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Bengali Food Lexicon

Achaar: Pickle. A preparation of vegetables, fish or meat in oil and vinegar. Indian pickles are resplendent with fresh spices and herbs such as ground red chillies, fenugreek, mustard, turmeric, asafoetida, tamarind, cumin, ginger, and optional curry leaves. Pickles from different parts of India can taste very different despite using similar ingredients, for example hot lime pickle from Andhra Pradesh is renowned for its distinctive taste and unique in not using any oil. The term Achaar has found its way into other types of Indian dished, such as the Achaari Murgh, literally 'pickled chicken' - a reflection of the dry and pickle-like nature of the dish. The Goan classics Balchao and Vindaloo, are two other dishes that resemble the Achaar and keep well for long periods. Bengali vegetarian achaar are however, mostly sweet in taste.

Ambal (Ambol): A Bengali term that loosely translates as acidic, this is a type of cooking in Bengali cuisine that is sour. The Ambol differs from the Chutney in being more bland and soupy. Ambols are rendered sour by means of green mangoes, tomatoes, or tamarind. It is traditional to have ambol during summer. Ambols are served towards the end of a meal, as the first stage of the Bengali dessert, and are often followed by a sweet dessert such as Payesh or Mishti.

Bhaja: Fried food is called Bhaja in Bengali cuisine. A truly mind-boggling variety exists, and some favourites include Begun Bhaja (Fried Brinjals), Alu Bhaja (fried potato slivers), Potol Bhaja (Parval Fry), Posto Bhaja (fried poppy seeds), Shag Bhaja (Greens fried) and Maach Bhaja(fried fish of all variety). Most Bhajas are either coated with turmeric, salt, and fried directly or are dipped in batters before frying. These delicious fries use seasonal fresh vegetables and are served at the beginning of a meal, with rice and salt, together with either whole green chillies or a dash of butter or ghee. An interesting example of the attunement of the Bhaja with season is the inclusion of fried neem leaves (leaves of the margos tree) in meals, that in the few weeks in early March, are delicately bitter and delicious to eat.

Bhapa: The style of Bengali cooking where ingredients are steamed. A fine example of this style of cooking is the Ilish Bhapa (Shad fish steamed). Typically, in deference to its subtle and acclaimed flavour, hilsa fish is mixed with turmeric and salt, and together with mustard paste and oil, is steamed over a fire until cooked completely. The fish may be wrapped in bannana leaves before steaming, and the resultant dish is called Paturi. Other variants, such as the Bhapa Paneer and Bhapa Prawn, are also interesting dishes that focus on preserving flavours and contains less spices for this reason.

Bhaat: Bengali for rice and rice based dishes. The steamed variety is most widely used. Vegetables, nuts, raisins, meat among others are also mixed to it to prepare Pulao and Biryani, which are now part of Bengali cuisine. Another popular variety of it is Khichuri, which is prepared by mixing Daal and vegetables to it.

Bhatey: A traditional style of cooking where ingredients are boiled, and consumed, with rice. The vegetables used are often wrapped in muslin or placed in a "tiffin container", and then put up for cooking together with the rice. This is an especially good way to enjoy fresh vegetables and herbs without spices or oil. Certain vegetables were consumed in this manner in order to benefit from their medicinal properties, such as theUcchhe or Karala (bitter gourd) bhatey by diabetics or hypertensives. In winters, a favorite dish consists of Mulo(white radish) bhatey with freshly ground cilantro and chillies. Bhateys are served in the beginning of a meal and can substitute for the Bhaja. When the vegetables are boiled separately from the rice, the dish is called a Sheddo (or Shiddo).

Bhuna: A method of cooking meat where the ingredients are fried during cooking. Water is generally not added and the moisture from the meat as well as melted fat make up the scant gravy in Bhuna dishes. A good example of this sort of cuisine is the Bhuna Keema, where minced meat is fried together with ground spices, small pieces of potatoes and green peas to a dry dish that goes well with breads.

Bora: The bora is a lentil dumpling just like the Bori, but the two differ entirely in their taste and appearance. Boras are usually made from ground lentils, together with Hing and some spices and are batter fried. The fried dumpling is added to gravies to make dishes such as the Dhokar Dalna and Borar Jhol. Consistency of the fried bora is of importance since it should be soft and allow the gravy to enter, without losing its final shape.

Bori: These are lentil dumplings that are dried and hard in contrast to the bora described above. Boris are added to curries and gravies to enhance the flavor and numerous variations to making these boris exist. Boris can also be added to dry vegetable dishes, commonly with spinach and peas, and the dish is consumed with rice and Dal. A fond Bengali memory is that of Boris left to dry for a day spread on a piece of cloth on the rooftop, while children of the household seriously engage in keeping the birds off the Boris.

