Bengal's Food History - Part 1

For centuries, Bengali cuisine has been synonymous with fish and rice. Bengalis are the third largest ethnic group in the world after the Han Chinese and Arabs, a fact which still startle a lot of Bengalis. When people talk about Bengal, they usually mention the British colonial rule, the Howrah Bridge, the Durga Puja, Rabindranath Tagore and many such stereotyped notions. However, there is more to Bengal.





Once upon a time, Bengal was a vast region. In the Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, Bengal in prehistorical times has been described as such — “Physically, the Bengal delta is a flat, low-lying floodplain in the shape of a great horseshoe, its open part facing the Bay of Bengal to the south. Surrounding its rim to the west, north, and east are disconnected hill systems, out of which flow some of the largest rivers in southern Asia — the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna. Wending their way slowly over the delta’s flat midsection, these rivers and their tributaries deposit immense loads of sand and soil, which over millennia have gradually built up the delta’s land area, pushing its southern edge ever deeper into the bay. In historical times, the rivers have been natural arteries of communication and transportation, and they have defined Bengal’s physical and ancient cultural subregions — Varendra, the Bhagirathi-Hooghly basin, Vanga, Samatata, and Harikela.”


Because of such an abundance of rivers flowing through the region, the people living in the delta never had to look elsewhere or travel in search of food. Moreover, the region enjoyed four seasons. There isn’t enough documentation of the food and cuisine of the region prior to the 12th century, and much before the conquest of the land by foreigners. However, whatever materials are available, the historical Bengal delta was vastly an agrarian one. 


One has to look at history, dating back to the early Indo-Aryan times, to understand the influence of culture and religion on Bengal and its food culture.


The Indo-Aryan Movement


There are archaeological evidences that rice-cultivating communities inhabited modern-day Burdwan District in West Bengal, India in second millennium B.C. People in the region practised shifting cultivation, burning patches of forest and prepared the soil with hoes. Excavated sites have concluded that the people seeded dry rice and small millets by broadcast or with dibbling sticks and harvested crops. Stone blades were found at the excavated sites. Permanent field agriculture came much later.


According to historical references, the people of the region or some of it were Proto-Munda. Munda is a family of language spoken by around 10 million people in modern-day regions of India and Bangladesh. There are suggestions of Proto-Munda speakers as early as 1500 B.C. and there are evidences of grain cultivation — rice, different types of millers and minimum three types of legumes. 


In the book “Proto-Munda Cultural Vocabulary: Evidence for Early Agriculture,” in Austroasiatic Studies, ed. Philip N. Jenner, Laurence C. Thompson, and Stanley Starosta, pt. 2 (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1976), 1324, the authors write that Munda terms for uncooked, husked rice (Oryza sativa). 


Events took place somewhere around 6th and 5th centuries B.C. which changed the Bengal region’s cultural history on the west of the delta — “in the middle Gangetic Plain, where the practice of shifting cultivation gradually gave way to settled farming, first on unbunded permanent fields and later on bunded, irrigated fields.”


It is likely that prior to the changes, rice cultivation was managed by singular families. However, it soon shifted to “wet rice production on permanent fields”. The region was thick with marshes and forests due to ample annual rainfall. To establish permanent rice fields and similar arrangements for grains, these places needed to be cleared of the marshes and forests. Archaeologicalplo sources have found iron axes and plowshares from 500 B.C. (earlier stone axes were used). These tasks required massive labour and animal support. Irrigation technology was introduced. Thus, agriculture became a communal activity.

Picture is from Purba Bardhaman Zilla Parishad website


The region saw massive growth and increased agricultural activity and production. The hard-alluvial soil of the river plains supported the community. An advanced rice cultivation technique also was noticed in the middle Gangetic region around 500 B.C.. Transplanting rice seedings gave way to primitive techniques. Rice was the main grain for these communities and it still remains.


