We look at the best cuisine of east India and the delicious dishes you should sample in Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal and Sikkim.
Three common threads connect the cuisine of the eastern states of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The first is the use of opium, or rather poppy seeds. The seeds are considered highly nutritious, and the paste of white poppy seeds is added for thickness, texture and a unique flavour.
Bengal makes the alu posto made with potatoes and gourd. A paste of posto made with ground seeds seasoned with mustard oil, green chili and salt is also had with hot steamed rice. Orissa has jahni alu posta (a potato and gourd dish), and Bihar loves postaa-dana kaa halwa, a sweet pudding made of poppy seeds.
The second common thread is the use of the strong and pungent mustard oil as a cooking medium.
The third is the use of paanch phoron (literally ‘five seeds’ – aniseed, mustard seed, fenugreek, carrom, and nigella seeds). Beyond this, the cuisine of Orissa and Bengal overlap quite a bit with both states laying claim to inventing several famous foods (like the rosogolla, a famous sweet made of cheese).
The cuisine of Bihar is a mixture of North and Eastern Indian cuisine. Chickpea flour is used in a variety of ways including the popular litti (baked and stuffed bread made of roasted chickpea flour, pictured below) served with chokha (potato, tomato and brinjal mash), sattu parathas stuffed with chickpea flour and the sattu drink, used in summers to cool down and get quick energy. The sattu along with Bihari kebabs are two signature dishes of Bihar that are popular outside the state as well.
Orissa, though famous for its food, often gets overshadowed by Bengal. It is believed that most of Bengal’s famous cooks came from Orissa, and quite a few Bengali dishes are derivatives of Oriya cuisine. Dalma is a unique and famous dish prepared in Orissa with vegetables and dal. All meals have a khatta – a sweet and sour dish. The famous khattas are dahi baingan, tomatoes khatta and amba khatta. During scorching summers, the cooling pakhal, made of rice, water, and yogurt fermented overnight, prevents heat strokes.
Bengal loves fish and no meal is complete without ‘maachher jhol and bhaat’ (fish curry and rice). If you have a sweet tooth, you will be spoilt for choice here as Bengalis are famous for their sweet concoctions – fried, steamed and baked.
Try the mishti doi (sweet curd), rosogolla and sandesh (both made from cottage cheese).
The city of Kolkata has its own special cuisine, different from the rest of Bengal. It is influenced by the passage of conquerors and immigrants the city has witnessed over centuries. Street food like kathi kebabs and rolls are influenced by the Mughals. The footprint of the Brits can be seen in the varieties of cutlets including the kabiraji cutlet, the Jews gave alu makallah, the khaw suey came from the Burmese, and the Chinese contributed chowmein and noodles. A signature dish of Kolkata, the Chingri Malai Curry, has Malaysian roots.
Further up from Bengal, towards the Himalayas is the state of Sikkim, which has its own distinctive culinary style influenced by neighbouring Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal. A popular food is the momo (pictured below) – a dumpling stuffed with chicken, pork, beef or vegetables.
Sikkimese people love noodle-based soups with or without meat to keep the chill out. Thukpa, thanthu, gyathuk, and fakthu are one-pot soup meals.
Sha-phaleys are fried patties filled with minced meat had as a snack. Chhurpi is a local cheese made from cow or yak’s milk, commonly used by mountaineers who chew it to maintain salivation.
Sikkimese use a lot of fermented foods – like kinema, a fermented soybean with a high protein content, and the sel roti made with fermented rice. Gundruk soup (prepared using leaves of mustard, radish and cauliflower) is a great option for vegetarians. So is Sinki made from roots of the radish.
Rice isn’t the only grain, Sikkim uses a wide variety – finger millet, wheat, buckwheat and barley. When the Himalayan chill gets to you, try the local drink chhang, a millet beer served in bamboo tankards, sure to warm you up.
No matter where you travel you’ll find the cuisine of east India offers plenty of variety to get the mouth watering and taste buds tingling!
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