The other Bengal

Religion, not region, divides the food in Bangladesh. For the culinary curious, it’s a treasure trove


Street vendors preparing for ‘iftar’ in Dhaka. Photo: AFP
Street vendors preparing for ‘iftar’ in Dhaka. Photo: AFP

On most days, living in Delhi is like living in Tupperware. More dull than delightful, with a hint of hing (asafoetida) in the air. Yet once in a while, someone lifts the lid a crack, and you stumble upon something so promising, so lucky, you’re absolutely certain it’s illicit… Even when it’s not!

Frankly, I blame Cowlick, a hairdresser at the Bangaali Saloon in the urban village of Shahpur Jat in Delhi, for my missteps that evening. Having heard snatches at the village of what I thought were conversations in Bangal (the version of Bengali spoken in Bangladesh), I did what anyone in their right mind would do: go skulking at dusk in jalebi-like warrens to befriend a Bangladeshi immigrant. Preferably, one who could feed me home-style Bangladeshi food, piling the plate with hilsa and loitta (Bombay duck), pithe and puli (sweets), until I begged him/her to stop. Please. Stop. Now. Clearly Cowlick was just as taken by my fantasy as I was at the moment, for he pointed me in the direction of what were more than just “bhaather hotels” (roughly translated as rice canteens), according to him. And the rest, as they say, is bungled history and geography.

‘Kalo jire bhorta’. Photo: Somnath Roy Choudhury
‘Kalo jire bhorta’. Photo: Somnath Roy Choudhury

Walking past salma-chumki haberdasheries and grocery shops with curtains of Sunsilk sachets, I ran into Sheikh S.K. at a spice shop near the chaupal (square). A vision in his turmeric-spattered singlet and lungi, he led me at once to his lair—a sooty, blue-green affair, with rickety tables and an old TV set perched several feet above eye level. Arriving between meals, I was offered “light” refreshments: deep-fried buff tikiya, a bowl of ghugni (curried dried yellow peas and potatoes) and a flaky, layered porota, also deep fried in jet fuel to lend it its signature metallic edge. All for a fine sum of Rs10. Right here. In Delhi. Where even parking attendants demand twice that amount to babysit your car, while you frantically search for a vacant bathroom at McDonald’s (always harder than you think).

Yet even if I wanted to, I couldn’t will S.K.’s shop or the other Bengali tea stalls and eateries in the neighbourhood into selling street-style Bangladeshi fare. Adept at needlework, most of them had migrated to Delhi’s “designer mohallas” from their now urbanized, mosque-studded villages near Midnapur, Howrah and Uluberia in West Bengal—areas that have also witnessed several waves of cross-border migrations since the Partition.

Eventually, some like S.K. “diversified”, feeding daily wagers who can ill-afford even a Rs10 meal. But despite the Bengali-Muslim broad strokes in the cooking, what Rahman and his competitors really sell is a distant cousin of the real thing, Watson… That Cowlick was a red herring, not a hilsa chad (herring).

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Fried ‘hilsa’. Photo: Hindustan Times
Fried ‘hilsa’. Photo: Hindustan Times

For the real thing, walk down to the other side of Shahpur Jat to Big Bongg Theory. This is where Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar often resurrects recipes from her ma-kakima-maashi-pishi’s Bangladeshi repertoire for customers willing to skip the kosha mangsho and luchi routine in favour of her Bangal specialties. From seasonal leaf boras or fritters made with pat (jute leaves) or kulekhara (a kind of swampweed) to chitol macher muitha (knifefish dumplings) and maankochu bata (ground taro root), Ghosh Dastidar is almost academic in her persistence of all things edible and Bangladeshi—unwittingly betraying her past as a PhD scholar in cognitive linguistics. A life she abandoned readily when she wheedled her way into a Japanese restaurant kitchen in Delhi by washing dishes for three months straight. Today, she also consults with Diva Restaurants and designs menus for her catering business, when she’s not zipping about town on her scooter, growing herbs on her terrace, or dreaming up ways of wedding Bengali food with Japanese or Malayali delicacies.

But with her roots in places with names as appetizing as Barisal and Khulna, Dhaka and Mymensingh, Ghosh Dastidar’s culinary true north lies east of the Ganga. On the afternoon I visit, she prepares an addictive loitta macher jhuri (a dry Bombay duck dish) and aam-aada’r shorbot (a mango-ginger pick-me-up). But the main act is a defiantly simple yet classic spread, starring ilish (hilsa) from the Padma river—accompanied by a merry, if modest, party of rice, macher tel (fish fat), salt and green chillies.

