Our Food Their Food: A Historical Overview of the Bengali Platter

in Overview
Published on: 05 September 2016

Suvajit Halder

Phd scholar, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Bengal has been famous for its food and cuisine ever since the establishment of civilization in the landscape of gluttons, made up of the sovereign state of Bangladesh (earlier East Bengal or East Pakistan) and the Indian state of West Bengal, with a total area of more than 228,000 square kilometers (Banerji 2005:xx). This landscape constitutes more than 222 million people of which Bangladesh has 141 million and West Bengal 81 million, which helped the Bengali ‘nation’ to become larger than many sovereign countries (Banerji 2005).


Traditionally, Bengal has been renowned for its extraordinarily fertile agricultural land and production of paddy. At the same time, the rivers of Bengal are an apparently inexhaustible resource of different varieties of fish. That is why, from the ancient times, rice and fish emerged as the staple food for the Bengalis. Apart from fish and rice, Bengal has had a rich tradition of many vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, and most of these, such as dal (lentil soup), posto (vegetables made with poppy seeds), fish curry, and mutton curry, are consumed with rice.


Nearly 5,000 years ago, paddy cultivation came to Bengal from Southeast Asia and rice became a major calorie resource of Bengali daily life (Murshid 2008:483). Paddy cultivation is practised in Bengal three times a year. Among them aman cultivation is important, when paddy is planted during monsoon and harvested in the late autumn. The next most important plantation is aush, which is planted around May-June and harvested during August-September. The boro plantation is a relatively new practice, and has been popularized with the emergence of new irrigation techniques among the Bengali farmers. This cultivation takes place during the winter and the crop is harvested in early summer.


There are ample references scattered across Bengali texts describing rice as the primary food item in Bengali diet. A government report of the 1940s shows that in order to survive, 3600 calories were required daily, and a large section of Bengali population received 3500 calories from rice itself (Banerji 2005). Besides boiled rice, different kinds of puffed rice such as muri, khoi, and flattened rice also fulfilled the daily needs of the common Bengalis. Dal has been another source of calories among the Bengali population; surprisingly it was missing in the pages of the early Bengali texts. The first Bengali texts of the 11th century, the Charyapadas, describe fishing and hunting, and mention many kinds of food crop including rice and sugarcane, but there is no reference to any kind of dal.[1] It is only in 15th-century texts, such as the Mangalkavyasthat different kinds of dal and the process of cooking are mentioned. In respect of Bengal, Chitrita Banerji (2005) notices that it had many commonalities with other Southeast Asian countries and China, where lentils and pulses were possibly unknown except soybeans (source of tofu). Even now, a major supply of lentils comes from outside the state. She also argued that the supply of fish made dal unnecessary as a source of protein. The shift occurred with the emergence of the Vaishnava Bhakti cult whose followers were vegetarian. As a result, a substitute for fish and meat had to be discovered, which is what helped to popularize dal among Bengalis (Banerji 2005: xxviii-xxix). Khichudi, a preparation of rice and dal and some spicesoften offered to the deities as bhog, is also a significant dish in Bengal, which determines the importance of rice and dal in Bengali daily life.  



Journey through an Assimilated Taste:  Food culture in Pre-Colonial Bengal

The culinary culture of pre-colonial Bengal contained many features distinguishing it from other parts of the country. Conventionally, Bengali dishes are divided into four types, such as charbya (food which is to be chewed, like rice, fish, etc.), choṣhya (food which is to be sucked, liquids like ambal, tak etc.) lehya (food which is to be licked, like chatni) and peya (drinks, like milk) (Ray 1987, Mukhopadhyay 2007:29). Even the sequence of eating foods is also prescribed in the sacred texts of Bengal, for example, in a verse of Halayudha’s Brahmansarvasva. The Vishnupurana, compiled in northern India prescribed the eating sequence as follows: meals should start with the sweet dish followed by salty dishes and end with spicy and bitter dishes. On the contrary, Brihaddharma Purana, compiled within the territory of Bengal, prescribed that boiled rice and ghee should be consumed first, followed by spinach and rest of the vegetables, and the meal should end with milk with boiled rice (Ray 1987:5).


The gourmets of Bengal were so enthusiastic about eating that they not only prescribed the sequence of eating but they left behind plentiful texts where different Bengali food items and dishes were mentioned. A verse from the Prakritapaingala, composed approximately in the 13th century by anonymous authors, depicts the interesting eating culture of that time. The verse says:

oggarabhatta rambhaapatta, gaika ghitta dugdhasajutta |

mainimaccha ṇalichagaccha, dijjai kanta kha punabanta ||

[‘Fortunate is the man whose wife serves him on a banana leaf some hot rice with ghee, mourala fish, fried leaf of jute plant,[2] and some hot milk’ (Banerji 2005:23).


Shriharsha’s Naishadhacharita, a Sanskrit mahakavya composed in the 12th century, provides the picture of the Bengali eating culture.[3] In this text, Nala and Damayanti are the protagonists. At their wedding feast, different dishes are served, such as cooked vegetables, fish, mutton, deer meat, different varieties of pitha (a kind of sweet dish), flavoured drinks and tambul or pan. Bhavadeva Bhatta, in a text called Prayashcittaprakarana depicts some aspects of the Bengali cuisine. He describes how rice, fish, meat[4], different milk products, shak (varieties of spinach)[5], vegetables[6], and fruits[7] dominated Bengali eating culture at that time. According to him, there was no prohibition on the brahmins’ consumption of non-vegetarian food (Ray 1987:4–5). Jimutavahana, a 12th-century poet, in his Kalaviveka shows that the hilsa fish and its oil (in which the fish is fried) were popular in Bengal (Ray 1987:4). In Brihaddharmapurana, it is said that the brahmins widely consumed white-scaled fishes such as ruhipunti and shakul etc. Sarvananda, in Tikasarvasva, shows the passion and love of east Bengalis for shutkimachh (dried fish) (Ray 1987:4). Among the spices, he said that marich (pepper), pippalilabanga (long or clove), jirak (jeera or cumin), ela, jafran (saffron), ada (adrak or ginger), karpur (camphor), jaifal (nutmeg), hing (asafoetida) were popular in Bengali cooking (Ray 1987:5).


