Sometime during the nationwide lockdown, Kolkata-based content consultant Sibendu Das found himself in his mother’s kitchen, on a mission to explore his culinary heritage. He chanced upon the family bonti—a traditional carved blade fixed on a flat wooden base, typically used to cut fruits, vegetables, fish and meats. A few hands-on sessions later, he had cracked the science behind the age-old equipment.
Bonti is the pride of the Bengali kitchen. In the age of modern knives and peelers, women in many households still follow the practice of squatting on the floor, raising one knee while the corresponding foot holds down the base of the bonti, cutting vegetables and fish with dexterity. Some homes may even boast of two-three of them. One for amish, or non-vegetarian items, and the other for niramish, or vegetarian food. The third one is reserved for the thakur ghor, a room meant for the gods. The blade is made of iron, and demands to be cleaned and dried after every use. It may also come with a round serrated piece of metal on its tip to grate coconut, called kuruni. On the streets of rural as well as urban Bengal, skilled men roam on cycles to sharpen the blade of the bonti.
Bengali-American food historian and author Chitrita Banerji, in her book The Hour Of The Goddess: Memories Of Women, Food, And Ritual In Bengal, observes that the term bonti can be traced to “the language of the ancient tribal inhabitants of the eastern regions of the subcontinent”. References to Buddhist sculptures from the time of the Pala empire, which ruled Bengal and Bihar between the eighth and 12th centuries, suggest people used the bonti to cut fish.
Its ingenuity reflects the cook’s command in the kitchen, as she squats on the floor to remove the fins and scales, and gut fresh fish. It can chop leafy greens in chiffonade-like precision for a shaak bhaaja or stir fry, and cut open golden jackfruits to separate the seeds. It can peel the skin off crescent pumpkins, and chop hairpin-like florets of the banana blossom.
Kitchen tools such as the bonti are now having a moment. It could be because of the pandemic; Das, for instance, says it has given him the time to study and value these treasures. When the 39-year-old posted a photograph of an heirloom kuruni from the pre-Independence era on Instagram @pickletopilaf, he was flooded with DMs. “Using the bonti or the kuruni under the watchful supervision of my mother allowed me to go back in time, with the hope of reviving those food memories,” he says.
Close cousins of the bonti come in varying shapes, width and designs across the country. The Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins boast of the aadoli, which has a kaanthne—a thin, oval piece of metal with sharp ridges to scrape coconut, one of the main ingredients in the cuisine of the community. They may come separately as well. The countertop version has a small ledge of sorts at the bottom that rests on the edge of the kitchen platform, thereby allowing the cook to lean against it and hold it in place. “The ergonomics of the exercise fascinates me the most. While standing, my head is at the perfect angle, and I don’t have to bend too much and stress my neck or shoulders. Also, using both hands while chopping is easier and seems less risky than chopping with the knife,” says Mumbai-based home cook Shanti Petiwala née Padukone, who runs a delivery kitchen service on Instagram @RiotofFlavours.
In Mangaluru, 26-year-old chef Shriya Shetty is doing her bit to revive her culinary legacy. Apart from embracing traditional utensils, she is fascinated by tools like the kaanthne, and often posts about it on Instagram @chiashetts. “Owning a kaanthne is like owning a spoon!” says Shetty, indicating the significance of the traditional blade in the region’s sociocultural milieu. As a professional chef, she finds it sharper than the knife, and convenient to cut fish, the mainstay of the cuisine.
After living thousands of miles away from home, UK-based cookbook author Preeti Deo was at ease using her mother’s vili, similar to the bonti, during a recent stay in Pune. “I find comfort in the wobbly blade,” she says, adding that once she even chose to cut giant banana leaves with it instead of scissors. Deo is used to the drill: she shipped the one that came with the rukhwat—a collection of items for the bride to set up her new home—to her UK kitchen 15 years ago. The vili has a broader wooden base than the bonti, and is common in urban Marathi homes even today.
An evocative reference to the vili from Saee Koranne-Khandekar’s book Pangat, A Feast: Food and Lore from the Marathi Kitchens has stayed with me for a long time. Here, she talks about the countertop version.
“As it pushes a little into my stomach, the grating finds a rhythm and as my children’s tiny hands find their way into the pile of coconut, I find myself becoming my mother.”