For hundreds of years, food for the people of the greater region called ‘Bengal’ has worked as a medium of finding solace. ‘Reaching someone’s heart through his stomach’- the popular adage is absolutely true for these people, who love to entertain their guests with the best to offer, even if it means leaving nothing for themselves. Women who engage themselves in cooking as many courses as possible depending on the financial condition, put their heart into each dish. The cooking processes are time consuming and to some extent may seem complicated to expatriates who are habituated to having packed or canned pre-processed food. Making pastes of onion, garlic or ginger on a traditional grinding stone called ‘Shil-nora’, each one separately or sometimes even together, (a tradition found in Faridpur region, the paste is called furani bata) is a tedious job but adds distinct flavors in cooking. Nonetheless, what’s much more amusing is the aroma that spreads from the kitchen is sure to make your mouth water. In Charyapada, the ancient book of Buddhist mystic songs, there are mentions about the staggering arrangements of cooking special dishes on special days; there are even rhymes, which used to be memorized by the cook to keep track of time while something is boiling or cooking. For those people, perfect was the mantra to live by as food is something that should give their tastebuds a joyous roller coaster ride.In fine, all the love, the attention and probably the midas touch of their experienced hands of the womenfolk makes the meals so magical.
The deltaic region is enriched with alluvial soil and henceforth, rice, which is grown in abundance, is the staple food. Approximately 127 variety of rice are grown here. Every breed of rice has a unique use of its own. One breed of rice is used to make lavish ‘Biriyani’ while the other breed of rice is puffed to make ‘Muri’. However, the most popular form among Bangladeshis is the plain white rice or ‘Shada bhaat’ as we like to call it. A plate of freshly cooked steaming hot rice along with spicy & sumptuous supplementary dishes is one kind of a necessity for any Bangladeshi during lunch and dinner. That lethargic feeling attained as the aftermath of a regular tiresome work day is washed away when one returns home to find the sweltering steam of rice dangling in the air mingled with the aroma coming from a bowl containing chilly fish curry made out of seasonal spices. To glorify moments such as this, the term ‘Maachh-Bhaate Bangali’ was coined. However, only fish and rice cannot define the food habit of Bangladeshis. Food here is not about heavily seasoned greasy curries either. It is not about a vast array of sugar loaded dairy-based desserts or allegedly overcooked vegetables. These perceptions about Bangladeshi Cuisine that seem to prevail among the transient travelers are mostly based on their experiences in busy local eateries, where the true taste and essence of this deltaic cuisine is significantly compromised to accommodate higher profit margins. In addition, established mainly to cater to fleeting businessmen and office executives on the go, many restaurants usually do a terrible job of combining all the recipes from across the country under their roofs. Dining out was never the part of middle class Bangladeshi culture until very recently, which too is mostly for them to experience non-Bangladeshi cuisines for a change. Therefore, till date the best samples of Bangladeshi culinary delights are being served in Bangladeshi homes, and are shared together by all the members of the family.
In the villages, breakfast on a regular day would be either Panta Bhaat (Rice soaked in water overnight) served with green pepper, onion etc. or Folar (a combination of flat rice, jaggery, sweet curd, fruits and other form of dairy sweets). On special occasions, a vast variety of rice cakes (Pitha) is served which can be both sweet and savory. Luchi(finely rolled deep fried fluffy bread) with Shuji’r Halwa (Semolina Kesari) are widely popular in both rural and urban areas . The dairy shops would also have piping hot Shingaras (deep fried pastry wraps stuffed with vegetables and nuts). In the cities, Panta bhaat is replaced by wheat roti which is enjoyed with daal, stir fried vegetables (Bhaaji), eggs or curries. Paratha, Bhaji and Egg is also a classic combo in restaurants across the country. On the heavier side of the breakfast, there is Ox Brain Bhuna, Ox Liver Bhuna, Lotpoti (spicy curry of chicken liver, heart, gizzards, head and neck), and Chicken Soup (local chicken pieces cooked with yogurt, milk and green chili).
Each region in Bangladesh has their unique ways of honoring their fresh local produce as the abundance of each ingredient varies largely with respect to season and geography. Food preparation does not only vary across regions, they also vary in the same region depending on occasions, festivals or the time of the day. Nevertheless, the unique feature of Bangladeshi cuisine lies in the custom in which the food is enjoyed; which once mastered, can unearth all the hidden flavors of the fresh ingredients for the lucky diner. The rules might not be as ceremonial as that of Japanese Way of Tea, but the art of using hands to mix rice with vegetables, protein dishes and broths is no simpler than that of using chopsticks. The only difference is using hands in this case is much more critical to the enjoyment of the diner than chopsticks. Apart from mastering the art of using hands to enjoy meals, a seasoned Bangladeshi diner would also know from where to start and where to end just by looking at the dishes displayed before him.
Traditionally, the meal starts either with deep fried small fish like Chapila, Puti etc., pan-fried Pointed Gourd, Bitter Gourd, Teasel Gourd, Okra, Pumpkin etc., leafy vegetables like spinach, radish leaves, bottle gourd vines, red amaranth or from one of the hundred varieties of Bhorta (seasoned and mashed vegetables, seeds, or fish). Once blended with rice using fingers, each of the combination teases your tastebuds making up for a great appetizer/starter. Now on a dinner table in a Bangladeshi household, expect to have more than one main course, which is either a fish or a meat curry. The main courses are usually followed by a finishing course like Daal made from a variety of pulses or a Khatai/Ombol (an acidic variety of broth made with a combination of tangy fruits) to neutralize the heat from the flavorsome courses.
No essay is complete without discussing the love of sweets among Bangladeshi people. Dessert, which is a must after all meals on special occasions are always diary based. Popularly known as ‘mishti’, sweetmeats of Bengals are better than anywhere else in the world. What sets them apart is the process of making them; unlike many other places, we make sweetmeats with Chhena, the unripened curd cheese from bovine milk.The moist and crumbly form of cheese is a special ingredient that is still used to make the famous roshogolla, a bite of which will flood your tongue with sugary syrup that in the beginning may seem a bit too much for your tastebuds; but soon you will be surprised that you will automatically take the second, third and fourth bite to finish it all. Different cities of the country have different and signature sweetmeats of their own and all of them are immensely loved by all. Chomchom, Kachagolla, Laddu, Shondesh, Balish Mishty, Komola bhog, Lencha are some of the very unique sweetmeats from different regions of Bangladesh. Taking sweetmeats is a gesture of showing felicitation here; festivals and celebrations are never complete without them, be it a village or the most modern urban set up.
As Bangladeshis are always welcoming anything new and worthy, all of Dhaka city is now mushroomed with restaurants and eateries serving a plethora of items. What’s interesting about these restaurants are in many cases, they blend in local cooking techniques while preparing a Thai, Lebanese or Mexican dish and the final product becomes a thought provoking hybrid for our gourmands. Nevertheless, if you are really keen on enjoying the authentic Bangladeshi fine dining experience, Paturi Bangladesh has opened its doors to food aficionados from both home and abroad. With so many westernized eateries popping up all over Dhaka, it’s about time someone brought back the essence of our local cuisine to remind us of the origins of our tastes.
Photos from Paturi Bangladesh