Chachari: A style of cooking where ingredients are braised or stir-fried. This is often made when time is limited, and may consist of vegetable peels, roots, scrapings, and other leftovers that may not qualify for a separate recipe. The head portion of fish is added in a more elaborate version. Chacharis are characterized by a dry, sharp, and biting flavour with just the right amount of heat in it. This is considered by gourmets to be one of the most difficult of Bengali dishes to master.

Chakka (Chokka): A Bengali dish in which vegetables, commonly pumpkin, is sauted with spices, cholar dal (lentils) and ghee or clarified butter. The resultant dish is sweet to the taste and often eaten with luchis (puffed bread or Bengali pooris) or rice.

Chhenchra: A method of cooking similar to the Chachari with the presence of fish bones and leftovers. Bones of fish that have been used for other dishes are put to good use in this sort of cooking and the end result is a dry, oily, and spicy dish that goes well with rice.

Chhechki: Similar to the Chachari described above in being braised or stir fried. The chechki consists of small diced vegetables and is cooked with the addition of panch phoron (a mixture of five spices , most frequently- fennel, fenugreek, mustard, nigella, and cumin) that is distinctive to Bengali cookery.

Chutney: Unlike the anglicized chutney that accompanies any Indian dish, the Bengali chutney is part of a two-course dessert common to the Bengali meal. The first comprises of a sour item such as the Ambol or the Chutney and is followed by the final dessert itself that is sweet to taste. Chutneys are made with various seasonal ingredients including mangoes, tomatoes, dates, pineapples, and papayas.

Dal: Lentils. The Bengali dal is cooked and then seasoned with a phoron or seasoning mix that can consist of black cumin or the panch phoron (a mixture of five spices , most frequently- fennel, fenugreek, mustard, nigella, and cumin). Dals can be prepared with vegetables or fish portions and can accompany another dish such as the Bhaja, or dry curries. Bengalis love thin Masoor dal with fried brinjals and a slice of lime and this is eaten with hot rice.

Daalna: A thick and spicy gravy for varied foods such as prawns, eggs, raw jackfruit, cauliflower, etc. The dalna is characterized by frying onions, ginger, garlic together with spices to create a thick base. The main ingredient is often sauted well in this mix, and the dish is seasoned with garam masala powder, a little sugar, and some ghee before serving. Dalnas are ususally reddish in color, and of a rich thick texture and suited for meals with white rice.

Dhoka: Lentils (Matar or Chola Dal) are ground to a paste and fried either with onions and ginger (for the non-vegetarian dhoka), or with cumin and Asafoetida (hing). The fried paste is shaped into squares and finally deep fried and added to a gravy (for example, Dhokar Dalna).

Dorma: A cooking style where ingredients are stuffed into the main item (this may be an egg, the parval or potol, or chilli peppers) and then cooked in a thick gravy. The most common dorma is one in which minced fish, prawn, or mutton is sauted with spices and stuffed into whole parvals (potol, a vegetable loved by Bengalis). The stuffed vegetables are then cooked until almost dry before serving.

Dum: A method of cooking where heat is applied to sealed containers from the top and bottom. This method was very popular in Mughal cuisine where food, commonly rice, was cooked in a vessel whose lid was sealed with the flour of green gram, hot coal was placed on the lid, and cooked to completion. The dum is highly effective to keep moisture in and prevent charring, and ensures an even cooking from top and bottom in large vessels.

Ghonto: Bengali dish, usually prepared with bananna blossoms or fresh carp heads that is rich and quite dry. In the non-vegetarian version cooked with fresh carp heads (muri ghonto), rice is added during the gravy as a seasoning. For bananna blossoms (mocha ghonto), finely chopped mocha is cooked with potatoes and seasoned with Boris. Before serving, ghee is added along with powdered garam masala as a seasoning.

Jhaal: The Bengali word for 'hot'. The heat in this instance comes from mustard seeds ground fine and green chillies. This is a commonly eaten dish and is mostly made with sweet fish such as carp, tilapia, pabda, as well as other fish including bhetki, red snapper, or pomfret. The cooking oil used is mustard oil, and the gravy is prepared with finely ground mustard paste. Jhal is consumed with rice.

Jhol: A mild Bengali stew prepared with various vegetables or with fish, seafood, and meats. The jhol has plenty of gravy and is called patla jhol (literally, a thin stew). Jhols with carp or prawn are highly appreciated on Bengali tables during summer, and are excellent for convalescents.

Kaalia: A rich preparation popular in Bengali cuisine that is characterized by addition of turmeric or saffron. The amazing variety of kaalia preparations is largely due to experimentation by the Awadh royal cooks resulting in exotic variants such as one where gold leaves are added for texture. For most of us though, kaalias are made in ghee with either a fat carp or tender goat meat.