Sukumar Sen (1943) provides detailed information regarding popular Bengali food culture. For example nādu (a kind of hard sweet, referred to in Sanskrit as ladduka), moya (a kind of soft sweet, in Sanskrit called modaka), khaja (a crunchy soft sweet), khar (sweet made of sugar), fani (sugar-made sweet), kadma (sweet made with sugar, which looks like a kadamba flower), pitha (in Sanskrit called pishtaka, a sweet cake made with rice powder, raw-sugar, ghee and oil), dudshakar (a porridge made with rice, sugar and milk), khirish (sweet prepared by kheer), shikharini (a dish prepared with ghee, curd, molasses and ginger) were very popular at that time. Apart from these, hadus, vadus or olava (prepared with roasted wheat, gram, barley flame), bharti (shikkabab, meat roasted on metalware) and orsia (chatni) were very popular.


Mukundaram Chakravarti, in Chandimangal (16th century), mentioned multiple vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Among those, shukto (a bitter dish), prepared with neem leaf, seem, Indian pumpkin (chalkumro) and brinjal, were significant. Apart from this, jute leaf fried in ghee, kusumbari (sundried cake made of lentils, mainly biulir dal, generally fried in oil), prawn, chital fish fried in mustard oil and hog-plum with palang (spinach), fig with prawn, chaltar jhol (kind of soup), puishak (bassela), fulbori (this is also a designed item prepared with lentil, consumed after frying it with oil) and kachur tarkari (preparation of an esculent edible root) were very popular at that time. Mukundaram Chakravarti compiled his collection of verses in the region of Medinipur. So, it is fair to assume that Mukundaram depicted in his verses the common food culture of that region.


In another episode of Mukumdaram’s Chandimangal, he provides detailed descriptions of Bengali dishes such as fulbori, small fish chachchari, fried saral puti and prawn, khoi (kind of puffed rice), sugar and curd made with buffalo milk, ripe chaltaamsi (dried green mango), kasundi (a sauce made with mustard powder), karanjar tak (sour soup), dishes made with  thod, fig and prawn, bora (a kind of chop) made with prawn, burned fish with jamirer ros (lime juce), burned porcupine quill, mango with lentil, and other things like kheerpitha made with coconut and til, which were general ceremonial food items at that time.


In a section of the Chandimangal, Mukundaram narrates a story where Phullara prepares some dishes for one of the main protagonists, Kalketu. They include boiled broken rice, lentil boiled in water with some spices and bottle gourd, burned native potato and ol (an Indian vegetable), kachu and amda, and ambal (sour soup). In the end, the protagonist took haritaki (black myrobalan). Another version of this text depicts other dishes in the same episode, including deer meat, burned mongoose and kachur ghanto with amra.[8]


Other mangalkavyas such as Dharmamangal and Padmapuran also discussed the popular dishes in medieval Bengal. In Manik Gangopadhyay’s Dharmamangal, mutton, spinaches, shukta, luchi (cake made by frying wheat flour in oil) and nadu were mentioned as popular food items. Narayanadeva, in Padmapuran, mentions a list of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes at Behula’s wedding. For example, shukto prepared with boiled cane leaf, fried jute leaf, helencha (Indian spinach) fried in ghee, the upper end of the bottle-gourd plant, mung dal (kind of pigeon-pea) and muger bodi, tilbada and tilkumdasingari fried in ghee, mauya aloo, paltar shak and shuktoni with ginger savour, ambal made with ripe banana, chital peti (a part of the fish’s body) fried with byasan, morich diye magur machher jhal (a kind of fish preparation with pepper), fried koi fish with dust of cumin and mahasholer ambal (a sour preparation of a fish), prawn raslashmashkalai pulse with rohu fish’s head, shuktoni made with  pabda fish with ginger savour, boyal machher jhati, fried hilsa fish, shol fish, bhangan fish, ritha, putha, and large prawn fry, mutton, deer meat, pigeon, and turtle were very popular at that time. Among sweet dishes pitha made with kheerchandrapuli, manohara, nalbora, chandrakanti, patpitha were very popular at that time (Narayana Deva 1942:56–57).


Even in the late 18th century the eating culture remained mostly unchanged. In a late 18th-century text titled Annadamangal authored by Bharatchandra Ray, a substantial description of medieval Bengali dishes is given by the poet. There is an episode where the deity Annapurna prepares certain dishes. Among them, 23 types of vegetarian dish are mentioned such as sarsadi, ghanta, different types of fried spinach, thick soup of gram pulse, arahad, mug, mas, barbati, batul, and matar dal, bada, badi, banana, radish, coconut fry, milk and dalna prepared with thod, shuktoni, jackfruit seeds with sugar, bottle-gourd with til and pithali, brinjal, and preparations of pumpkin. Among the non-vegetarian dishes were katla, fried chital fish, koi, magur and shol fish, boiled turtle egg (ganga fal) and the various meat preparations like shik pora (meat burnt in a spit, later known as kabab).  Apart from these dishes there were some other unconventional dishes such as preparations with bamboo flower, and dalkachu and odkachu (Bose 2004:355–57).


The aforesaid texts were compiled between the 12th and 18th centuries. With the establishment of Islamic rule in Bengal the eating culture gradually took a different shape. Many new food items, such as watermelon, pomegranate, pulaobiriyanikebab, kofta and kaliya were introduced by the Turks. There is confusion still existing regarding onion and garlic: whether these items were imported from the outside or these were indigenous to India. But it is clear that the use of these items in the daily cooking was introduced after the coming of Islam. However, the process of transformation in taste did not occur in a very linear way, especially in a society like Bengal, where inhaling the smell of prohibited food could lead to degradation in caste status or expulsion from the religious community. Therefore this process took a very slow path to unfold. According to Ghulam Murshid, it was the lower classes who initially adopted the new food culture brought by Islamic rulers. After that, through the high class converts to Islam, this culture spread among other classes of Bengal (Murshid 2008:491–92).   


