Bengalis take great pride in their food, and culinary experiences feature on top of the must-do lists of visitors to Kolkata. The region’s cuisine delights fish-lovers, has an affinity for mustard, and offers a delectable variety of vegetarian dishes. Not surprisingly, some of the best souvenirs to bring back from Kolkata are those for the pantry.
Kasundi is more than a mustard sauce. It’s made by blitzing green chillies, mustard seeds, salt, and mustard oil, and has a steady presence in Kolkata’s grocery stores. Kasundi works best as a dip with fried fish or cutlets, or as a condiment with hot rice and veggies. Piquant aam kasundi which is blended with raw mangoes is a summer special. A bottle of the popular Shubra brand costs ₹50 for 300 ml and can be bought at local groceries.
Panch phoron is a five-spice mix of fenugreek seeds (methi), mustard (shorshe), fennel (mouri), cumin (jeere), and nigella (kalo jeere); the formula varies from house to house. Some substitute anise for fennel, while others use radhuni (wild celery seeds) in place of mustard or cumin. When they pop together in hot oil they bring a distinctive taste to Bengali dishes; pumpkin with black channa (kumror chakka) is a favourite. A 100-gm-pack costs ₹10 at local groceries.
Bengali students travelling abroad carry jars of Jharna ghee, a taste that reminds them of home and mama’s cooking. The brand that has become synonymous with quality Bengali ghee has a darker colour than regular ghee. It’s not used for cooking, but is poured over gorom bhaat bhaja (hot rice and vegetable fry) or is a dollop of indulgence over steaming khichuri. Costs ₹250 for 500 gm from neighbourhood grocery stores.
Say the words nolen gur and watch Bengalis get weak in the knees. It is date jaggery made from the sap of a date palm and is a winter treat that’s eaten with hot luchi (puris) for breakfast or by itself for dessert. It forms the liquid centre of a sandesh, or imparts its unique flavour to rasgullas and payesh (kheer). The best gur has a rich brown colour, restrained sweetness, and a mild caramel aftertaste. Available at most local sweet shops for about ₹120 per kilo.
Bengal’s fragrant gondhoraj lebu is an indigenous hybrid of orange and lime. Its name literally translates to “king of aromas.” While it tastes wonderful, it’s the heavenly scent of the lime that accounts for its claim to fame. Gondhoraj is perfect for fragrant desserts, as a marinade for poached or steamed fish, to jazz up nimbu pani, or elevate a modest meal of vegetable, fish curry, or dal. Half a dozen can be bought at a vegetable market for ₹20-30.
A memento of colonial times, the crumbly, salty Bandel cheese comes from a town of the same name in the Hooghly district that was once a Portuguese stronghold. Still made in the age-old way, the two-inch wide rounds need to soak overnight to soften and reduce saltiness. Or they can be crumbled as is over a fresh salad. The cheese is sold only at J. Johnsons and S. Panja in New Market, in plain and smoked varieties that cost ₹8 a round.
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “A Bite of Bengal”.
is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves poetry and food, and travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself. One day she'd love to have a swanky kitchen, a large library and enough time to travel and drink lots of tea.
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