- There is a preponderance of curries, daals, and spices in Bangladeshi cuisine
- The food is very flavourful as it is marinated overnight and cooked slowly, sometimes in vessels sealed with dough
“You are going to Bangladesh? You’ll love the food,” a colleague from the Indian state of West Bengal declared flatly. Back after a weeklong visit, I can report that he was telling the truth.
The culinary delights of Bangladesh are a well-kept secret even in foodie circles. Forever overshadowed by its huge neighbour to the west, Bangladesh has a cuisine similar to that of India, and even Pakistan, but still distinct. Like the rest of South Asia, the main elements are herbs and spices, meat and vegetables, fish and unleavened bread. But the devil lies in the detail.
Hailing from a Muslim, Bangalore-Hyderabad background, the Mughalai cuisine is what I call my ‘home food’. And after visiting almost 30 countries, I’ve come to the conclusion that the world’s best food is to be found in the region starting from Turkey in the north to Yemen in the south, and from Morocco in the west to India in the east. In that sense, Bangladesh was a small step into the unknown.
We were a big group of journalists, academics and NGO-types invited on a ‘Visit Bangladesh’ tour by the government. That being the case, we were chaperoned by ministry officials, bused from one event to another were lunch and dinner were arranged. So I did not really get a chance to sample Dhaka street food (not that I was looking forward to it, given how spic and span our tummies become after long years in Dubai).
We arrived on April 14, when the country was awash in bright colours, celebrating the start of the Bengali New Year, Pohela Boishakh. And no new year’s celebration in Bangladesh is complete without the mandatory ‘pantha bhat’, which is a traditional meal eaten by all on that day. It has rice that has been soaked overnight, chili, onion, salt, and fried hilsa fish. Delicious.
There is a preponderance of curries, daals, and spices in Bangladeshi cuisine. The food is very flavourful as it is marinated overnight and cooked slowly, sometimes in vessels sealed with dough. Unlike in northern India and Pakistan, the consumption of wheat is limited. But like in Pakistan, and Muslim-dominated or coastal parts of India, the consumption of what we call ‘non-vegetarian food’ in South Asia is very high. Even at the bottom of the street food pile, one finds hawkers selling boiled eggs and chicken wings fried in (dubious) oil. In India, it would be vegetarian pakoras and chaats.
At the dinner table, we were often served a version of tandoori chicken with white rice, poppadum, and salad. Killer. It had my new Palestinian journalist friend from Dubai red in the nose and watering from the eyes. Between sobs, he blurted, “Nice but…”
It was the dessert, though, that took the cake (pun intended). Every city in India has a few ‘Bengali sweet’ shops. And there is a good reason for this. They are fantastic. One is more delectable than the other, from lobongo latika to rosogulla, and from rajbhog to malai cham cham. Epic.