Taste in Transition: Food Culture During the Colonial Era

From the late 18th century, with the expansion of British paramountcy in Bengal, a transformation in the eating culture began, which reached its culmination during the early 20th century. That is why a broad idea of the traditional food can help us to identify the complex process of transformation within the Bengali culinary culture during the 19th century.        


From the late 15th century European ships from various countries began to touch the shores of India in order to establish mercantile relations with Indians. The art of cartography and the voyages undertaken by the Iberians during the 15th century opened up new sea routes from the west to different corners of the globe. The Portuguese were the first to set their foot on the Indian subcontinent, gradually followed by the Dutch, French, Danes and the British. On the other hand, America and different parts of Africa also became colonies of these European powers, from where colonizers extracted various kinds of commodities. For instance, the bullion exported from the Americas was used to pay for the spice carried away from the east. Apart from these precious items, the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to arrive, also brought along with them some new vegetables and food items such as potato, chili pepper, okra, tomato, cauliflower, cabbage, bread, cheese, jelly and biscuits (Habib 2014:54–60, Sen 1997). But notably, those new vegetables and food items were not so popular[9] until the British became the administrators of Bengal and promoted those things for mass consumption (Ray 2009).


Collin Taylor Sen in an article entitled 'The Portuguese Influence on Bengali Cuisine' provides a table where she mentioned the names of different fruits and vegetables brought by the Portuguese and usages of these items in Bengali daily life.


Some Plants Introduced by the Portuguese in Bengal and their Use in Bengali Cuisine

English name (Botanical Name)

Bengali name


Use in Bengali cuisine






Hijli badam. Native of S.E. Brazil, introduced to the west coast of India to check soil erosion. Today India is the world leader in its production.

'Kaju' is Portuguese corruption of Brazilian 'acajau.' 'Hijli' is a coastal region in Bengal where the cashew is grown.


Pineapple (ananas



Introduced in Bengal in 1594 from Brazil.


Fresh in chutney


(arachis hypogaea)

Chinar Badam

Introduced from America, perhaps via Africa. The Bengali name means 'Chinese nut' which indicates that it could have arrived via Manila or China. However, 'Chinese' is also an adjective used by Bengalis to denote anything foreign.




(carica papaya)


Originated in Central America. Came to India via

Philippines (where the Spanish brought it)

and Malaysia.

Unripe as vegetable.

Paste used as meat


Mangosteen (garcinia mangostana)


Mangustan was brought from Malacca


Sweet Potato (impoaoea batatas)

Ranga alu, chine alu

Introduced from Africa or Brazil. Bengali name means 'red potato'

Vegetable dishes, shrimp dishes

Potato (solanum


Alu; bilayati alu

('European potato')

The Spanish brought the first potatoes to Europe in 1570. On the west coast of India, it is called batata (sweet potato). In 1780, a basket of potatoes was presented to Sir Warren Hastings in Calcutta. It was grown in the foothills of the Himalayas in the 1830s. By 1860, potatoes had become popular in Calcutta, although orthodox people avoided them until [the 20th] century.

Vegetable dishes, dried and with gravy; in shuktoposhto. In curries with meat and seafood. Filling for samosas.




bilayati begoon

('European eggplant')

Originated in Mexico or Peru. Came via England in the late 18th century

Chutney. Flavouring for



(capsicum frutescens)


The Bengali name indicates it may have come via Sri Lanka. Originated in Central America.

Spread rapidly in India as substitute for long or black pepper. By the mid-16th century, Europeans were calling it 'Calcutta pepper.'

Fresh, dried, and powdered. Used for flavouring and decoration.

Custard Apple

(anona squamosa)


Native to S. America, came to India from West Indies via the Cape of Good Hope or the Philippines.

Naturalized in Bengal


Tobacco (nicotiana tabacum)






Introduced into South India by the Portuguese in the early 16th century.



(psidium guyava)


May have originated in Peru. Known in Eastern India as early as 1550. Widely grown in Bengal.

Eaten as fruit. Also

Guava cheese, jelly

Corn or Maize

(zea maya)


Originated in Central America. Achaya notes temple carvings from 12th Century A.D. showing what he claims are corn cobs.

Roasted and eaten on the cob, usually purchased from street sellers.


(manilkara achras)


The bark of the tree yields chicle used by Aztecs for chewing; hence Bengali 'chiku'. Brought from Mozambique to Goa or Phillipines to Malaysia, and then to the east coast



(niphelium litcvhi)


Native to southern China. The Portuguese brought it to Bengal at end of the 19th century.

Eaten as fruit. Goans make litchi wine

Okra, Lady’s





Probably from Africa

Popular vegetable.

Fried, cooked in stews


Apart from these vegetables many other food items also came with the Europeans. In 1660, the famous French traveler Francois Bernier, describing his visit to Bengal, mentioned that in Bengal the supply of inexpensive biscuits to the crews of European ships was very common (Achaya 1991:193). This indicates that the small-scale production of biscuits had already started in Bengal during the 17th century. The industrial production of biscuits was a later phenomenon and initially the Europeans imported these from outside the colony. Even in the first half of the 19th century, the Calcutta Gazette, run by W.S. Setton-Karr, started to publish advertisements regarding the sale of these food items for the Europeans. Between 1802 and 1820, at least five advertisements were published by the European companies, regarding these new food items.

1. 28th January 1802

Alexander and Co. respectfully beg leave to acquaint the gentleman of the settlement who may be placed to honour them with their commands that they will supply them with bread of the same quality as is served at the college. Alexander and Co. also beg the favour of such gentleman who may wish to employ them, to acquaint them of the same one day previous, of the number of loaves, rolls, & c. they would require on the following day.

