East & West

Went for lunch with these guys the other day. The fare of choice in that meal was Bengali. Now, this can be quite a tricky choice. The restaurant is a Bangladeshi restaurant, so whether you call it Bengali food, or Bangladeshi food isnt quite the same thing. Bengali food is Bengali (West Bengal) food, while Bangladeshi food is Bangal (East Bengal) food, and theres a world of difference. The difference, of course, depends on who you ask.

Well, the food we asked for was quite simple … just daal, bhaat, murgi, and shobji. Thats masoor daal (red lentils), rice, chicken, and cooked vegetables (karela or bitter gourd, and barbati (please do post a comment if you know the English name … I tried google, but it told me instead that barbati means men in Romanian)) for the uninitiated. And thats where the discussion began. According to Hardy, one of his friends, a Bengali gentleman is of the opinion that the Bangladeshis dont know hot to cook vegetables well. This is a sort of an unwritten assumption all over India that meat, including fish, are cooked better by Muslims, and vegetables by Hindus.

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The genesis of this Ghoti – Bangal (again, for the uninitiated, Ghoti are the folks from West Bengal, and Bangal the folks from East Bengal, or modern day Bangladesh) divide stems from the early 20th century. This was when Lord Curzon took over as the Viceroy of India, and based on supposed administrative problems, divided Bengal into two provinces (one being the West, i.e., today’s West Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha, and one being East, i.e., today’s Bangladesh, and North-Eastern India). This is also seen as a component of the divide-and-rule policy of the British in India. The net impact was that the predominantly Hindu intelligentsia of West Bengal were thus cut off from the predominantly agrarian Muslim population in East Bengal, diving the nationalist movement based on class and religion.

Over a period of time, this division had to percolate into the Bengali imagination, which led to their being wholeheartedly accepted into Bengali passions … fish, and football. Lets begin with fish … for, after all, who can enjoy a good match of football on an empty stomach? So, here are the Hilsa and the Prawns. Or, what are known as the Ilish, and the Chingdi. To the folks from the East, Ilish is the piece de resistance, and the best food one could have. Whether bhaape (smoked), or bhaja (fried), or jhol (curried), how can one prefer any fish to the Ilish. To the folks from the West, on the other hand, it is the Chingdi which captures the imagination. Whether jhol (curried), malai (cooked in tender coconut), or in a pulao, how can anyone go wrong with Chingdi. And the folks are so passionate about their fish, that they have even associated this with their other passion … football.

Coming to the point of football, there are three main football clubs from Kolkata. These are East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and Mohammedan Sporting. Their following is on predictable lines (one thing about passions is their predictability). So, folks from the East (the Bangals) are primarily East Bengal supporters, while people from the West (the Ghotis) are primarily Mohun Bagan supporters, while Mohammedan Sporting had a primarily Muslim following. The distinction between East and West is even seen in their clubs … not just in the clubs they follow, but in the clubs’ logos … the East Bengal logo is (surprise, surprise) the Hilsa, while the Mohun Bagan logo is, surprisingly, the Prawn.

Read all about it here. And on that note, bon appetit!

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