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What Padma Lakshmi gets wrong about Bengali food

The renowned food show host wrote a column that said Bengali cuisine relies 'heavily' on seafood and coconut. It doesn't

Fish is regular fare in Bengali homes. (iStockPhoto)
Fish is regular fare in Bengali homes. (iStockPhoto)

Two weeks ago, there was an uproar on social media when Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gene Weingarten wrote in a column titled You Can’t Make Me Eat These Foods in The Washington Post that Indian food is "based entirely on one spice". He was referring to the curry powder which has become synonymous with Indian cuisine in the West and overlooked the vastness and diversity of Indian food. 

The flood of criticism that followed—curry powder is not one spice and Indian food is not just curries—led to The Washington Post publishing a correction. Curry powder is a blend of spices and is not a uniform masala mix used in India. The closest thing to curry powder in India is perhaps garam masala. A week later, they carried an opinion piece by food show host Padma Lakshmi, who had been vocal on Twitter in calling out Weingarten’s and The Washington Post. She tweeted, “Is this really the type of colonizer 'hot take' the @washingtonpost wants to publish in 2021—sardonically characterizing curry as "one spice" and that all of India's cuisine is based on it?”

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Padma Lakshmi’s column for The Washington Post was meant to highlight the misrepresentation of Indian food in the West. Published last week, it was titled Padma Lakshmi Says Disparaging Indian Food Isn’t Funny. It’s Ugly. But, there was a problem. Her take on India’s "culinary regions" invited backlash due to her misinformed commentary on Bengali dishes. She wrote, “Bengali food is heavy on seafood, mustard seeds and coconut.” She made the same mistake as Weingarten—that of generalising Indian food and distorting facts.

There is an abundance of river fish in Bengali cuisine and it does not rely "heavily" on coconut. There are several large rivers like the Ganga, Teesta and Brahmaputra that flow through West Bengal, and freshwater catch like rohu, pabda, katla, tilapia and the revered hilsa are sourced from there.

So, what is Bengali food? “It is definitely not what Padma Lakshmi has written about,” says Bengaluru-based Srobona Das, a home chef whose brand is named Tinni Ginni. She points out that Bengali cuisine refers to both West and East Bengal (now Bangladesh), adding, “Fish is regular fare in a Bengali household.” Traditionally, she explains, seafood was not popular in the heart of Bengal. The coastal regions, naturally, would depend on the sea for food, and shellfish like prawns and crabs would be sourced from the estuaries by the Bay of Bengal. But, in the interior areas, where agriculture thrived, shrimps and crabs were caught in ponds or smaller streams. Now, there are large shrimp farms that also export prawns. “Deep sea fishing was never part of Bengal.”

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Even coconut, she says, is used only in some dishes. There’s the cosmopolitan daab chingri (prawns in coconut milk), potol posto narkol (pointed gourd cooked with poppy seeds and grated coconut), and sweets like the narkel naru (coconut laddoo) and narkel pithe (coconut pancakes). Padma Lakshmi’s comment on Bengali food being "heavy" on coconut comes across as a sweeping statement for chefs like Das.

To understand Bengali cuisine, Das recommends the book Bengali Cooking Seasons & Festivals by Chitrita Banerji. The introduction of the book encapsulates the state's culinary diversity. It reads, “But if you have the mind, the heart, the taste to explore, you will find an enormous variety in a cuisine where richness and subtlety are closely interwoven.”

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