Biscuits, by wholesale and retail of any quantity; and all orders in their lain will be punctually attended to, at their backing house.

Fronting the Apothecary’s shop, Old Fort.

(Seton-Karr 1868: 557–58).


2. A Card

The Officers of the Honble Companys ship Thomas Grenvill, beg leave to inform their friends and the Public in general, that their Hams and Cheese are now for sale, at No. 4 Olf Post Office Street, at One Rupee Eight Annas per pound, in the highest scale of preservation.

31st December 1810.

(Sandeman 1868:441).


3. For Sale.

Soda Water, from Schweppe & Co.

Jos. Taylor and Co. have for sale a small quantity of soda water, in Stone Quarts and Pints, imported on the Lord Keith.

(Sandeman 1868:442)

4. Thursday, March 9, 1820

Delightfully fresh Italian Macaroni

Warranted the finest ever tasted in India.

Messrs. Tulloh and company beg respectfully to acquaint their friends that they have just received direct from Italy via Malta, a considerable supply of by far the finest real Italian pipe and ribbon Macaroni

Ever before brought to this country. It is positively a perfect treat, being of such superior flavour, and so beautifully white and plump when dressed

Price only 2 rupees 8 annas per pound.

Tank Square,

9th March, 1820. 

(Sandeman 1869:630)


Gradually, from the second half of the 19th century, Europeans, Muslims, and lower-caste Hindus also started to establish bakeries and manufacturing workshops in the colony. In 1841, at Old Court Street, Calcutta, a hotel-cum-bakery was established by David Wilson, named Auckland Hotel (Ray 2009:56), which later became known as the Wilsons Hotel. In 1881 another famous bakery was started, named Federico Peliti. In 1887, Grish Chandra Mondal set up a tandoor in Central Calcutta for making deshi biscuits. After five years he was joined by his neighbour, N.N. Gupta, and this firm was known as V.S. Brothers.  After a few years the factory shifted to Dum Dum. In 1897, this factory came up with a new name, Gupta and Company, and a new brand, the Hindu Biscuits. The company primarily manufactured Western style biscuits, but because of the brand name, during the Swadeshi movement the company received considerable impetus. During World War I, it changed its name to Britannia Biscuits Co. (Achaya 1991:194). Till date it is one of the most dominant biscuit brands in India.    


Furthermore, for the promotion of these bakeries, they published advertisements in several all-India English newspapers such as The Times of India.  The state sometimes organized exhibitions to promote them. After winning four gold medals from such exhibitions, Federico Peliti issued an advertisement in The Times of India for promoting his bakery (Peliti 1888:7). On the other hand, several other companies based in Europe also published their advertisements in such newspapers. In 1888, a London-based company named Werner and Peleiderer advertised in The Times of India where they promoted their bread making machine by arguing that their machine '[i]s the best and most reliable, especially for colonial use.'[10]


The introduction of these items in Bengali society was not going on in a smooth way.[11]  But in the case of popularization among the Bengali middle class it had to face much resistance from the rigid sections of the society. So to sideline the orthodox beliefs, the middle class sometime took innovative steps. For example, it was a tradition that Bengalis did not consume un-sacrificed or britha meat. So, when meat consumption increased, some butcher shop owners started to worship Kali idols in their shops to guarantee the sacrality of the meat (Nag 2012:80). These shops are still visible in different parts of Kolkata. To incorporate these items into the platter, sometimes the middle class changed the contents or consumed them in different ways. As Sukumar Sen has shown in his book, sometimes the French omelet became ‘mamlet’ with the touch of the Bengalis. Some food items retained the same name but took different shapes, for example, the chop. In the case of chaap, the large pieces of meat were replaced with small pieces. Sometimes even European food items were discovered in Calcutta, such as egg devil, where small pieces of meat were poured into the eggs (Sen 2013:69).


The responses from the middle class Bengalis towards these food items were even more interesting, because they help us to understand the contradiction between orthodox Bengali culture and the new western ideas. The educated, ‘enlightened’ Bengali middle class not only imbibed the new taste of these items but very often used these items as emblems of liberation and freedom from caste barriers and traditional taboos. To describe the reform activities of the Young Bengal group, The Oriental Magazine reported in 1843 that '[Young Bengal] cutting their way through ham and beef, and wading to liberalism through tumblers of beer' (Sarkar 1985:18).

Rajnarayan Basu’s (1826–1899) autobiography is an important text to understand the contradiction between the ‘western modern’ and the ‘alternative modern.’ Rajnarayan Basu, a famous Brahmo leader, in his autobiographical sketch, wrote that in his college days he often consumed brandy as an emblem of progress and civilization. Even when he became a Brahmo, he consumed biscuits and sherry as a protest against casteism, because at that time the industry of bread and biscuits was primarily run by lower castes or Muslims in Bengal. In his words:


Our house then was in Pataldanga. I used to drink at Goldighi with our neighbour Ishwar Chandra Ghoshal (he was Deputy Magistrate of Shantipur for a long time), Prasanna Kumar Sen, Nandalal Mitra and others. There were a few sheekh-kebab shops at the place where the Senate House has now been built. We used to jump over the fence at Goldighi (being in too much of a hurry to go through the gate) and go to the shops to buy kebabs which we afterwards ate. My friends and I used to take the consumption of meat and waterless brandy to be the greatest example of civilization and social reform. (Basu 2013:41-42)


Describing his brahmo oath taking ceremony, he narrates:


On the day when I signed the oath (in the beginning of 1846) and received Brahmoism, I was accompanied by a couple of other adults from my village. That day, we celebrated our new religion with biscuits and sherry. This was to show that we did not believe in distinctions of caste or creed. This tradition began with Rammohon Roy and continued till our time, but it was not everybody who became a Brahmo that followed this custom. (Basu 2013:44)


