and packed with the goodness of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, iron, zinc and calcium. While cooking, people in the north rarely use fish heads except for the occasional making of stock. In the Bengali cuisine, it is used in different ways. When the fish head is added to fried potatoes and rice it is relished as muri ghonto, with green leaves, potatoes and mixed vegetables it becomes Pui Shaak Muro Diye and when it is stirred up hot with cabbage it’s called muro diye badhakopir ghonto.
Macher matha diye dal or fish head with lentils is a piece de resistance on the table prepared with moong dal and mainly rohu fish head.The succulence of the fish head and the combination of textures created by the complex structure of it adds a different blend of chewy and brittle, soft and crunchy with the smooth taste of moong dal. Combine it with rice and fried potatoes and it’s a smooth confluence of proteins with carbohydrates. A perfect meal!