Friday, September 3, 2010

Northeast India

West Bengal and Assam form the main mass of the northeastern part of India and share a similar cuisine based on rice, fish, dal (stewed lentils) and vegetables. These regions encircle East Bengal, now known as Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). Most of West Bengal lies on the western delta of the Ganga where numerous rivers, including the Ganges, and its branch, the Hooghly pour out into the Bay of Bengal. The bay is bordered by mud flats and mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans in the far south. To the far north is Darjeeling meaning, “region of the dorje”, or thunderbolt, perched in the shadow of the cloud shrouded Kanchendzonga mountain range and surrounded by forests and terraced tea gardens. In southern West Bengal, summers are hot and humid, followed by cooler, clear winters. This region is called Sonar Bangal, or “the golden land of Bengal”, a rich gold and green landscape of rice paddies with stands of sugarcane, coconut palms, and bananas. Bengalis are crazy about the wild, leafy greens that poke up in the wet lushness of monsoon season and get cooked with coconut, chickpeas and chiles or added to dal (stewed lentils). Water lilies, taro, bitter gourds, banana blossoms, potatoes, crab, shrimp and sweet water fish are all relished and plentiful. Dal-bhat (boiled rice and split lentils) with a little fish is everyday sustenance in Bengal. Rice is a must at every meal, but puffed deep-fried bread is also popular with the soft collapsed balloons torn and used to scoop up fish curries. Panch phoron is a 5-spice blend indispensable to Bengali cuisine. Unlike most spices, the seeds are not ground, but roasted and used whole. Mustard seeds are also widely used, sizzled in hot mustard oil or ground raw into a pungent paste and added to vegetable stews or smeared on fish pieces steamed in banana leaves. White poppy seeds are also wet-ground into pastes for thickening stews. Bengali cuisine is highly ritualized, with emphasis on freshness but also how each fish and vegetable is cut on a boti, a terrifyingly large upright blade clamped onto a wood block.  Also unlike other regions, dishes are always eaten in a precise order, based on age-old beliefs that relate to the aid of the digestive process. A bitter vegetable melange called shuko starts the meal, followed by fritters, rice, lentils, vegetable stew and roasted vegetables then fish, possibly a meat dish and sweet chutney, lentil wafers and thick, sweet yogurt called misti.

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