Rajnarayan Basu consciously used foreign food items such as biscuits and sherry as the emblem of progress and modernity to defy orthodox social norms and beliefs. By doing so he consumed Western modernity, as argued by Timothy Mitchell while talking about how the people of the non-West mimic western concept of modernity (Mitchell 2000:1–2). However, this same person in 1874 wrote an essay 'Se Kal ar e Kal' where he criticized the Bengali babus who blindly followed western etiquette and food habits. In this essay he depicted a story of two Bengali babus and their beef-eating episode in Wilsons Hotel. The story goes like this:


Two Bengali gentlemen were once dining at Wilson’s Hotel. One of them was especially addicted to beef. He asked the waiter, ‘Do you have veal?’ The waiter replied, ‘I’m afraid not, sir.’ The gentlemen asked again, ‘Do you have beef steak?’ The waiter replied, ‘Not that either, sir.’ The gentleman asked again, ‘Do you have ox tongue?’ The waiter replied, ‘Not that either, sir.’ The gentleman asked again, ‘Do you have calf’s foot jelly?’ The waiter replied, ‘Not that either, sir.’ The gentleman said, ‘Don’t you have anything from the cow?’ Hearing this, the second gentleman, who was not so partial to beef, said with some irritation, ‘Well, if you have nothing else from a cow, why not get him some dung?’ (Chatterjee 1997:8)


This story primarily criticized the practice of beef eating among Bengali babus. According to Basu, the over-consumption of beef was the primary reason behind the scarcity of milk and other milk products. He argued that beef produced excessive heat in the body and advised not imitating the British officers who consumed beef in excess. Basu not only criticized the imitation of beef eating but he also strongly criticized the imitation of western lifestyles. He argued that the imitation of western lifestyle destroyed the health of the Bengalis, and presented the traditional lifestyle as an alternative and ideal one which could improve their health (Basu 1956:139). Rajnarayan Basu’s attitude represents the process of the production of alternative modernity in the East by some colonial subjects, as Partha Chatterjee has argued in his famous article 'Our Modernity' (Chatterjee 1997). Although, it must be noted that between the 19th and 20th centuries only a small section of the middle class and individuals like Swami Vivekananda and Prafulla Chandra Roy represented their tradition as against the European modern. On the contrary, the other section of the middle class, including people such as Nabinchandra Sen and Bipin Chandra Pal, still imitated the Western concept of modernity in their lifestyle. So, from the 19th century onwards these two strands of modernity existed in parallel. Sometimes they clashed with each other, while at other times they were independent.


In his autobiography Amar Jiban, Nabinchandra Sen (1847–1909) narrates a similar kind of story. According to him the primary force which made him a Brahmo was none other than bread, because in Brahmoism there was no restriction on the consumption of bread. In his words:


But, Ananda babu made me realize that this great ‘poem’ has deep connotations. How can an idol, which human beings create with straw and clay, be God? This kind of image worship is ‘idolatry’—a superstition—neglect of God. He also made me realize that becoming a Brahmo gives an opportunity to eat … loaves of bread. There was no need of any more logic for a glutton like me to realize or digest the glory of Brahmaism and its truth. Since I came to the city from the village, I believe this great circular thing called bread as the sacred fruit of immortality in the Kali Age. Hara Chandra Ray, the leading zamindar of my native place, used to treat his friends every winter in a feast of bread made by the Brahmins. Fearing that the boys may renounce their religion after tasting this rare item, he did not allow us to join the feast. My father highly praised it. Harachandra Ray made the same mistake which the Biblical God made and the normative text writers made. Had god not prohibited the fruit of the Tree of wisdom, had the authors of the normative texts allowed the Hindus to eat bread and chicken, had Harachandra Ray let me taste that Brahmin made bread even once, then I would not have become a Brahma and fallen from the Hinduism of the Bangabasi just for the sake of bread. This is the misery of bad luck. I accepted to become a Brahma by succumbing to this great temptation. (Sen 1974: 188–89)


In 1860, Madhusudan Dutt (1824–1873), in his satirical play Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata? illustrated the responses of the Bengali middle-class youth. In this work, a Vaishnava man follows some young people to learn about their activities. Among those young men was one named Kali, who suggested to his friends to feed that Vaishnava some fowl cutlet and mutton chop so that his life becomes meaningful (Dutt 1999:247). In the 19th century, Vaishnavas did not consume any kind of non-vegetarian dishes and specifically those items which were made by the lower caste Hindus and Muslims.  The revival of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in late colonial Bengal strengthened this (Bhatia 2009).


In his autobiography Sattar Batsar, Bipin Chandra Pal (1857–1927) narrates a similar tale. In his childhood, when he was studying in school, a lemonade-producing factory was established in Sylhet. The lemonade was produced and sold by the Muslims. One day, his father got to know about this. He beat him up, because it could ruin his caste status. In another incident in Sylhet:


At this time, or a little earlier, there was a huge uproar within the Hindu society of nearby Cachar. Cachar is probably 70-75 miles from Sylhet. Still, people used to travel between the two towns, despite difficulties in communication. Almost all the servicemen of Cachar were originally from Sylhet. When the business in tea started, the people from Sylhet went to Cachar and became clerks in the tea gardens. Therefore, despite the distance, there was closeness among the Hindus of Sylhet and Cachar. When the new anglicized people of Cachar had British biscuits with tea in their fancy gatherings, it did not remain a secret in Cachar, and did not take much time to be well known in Sylhet. Both societies became furious about this unthinkable sacrilege. The sacrilegious rebels then avoided the severe punishment of expulsion from society by performing the usual penance of shaving their heads…. had it been known that the Hindu boys of Sylhet were drinking the soda-lemonade prepared by a Muslim, in large numbers, there would have been some chaos in Sylhet as well. (Pal 2013:69)


He narrates another incident. Once, when he fell seriously ill and the doctor suggested lemonade as medicine, his father did not hesitate in giving him the lemonade. He narrates:


