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Cracking the recipe for ‘shingaras’ and a million YouTube subscribers

Ahead of Poila Baisakh, team Bong Eats discusses how they document recipes and the future of the cuisine

Shingara with chutney featured on Bong Eats.
Shingara with chutney featured on Bong Eats.

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A video for postor bora or poppy seed fritters on the YouTube channel Bong Eats has around four lakh views, and more than 1,200 comments. It shows co-founders Insiya Poonawala and Saptarshi Chakraborty working on trials, trying to pin down the perfect recipe. Since Chakraborty did not grow up eating postor bora, he requested his viewers to share their family recipes. They received over 400 emails from Bengalis settled in Murshidabad, Dhaka, Birmingham and beyond with several variations of the recipe. The video captures the making of the traditional Bengali speciality, interspersed with step-by-step instructions and nifty hacks contributed by viewers in Chakraborty’s lucid voice-over.

It is this honest storytelling, aided by snappy production aesthetics, which makes Bong Eats such an enjoyable viewing experience. The YouTube channel has over 1.51 million subscribers, and showcases Bengali recipes, street foods and dishes of the various communities that have made Kolkata their own.

Chakraborty, 36 and Poonawala, 37, started Bong Eats in 2016 to initiate a conversation around Bengali food, and to inspire younger generations to cook it irrespective of their backgrounds or where they were settled. They cook, shoot, and edit the recipes in their home. While Poonawala does the actual cooking, Chakraborty handles the camera.

Born and raised in Kolkata—the Chakrabortys are a third-generation Bangal family that migrated from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) following Partition—and Poonawala’s parents moved to Kolkata from Gujarat and Mumbai in the 1960-70s. The two met in college through common friends, and it was around the same time they thought of starting a food blog. It was roughly in 2015-16, when the two were in the US (Chakraborty was working full-time in IT tech, and Poonawala freelancing in publishing) that they launched Bong Eats. In 2021, two years after their return to India, they quit their day jobs to focus on the channel full-time. Classic Kolkata mutton biryani, chelo kebabs, a signature dish from the popular Park Street restaurant Peter Cat, Christmas plum cake, macher teler bora (fish innard fritters), zero-waste items such as alur khosha bhaja (crispy potato skins): these are just a few recipes that highlight the diversity of the cuisine.

“From the beginning we wanted our videos to have clean and simple aesthetics. We steered away from using traditional props, or anything that heavily resonated with Bengali culture. The idea was to encourage young people to cook,” says the couple. While Chakraborty shoots the videos, and works on the sound and colour, the editing is entirely Poonawala’s domain. Currently, the business model is purely based on advertising revenue.

A huge aspect of the recipe curation belongs to Chakraborty’s mother and paternal grandmother, whose vast repertoire of heirloom recipes makes Bong Eats what it is today. For a cuisine so complex and diverse, a first-person format is what makes it different from the rest. “We don’t try to be authentic because authenticity is based on everyone’s personal experiences. At the same time we don’t like to compromise on the recipe, and make it exactly the way we’ve grown up eating,” he says.

Saptarshi Chakraborty (left) and Insiya Poonawala.
Saptarshi Chakraborty (left) and Insiya Poonawala.

The co-founders come up with a list of recipes at the beginning of every year with a focus on seasonality and festivals. “We then go through several trials with Maa, who cooks the recipes, while we observe her and take notes. After that we try them out in our kitchen, and if for some reason we are not happy, we go back to her again,” he explains.

Trials also happen in the form of eating shingaras, for instance. The Bengali samosa, which purists swear by, is a version sold in the evenings at neighbourhood sweet shops. To be able to demonstrate a recipe that could be made at home, they tried multiple versions to be able to crack the real flavour and folding technique. “The real taste lies in the peels of the potatoes!”

Something unique about the videos is that many of them effortlessly retain the original sounds of the kitchen, like the sizzle of fish being fried. Chakraborty says the branding also relies on the distinct original music created by the Kolkata band Bemanan. The score rawshe rawshe, partly performed on the Baul dotara and khamak, both folk instruments popular in rural Bengal, is now a signature tune.

There are also other formats that are equally successful. For instance, Rannaghore ke (who’s in the kitchen) is a series of fun adda (conversations) with some cooking involved. It has so far seen actors, chefs, journalists, authors and musicians, and even Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee.

Over the years, support has come in the form of heartwarming comments from the diaspora as well as Japanese, Mexican and Iranian viewers. Back home, though, they have been attacked for some of their videos. “There is a small section of our audience that has an issue with pork and beef recipes. Their explanation is that it is not Bengali food, so why show them?” (although both are commonly eaten by some communities, and form an important role in the cuisine at large). “It is because there is a tendency to associate the cuisine with only the Hindu foods of the community, which is where the problem lies,” feels Poonawala. Two years ago, a shutki or dried fish recipe popularly cooked in East Bengali homes, stirred up a controversy leading to the eternal ghoti-Bangal (East Bengal-West Bengal) squabble.

For me, Bong Eats has been a revelation. That the cuisine is not just diverse, but extensive in a way that every family has its own recipe for something as basic as macher jhol. For a long time, I have allowed myself to believe that it was just my bangal family that loved to add sugar in almost every dish, a quirk usually associated with ghotis, or the original inhabitants of West Bengal. When I watch Poonawala add sugar to their everyday recipes, be it aloo posto or muri ghonto, a curry made with fish heads, there is a sense of familiarity. But at the same time, I realise it is more of an individual preference, and the practice has nothing to do with where you come from.

The duo believes Bengali food will continue to thrive in the home kitchens of Bengal, cooked by those who eat it everyday, as they are the real champions of the larger narrative. For now, Chakraborty and Poonawala plan to explore the cuisine beyond the foods of Kolkata, and dive into the culinary cultures of the various districts of the region.

Also read | Nokshi pithe: The sweet tradition of edible art

Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.

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