Indo-Aryan migration into Bengal perhaps is of greater importance than the advent of the Europeans. From 12th century B.C. onwards, there was a gradual shift of Indo-Aryan migration from the western part of the Indian subcontinent towards the Bengal Delta region. Around 10th to 8th centuries B.C. there was a migration from Punjab and Haryana regions towards modern-day Uttar Pradesh and around 7th to 6th centuries B.C. towards the eastern part of U.P. and northern Bihar. 


Indo-Aryans started settling along with the non-Aryans in the various regions of the Gangetic plain and pushing further across the Bengal delta. These migrations led to dramatic and magnanimous cultural exchange. The descendants of wheat and barley cultivators from regions of Punjab were now cultivating wet rice. They further joined hands with local non-Aryans in expanding the regions rice cultivation — removing marshes and forests for agriculture. The previously areas of Videha (northern Bihar) were now ready for agriculture; and for the local non-Aryans, they also got acclimatized with various Indo-Aryan methods and food. 


Mauryan Empire

Political territories and smaller kingdoms cropped up. These led to wars between newly formed kingdoms and ultimately the birth of the Mauryan Empire. The birth of the Mauryan empire brought about significant and important improvements in Bengal. The main political city of Mauryas was Magadha which was west of modern-day Bengal. These led to further advancement in the region. It was during these times that the first urban civilization in the Bengal region has been noted. 


“Pundra or Pundranagara — a city named after the powerful non-Aryan people inhabiting the delta’s northwestern quadrant, Varendra, became the capital of the Mauryas’ easternmost province.”


There is a limestone tablet that dates to the 3rd century B.C. It is an imperial order for the governor of the region to distribute food to the local people who were affected by famine (possibly due to the Kalinga Wars).  


The Bengal Delta witnessed a series of events since the migration of Indo-Aryans and the birth of numerous smaller kingdoms along with the Mauryan Empire. It was also during these centuries, the region experienced Buddhism (from 3rd century B.C. to mainly 7th or 8th century A.D.). Compared to the hierarchical society of the Indo-Aryans, a much more egalitarian and ethic-based philosophies of Buddhism helped itself spread far and wide — much farther into the east. Buddhism was adopted as the imperial religion and due to its important status in the courts, it expanded beyond the Indian subcontinent.


However, as Buddhism expanded, it started fading in Eastern India — where it was born. It was the Brahmins of the Indo-Aryan race whom the inhabitants of the land felt more closer to. This was further strengthened by the fact that the Indo-Aryans had earlier brought about technological advancement in agricultural growth. 


Rice was and still remains the staple food of the region. Ghee with steaming hot rice was a common delicacy. According to tales of Chandsawdagar, the legendary trader, the people ate different kinds of vegetables like pumpkins, bitter gourd, lotus roots, stems of plants, jackfruits among many — food mainly native to the region. Due to strict Hindu beliefs, cow’s meat was prohibited. Moreover, the prohibition of taking life and consuming cow’s meat came from the cross-pollination of Indo-Aryan culture and from the ethics of Buddhism. Although consuming chicken and mutton or goat and fish spread among the Brahmins and upper caste who came to live among the delta. Fish was widely available and was a rich source of protein. Famous Bengali food historian Chitrita Banerji wrote that fish is “a symbol of prosperity and fertility and touches many aspects of ceremonial and ritual life in Bengal.”


Food offerings to God and deities were part of the culture. It was widely believed that offering food which wasn’t native to the region and indigenous was unacceptable and immoral. 


The Durga Puja spread at Chhatu Babu Latu Babu. Photo is by Ashok Nath Dey of Hindustan Times.
The Durga Puja spread at Chhatu Babu Latu Babu. Photo is by Ashok Nath Dey of Hindustan Times.

As the Mauryan empire started declining following the reign of Ashoka, foreign kings saw this as an opportunity to conquer the rich and vast land of the Indian subcontinent. The Bengal delta had shrunk due to divisions of the vast land over the centuries. Since the Indo-Aryan migration, several kingdoms had been formed and the fall of the Mauryan empire was a perfect opportunity for the invaders. While the Indo-Greek kingdoms spread across the west and north of the Indian subcontinent, Bengal witnessed the Pala and Chandra dynasties among others to rule over the land. 