My motions more or less stopped that time. But the thirst was very much there. The doctor suggested lemonade for quenching this thirst. The lemonade was brought from the market immediately. The same lemonade, touched by a Muslim, made by a Muslim, in the machine of a Muslim. My father, with his own hands, poured that lemonade in a glass and raised it to my lips. I still had not forgotten the beating I got for having the same lemonade. Now to have my revenge on my father, I turned my face and resolved amidst the room full of people not to have water touched by a Muslim. My father said that it was all right. There was no ritual restriction on medicine. In any condition medicine is as sacred as the offerings or bath water of Narayana. Medicine itself is Narayana. After a lot of pampering like this, making a lot of fuss, at last I had the Muslim made lemonade from my father’s own hand. (Pal 2013:72)


Pal gives a detailed account of the craze for bread and biscuit among themselves. He narrates two revealing stories which describe their enthusiasm. In the first story one of the main protagonists was Bipin Chandra himself, and this incident took place in Sylhet:


Already I have talked about my drinking of Muslim-made lemonade. I never had the slightest of hesitation to have that lemonade. Even the severe punishments given by my father could not create in my heart a little bit of distaste for the water touched by the Muslims. When I used to believe in deities like Durga, I wholeheartedly participated in the religious rituals of the Durga puja; I made vows to Kali with my eyes closed, when I was in a crisis. Even then I never had even a little hesitation about eating prohibited food. In my childhood, there was only one shop selling bread and biscuits in Sylhet. The same shop had atta and mayda (wheat flour), too. At that time one of our distant cousins returned from Calcutta and settled in our house at Shylet. He was slightly older than me. Probably his relatives had some business in Calcutta. For that reason he went to Calcutta for some days. In Calcutta, he had consumed the bread and biscuits of the Muslims without restriction. He initiated me and the other boys of our house to this prohibited food. We needed some paste for binding our notebooks. On the pretence of buying flour for making this paste, we used to enter the shop selling bread in the town. Though we would come out of the shop after buying flour of one paisa and holding it in our hands to show to the people, we would bring hot bread and biscuits inside our shirt pockets or inside our dhotis, and at the night, after our guardians slept, we would bring these out and have those. In this way, even while staying at Sylhet, my binding considerations of religion and caste were internally totally broken. (Pal 2013:92–93)


In another story, he narrates the craze among the students who stayed in different messes in Calcutta. In his words:


The ties of Hindu-hood had been loosened already while staying at Sylhet, it was totally gone after coming to Calcutta. I used to have food prohibited for the Hindus in secret at Sylhet, I had openly renounced considerations about edible and non-edible food after coming to Calcutta. But some residents of our hostel were not ready to renounce Hindu-hood. Probably their guardians also tried to warn and discipline them always about this. In a few days two groups were created in our hostel. One group was not ready to accept any kind of binding; the other group did not have the courage to commit any blasphemy in public in fear of society. In Sylhet, we used to eat the bread and biscuits of the Muslims secretly. Here also the ones busy to keep their shroud of Hindu-hood could not eat bread made by Brahmins in place of the bread of Mishriganj. Every afternoon the bread seller would keep the breads on the table or on the bed in every room, following prior arrangements. One afternoon a respectable Brahmin came from Sylhet to our mess to visit his relatives. There was fresh hot bread on the bed of that relative, too. Being unable to hide the bread in any other way, he sat on it. Such funny incidents would happen at times.


At that time, especially among the students from Eastern Bengal, there was an excessive love for truth. As a result there was a common perception that the anglicized babus never told lies. Many of the residents of our hostel would not want to speak a lie. Even those who did not eat the food prohibited to the Hindus were not judgmental about the difference between edible and non-edible food items. They did not have the slightest perception that one’s religion can be destroyed by eating what the Muslims ate. They did not have the courage to go against the society. They themselves frankly admitted this. On the other hand they did not want to resort to lies to save their religion. So apart from only the bread of the Muslims, they did not eat any other food prohibited to Hindus. They ate bread and biscuits because there was no chance of discussion on that in the society of Sylhet. (Pal 2013:117–18)


It is necessary to clarify that these students did not consume bread and biscuit for the sake of their health, but they had a certain kind of attraction towards these new food items.    


In a different vein, Jogendrakumar Chattopadhyay (1867–1959), a renowned journalist, in his biographical sketch, narrates a story where the renowned social reformer Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar’s consumption of bread is justified as a diet prescribed by the doctor. In his words:


I remember, once he (Vidyasagar) was talking to a couple of gentlemen from the locality. The conversation was about what benefits we have garnered from the British, and how being in contact with them has harmed us. Some among the assembled listed benefits—the railways, the post and telegraph system etc; and some pointed out the detriments—mentioning effects on quality of health and peace in general. At last, when his opinion was solicited, he said, 'I don’t ever study the pros and cons, but all in all, we have received three good things from the British.' When he was asked what these three were, he said, 'First, English literature. Their Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Sir Walter Scott and others that we have received, is no small gain. Secondly—ice.  On a hot summer day, a pot of water with an ice cube cools one …. And thirdly—bread.' His audience laughed aloud at his listing together of literature, ice and bread. However, he said gravely, 'You might laugh! But tell me, was there anything in our country like this bread? A loaf of bread in a bowl of milk is not only filling, it also keeps diseases away. I think, among all the new food that they have taught us to eat, bread reigns supreme.' At that time as per the advice of his doctor, Vidyasagar used to have milk and bread every night. (Chattopadhyay 2009:26–27) 


Sudakshina Sen (1859–1934), in her autobiography Jivansmriti, narrates her first experience of consuming bread. At first, she was put off by the smell but after a few times she was able to have bread without any trouble (Sen 2002:54). Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, not only autobiographies but also novels and stories used these new food items as an emblem of the newly emerging culture. These items acted as a carrier of the so-called modern culture. On the other hand, these became a marker of caste and religious degradation, because the consumption of these products was prohibited by the caste norms. As stated earlier, these items were primarily produced by the lower caste or Muslims. Therefore, as Hiteshranjan Sanyal shows, if a person from a higher caste consumed these items made by any person from the lower caste, then that former lost his place in the caste hierarchy (Sanyal 1971:318). Debganer Martye Agaman by Durgacharan Ray is one such travel story where the writer depicts the reaction of the orthodox Hindus towards the reforms in the culinary culture in the colony.  The primary plot of this novel is that of four male deities of the Hindu pantheon—Brahma, Narayana, Indra and Varuna—who came to Earth in disguise of travelers visiting Calcutta. Before visiting Calcutta, they had visited other parts of North India, and this book is a narration of their journey. However, the most interesting part of this story lies in a conversation between Narayana and Narayani. Narayani expresses her fear to Narayana that if he visited Calcutta he might lose his caste identity by consuming breads and biscuits.       


