Bengal’s Vegetarianism

It seems from a piece published in the literary supplement of Ananda Bazar Patrika on the 3rd of October 2021 by Debashis Bhowmick that Bengal has traditionally and historically been a land of vegetarian food and it was not before the conquest of Bengal by Akbar in the 16th century that Bengalis started to eat fish. Bengalis started to eat meat only after the British were more entrenched in the 18th century. Why this was so is interesting because the land has known substantial migration from the rest of the country, namely Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka and even Tamil Nadu where non vegetarian food was common, so common that vegetarianism was a matter of caste, as in the Brahmins were vegetarians to mark themselves out as a distinct entity. Bengal’s vegetarianism may have been possible due to the abundance of vegetables, mainly the leafy ones as palong, beto, or betuya, kumro, lau, lal shaak and others amounting to fourteen in number were found in abundance, no wonder then 14 shaaks are part of the celebrations of the autumnal waning moondays. Ghee was the principal medium of cooking and a variety of rice filled in the plates of the Bong gourmet. Daals were plenty as well and potol, kumro and kachu were cooked enthusiastically. It appears that the Bengali chefs were much involved with the plentiful of ghee and vegetables to even miss non vegetarian food. Besides, cooking seems to be tied to religious rituals as well, where fish or meat are taboos. Special items on the menu especially those prepared as wedding feasts would be payesh and Sandesh. With the preponderance of ghee and milk, it seems that Aryanization had more to do with lactose than with animal protein.

But after the era of Sri Chaitanya, fish and mustard oil come in with a vengeance. While the spices were mainly jeerey and dhoney and ginger, now onions and garlics get aggressive as the major ingredients of non-vegetarian cooking. Ginger takes a backseat and turmeric moves in to fill in the space. Though we associate the onion and garlic with the Muslims, this may need a rethink because the Muslims had started to conquer Bengal since the 12th century, yet it was not until the invasion of Akbar that cuisine changed really. Three factors may have been responsible for Bengal’s change towards fish eating. These are as follows:

  1. The role of Nityananda, himself a meat eater and who expanded the Bengali culture towards the tribals trying to bring them into the fold of the mainstream. Fish may have emerged from them, though it is important to learn of their cooking medium.
  2. The advent of soldiers from Punjab and western UP with Akbar’s army who were fish eaters and cooked in mustard oil.
  3. The Portuguese who widened the Bengali palate with the introduction of the green pepper, potato and musurir daal, at last we know why it was called as non-vegetarian because it tasted best when cooked with mustard oil, the medium of cooking fish.

Muslims in Bengal also ate vegetarian food and later relished turtle eggs fried in ghee and not oil. It was only with the British that meat eating, especially in the form of the curry became popular.

Therefore, the quintessential cuisine of the Bengalis namely turmeric, mustard oil and fish were imports from lands outside of Bengal for historically Bengalis were ghee eating and milk drinking vegetarians. The crux of the influence of “non-Bengali” outsiders are thus most entrenched in what consists of essential Bengaliness.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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