This is not a straight cookbook, though there are recipes. This is really a detailed account of some of the cultural traditions and food customs in Bengal. You cannot help but be drawn in by Banerji's writing, as she is so obviously very knowledgable and articulate. The book moves through the seasons, and Banerji talks about different traditions and dishes that are associated with certain times of the year, throwing in recipes here and there.
One criticism of mine would be that the book is not easy to cook from, as the writing is small and the recipes not laid all that well. However, this is because the book is more of a reading book than a cookbook. That is not to say that the recipes aren't great, it's just that the book is laid out in the style of a reading book. I didn't find this that much of an issue, but perhaps don't buy this for someone who just wants to cook things without knowing anything about them and wants glossy pictures and large print words.
For anyone who wants to know more about regional Indian cuisine, and so far is still thinking in terms of vindaloo and madras, this book will be real eye opener. Bengali cuisine is exquisite - refined and subtle at some times, bold and firey at others. I promise that you will not be disappointed in this foray into the food and thus the lives of the people of Bengal.
(As everyone knows) it is very easy in Britain to forget that Indian Cuisine is so regional, so diverse and intricate. Learning some of these variations, and appreciating where and why they develop is a current project of mine, a project made all the more tasty I hope by picking up recipes along the way. I have to admit that my mind is a bit like a 'chalni' at the best of times, so there's nothing like a good recipe to help some cultural and culinary history block up those pores!
With this in mind, I picked up Chitrita Banerji's slim volume devoted to the cuisine of Bengal and my ignorance very quickly reared its head: not only is Indian Cuisine rich and various but Bengali Cuisine too has many diversions and variances due in large part to the dietary differences between the various communities of which its societies are made up. These differences can even be political, and are now of course in some sense 'national', so getting an understanding of Bengali Cuisine itself is quite a project! Luckily, Chitrita's Banerji very knowledgeable and anecdotal approach is just the thing (if you have patience). It's a very readerly book. It's not one to turn to without reading, for a quick recipe. Though there are plenty of excellent recipes.
At one point, Banerji describes a conversation with a Muslim friend in Bangladesh where she comments upon 'the comparative richness and heaviness of Muslim cooking versus the lightness and delicacy of Hindu cooking'. Her friend was determined to prove that Muslim cooking too could be delicate and cooked the following dreamy-beyond-belief menu:
plain boiled rice with moong dal, ginger cumin and chilli
koi with orange
aubergine with tamarind
dessert orange-flavoured sweet rice
Wow. Now that is a menu i want to serve.
ENDNOTE: This book is the exact opposite of that Gordon Ramsay lark that was on the tv recently. Sure, his antics were quite entertaining but the way he spoke about Vegetarianism etc. really showed very very little attempt at understanding or respect. I know it was all in good spirit etc, and i enjoyed it. I'm just saying this is a completely different kettle of koi.
Many people have a problem differentiating between the different countries whose foods can be categorised as Asian or South-East Asian cuisine, so Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and Nepali food can be effectively combined, save for a few noticeable differences like "curry" versus "sweet and sour sauce". Yet even those who can differentiate between Chinese and Indian dishes often forget that there are tremendous differences between the various regions and near-lying countries.
This book can help change some misconceptions for Indian foods, by helping to highlight typical Bengal dishes, their seasons, festivals and traditions. Confusion can also arise with what and where Bengal is as many people will just assume it is part of India, yet they do not appreciate that it is an area mainly divided between the People's Republic of Bangladesh (previously East Bengal/East Pakistan) and the Indian state of West Bengal. And even within this region there can be a number of differences! Whilst this is not a recipe book per se, it does contain some recipes that form part of the overall meaning of the book. This is more of a deeper appreciation of Bengali cooking through the wider eyes of culture and tradition. The book is broken down into the different seasons and one can see how, whilst foodstuffs can remain constant, there can be seasonal varieties and, of course, many special holidays and important days in the Bengali calendar. The book is packed full of information written in a narrative style. You have to keep your eyes open and brain engaged otherwise a lot of information will just swoosh by -- you will be culturally richer by focussing on the information and it will help correct many misunderstandings and educate you on things you might have vaguely heard of or names of things that you recognise from other contexts. This is no dry educational tome either, despite it providing much educational material. It is a pleasurable, if not intense read, on a very interesting style or type of cuisine in an area that is often overshadowed by greater India. Despite that... many people think they are eating "Indian" food whilst at an Indian restaurant when, in fact, it is more Bengali in style and origin and often cooked by people from Bangladesh. An enjoyable read and something that will form a part of many reference shelves.
I married into a Bengali family and this book was amazing at bringing some of their culture to life. Chitrita Banerji is a very talented writer and her descriptions are so evocative that my husband would often have a wistful look in his eyes as he remembered his childhood as I read aloud to him. However, as others have mentioned, this isn't a straight cookbook. She has recipes, but they're blended with the narrative and rather than writing straight instructions, she makes you feel like you're in the kitchen watching your aunty cook.