Despite all these, the economy flourished further in Bengal. In 851, an Arab geographer Ibn Khurdadhbih talked about rich cotton textiles being produced in the Pala region. He described its beauty as unparalleled. Such produces attracted traders from various parts of the Indian subcontinent — from as far as the Middle East and Persia. 


Traders from the Indo-Greek kingdoms and Arab and Persia converged upon the land. The traders brought spices and herbs with them. Some texts record the local people of Bengal consuming tamarind. The word tamarind comes from the Arabic — thamari-i-hind — which means fruit of India. 


Although Garlic has been discovered in the clay pots of the Indus Valley Civilization, there isn’t any reference of the herb in local Bengal dishes around that time. Even onion does not find its place in the local dishes of the region. Plus, onion was prohibited by Brahmins in food. It is likely that somewhere around the 2nd century B.C. and 3rd century A.D. onion came to India and eventually to Bengal.


Around 956 A.D. Arab geographer, Mas‘udi records Muslims living in Bengal. They came from Samatata in the southeast of the delta which was ruled by Chandra, another Bengali Buddhist dynasty. 


The Chandras empire attracted many traders and visitors because they controlled the seaport. Also, compared to the Pala’s cowrie shells being used for commercial transactions, the Chandras used silver coinage. Over the centuries, the region saw an influx of Arab and Persian cultures with the local Indo-Aryan and Buddhist society before the Turks and Mughals came to rule over the land and brought over a massive culinary change.


The advent of the Mughals


The Indo-Aryan migration helped the region’s agricultural advancement and transformation. It also taught the natives how to consume food and in which and what order. Since the Indo-Aryan movement, food became the central reason for natives following and adopting a newer way of life. Food and the way of life till the 12th century had been structured by the Indo-Aryan movement. 


Sacrifice as an offering to the gods had almost disappeared when emperor Ashoka adopted Buddhism. Violent and selfish sacrifices were replaced by donations and gifts to the gods. However, the Vijaya Sena of the Sena dynasty — whose origin lies in the South Indian state of Karnataka — believed in sacrificial offerings. 


Although animal sacrifices had decreased during the Mauryan empire, during the Sena reign, it made a considerable return to the culture. Animal sacrifices are very much common even in modern-day Bengal. In 2019, around 1200 goats were sacrificed in North Dinajpur temples as offerings to Goddess Kali. These meats are then consumed by the devotees. 



Historical evidence indicates that there was a clear difference in the culture and way of living on the western and north-western regions of Bengal to its eastern delta. The Northwestern and western regions were much more influenced by the Indo-Aryan way of living. While the eastern part remained less influenced by the reformed Indo-Aryan culture and the growing influence of Vedic Hinduism. 


Although there are references of people of Arab and Persian ethnicity being present in the region around 7th century A.D. and 8th century A.D., they were mostly traders travelling to the region because of cotton and textiles and in no way whatsoever influenced the culinary change. 


Ethnic Turks by origin, the Ghaznavids (962–1186) revived much of the Persian language and culture in Khurasan. The rulers adopted the Persian language for public purposes, and even court etiquette and one could see Persian aesthetic promoted in art, calligraphy, architecture, and handicrafts. 


The Ghaznavids were the first who carried Perso-Islamic civilization to India. A decade after they established their rule in Delhi, in 1204, Muhammad Bakhtiyar’s cavalry captured the western Sena city of Nadiya. Till the Bengal Sultanate was formed in 1342, the region enjoyed the pre-Muslim Persian culture — monarchy and statecraft, dependence on slaves for domestic, military and political services and a monetized and commercial economy. An already flourishing region, despite the continuous battles for supremacy over the region, extended Bengal’s growth.


