Yes, you read that right. Vegetarian fare from Bengal can lay out a spread of almost Chhappan Bhog for you, and they are delicious as well nutritious in peak Indian summers. While most Bengalis have begun following this trend of vegetarianism on Tuesdays and Saturdays, it is still a taboo at our place. A vegetarian meal is often compensated with at least an egg curry. However, living away from Bengal doesn’t give us the choice to go for fish shopping frequently. It is usually purchased on weekends and stored for four to five days which often leads to its depletion by Saturdays. As you must be aware of, mutton is reserved for Sunday afternoons, chicken in arid regions like Pune and Hyderabad is not very appetising in summer and smells awful; that leaves us with the choice of an odd egg. On rare occasions of fridge cleaning days or blistering summery ones, we decide to chuck the egg for a plateful of a cool vegetarian meal.
Yes, Bengalis are the ones who eat fish. That’s the impression of my race all over India, the quintessential ‘Bangali sirf machhli khata hai,’ (Bengalis eat only fish). The idea is as blasphemous as the accusation that we ignore veggies and everything else in the culinary world. I was reading an article the other day on how Bengali vegetarian fare was monopolised by widows forbidden to consume onions/garlic/meat/fish/red lentils. It is still practised fervently all over the state by widows and a few women who choose to remain in the path of animal nutrition are termed ‘liberal’. Given the arguments for this tradition of widows and the sheer number of indigenous recipes that they conjured with scanty ingredients, vegetarian food is entirely their forte. And yet, I wouldn’t like the rest of India to assume that anyone who isn’t a widow in a Bangla household eats only non-vegetarian items in their daily meals.
A typical Bengali lunch is a perfect example of a balanced diet in terms of its elements – a teto (bitter) item as an appetiser to unlock your taste buds, daal (lentils, though not exactly in a healthy soupy form), bhaja (veggies or fish roe fried in a batter) for the gluttons, one or two vegetarian items like labra/chochhori/dalna/ghonto (and the list is endless), finally a non-vegetarian dish and then a chutney/tawk (literally, sweet and sour) to relieve your taste buds of the previous clique of items. I wouldn’t claim all of these are healthy in the way we cook them, but the menu is a testimony that all we eat is not merely ‘maachh-bhaat‘ as termed pseudo-fondly by Bollywood.