Now, anyone who knows anything about Bengalis on either side of the border will know that of the many fine bones of contention between them, the one that lodges itself deepest in the throat is ilish. For generations, bhadraloks of the gentlest disposition have gone to war in dining rooms over Padma versus Ganga ilish. Fishmongers, in any place with more than one Bengali in residence, have also made a fortune by selling the same cold-chained, vacuum-packed hilsa as Padma’r ilish to one and Ganga’r ilish to another. Because really, who can tell anymore? And if you’re paying Rs1,500 for a kilo, it’d better come with a passport that has colours of your choosing.

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Chicken ‘bhuna’
Chicken ‘bhuna’

Now, the trouble with mapping Bangladeshi food is that it can’t be done—not in a paragraph, or three. It doesn’t matter that you can fit about 22 Bangladeshs in one India. Or that they speak a language you think you know. Or worse, that every Bengali ever born has had an opinion on the culinary binaries of Bangal and Ghoti (East and West Bengal) kitchens—shaping all middle-class Bengali ideas on taste and identity. But for the broad divisions based on region, history, especially colonial history, and religion, even experts would be at sea. Some divide the map into five regions, with Dhaka at the centre—to draw attention to local produce, and the influence of the bordering areas of West Bengal, the northeastern states of India and Myanmar.

But it is religion that truly divides the hearth in Bangladesh. There’s no escaping it, says Samran Huda, who has written extensively on the subject, especially in her book Otohpor-Ontohpure. Originally from Sylhet, Huda has lived in Kolkata for the last three decades to earn her insider-outsider badge. Of course, fish or rice practically grow on trees in Bangladesh, but what you eat it with and how you cook it depends entirely on whether you’re from a Hindu home or a Muslim one.

"But with her roots in places with names as appetizing as Barisal and Khulna, Dhaka and Mymensingh, Ghosh Dastidar’s culinary true north lies east of the Ganga"-

Broadly, runny jhols (curries), vegetable dishes with varied phorons (tempering with spices), mustard paste, poppy seed paste and coconut are more common in Hindu houses. Muslims prefer meat-heavy meals (even at breakfast) and curries with plenty of body and spice. As for the bakorkhanis (a kind of bread) and biryanis, kormas and kalias, they are best sought in the old quarters of the capital, Dhaka. For specialties like shuntki or dried fish however, Sylhet and Chittagong are better.

What we know today as Bangal food in West Bengal are recipes from Hindu families who migrated to India before and after 1947. In the years since, Bangal and Ghoti neighbours have exchanged a lot more than just customary bowls of sugar. Even Kasturi, that last bastion of Bangal food in Kolkata, is not unscathed, claims Huda.

Back in Bangladesh, meanwhile, Muslim cooking styles have gained more currency—think mashed vegetable bhortas and an assortment of meat bhunas—affecting at times the syncretic nature of the country’s culinary traditions. Ghosh Dastidar remembers author Taslima Nasreen commenting, for instance, on how as children they would eat bitter foods during the festival of Chorok Sankranti to keep their Hindu neighbours company; now a forgotten practice. Yet change is inevitable, and not always unwelcome in a kitchen. And I’d certainly like a taste of it. If only Cowlick would oblige and find me some contemporary “Bangal” home food.

Loitta macher jhuri

Serves 3-4

If you can find loitta (Bombay duck) in your city, try this recipe by The Big Bongg Theory’s Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar.

Ingredients

1kg loitta

400gm onion, finely chopped

50gm garlic, crushed

20gm coriander leaves

5 green chillies (or more)

A pinch of turmeric

Chilli powder to taste

Mustard oil

Salt

Method

Cut the loitta into large chunks. Heat mustard oil; fry onion on low heat until translucent. Add garlic and green chillies, and cook for a few minutes. Tip in the loitta with turmeric and chilli powders. Once the fish starts to disintegrate and the volume reduces to about 1/3rd, continue to cook on low heat until it’s just moist. Season with salt and stir in chopped coriander.

A series that investigates the foods of India’s neighbours

This is the last in a four-part series on the food of India’s neighbouring countries.

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