The influence of the Persian culture is found in the Bengal Sultanate. However, one could also find many foreign cultures slowly mixing with the locals. It was mainly due to the concept of bringing in slaves from Central Asia or other parts of North India for military purposes. 


It was during the Bengal Sultanate years that ‘Betel Nuts’ are seen to be offered to guests. The influx of ‘imported military slaves’ existed in the Bengal region till Akbar conquered. Even before the British and colonial rulers imported slaves, it was the Muslim rulers who brought over Abyssinians for military purposes.


A 16th-century Portuguese illustration of "People of the Kingdom of Bengal"



Till Akbar’s Mughal reign started, under the rule of the Bengal Sultanate, the region underwent a massive transformation. Islam was adopted by many and had become the imperial rule replacing Buddhism.


Even though the Persian influx had already happened in Bengal, it wasn’t until the Mughal reign that the foreign culture was adopted by local Hindus and Muslims. It came much with the fact that the Mughals saw the natives of the place as inferior and shabby. Feeling alienated, the Mughals decided to change the culture of the land.


Before the Mughals came to Bengal, the region had majorly remained isolated from the rest of India. One of the 12 provinces, Bengal was now administered by imperial Mughal soldiers. However, the new rulers didn’t feel attached to Bengal and its culture. 


The advent of the Mughals increased the manufacturing of goods for the imperial courts in North India. The conquerors also exploited the delta’s forests, moving further eastwards and inwards. It totally changed the landscape of the region. 


Bengal was always a temporary abode for imperial soldiers, officers, merchants and others who visited the region. There were more immigrants than locals. Moreover, there was much discord among the imperial officers. The officers found a great difference in terms of the culture of North India and the isolated Bengal region. 


For example, the region’s staple diet was rice and fish. However, most of the imperial officials were wheat and meat-eating people. The delta’s diet of fish and rice disagreed with many immigrants who were brought up on wheat and meat, basic to the diet in North India. 


Richard Eaton, in The Rise of Islam and Bengal Frontier, writes, “Written in 1786, the Riyāẓal-Salāṭīn faithfully reflects the ashrāf perspective regarding Bengali culture, and reads almost like a colonial British manual on how to survive “amongst the natives”: And the food of the natives of that kingdom, from the high to the low, are fish, rice, mustard oil and curd and fruits and sweetmeats. They also eat plenty of red chilly and salt. In some parts of this country, salt is scarce. The natives of this country are of shabby tastes, shabby habits and shabby modes of dress. They do not eat breads of wheat and barley at all. Meat of goats and fowls and clarified butter do not agree with their system.”


“Mughal officers also associated Bengalis with fishermen, whom they openly despised. Around 1620 two imperial commanders, aiming to belittle the martial accomplishments of one of their colleagues, taunted the latter with the words: ‘Which of the rebels have you defeated except a band of fishermen who raised a stockade at Ghalwapara?’ In reply, the other observed that even the Mughals’ most formidable adversaries in Bengal, ‘Isa Khan and Musa Khan, had been fishermen. ‘Where shall I find a Dawud son of Sulayman Karrani to fight with, in order to please you?’ he asked rhetorically, and with some annoyance, adding that it was his duty as a Mughal officer to subdue all imperial enemies in Bengal, ‘whether they are Machwas [fishermen] or Mughals or Afghans.’ In this view the only truly worthy opponents of the Mughal army were state rebels or Afghans like the Karranis; Bengalis, stereotyped as fishermen, were categorized as less worthy adversaries.”


Did you know it was Akbar who invented the modern Bengali calendar?


East of the Bengal delta under the Mughal era flourished in agricultural productivity compared to the west. This was majorly due to the change in the Bengal’s river system. 


The rich silt of the major rivers made wet rice cultivation possible. Prehistorically, the entire delta was once under the ocean. Ganga met the sea in the modern-day region of Murshidabad District. The Brahmaputra met the sea in the modern-day Rangpur District. 


