It is that time of the year when all that comprises of actual and pseudo bangaliana will start overflowing in various forms. Social media update, dressing in traditional punjabi paijama (we don’t call it kurta pajama but punjabi paijama) or dhuti, Bengali songs (Rabindrasangeet being the most sought after as it is the beginning of Boishakh, which is also the birth month of Robi thakur) and without a doubt, Bengali food. Poila Boishakh has so many nostalgia ridden memories.
This is the one day when the fondness of Chinese cuisine by Bengalis take a backseat. No fried rice but basanti pulao, no chili chicken but kosha mangsho and no custard but mishti doi. Like any other regions of India, Bengalis are protective about their cuisine and no matter how many Bengali restaurants open up, any Bengali would say that the best Bengali food is his home cooked food and each member of the family will have one signature dish.
Keep aside the non veg options, keep aside the different vegetables and the process of making; I say Fried rice is the distant Chinese cousin of Basanti Pulao. When I was very young, eating was my least priority and I was always eager to finish off my food as soon as possible so that I could go out and play. I would often ask Ma, why there were no eggs in a pulao. At least eggs made it interesting to eat. It took a while and a few summers more to realise that a pulao is different from the Chinese cousin.
Now comes the tough part of this blogpost – trying to dabble a bit with the history of Basanti Pulao. It is said that the word “pilaf” is derived from the Sanskrit word “pulaka”. In his book, Indian Food: A Historical Comparison, K.T Acharya claims that both the Persians and Arabs invented the terms pallao, pulao and pilav; yet it was referred to as pallo or pulao in Sanskrit as well as Tamil, much before the Muslim invaders entered India. There is a reference of Pulao in Yagnavalkya Smriti, one of Sanskrit texts between 3rd to 5th century also.The first known documented recipe for Pilaf has come from Persian scholar Abu Ali Ign Sina in his books on medical sciences. Pilaf is an English word which comes from Turkish pilav and which in turn, comes from Persian polow. The strong resemblance to Spanish Paella is also to be noticed here and some degree of similarity between the both. While Mahabharat has reference of Polao when Yaggaseni (the name still attracts a sigh in me, as I remember one of my earliest crushes. Don’t ask when that happened) cooked the same.
There are two types of Polaos which we normally have in Bengal – yellow Basanti Pulao and the white Pulao. While discussing this, one of my friends from Odisha shared this beautiful information – Misti pulao of Bengal is commonly known as ” KANIKA”. Kanika is a fragrantly sweet pulao that is traditionally prepared in Orissa. It finds a place of pride among the ‘chappan bhog’ or 56 items that form part of Lord Jagannath’s menu. Before the fried rice and biryani became popular in Orissa, Kanika used to be served at all wedding feasts, picnics and family gatherings. It is stronger in flavor than a traditional pulao and also is a little sweet. Usually prepared with arua chaula ‘raw rice’ (Ambebhog/GovindBhog), one can replace it by any other aromatic rice (Basmati for example). Though these days, it is usually prepared for offering as prasad in pujas.
By now, it is evident that we are not heading towards any logical conclusion. I sought food researcher Pritha di’s help. As per her, the yellow Basanti pulao has the origins from Shahjahani Zard Pulao and the Hindus embraced it. The Zamindars were influenced by the Murshidabadi and Bangladeshi Nawabs and hence they used saffron in their pulao too. Soon it became an aspirational dish for commons and as saffron was expensive, holud or turmeric became a convenient substitute. Zard pulao is perhaps the only vegetable pulao recipe documented as there are other pulaos with vegetables but albeit with meat in it.
For the sugar part, the explanation could be that as mentioned in the book Nushka e Shahjahani – Pulaos translated by Salma Hussain from the royal kitchen of Shahjahan had a heavy use of sugar; as much as 750 grams of sugar was used in 1 kg of Pulao. As a matter of fact, during those days it is said that the kebabs were also floated in sugar syrup. The thought process which perhaps worked here could be that sweetness normally cuts the richness of the meat and who would’t like Pulao with kosha Mangsho or chaap.
Because it’s Poila Boishakh. Because it’s Bangaliana. It has to be Basanti Pulao.