A Photo Essay: Our Shared Love of Food in Bengal

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Fresh water fish and elephant apple

This piece was written by one of our Community Ambassadors, Tara Rudd, Content Creator and Food Activist. Find out more about Tara here. 

Food is often the way we can most make sense of the world, a form through which we can communicate best.

Today is the Hindu festival of Saraswati Puja. It marks the arrival of Spring with celebrations to the Goddess of Knowledge. There is music, food offerings, dancing and all school books must remain shut. As the pandemic slows us down, it gives us an opportunity to rethink our relationship to food and knowledge - think back to where it comes from, with respect towards those whose culture it’s from. [Follow the #FarmersProtest in India].

This blog explores this through quotes and photographs taken this time last year when staying in Dasghara Village; language was a barrier in Dasghara but food broke down the walls. 

Quote from Arhundati Roy

 

Shrine above is of the Goddess Saraswati, in Dasghara Women's College.

Saraswati Puja celebrations, Feb 2020. Offering food to the Goddess Saraswati - fruits, puffed rice mixed with peanuts and roasted dal as prasad. ‘Kitchurri’ - a mung dal, broken rice and ghee dish, with aubergine, sweet tomato chutney, 'hotch-potch' vegetables and sweets are served after. The colour yellow is linked to spring - mustard plants line the fields at this time of year and this is reflected in their dress and food.

 

Two images: 1: Freshly cracked coconut. 2: Kobita, whose name means 'poem' blowing the conch, a Hindu call to prayer
1: Freshly cracked coconut. 2: Kobita, whose name means 'poem' blowing the conch, a Hindu call to prayer.

Hospitality is a mutual exchange of curiosity for each other's identities, and never just your own; a moment where surprise, knowledge and intimacy all come together and disarm you like nothing else could. Sandhya (below), arriving with a black plastic bag only to pluck a fresh gleaming fish out of it for lunch, before setting the stage in a quiet confidence that says - 'I know your western ways', let me show you how it’s done. She keeps the mysteries alive; deep fried egg omelette slapped in curry sauce, supersonic spinach that tastes vital with dewy magic still clinging, while the pressure cooker sings: be slow.
 

Two images: 1; fresh water fish in a hand. 2; fresh water fish in a frying pan.

 

Fresh water fish rubbed in turmeric and salt then cooked in a fish head dal, ‘machh'er matha’, for lunch
Freshwater fish from the market - about to be rubbed in turmeric and salt then cooked in a fish head dal, ‘machh'er matha’, for lunch.

 

Bengali woman standing by a door to her house.

 

Bengali woman with a typical Bengali lunch: egg curry, fish head dal, rice, vegetables.
Sandyha with a typical Bengali lunch: egg curry, fish head dal, rice, vegetables.


Or, a fresh coconut sweet gets popped in your mouth as an act of generosity - before you can raise the politeness barriers. These moments have the power to transform:

Bengali woman and her homemade coconut sweets ‘Narkel Naru’. A dinner offering.
Sangita and her homemade coconut sweets ‘Narkel Naru’. A dinner offering.

 

Bengali children feeding one another.
It is a custom to feed each other in Bengal. 1: on a school lunch break. 2: hitting the town on Saraswati Puja 2020 for biryani and spicy noodles.


Chitrita Banerji (in Eating India) writes about the importance of growing up with a sense of where our food comes from. She also writes about the connection of eating with your hands, which feeding each other also does, and the consumer as "an actor in a painterly enterprise".

Quote from Chitrita Banerji in Eating India.

 

The Dasghara Women's College girls making luchi - a fried bread eaten often with ‘alu dom’, a potato curry
The Dasghara Women's College girls making luchi - a fried bread eaten often with ‘alu dom’, a potato curry.

 

Chicken curry. A whole roast chicken was brought to the table and broken with the hands before being served with shukto and bitter gourd. Late night rotis. Rice is usually eaten for lunch and rotis in the evening.
1: Chicken curry. A whole roast chicken was brought to the table and broken with the hands before being served with shukto and bitter gourd. 2: Late night rotis. Rice is usually eaten for lunch and rotis in the evening.

 

Quote from Arhundati Roy

 

A Bengali mother and her two children cooking together.

 

A Bengali mother and her two children cooking together.
1: Puchka Counter. 2: Papri Chaat from the village.


Ben Okri speaks about the appropriation of voice (applied here to food) when journeying into other people’s cultures: 

Quote from Ben Okri

 

Quote from Ben Okri

 

Images of dinner ladies and children at school.
School lunches in Dasghara Village. Dinner ladies cooking alu posto (potato and poppy seed curry), roti, boiled eggs and veg.

 

Inside an English language text book.
Inside an English language text book, ‘A profile on Kindness’ - the children are taught that it is good to give money to people on the street and it is wrong to not share food first.

 

Photo of image text of a poem by Tara Rudd.
Poem by Tara Rudd.

 

Abstract painting by Tara Rudd
Painting by Tara Rudd.

 

Green papaya tree and wheel of a cart serving sweet pithe and cha
Green papaya tree and wheel of a cart serving sweet pithe and cha.
The sweet pithe and crepes with gur - sweet date sap. Served in coconut palms.
The sweet pithe and crepes with gur - sweet date sap in season in Winter (inspo for Pancake Day today!). Served in coconut palms.

 

Two images of Bengali people grinding red chilli and garlic into chutney.
Red chillies and garlic being grinded into chutney.

 

Bengali woman serving ghugni - a common street chaat dish of chickpeas and sauce. Fruit chaat - topped with green chutney, black salt and masala spices at ‘Ahare Dasghara’ local festival.
Debanjali serving ghugni - a common street chaat dish of chickpeas and sauce. Fruit chaat - topped with green chutney, black salt and masala spices at ‘Ahare Dasghara’ local festival.

 

Bengali woman grinding Benglai gorom moshla - a mix of cardamom, black peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves
Sandhya grinding Benglai gorom moshla - a mix of cardamom, black peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves.


Food is a language which breaks barriers.

It reaches across borders to connect us and although some of the spaces in which we used to play are currently closed off - there are always ways in which we can connect through food, and amplify voices of those less heard. Like supporting the farmers in India.

The food that they grow reaches all four corners of the world, and in the UK, where curry is king, we must raise awareness. Like Cynthia Chou says “Eating has always been a cultural act if not an active, political one of protest”.To stay in the know with #IndiaFarmersProtest, check out this photographer who has been documenting the protests. 

You can read more food content in our blog section - look out for more recipes by Riaz Phillips from pro chefs to sustain you in lockdown! Also see our Essentials and Housing section for a list of organisations providing emergency food and essential support.