Narayani: Lord! Why do you torment me? If you do go there and return within 300 years, let alone three days—I can put it into writing. If you find an Armenian woman there, would you even like me anymore? Or would you even look back at heaven? Having mingled with them and having had wine, chicken, biscuits and bread you will probably give up on this life and the one after, and your caste. It will be impossible to be inducted back into our caste, and gradually you will lose what little property you have. You might even become a Brahmo and marry a widow. Maybe you will join a theater group and become a wastrel, whiling away your days and nights playing the flute. I hear, in Calcutta some family called Shil, or may be Nora, have bought some playhouse with 75,000 rupees and have wasted on it some two or three lacs. I too have decided to leave their household. However that may be, Lord! I will never give you leave while I am alive. (Ray 2001:13–14)   


By the end of the 19th century, these new food items became an inseparable part of the culinary culture in colonial Bengal. Many health-related books discussed the nutritional value of bread. With the turn of the 20th century, authors like Chunilal Bose in 1910 prescribed bread as a very nutritious food.[12] In 1899, Swami Vivekananda, wrote an essay entitled 'The East and The West'. In this essay he strongly condemned the consumption of bread. According to him, flour mixed with yeast became injurious to health. Therefore, ideally the consumption of bread should be given up. If the circumstances had been created where bread consumption had become a necessity, then toasted bread should be consumed. He wrote:


And as for fermented bread, it is also poison, don’t touch it at all! Flour mixed with yeast becomes injurious. Never take any fermented thing; in this respect the prohibition in our shastras of partaking of any such article of food is a fact of great importance. Any sweet thing which has turned sour is called in the shastras ‘shukta' and that is prohibited to be taken, excepting curd, which is good and beneficial. If you have to take bread, toast it well over the fire. (Swami Vivekananda 1954: 390–91).


After Vivekananda’s warning to the people not to consume bread, in 1903 Rabindranath Tagore wrote one of his stories, Karmafal, criticizing the process of imitation of European etiquette and food items as an idiom of progress. In this story, the protagonist Satish blindly imitates European etiquette such as wearing a hat and coat, and consuming bread and biscuits, and he perceives that as becoming progressive. At the end of the story the protagonist loses all his money because of this.


In 1938, Prafulla Chandra Roy, a famous scientist and nationalist leader, wrote an essay called 'Chira, Muri, Khoi o Biscuit' in Bharatbarsha. In this essay Prafulla Chandra strongly argued that the Indian puffed rice and flattened rice are more nutritious and cheaper than biscuits. He even gave a table of nutritional value of these food items, where he showed that the vitamin contents are more in puffed rice and flattened rice than in biscuits in which the percentage of vitamin is very low (Roy 2012:279). He also upheld the virtues of coconut—yet another traditional food item.[13] Thus he tried to construct a modern Indian food culture that would be nutritious but free of all western influences.


This debate went on till the middle of the 20th century, but simultaneously these new food items managed to secure their position within the Bengali fare. And in this process of incorporation the Bengali cookbooks played a crucial role.[14] Around 1889, a famous cookbook writer Bipradas Mukhopadhyay prepared an ideal menu for Bengali platter where he mentioned many items which were primarily originated in West. According to the Bipradas’s menu the ideal food items for Bengali platter were:


Chhanar luchi (fried cake made with cheese), begun bhaja (fried brinjal), khastai kachuri, gulel kebab, fried vetki, choka, prawn cutlet, sweet omelet, mugger daler murighanta, fish polao, fish malaycurry, hajpaj mangser harikebab, matsamanjari, spicy papaya chatni, kashmiri sweet poolao, ras-mundir golapi chatnipolao dana mithai, sartoa, kalakand, talshans, sandesh, postor barfi, sweet curd, rabri or kheer. (Basu 2012:143)


Prajnasundari Debi also provided a similar kind of list of 68 food items in her cookbook Amish o Niramish Ahar which she entitled as kramani (Basu 2012:143). In 1908 Saratkumari Chaudhurani mentioned a detailed menu of a house during some festival in Maya Jaggi, where she mentioned items of similar kind (Nag 2012:89).   

Therefore, the assimilative nature of Bengali consumption culture not only transformed it from time to time from within, but it also helped the Bengalis to cohabit with other cultures without any collision, though this process of incorporation did not always take the smoothest path. But throughout the process it always invited the fresh air of freedom and liberty within the culture which enabled some to break the shackles of caste practices and religious restrictions. In the 19th century this process of incorporation took a significant turn when new Western food items became an essential component of the idea of modernity that found a profound expression in the everyday diet of the Hindu middle class.  


I am thankful to Mr. Kanad Sinha and Ms. Shatavisha Mustafi for their help and inspiration for this article.


Achaya, K.T. 1991. The Food Industries of British India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Banerji, Chitrita. 2005. Life and Food in Bengal. New Delhi: Penguin Books.


Basu, Pradip. 2012. ‘Adarsha Paribarer Adarsha Randhanpranali’, in Paribarik Probondha: Bangali Paribarer Sandarva Bichar. Kolkata: Gangchil.


Basu, Rajnarayan. 1956 [1873]. Se Kal ar E Kal. Calcutta: Bangiya Sahitya Parishad.


Basu, Rajnarayan. 2013 [1909]. Atmacharit. Kolkata: Chirayata Prakasan.  


