The region of Bengal is split and shared by India and Bangladesh, the borders changing with time and throughout history. This has had a profound effect on the cuisine of the area; since the 1947 partition, Kolkata, within the boundaries of India in West Bengal, has blossomed into a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures that brought their own culinary influences to the region. In comparison, Dhaka, on the Bangladesh side of the divide, is a little more separate from this, finding it easier to maintain and perfect the culinary traditions of their roots. The cuisine of Bengal is also affected by religious influences across the borders, with food adapting to suit the tastes of both Muslims and Hindus alike.
However, there was a group of people that particularly influenced the high-class cuisine of Bengal with their love of food and experimental chefs: The Nawabs of Dhaka, a family who dominated the political and social scene from the mid-18th to mid-20th century. They brought many delicacies to the region of Bengal delicacies heavily influenced by the courts of the mighty Mughal empire.
The ancestors of the Nawabs of Dhaka built their substantial wealth through merchant trading and when they moved to (what was then) East Bengal in the 17th century, they brought some of the finest chefs with them to cook on their estates. The Mughal influences of decadent sauces and succulent meats infiltrated the cuisine of Dhaka’s elite classes before becoming adopted at times of celebration by the people of Bengal – most notably at weddings and occasions such as Eid.
Favourite dishes of the Nawabs of Dhaka
– Kebabs: These snacks took both meat and vegetarian forms and were subject to a great many variations. Sutli kebabs made from ground beef and spices were a particular speciality, as were bihari kebabs.
– Breads: The cooks that served the Nawabs of Dhaka enjoyed experimenting with bread and it was common to stuff the dough with some tasty ‘surprises’ such as mince or paneer. This distinguished the bread of the upper classes to the plain breads of the lower.
– Kachi biriyani: A delicacy that originated at the tables of the Nawabs of Dhaka but is now an important part of wealthy weddings taking place in the region. Layers of rice and mutton are slow-cooked using the ‘dum’ method with sprinkles of the pricey spice saffron
– Whole roast lamb, chicken and duck: These dishes were decadent specialities that are now also appreciated at weddings. The meat is marinated before being either cooked over an open fire or – in the case of the smaller birds – slathered with ghee and roasted in a pot.
– Patisapta: A signature dessert created using a similar method to meringues. Egg whites were whipped into peaks before being teamed with flour, milk, saffron, ghee, rose flavourings and thick cream.
– Kashmiri chai tea: This pretty tea turned a pinkish colour when properly brewed. It was usually served with cream, cheese and katcha biscuits.
– Korma: This particularly decadent version involves thick yoghurt, rose-water, peanut oil, warming spices and nuts.
You can sample Bengali and Mughal influenced cuisine at some of London’s best Indian fine dining restaurants. Go on, treat yourself!