A steamy plate of biryani is sitting right in front of you. The potatoes and the pieces of meat are beckoning you with their scent of ghee and spices. Before you dive into it like a hungry wolf feasting on its prey, know that had it not been because of the Mughals, this decadent dish would not have made it into our lives.
In fact, every time we were invaded or visited by the Mughals, the Portuguese, the Dutch or the British, they brought along ingredients and cuisines from their culture and gave us a taste of each dish. The cultural mélange also gave birth to items like biriyani, and roshogolla and numerous other food items which have now so lovingly become a part of our lives.
Does that mean before these food items were made known to us, we used to have a bland diet of rice and fish? Not quite. Poems and stories from medieval Bengali literature would tell us that we used various spices and concoctions in our dishes even in as early as the 15th or 16th century.
In Chandi Mangal (part of Mangalkavya, a collection of religious texts composed between the 13th and 18th century, the 15th century poet Mukundaram mentioned that Khullana - the wife of a businessman named Dhanpati, had served her guests with more than fifty dishes. From spinach fried in ghee, to steamed fish cooked in pickled tamarind juice, to sweetened kheer puli, the detailed menu would stoke your appetite even now.
In his poem Annada Mangal (1752-53), Bharat Chandra wrote that Goddess Annapurna cooked a meal consisting of mutton curry, samosa and kabab. So we can assume that by this time, our food habits had changed a great deal since the milk and vegetable days.
Dr Mesbah Kamal, a professor at the department of history in University of Dhaka and president of Peoples' History Research Centre, shared that when people travel or migrate, they carry their history, culture and food habits with them. This mobility, which may be voluntary or involuntary, gives birth to fusions.
Dr Mesbah Kamal said, "Bengal used to be a great ethnic melting pot, like America is now. People from many different cultures have come here and added their traditional food items to the local menu. From Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, many people also traveled to other parts of the world. They too helped in amalgamation of different cuisines."
"Some of these fusion foods retained their originality, while some were upgraded to suit the changing palettes of the modern times. For example, Bengal and China have a relationship which dates back to ages. Yet, the Chinese dishes we eat in Bangladesh are nothing like the authentic Chinese ones. Ours have been adapted more to our likings. Then again, if you go to Europe, the Chinese noodles there would taste wholly different," he added.
The Portuguese began to settle in Bengal from the late 16th century and they brought fruits such as pineapple, papaya, along with potatoes, nuts, cheese and bread with them. We learned how to make cottage cheese or chhana, and thus sweets such as roshogolla and pantua came into existence (Khatun, H. and Khatun, H., 2010. Dhakai Khabar. 1st ed. Dhaka: Bangladesh Asiatic Society).
The fluffy, white bread, or pauruti, that we eat now is a Portuguese influence. It was not a favourite back then, especially among the Muslims because it was thought to contain something unholy, probably alcohol. But children, the sick and old would eat these breads dipped in milk as comfort food.
In the Mughal era, the poor or the middle-class in the society would still eat simple meals of rice, fish and vegetables. The Mughals, however, upped their games in cooking rice and meat dishes, and baking breads. The rulers had brought back chefs from their land to ours who delighted our taste buds with aromatic kababs and naans cooked in tandoors.
We began to taste royalty in the form of korma (yoghurt, cream and milk based meat curry), kaliya (spicy curry), dolma (vegetables stuffed with minced meat), and kofta (meatballs). None of these had turmeric in them; they were mostly made with ginger, garlic, pepper and green chilies. It would be safe to say that the Mughals also gifted us with high cholesterol!
The Muslim dessert makers were called "Halwuikor" in this period – they specialised in making different types of halwas, barfis and faluda. The Hindus used to believe that milk should not be curdled, which was why most of their sweets back then were made from evaporated or dried milk. But these traditions did not last, and eventually every dessert chef was making jilapi and sandesh.
Although the Mughals and the Armenians brought tea to us, it was the Nawabs of Dhaka who later popularised it among the masses.
The British ruled us for almost 200 years, therefore, it is needless to say how much our palettes changed according to what they ate or liked. The cakes, cookies, and toasts which we absolutely love now are their contributions. We were introduced to soups, roasts and cold cuts, but the British also loved many of our dishes wholeheartedly. Although their dishes contained no spice and were mostly boiled or baked, they did not mind having biryani or murgh musallam every now and then.
Fusion dishes like mulligatawny (a rich, curry based soup) and kedgeree,or khichuri, also became popular among these foreigners. Despite the delectable dishes on their tables, residents of Dhaka did not have clean drinking water supply. Diseases such as cholera, jaundice, and diarrhea prevailed throughout the year.
Even after the Mughals and the British left, they left behind reminiscent of their dishes. In his book "Dhaka Pachas Baras Pahle" (Dhaka 50 years ago) published in 1949, Hakim Habibur Rahman, who was an Urdu politician, journalist and writer, mentioned how women in Old Dhaka were famous for making murabbas (candied fruits) and pithas.
In this part of the town, elaborate spreads for Ramadan, weddings and other festivities were still prepared. Hakim mentioned the "torrabandi khana", which were dishes after dishes set on trays like bouquets (torra means a bouquet). It included 24 dishes – four types of bread, rice, korma, and kabab, along with four types of chutneys or pickles and desserts.
These days, the rich like to feast on caviar and foie gras, but in post-Mugal Dhaka, the elites would sip on namash on winter mornings, a delicate drink made from saffron and milk bubbles or froths.
Naan was still very popular as a breakfast item, as was the bakarkhani. Hakim had sadly stated that instead of pure ghee and milk, unscrupulous cooks would use oil and water to bake breads. If only he were alive to see the commercial bakeries of modern times!
Before the Liberation War, Dhaka was not yet a hub of restaurant chains and eating out was limited to certain sections of the society. Women would cook at home and show off their cooking skills during festivities.
In the 80s, however, Chinese restaurants bloomed all over the city and won our hearts with their versions of fried rice and Thai soup. Fast food became a part of our fast paced lives by the 90s and early 2000s, and in 2020, we are creating quarantine versions of every dish that we have ever tasted.