I am embarrassed to admit that in a country where many people eat to live, I am one of those people who live to eat (and drink and talk and travel and love and work, and so on). Food is amongst the many things in life that bring me pleasure and so I was looking forward to discovering Bangladeshi food. I need to preface this post by saying that my experiences were limited by budget restrictions and therefore fine dining – in Dhaka’s top restaurants, for example – was not on my agenda. While there are restaurants in Dhaka to suit all tastes (for those with money), my interests, on this occasion, lay in everyday Bangladeshi cuisine.
During my first weeks in Bangladesh, I bought a gorgeous, colour-illustrated, hard-back cookery book in New Market, replete with recipes and a wealth of information on Bengali food and cooking culture. Inspired, I imagined myself rummaging through baskets brimming with fresh and enticing produce at the local bustling market. Then, later, I would plate up sensuous, subtly spiced dishes and build up a rich repertoire of personal Bengali favourites. However, the expression, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen’, could be interpreted literally in Bangladesh. The kitchen in my flat is simply not conducive to cooking: apart from not having an oven, grill or reliable refrigeration, it’s dark, dingy, unventilated, ill-equipped and hot as Hades. Like a lot of things in Bangladesh, my cooking experiment never quite got off the ground. Rachel Allen is safe – for now!
However, on the upside, budget restaurants are numerous, which makes eating out a feasible option. Street food is very good. In addition, Bangladeshi hospitality means that there are lots of invitations to dine at people’s homes. And while my personal culinary efforts may not have extended to much more than French toast or Welsh rarebit, I got to know a little about food in Bangladesh from eating at restaurants and street stalls, and from friends’ home cooking.
The typical fare
While there were food highlights during my time in Bangladesh, I would have to say that, in general, I found that food began to look and taste the same after a while. Even the restaurants began to look similar – large plain rooms frequented mostly by groups of men. A table in one of these restaurants might typically be covered with an oilskin cloth. The picture above typifies the fare. There is a large plate of plain boiled rice (bhat) for sharing, a large bowl of soupy dahl (made from lentils, but very different from its creamier, thicker and tastier Indian counterpart), an individual smaller bowl in front of each diner containing meat, chicken or fish (the most popular and ‘national’ fish is ilish) in a hot, spicy gravy sitting in mustard oil. Usually, there is a plate with whole chillies and sometimes lime wedges and almost always a salad plate of cucumber, tomato and carrot. Occasionally, though not on this occasion, there can be side dishes of soft vegetables (shobji) such as bitter gourd, egg-plant or green beans. Traditionally, Bengali meals are served on the floor and though this is not something I experienced personally, I did observe it in rural villages (see for example post 9). Finally, as in most of Asia, Bangladeshis eat with their hands (see post 6).
Where there is a menu, it can be possible to get other dishes e.g. biryani – fried and spiced rice with meat/chicken, or without (pulao); khichuri – rice and lentils mixed and cooked together; dopiaza – onions served with meat/fish; kebabs, and occasionally tandoori dishes (e.g. chicken tikka with naan bread). Like me, many Bangladeshis have a sweet tooth, and while there were some that I enjoyed, even I found many of their milk-based, sugar-laden desserts a little too sweet at times. Condensed milk is used in many puddings as is rice, vermicelli and yoghurt.
Two experiences stand out for me in terms of food highlights: one was the taste of fresh fruit in season, and the other the veritable smorgasbord of tasty and affordable street food. The taste of sweet, ripe mango in season is one that will linger: I had never tasted mango this good before. In Bangladesh there are many different varieties – though I never got to the point of distinguishing between them. Mouth-watering lychees, eaten by the bunch, were similarly simply delicious. Watermelons and katal (jackfruit) tasted exquisitely refreshing in the height of the heat, as did coconut water, fresh, through a straw, from shiny, green, young coconuts. Other great tasting fruit included pineapple, guava and the ubiquitous banana. During my time in Bangladesh, I saw all of these fruits growing and being harvested.
The joys of street food
Because of the ‘sameness’ of restaurant and catered food, I loved the variety of street food and have some great memories of shared, often spontaneous, encounters with Bangladeshi ‘fast’ food. One evening, for example, a colleague, Sayeedul, offered me a lift to Lalmatia after work and we ended up stuck in a horrendous bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. (The journey took over two hours, but I felt lucky to be escaping my usual slow, sweltering, smog-filled, CNG journey home – see post 7). On this occasion the traffic was moving so slowly, that Sayeedul had time to get out of the car, and leisurely pick up some food from the many food stalls lining the street, before rejoining the ‘moving’ car. (Incidentally, we had a driver, as most private cars in Dhaka do, so there was somebody in control of the vehicle!) In the back of the cool, air-conditioned car we ate alur chop – a tasty fried potato snack (a bit like a rosti/hash brown), dima chop – similar but with a whole egg inside, and shingara – like a samosa, but round and with a heavier filling of spicy meat and potato.
Another evening, my friend Seraj called for me after work and we walked to an area of street stalls on Mirpur Road, north of Agargaon and Shamoli. There, Seraj treated me to delicious, freshly-cooked mughlai paratha – fried, flat bread stuffed with an egg, onion and chilli filling. As the name suggests the mughlai paratha forms part of the country’s cooking heritage from Mughal times, when Bangladesh was an outpost of the empire. I felt truly part of the city that evening, watching life go by, sharing food with locals and chatting happily with Seraj.
