Today a friend of mine called me and reminded me that since I usually cook dishes which are famous in East Bengal I should let go of my inhibitions and accept the hegemony of the Bangals ( People from East Bengal) over the Ghotis (people from West Bengal are called Ghotis). The foodscape ( a term borrowed from Manpreet Janeja’s work) of Bengal has witnessed an age old cold war between Ghotis and Bangals and as Chitrita Banerji (2001) in her work argues, “people take refuge behind these terms to justify all kinds of closemindedness” (Banerji 2001: 39).
To the extent, Ghotis by birth are fans of the football club – Mohun Bagan and Bangals usually support East Bengal Club. Any local football match to this date is described as a cultural war for pride and superiority of one against the other. And of course food- is the final stop for the difference. So when Mohun Bagan players win a match against East Bengal they are felicitated with garlands made of specially ordered Galda Chingri (King Prawns) – symbolic of Ghoti food. When East Bengal wins a match against Mohun Bagan they feast on Hilsa- symbolic of Bangal food.
In other words these two football clubs are beyond Bengali pride – they are rooted in Bangal-Ghoti divide as evident in a fan’s comments on a website created by Mohun Bagan’s fans. The fan writes, “I still remember that in my childhood, in the middle and late seventies and the early eighties, whenever Mohun Bagan would win a tournament or a match against East Bengal, there would be sweets and “abir” in our house and a general feast will follow. I still remember that day in 1978 when in the league match against East Bengal, Shyam Thapa scored a brilliant goal with his bicycle volley and my father and uncles came home from the field with roshogolla and chingri machh and we burst crackers and put abir on each other. If we lost to East Bengal, there would be no dinner in our house”. (http://www.mohunbaganclub.com/fspeak.html).
The cold war continues to this date that matrimonial advertisements in newspapers often indicate a reference for EB (East Bengali groom/ bride) or WB (West Bengali groom/ bride). So the closemindedness that Banerji talks about marks every sphere of life.
When it comes to food, Ghotis are known to add sugar in everything. A pinch of sugar according to my mother (an ardent Ghoti) would make all difference to the dish else it will start tasting like a Bangal dish. Bangals, again are known to eat hot, spicy food. While Ghotis would refrain from eating stem or peels of vegetables, the most innovative vegetarian Bengali dishes I must admit are the Khosha Chchoris which are usually cooked from the leftover peels of vegetables. For instance, a brilliant way of re-using the peels of lau is to chop them finely and fry them in mustard oil with green chillies and onion seeds. Add salt according to your taste. Similarly some of the stuffed vegetables with mustard paste are actually home medicinal remedies when you have a running nose. For instance today I made stuffed Kankrol with mustard paste which I picked from one of my Bangal friend’s grandaunt. Coming to my people, we are famous for vegetables we make with poppy seed paste. Nobody can make Aloo posto, Potol Posto or even Cauliflower Posto the way we do. We even add posto to our fish and chicken curry and of course we call everything Jhol. The signature dish of Ghotis remain Chingri Malaikari made of King prawns and coconut milk while those of Bangals remain Hilsa. Though secretly we have incorporated and exchange notes on Ghoti- Bangal recipes the divide remains as my aunt ( who is a Bangal) has abstained from indulging in cooking shutki machch( dried fish) in a Ghoti household. Similarly my cousin who is married in Bangal household is not allowed to experiment with Bangal dishes. Often people also organise polls on Ghoti vs Bangal on social networking sites and it is actually interesting to see the way collectives try to exercise their monopolies on certain foods to mark their identity. This cold war probably will continue because we will not bow down and say your food is better than mine. So instead of accepting the hegemony of one over the other it’s time we reap the benefits of the richness we have in these two cuisines.
Banerji, C.2001.The Hour of the Goddess. Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal. Seagull Books: Calcutta
Janeja, M.K.2010. Transactions in Taste. The Collaborative Lives of Everyday Bengali Food. Routledge :New Delhi