What makes a Bengali, Bengali? The answer always seems to lie in fish. As a typical Bengali who spent his whole life trying to avoid fish, I always felt I was just not Bengali enough because I didn’t salivate at the prospect of koi-maach. Moving to America, I thought I had escaped the accusing stare of the beady-eyed rui. And then I find myself in an Asian fish market in San Francisco staring nostalgically at piles of silvery fish. We grew up in communities of taste, says Prof. Krishnendu Ray. It is subconsciously embedded. In the act of migration, that community of taste is suddenly lost.
Prof. Ray should know. After coming to the US to study political economy of development and underdevelopment, he was, as he puts it, waylaid by that disreputable phenomenon? nostalgia or the idealizing of home-cooked food? What started as his personal journey to deal with the loss of shukto and ilish on a monsoon afternoon, has now become the first actual study of meals and memories in Bengali-American households? The Migrant’s Table?.
Prof. Ray sent out a survey to some 1,000 Bengali families asking questions like? What was yesterday’s lunch in your home? and What is your weekly fish bill? The answers, he hoped, would tell him not just what to expect for dinner on an average night at the Banerjee household in New Jersey but some larger issues of immigration and assimilation.
He found that Bengali-Americans spent on an average $91 a week at the grocery store and another $14 at a specialty Asian market. Dinner remained aggressively Bengali. Lunch was a mixed bag. Breakfast was toast and cereal. Single men reluctantly learn American eating habits like cold cuts and cold cereals but reassert their Bengaliness after marriage. Women are willing to play a little more with American food? think turkey samosa. Women still do the bulk of the cooking, though 65 per cent have professional credentials or a master?s degree. But almost half hold jobs rather than pursue?careers. Only 10 per cent of married men do grocery shopping on their own.
The act of migration also suddenly opens up a supermarket of possibilities. Families who ate chicken once a week can now eat it everyday. Take fish. A US AID survey in 1972 found 41 per cent of upper middle-class households in Calcutta ate fish for lunch on a typical weekday. At dinner in Bengali-American households, that rises to 63 per cent. Sixty-six per cent have meat.
But the plenty doesn’t mean it’s the same. Fish is abundant in America but Bengalis like whole freshwater fish. Fish fillets and steaks are just not gada and peti. It doesn’t taste the same says Ray. But what people are really missing are other memories.? Sure, potol and mocha might be hard to find but sometimes more than the food, its the associations.
Saraswati Puja will not be the same without khichuri or sandesh shaped like lotus or fish, says Bharti Kirchner, the author of The Healthy Cuisine of India Recipes from the Bengal Region. The problem for Bengalis is Bengali food is not even available in Indian restaurants. Regional cooking was preserved at homes while restaurants in India made Mughlai cooking the standard, says Kirchner. Even at a Bengali conference in Atlantic City in 2000, there were six food vendors? three served pizza, sandwiches and pretzels, the other three served south Indian, north Indian and bhelpuri. No alur dom, no luchis, forget doi-potol.
At one level, being hard-to-find gives food its value, says Ray because food is the mythologisation of the mundane. That’s why immigrants wax eloquent about street food like puchka or jhal muri which they endlessly try to replicate. But the damn things never taste like the jhal muri I had on the train,? chuckles Ray.
Nirmalya Modak helped start the first Bengali restaurant, Charulata, in the San Francisco Bay Area. While Charulata served lau-chingri and shorshe-ilish, the occasional customer would still ask for naan. ?During Durga Puja it was very crowded, remembers Modak. People would say, let’s get luchi and kasha meat curry at Charulata. It will be just like the Pujas in Calcutta. But eventually, Charulata closed down, unable to rely on Bengali nostalgia as a viable business model. There are only some 30,000 Bengalis in the US. And if you include Bangla- deshis, the numbers hover around 100,000 says Ray.
Because you can only really get it at home, because it is an ethnic secret not easily available commercially, Bengali food becomes the place where the angst of immigration really stews. ?Fathers anguish that if their children don’t like shukto they will never grow up Bengali, says Ray. Of course, he chuckles, back in Calcutta, the same fathers might have been longing for kebabs at Nizam’s or cakes from New Market instead of shukto and daal-bhaat at home.
At some level, assimilation is inevitable. Even when the children identify with their culture, it’s probably more as Indian as opposed to Bengali. So they will eat samosas rather than phulkopir singhara, says Ray. He realizes it most acutely when he brings his own four-year-old son to India. His typical menu macaroni and cheese with his daal bhaat. His comfort food is now truly Bengali-American.