Bhatia, Varuni. 2009. Devotional Traditions and National Culture: Recovering Gaudiya Vaishnavism in Colonial Bengal. New York: Columbia University.


Bose, Kanchan, ed. 2004. Ramprasad Bharatchandra Rachanasamagra. Kolkata: Reflect Publication.  


Bose, Chunilal. 1917. Khadya (3rd edition). Calcutta: Sri Jyotiprakash Basu.


Chakravarti, Mukundaram. 2011. Kabikankan-Chandi (Chandimangal), eds. Srikumar Bandyopadhyay and Viswapati Choudhury. Kolkata: University of Calcutta Press.


Chatterjee, Partha. 1997. Our Modernity. Rotterdam/ Dakar: SEPHIS and CODESRIA.


Chattopadhyay, Jogendranath. 2009. Smrite Sekal. Kolkata: Charyapad Publications.

Dutt, Madhusudan. 1999 [1860]. 'Ekei Ki Bole Sabhyata?' in Madhusudan Rachanabali. Calcutta: Tuli Kalam.


Habib, Irfan. 2014. The Agrarian System of Mughal India 1556-1707, revised edition. New Delhi:  Oxford University Press.


Mitchell, Timothy, ed. 2000. Questions of Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Mukhopadhyay, Bipradas. 2007. Pak Pranali. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers.


Murshid, Ghulam. 2008. Hajar Bacharer Bangali Sanskriti. Dhaka: Abosar Publications.


Nag, Arun. 2012. Chitrita Padme. Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing.


Narayana Deva. 1942. Padma Puran, trans. Tamonash Chandra Dasgupta. Kolkata: University of Calcutta Press.


Pal, Bipin Chandra. 2013 [1954]. Sattar Batsar. Kolkata: Patralakha.


Peliti, Federico. 1888. The Times of India, April 2.


Ray, Pranad. 1987. Banglar Khabar. Kolkata: Sahityaloke.


Ray, Utsa. 2009. 'Culture of Food in Colonial Bengal'. PhD Thesis. Pennsylvania University. 



Ray, Durgacharan. 2001 [1891]. Debganer Martye Agaman. Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing.


Roy, Prafulla Chandra. 2012. 'Chida Mudi, Khoi o Biscuit', Prabandha Samagra. Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing.


Sandeman, Hugh David. 1868. Selections from Calcutta Gazettes 1806–1815 (vol. 4). Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing.


———. 1869. Selections from Calcutta Gazettes 1816–1823 (vol. 5). Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing.


Sanyal, Hiteshranjan. 1971. ‘Continuities of Social Mobility in Traditional and Modern Society in India: Two Case Studies of Caste Mobility in Bengal’, Journal of Asian Studies 30.2: 315–39.


Sarkar, Sumit. 1985. The Critique of Colonial India. Calcutta: Papyrus. 


Sen, Colleen Taylor. 1997. 'The Portuguese Influence on Bengali Cuisine', Food on the Move Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1996. Devon: Prospect Books.


Sen, Nabin Chandra. 1974 [1908–13]. Amar Jiban, in Nabinchandra Rachanabali, vol. 1. Calcutta: Dutta Chowdhuri and Sons.


Sen, Sudakshina. 2002. Jivansmriti. Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing.


Sen, Sukumar. 1943. Prachin Bangla o Bangali. Kolkata: Visbhavarati Granthabivag.


Sen, Sukumar. 2013. Kalikatar Kahini. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers.                                                            


Seton-Karr, W.S. 1868. Selection from the Calcutta Gazettes 1798–1805 (vol. 3). Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing.


Swami Vivekananda. 1954. 'The East and the West', in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Almora: Advaita Ashram.





[1] Charyapadas are compilations of verses of mystic cults in Bengal. There is very little information available regarding these cults because these verses were written in a manner that was deliberately imprecise, in order to keep a distance from the common people.  


[2] Jute leaf, locally known as nalicha shak or pat shak, is used for preparing dishes. Usually it is fried in oil or boiled in water with some spices.


[3] This text was written by Sriharsha who was the court poet of king Vijayachandra. His creations were influenced by the elite culture of the 12th and 13th centuries. It was said he was a Bengali (Ray 1987:4).


[4] Among the meats, rabbit, pigeon, mutton, lamb were important (Ray 1987:1–21).


[5] Sarisha (mustard leaf), kachubatoshakshunishannakkalambikahilmochikaharidra were popular (Ray 1987:1–21).


[6] Parbal, potato (mete aloo), radish, kakrol (a kind of cucurbitaceous vegetable), mashak (a kind of bean) were very popular (Ray 1987).


[7] Mango, jackfruit, coconut, banana, amla, watermelon, wood-apple, litchi, plum etc. were very popular (Ray 1987). 


[8] Though this part of the story deals mainly with tribal society, the poet Mukundaram was not a part of that society. So he might have represented the society where he lived in.  


[9] Bharat Chandra Ray’s Annadamangal makes no mention of those new foods and vegetables.


[10] The Times of India, January 7,1888, p. 8.


[11] For the process of the popularization of these new vegetables in Bengali Society see Ray 2015.  


[12] See Khadya (3rd edition), Calcutta: Sri Jyotiprakash Basu. Chunilal Bose was a Professor of Chemistry in Calcutta Medical College, a Fellow in University of Calcutta, and chemical examiner of Government of Bengal.


[13] Partha Chatterjee has argued that colonial subjects sometimes became the producers of alternative modernity: there are also hints that consciously or unconsciously Prafulla Chandra Roy also produced the notion of alternative modernity through his essay.


[14] The first Bengali cookbook was published in 1831 and titled Pak-Rajeswara. In 1838, Byanjanratnakar 

was published. But in 1889 was published the significant cookbook, Pak Pranali, written by Bipradas Mukhopadhyay. In 1907 the first female cookbook writer Prajnasundari Debi wrote, Amish o Niramish Ahar. After that a number of cookbooks were published in Bengal with different Bengali and non-Bengali recipes.