East Bengal gained agricultural growth which wasn’t available in the western part of the delta. The changes are also seen in the Mughal government’s khāliṣa of the land revenue jama


British explorer and merchant Ralph Fitch is commented stating, “Great store of Cotton doth goeth from hence, and much Rice, wherewith they serve all India, Ceilon, Pegu, Malacca, Sumatra, and many other places.”


Even French navigator François Pyrard, who lived in Chittagong during the spring of 1607, wrote, “There is such a quantity of rice, that, besides supplying the whole country, it is exported to all parts of India, as well to Goa and Malabar, as to Sumatra, the Moluccas, and all the islands of Sunda, to all of which lands Bengal is a very nursing mother, who supplies them and their entire subsistence and food. Thus, one sees arrive there [i.e., Chittagong] every day an infinite number of vessels from all parts of India for these provisions.”


Richard Eaton notes in The Rise of Islam and The Bengal Frontier, “The main factors contributing to the emergence of new peasant communities in eastern Bengal—colonization, incorporation, and natural population growth—were all related to the shift of the active portion of the delta from the west to the east. First, this shift stimulated colonization of the active delta by migrants coming from the relatively less fertile upper delta or West Bengal, or even from North India and beyond. Second, as this happened, indigenous communities of fishermen and shifting cultivators became incorporated into sedentary communities that focused on the charisma and the organizational abilities of Muslim pioneers. And third, the shift of the delta’s active portion to the south and east contributed to natural population growth, since the initiation or intensification of wet rice cultivation in this region dramatically increased local food supplies. Although East Bengal’s growing fertility was too gradual to be noticed by contemporary observers, it is nonetheless witnessed in revenue demand statistics for the late sixteenth and mid-17th centuries, as well as in popular traditions that celebrated the leadership and labors of forest pioneers. The growth of a Muslim peasant society, such a striking development in the post-sixteenth-century eastern delta, thus appears to have been related to larger ecological and demographic forces.”


Birth of Anglo-Indian cuisine


By the time the East India Company took over Bengal and much of India, the delta had considerably decreased in size, moving eastward due to the ecological changes in the river system. Much before the colonization of Bengal by the British, the influence of Europeans was noticeable. Influence of French, Portuguese, Dutch and other western European culture was present. Bengal flourished due to trade and as such locals adjusted to the habits which satisfied the westerners.





Confectionaries, desserts, influence of the service à la russe style of French (food served in courses rather than all at once), the influence of local ingredients to create European dishes heralded.



However, it was the colonial rule of the Britishers which witnessed crucial culinary changes similar to that of the Indo-Aryan invasion. Long away from home, the Britishers had to adapt and adjust to local ingredients and produces. Thus, was born the Anglo-Indian cuisine which very much grew out of the erstwhile capital of British India, Calcutta. 


Since then, Bengal’s food map can be divided into three main regions — Chittagong, Dhaka and Calcutta.


Not to be forgotten is the influence of Odia cooks in Bengal. Influential Bengali families preferred cooks from Orissa for big events and ceremonies. Slowly, the subtle changes came into Bengali cooking by the Odia ‘Thakurs’. However, most of it is still contested by researchers.


The Chinese settlement in Calcutta during the 18th century brought about a new wave of dishes and spices which not only impacted Bengal’s food lovers in abundance but the rest of India.


The modern-day Bengal region doesn’t justify the vast land once it was. One has to look at it historically — the many foreign invasions, division of the region over centuries, and ecological changes — which have altered and contributed to the food habits of the region. Whether it is parts of the modern-day Bihar or West Bengal or Bangladesh or parts of the North East, it is still majorly a rice-eating population. However, much has changed. Its culinary habits are much different from the rest of India. One has to travel through the whole of West Bengal and much of East India to wholesomely enjoy the many different dishes and recipes of Bengalis and notice the differences in different regions. What one enjoys in Northern Bengal is much different from what one can enjoy in Calcutta or Dhaka.


From the next part, we will look into the famous Bengali ingredients and spices and their origins and influences.


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