There are also a lot of small, mobile food carts on wheels and one of my favourite foods from these is phushka (or fushka). I have stopped many times at these carts and have always been drawn into conversation with fellow diners, while standing around eating the puffy, crispy, pastry-like balls, filled with a chickpea mixture and smothered in a hot, spicy gravy. If there happened to be a plastic stool or two by the cart, it was always insisted upon, despite vigorous protest on my part, that I sit down. I had a preference for stalls offering savoury snacks, although there were stalls that specialised in traditional Bengali cakes (called pitha) too. Many of these were excessively sweet though. Food stalls were very inviting after dark when it was cooler. Most had a few long, wooden benches, were lit by a couple of candles and were shadowy and atmospheric, promising camaraderie and conversation. Often, the latter turned out to be more alluring than the food.
The culture of adda
The last sentence epitomises the spirit of the culture of adda. Meeting strangers randomly on the street and accompanying them to a tea stall/food stall, for cha and/or nasta (a snack) and a chat, is one of the many things I love about Dhaka. I have discovered that Bangladeshis, like the Irish, love to talk! Here, there’s a whole culture around this kind of tea/food-stall chatting, or companionable conversation, and it’s embodied in the word ‘adda’. Adda is difficult to define. It can refer to something more than just idle chat or gossip: it can be a sort of exalted conversation on often weighty subjects. Or, it might simply be a chat between intimate friends. [Have a look at this NY Times article about the culture of adda in Kolkata (see post 62).] In the absence of the usual entertainment options (e.g. TV, Internet, theatre, etc.), adda sessions present a pleasant way to spend an evening. Exchanging ideas quietly, on a broad range of subjects in good company, often reminded me of how we are losing the art of conversation from our social life in the West. I have many good memories of interesting and companionable adda sessions in Dhaka.
Tea stalls, cafés and restaurants
Coffee, one of the things I miss, is not grown in Bangladesh. In Banglapedia, it is stated that coffee is not a popular beverage and therefore not cultivated, although trials have proven that the crop can be grown in Bangladesh (e.g. in the hill tracts). Asking for coffee in a restaurant (when it is available) usually results in milky, instant, powdered, Nescafé coffee.
However, tea is the quintessential Bengali drink and there’s a whole culture associated with it. To start with, tea is grown here in the tea gardens of Sylhet (see post 18). Although I read in Banglapedia that ‘black tea is the most popular and widely acceptable drink in Bangladesh’, it seems to me that on the streets, cha (tea) is almost always a cup of strong tea with milk and sugar. It is true though that in formal settings (e.g. offices) I have only ever been offered ‘lal cha’ or ‘red tea’ – which we know as black tea. For the record, I prefer the street cha. In either case, a cup of tea is more than the sum of its ingredients. While it is certainly refreshing, it also forms an integral part of social ritual. Friendships are made and deals are sealed over cups of tea.
One of the good things about living in Dhaka (as opposed to other towns in Bangladesh) is that there are cafés where it is possible to get good coffee – albeit at a price. Many of these also provide a pleasant and temporary reprieve when the city gets too much. For example, there are places like Cafe Mango, King’s Confectionery, Coffee World and the Bagha Club (see post 10). All these cafés serve western-type food too. For example, I discovered delicious Portuguese-style custard tarts in King’s Confectionery. Pure indulgence!
Every day on my way to and from work I pass Adda – a women’s restaurant and part of the Prabartana shop. (See post 10.) It’s not that men aren’t allowed: the rule is that in order to enter this sanctuary, a man must be accompanied by a woman. And though it doesn’t have freshly-brewed coffee (it has Nescafé), it’s a very relaxing place: on other floors there are shops (fabric/fashion/handicrafts/books) and a library.
I discovered another interesting place through my doctor, who pointed me in the direction of delicious Norwegian waffles at Sally Ann’s, on Road 23 in Banani. (This was before I had to go into hospital: she was advising that I needed to rest and relax more. I must have looked wearied! See post 15.) It was hard to find Sally Ann’s that first day, but worth the effort. As well as the café, there is also a fair-trade shop selling handicrafts, all part of the Salvation Army poverty alleviation programme.
While I take pleasure in these cafés and restaurants (in so far as the volunteer allowance allows), I enjoy the tea and street-food experiences more, especially when accompanied by an interesting adda session. Nevertheless, it is good to have options for those times when Dhaka grinds you down and you need a place to go to think. There are lots of in-between places too like, for example, Dhaba on Road 11 in Banani, which sells street-style food in a restaurant setting. As do local restaurants in my neighbourhood in Lalmatia e.g. Shad and Katumbari.
Food with friends
It is always a joy to be invited to eat with friends and in this regard I am grateful especially to Seraj and Sonya, with whom I have shared lovely evenings full of delicious food and good conversation. There were so many occasions when I was introduced to different kinds of food at restaurants through friends e.g. with Dihan and her friends in Old Dhaka, with Rashed and Ismail in Srimangal, with my colleagues in Sylhet, and so many more. I will write more about these occasions in the associated posts.
Finally, throughout Bangladesh there are regional food specialities and whenever I get the opportunity to travel, I seek these out. For example, Comilla is famous for its particularly good ras malai – a delicious milk-based dessert (see post 46), and Bogra for its temptingly tasty sweet curd, mishti doi (see post 55). Other regional specialities are highlighted in the respective ‘journey’ posts.
Below are some photographs to whet your appetite! (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)
Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (68 photographs in all). Enjoy!