Kofta: Koftas are dumplings made of minced meat or vegetables. Unlike the meatballs in Arabic and south-Asian dishes, Bengali koftas are also made from Prawn, fish, Paneer, or vegetables like cabbage, raw bannanas, etc. The koftas are creamy and rich in texture and can be prepared with the addition of cream or milk, in which case they are Shahi (regal) or Malai (creamy) koftas.

Korma: A rather mild (in terms of heat) and rich curry mostly made with meat or fish. The gravy includes ghee as well as yoghurt, together with bay leaves, coriander, cumin, chillies, and raisins. The cooking is carried out at a low temperature to avoid curdling.

Kosha: A stir fried spicy treat made with vegetables, fish or meat. The thick gravy is rich in mustard oil, together with bay leaves, dry chillies, cumin, onion, ginger, garlic and garam masala.

Mishti: The Bengali word for sweetmeat and anything thatís sweet. The most famous of this variety is Rosogolla, Sandesh and Mishti Doi(sweet yougart). The list and the affinity of Bengalis towards this particular food are infinite and is part of every occasion, happy or sad. Traditionally made with a blend of chhana(country cheese) or kheer(khoya, milk thickened to the extent that it becomes solid granules) with sugar or date jaggery, it can vary from kachagolla(very soft balls) to karaapaak(very hard). A variety of shapes, colous, flavours, sweetness and hardness are available to suite every taste.

Paayesh: A traditional Bengali dessert that is popular in other Indian cusines as well. The paayesh is milk-based and can include date jaggery, rice, semolin or sooji, vermicilli, etc. The amount of sweetness in a paayesh is critical and is generally very low in experienced hands. This is the preferred dessert for many ocassions including marriages, naming ceremonies, pujas, etc.

Paturi: The paturi is a Bhape (see above) that is cooked by means of wrapping the item to be steamed inside a banana leaf. Substituting other leaves or synthetic material (such as aluminum foil) for banana leaf does not do justice to the unique flavor required. The most common paturi consists of the Hilsa fish steamed in banana leaves and served sealed to guests.

Phoron: Seasoning. The Bengali cooking style often includes a step where spices are lightly fried in oil and added as seasoning. The nature and amounts of spices included in the phoron greatly influence the taste, and is generally used to great effect to impart distinctive flavours to seemingly common ingredients. While cooking Dals (lentils), Bengalis uniquely add the Dal into the phoron and continue cooking in contrast to the addition of the spice into prepared dal elsewhere in Indian cookery. The common phoron (statistically speaking..) consists of five ingredients (cumin, fennel, black cumin, fenugreek, and mustard) and is called the Panch Phoron. This is a common, but by no means the only, panch phoron possible.Sometimes, onions, cumins or fenugreeks are separately used for Phoron.

Pithe: Bengali word for pancakes and other variety of sweets which is mainly rice or fruit based. Traditionally prepared during Poush Sankrantri (winter solistic), this rural variety of sweetmeat uses rice flour, wheat flour, coconut, dates, bananas among other fruits mixed with date jaggery or sugar. Patisapta, Chital pithe, Puli pithe are few of this never ending variety of food.

Pora: The Bengali word for charred or burnt. Fresh vegetables, often brinjal, are grilled after mixing in mustard oil and spices, and the grilled item is crushed and garnished with onions, coriander leaves and green chillies with dash of mustard oil before serving. Begun Pora is a favourite during winters.

Pu'r: (pronounced like moor) a filling for foods like chops and fried dumplings. The filling is made of various foods, including mashed cooked fish, mutton, paneer, green peas, potatoes, etc that have been blended with spices.

Sabji: Bengali word for vegetables. Sometimes also applied generically to cooked vegetables, although this does not indicate the way in which the vegetables have been cooked.

Saak: Bengali for traditional Indian Saag. Served at the beginning of a meal, it can be prepared from any leafy vegetables. Most commonly used are Paat(jute leaves), Palong(spinach) and Dheki(fern) among others.

Sheddo (Siddho): Boiled. Vegetables and lentils are boiled, and then mashed with the addition of mustard oil, green chillies, and onions. The dish is eaten with hot rice, and seasonal ingredients used.

Sukto: A variety of mix vegetables which is traditionally prepared to suit summer appetite. The dish is mainly vegetarian and contains very less oil and spice and is often used as a starter.

Tok: Bengali dish that is sour. It is commonly made with small fish or green fruits like mangoes.

Torkari: Bengali curry or stew. A possible root word for the post-colonial term 'curry', though this currently debatable. Tarkari is a rather generic term that includes dishes with both vegetables (as in Alu potol tarkari) or fish (chingri torkari). Torkari in certain contexts can also denote raw vegetable.

Note from Editor:In order to make the list exhaustive, please send your suggestions to

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