While “gravy” might be a generic term for all curries — irrespective of whether the dish is vegetarian or not, or the consistency of the broth — Bengali curries fall into five distinctive categories, defined by the hero spices, the ingredients, what carbohydrate they should be paired with, and the consistency of the dish. Consider this a masterclass to ordering off the Bengali menu better this Durga Puja.
The art of eating a meal is considered as important as the art of serving one, or cooking one. Eating a meal properly, the correct course after another, with the correct carbohydrates, is seen as the highest form of respect one can pay the chef. A clean plate at the end of the meal, “one in which you can see your own face”, is often believed to be a sign of good upbringing. A Bengali meal, traditional or everyday, is extremely course-specific, and hence, must be eaten in the right order, as each course prepares the palate for the next. The carbs, condiments, and fritters are served on the main dining plate, while dals and curries are placed around it, from right to left, in the sequence it should be consumed, in a half-arch, and in bowls of sizes proportional to the required serving of that dish. Bengali lunches open with bitters, move on dals and fritters, vegetables, fish or seafood, then meat, ending with a chutney, sweets, and curd. Dinners start with fried vegetables, assorted vegetarian dishes, drier gravies, chicken or meat, and sweets. On a daily basis, a simplified version of this code is followed.
In the curry section, after the dal course is done, a variety of options are available in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions. The first kind of curry is the Jhol. Jhols are simply-flavoured, thin broths, mostly spices with turmeric, green chillies, and kalo jeere or kalonji. They are light and soupy, meant for lunches, and are savoured in summers and winters. Jhols can be made with only vegetables — mostly done in winters with fresh winter vegetables like beets, red carrots, and cauliflower — but are more commonly made with fish, hence, the emblematic Maacher Jhol, and chicken or mutton. Fish Jhols are cooked with Rohu, along with long, fat slivers of potato and pointed gourd. Chicken Jhols are made with chunky pieces of potato, a thin film of luminous fat swimming on the surface. Mutton Jhols are cooked with whole potatoes and papaya chunks. The enzyme peptin in papaya tenderises the meat. Jhols are meant to be wholesome, easy-to-cook, and no-frills simple meals.
After the Jhol, the next curry is the Jhaal. While “Jhaal” is also the Bengali word for spicy, the Jhaal curry refers to the family of curries made with mustard paste as the base ingredient. Specific fishes are cooked as Jhaals — especially Tangra, Parshe, and Bata — cooked whole, in a slightly thick mustard sauce. Jhaals are spicy too, due to the presence of green chillies, and are true celebrations of the mustard. Generally, Jhaals are only made with fish and don’t have vegetarian iterations. Having said that, one must not confuse Jhaals with dry mustard-based dishes like the Bhetki Paturi (Bhetki fish fillet steamed in a banana leaf envelope with mustard paste) or the Shorshe Narkol Chingri (Prawns in a Mustard and Coconut Gravy). Jhaals are thin gravies, slightly thicker than Jhols. Both Jhols and Jhaals are meant to be had with steamed white rice. And nothing else. Here, I must add that all mustard-based preparations are meant to be had with steamed white rice. Someone recently told me that they had ordered Bhetki Paturi with Luchi at a Bengali restaurant, and I felt the whole state of West Bengal gasp in unison.
The third and fourth varieties are the Daalna and Kaalia. Daalnas are thicker red curries, primarily flavoured by whole garam masala, ginger, red chilli powder, and asafoetida (not in every recipe). Daalnas generally tend to be the final dish in a vegetarian meal, as it is the spiciest curry Bengalis cook with vegetables. Daalnas can be made with potatoes and a bunch of accompaniments like cauliflower, pointed gourd, dhoka (lentil cakes), and chhana bhaja (deep fried cubes of cottage cheese). In non-vegetarian, the most common is the Egg Daalna or spicy egg curry (please note that boiled eggs must be first nicely fried till the whites form a delectable skin before introducing the eggs to the curry for extra deliciousness). Some fish are also cooked as Daalna. A richer or grander form of the Daalna is the Kaalia. It is a rich gravy, mostly meant for fishes with sweet flesh, as the base of the Kaalia is onion-ginger-garlic-tomato, and a host of roasted spices. The Kaalia is a thick gravy, hot, red, and spicy. Fish like Bhetki and Pomfret — fat and sweet ones — and also tiger prawns, are cooked into Kaalia. The Kaalia ends the meal mostly. While Daalnas can be eaten with rice and chapatis, the Kaalia is mostly enjoyed with steamed rice, or Ghee Bhaat, or Sweet Pulao with cashews and raisins. Though traditionally lunch items, the Daalna and the Kaalia can also be eaten for dinner.
For chicken and meat, the Kaalia transforms into the Kosha, a gravy that is drier, hotter, spicier, and even more divine than the Kaalia. Read all about the Kosha here. The Kosha can be paired with rice, pulao, Luchi, and Porota.
Lunches are finally ended with a sweet-sour note to clean off the palate, and prepare it for the dessert course. After such spicy and heavy dishes, a digestif is also necessary. That brings us to the Ombol. Funnily, “ombol” is the Bengali word for acidity, a common ailment plaguing all Bengalis. I don’t know what we would do if Gelusil or Digene didn’t exist. Ombols, I guess, are called so because the intention of this in-between dish is to, well, prevent the same digestive issue the course is named after. Ombols are thin syrupy dishes, made with a variety of fruits like raw mango, chalta (elephant apple), and amra (hog plums). Ombols are sometimes also referred to as Toks or Sours, due to the predominant sour taste of the dishes. Ombols can also be made with fish heads and bones, mostly done so with the Hilsa for an all-Hilsa meal (during Hilsa season, it is common to have a whole lunch with Hilsa in every course — rice with deep fried Hilsa, deep fried fish eggs eaten with the fish’s oil as first course, dal with fish head, vegetables with fish bones, Hilsa steamed with mustard, cooked as a curry, and in an Ombol).
Eating is serious business for Bengalis. We judge people on how they eat with us, at Bengali restaurants, and in our homes. Now that you have this blueprint, maybe it will help you navigate Bengali menus better. Make good choices, kids.