Deborah Cater, a prominent traveller, reviewer and blogger says “You have to taste a culture to understand it.” Once you get a taste of Bangladeshi food, this will definitely convince you that the culture is one that is build on harmony. The ethnic diversity has adorned the country with a multi-faceted folk heritage. The cultural unity is reflected in our celebrations too where hundreds of religious and cultural festivals are celebrated by most of the Bangladeshis.
Baro mashe tero parban (thirteen festivals in twelve months) is an expression that is the first one to come to mind when we talk about the festivals of Bangladesh. Each of these festivals brings its own platters catering to the Bangladeshi palates and making the cultural heritage richer. This list of festival foods chosen for this article is by no way an exhaustive one, rather a most common one that is celebrated widely in the country and among the Bangladeshi communities living around the world.
Pahela Baishakh- Panta Ilish is a must
The first day of the first Bangla month (Baishakh) is deemed to be non-celebratory without the fried Illish dipped into panta, which is then placed over rice soaked into water. Sometimes the Ilish (Hilsha), which happens to be the national fish, is cooked in mustard sauce to add a new dynamic to the whole platter. Ilish is an immensely popular fish in Bangladesh and Sorshe Ilish or the fish cooked in mustard sauce has historically been considered a food item that is an integral part of Bangla culture and identity. While flavorful, crispy and deliciously mouthwatering Ilish bhaja (fried Ilish) is a must, there are some other complementary items that also adorn the platters of Pahela Baishakh. Among those complementary items, salt, lemon, roasted red chili or green chili and different kinds of bhorta accompany the NoboBorsho feast. The most common of the bhortas (mashed vegetable), the aloo bhorta (mashed potato), begun bhorta (mashed eggplants), and shukti bhorta (mashed dried fish) are the most common ones.
Nobanno Utshob- Pitha, payes and much more
The word Nobanno is a combination of nobo (new) and onno (rice) which translates into new rice. Utshob which means festival makes the phrase Nobanno Utshob a festival or celebration of new rice. The majority of Bangladeshis still live in rural areas and are heavily dependent on agriculture. It is the month of Agrahayon when the rural households in Bangladesh are filled with the smell of new rice. The festival usually starts at the end of the month when the rural folks invite their relatives and friends to take part in the harvest festival with food, dance, music and friendship. The country’s biggest agricultural celebration nobanno usually marks the harvest of Aman rice which is turned into different kinds of pitha (cakes) and sweet meats. Delicious rice pudding made of fresh milk and sugar/ molasses is also another mouth watering item that is an essential part of nobanno. This festival usually brings forth different mela (fair) that sells local finger food items like sondesh (sweet meats) and naru (sweet meats made of coconut). The fairs are also a meeting place for folk artists who perform different forms of art like singing, dancing, acting and etc. Variety shows, a show that features people performing dances and stage dramas, is also an iconic thing that comes with nobanno.
Shakrain- the festival of flying kites and varities of food items
If you have lived in Dhaka, you are probably very familiar with this festival that makes the skies of Dhaka colorful and beautiful. This festival generally occurs in Poush which is the ninth month in the Bangla calendar. During this festival, people from old Dhaka go to their roof tops to engage in a celebration of color and music. Thousands of kites in thousands of variation adorn the skies of Dhaka during this festival, portraying solidarity, friendship and Bangaldeshis’ love for color and celebration. While there is no one specific food item, this festival is usually shadowed with different traditional finger food and dinner menus. People usually have bakorkhani (a kind of bread), biriyani (rice cooked with meat) and different kinds of shorbot (juice and chillers). Some people grab traditional food packages from iconic restaurants such as Haji biriyani, Star Kabab’s kacchi, Nanna Baburchir biriyani etc. Other parts of the country, specially the southern part also celebrate this festival with food items that are different in nature, like peyaju (spicy cake made of onion), beguni (spicy cake made of eggplants), misti bakorkhani (sweet bread) etc.
Choitro Shonkrani- the lure of vegetarian food
There is the most common saying – Mache bhate Bangali (Bangaldeshis are predominantly dependent on rice and fish) but it will be incomplete history of Bangladeshi food if the variety of vegetable based food isn’t mentioned here. Choitro Shonkranti, the last day of a Bangladeshi calendar is celebrated with delicious vegetable dishes by and large. The most common item is pachon (mixed vegetables made with exotic spices in a large pot) which is magical for any taste bud. The common vegetables are potato, egg plants, papaya, onion, tomatoes, and pepper and so on and usually these are mixed with different types of seeds or lentils. At the end of the year, the day is celebrated with simple Bangladeshi food which Bangladeshis believe prepare them for the big meals that await them the next day.
Iftar- breaking the fast with thousands of items
Although predominantly a Muslim festival, Ramadan has Bangladeshis from all faiths going to old Dhaka to experience the thousands of variations of snacks that are used to break the day long fast. Old Dhaka has been historically known for its iftar market where items are sold in bulk and some of the items are exclusive while most of the items are also found elsewhere in the city. Most of the items are based on flower, vegetables, meats, onion, pepper and cilantro. Peyaju, beguni, alu chop, dim chop, bora, mutton leg, chola, muri, jilapi, khir –these are some of the most common items that are to be found. Most of the snacks are spicy while there are also jilapi and different kinds of sweetmeats that are usually taken as desserts after the meal. Different variations of dates are also available. It is an absolute delight to see the iftar market buzzing with people right before the sunset, as people break their fast at the call of the Maghrib azaan. The iftar market lasts for 30 days of Ramadan, culminating into Eid which is the biggest religious festival for the Muslim community.
Eid- a festival of Vermicelli
Again predominantly a Muslim festival, Eid has also been observed culturally in Bangladesh. The most important and most common item for breakfast on Eid day is vermicelli. Some prefer to add milk and make it moist while others prefer it dry and fried. Sweetening the vermicelli with sugar and butter is a must for all different preparations though. Lunch is the biggest meal of the Eid day and people tend to have an array of main courses. Usually the polao or biriyani remains the staple and it comes with curries made of fish, meat, vegetables. Roasted chicken, beef curry, different kinds of cakes made with meat and lentils are some of the basic and most common items. The meat is prepared in different ways depending on choice and taste.
Jamai Joshthi- the festival of bonding
Jamai in Bangla means son-in-law and joshthi refers to the second month of Bangla calendar- Joiyshtho. This religious/ cultural festival is held to strengthen bonds between the son in laws and the in laws of a family. Rooted in India, this festival is also a big celebration of food and friendship. The mother in law usually cooks various dishes that are the the son-in-laws favourite. Polao, korma, meat preparations, prawn, fishes and pachon (if vegetarian) are must-haves. The most important thing is this festival however is the array of sweetmeats that are arranged. Sondesh (sweet meats in cubes) made of sugar and molasses are the dessert for this festival and usually the son in law and daughter are sent home with tons of food.
Puja- luchi is a must
There are different kinds of puja all around the Bangla calendar. Puja is the religious festival that is primarily for the Hindu diaspora and brings an assortment of different kinds of snacks and meals. Although different pujas have different main food items, luchi is the most common item in all the pujas. Luchi (a small crispy bread like tortilla) is the base food where the sides can be either sweet or spicy. People usually have various types of vegetable curry or sweet meats to complement the luchi. Some mouthwatering items of puja are macher jhol (fish cooked in sauce), shukto, mutton biriyani, folar etc.
To indulge in the flavours of all the Bengali festivities, book a table at Paturi Bangladesh.
Photos from Paturi Bangladesh
Visit Paturi Bangladesh www.facebook.com/PaturiBangladesh/