I am what our generation calls a proud bed rotter. When I am not attending summer classes, cooking or trying to find jobs that will not outright mistreat me, I can most likely be found lounging on my bed.

My bed lounges are often accompanied by music, but sometimes I allow my thoughts to have free reign. My favourite thing to think about is food and what new dish I can cook up.

My ancestry and community predispose me to a (healthy) obsession with food. I am Bengali — a group of people well known for their love of food. I also had the privilege of growing up in Kolkata, the city with arguably the best food scene in India. If you ever visit Kolkata, you will understand how spoiled for choices I was growing up.

This deep love for food, my studies in anthropology and lounging all come together to make me wonder about the history surrounding Bengali food and how this element of the culture became so rich.

The obvious sources to learn about Bengali food were the internet and my grandmother. When I ask my grandmother about it, she always tells me we never ate roti (wholewheat flatbread) before 1943. A search on the internet tells me that food in the historical regions of Bengal — Bangladesh, the Indian states of West Bengal and parts of Tripura and Assam — were affected by its proximity to major maritime trading routes as a port of the Silk Road under Muslim rule.

Besides these global and large-scale influences, local customs also revealed a dark history of eating habits in Bengal — a history of hunger and denial.

Women in Bengal, particularly widows, have historically and disproportionately experienced this denial. Social rules barred Hindu widows from consuming all non-vegetarian foods, onion, garlic and even red lentils (mushurir dal). In addition, these women often had access to very little money and were socially isolated. This meant the food they cooked and consumed had to be very economical and generate as little waste as possible.

A highly economical dish is phena (also known as fain and phen) — the excess starch water that is discarded after cooking rice. In 1943, during the Bengal Famine, this discarded food became highly prized.

Although Bengal has extremely fertile soil and is a centre for agriculture, famines have occurred often in this region. Bengal has experienced several major famines during the colonial era from 1757–1947, but one that continues to live on in collective memory is the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Between 1943 and 1944, well over three million people died from starvation. The causes of the famine are widely debated, but man-made causes, particularly Winston Churchill’s policies, are often alluded to in academic work (Amartya Sen’s work on the entitlement theory is illuminating and recommended for perusal).

My grandmother tells me they had people beg at their door for a little bit of phena, for some sustenance to have a chance at survival. Sometimes her mother would eat the phena, and give the rice to my grandmother and her siblings. Although they had to ration food, my grandmother was privileged enough that she and her family did not starve. It was during these times when Bengalis also started eating roti, my grandmother reminds me, because wheat is much cheaper than rice.

A history of deprivation and lack of access to food resulted in Bengalis innovating, making the most of their ingredients and producing dishes that would normally be considered waste. Growing up, some of my favourite dishes were made of vegetable peels. The tough outer layers of plantains and ridge gourd mashed into a paste and eaten with rice is a dish I remember fondly.

Several traditional methods of Bengali food preparation fit into what influencers now call “scrappy cooking.” Bengali meals prepared and served at home will often include a vegetable dish and another preparation made of the peel or “scraps” of the same vegetable; it most commonly comes prepared as a bhaja or bata.

Khosha refers to peels of vegetables, widely considered to be waste products of cooking in most cultures. Bhaja means fried, and bata refers to making a paste out of something. Popular peels to fry include peels of bottle gourd (lau), pointed gourd (potol) and potato (aloo). Bata is often made from ridge gourd (jhinge), the thick skin of plantain or green bananas (kanch kola), lau and aloo. In addition to vegetarian dishes, trimmings of goat meat and fish innards are all eaten. Scholars attribute using cheap spices and forgoing onions or garlic in these dishes to the Bengali widow.

The emphasis of Bengali food is on reducing waste and innovating food to create dishes which are greater than the sum of their parts. I am privileged enough to enjoy the food that was an attempt at survival by poor, ostracized widows and people who were faced with imminent death. I eat dishes that were born out of desperation, creativity and resilience. Although my grandmother does not divulge many details of her personal experience during the famine, her repeated reminders of Bengalis eating roti is an unspoken admission of the suffering she saw and experienced.

My grandmother’s heritage is part of mine — all the widows who lived before me assert their presence in the fare that I consume, and the victims of famines remind me to be resourceful, economic and grateful for all that I enjoy.

The greeting that I hear on the phone, “Bhaat kheyechish (have you eaten rice), has become even more endearing to me. It reminds me I am privileged to lounge on my bed and dream of food, because only two generations ago, being able to eat even the water discarded from cooking rice was precious.