when your heart goes 'tok! jhal! mishti!'
In a society where food is so central to the people's cultural identity, it is no surprise that Bangladesh has an enduring love affair with food. The amount of time and energy spent on preparing food and its' sheer diversity is breath taking.
The nuanced blending of spices that go towards endowing dishes with a distinct flavor is inherent to Bangla cooking most dishes have a single key ingredient, like bhortas and certain fish dishes made piquant by the wonderfully pungent aroma of mustard oil, whose presence is heightened by a milder medley of a few other spices that act as a backdrop. And when it comes to eating…ah, now…that is an elaborate ritual in Bangladesh, one which other than addressing the need for bodily nourishment, is a pleasure of all the senses, taking in the aroma, color, texture, temperature and taste of it all. We Bengalis eat almost everything with our fingers, providing an awareness of texture that becomes as important as that felt by the tongue. The setting also affords a rich, visual display where in a typical meal one encounters a multitude of colors - the various shades of white (a heap of rice and a pinch of salt), the bright maroons and greens of pickles and chutnies and the many shades of yellows and browns of dals and shobjis. With all these delicious flavors and images combined with textures to be chewed, sucked, licked and gulped with suitable chomps and slurps, the Bangla meal usually ends with a great fortissimo burp!
No love affair with food can exclude our tête-à-tête with street food a grand old tradition in Dhaka from the times when street vendors used to come to one's doorstep to sell all kinds of snacks, bhortas, ice creams, sweets and so on. Street food has a culture of its own, most are of the sort seldom made at home, and they bring with them a certain tart-and-tanginess that hints at forbidden pleasures. Needless to say, what street food lacks in refinement, it certainly makes up in boldness of flavor, the savor and spice of it answering our occasional craving for over-indulgence. Some munchies that you buy off the streets vary with the season it's aamra and chalta bhorta and fresh roasted bhutta during the rainy season, piping hot bhapa pitha and boroi and jolpai bhorta in winter and various roasted pulses and nuts and aam, jaam, pyara and kamranga bhorta in summer. 'Iconic' street foods like hawai mithai, jhal muri, fuchka, chotpoti, ghoogni, and roasted china badaam, chola and boot are available throughout the year. In fact, fuchka and chotpoti are such favorites that the middle and upper classes have made these khatta-mittha dishes a staple and 'classy' item to have even in their Gaye Halud menus!
One may have noticed the recent trend of push-cart sellers being replaced by swank kiosks and cafés, like 'Dhaba' and 'Chaat Street'. But to me such a sanitized experience will never measure up to the fun of standing next to a jhalmuri/fuchka/chotpoti/,etc-wallah who plies half-a-dozen customers with his fare faster than they can gulp it down. The key to this mystery lies in an observation made by an astute journalist who, after recounting his unsuccessful attempts to replicate the taste at home, mused that 'perhaps dirt is the missing ingredient!' So…on a day out…take the time to stop a while by that certain corner street vendor, ready with his bottles of kashondi and numerous spices, and nibble on a roadside munchie or two….Bon apetite! *SMACK!*
By Simin Saifuddin
Photo Direction: Khaled Mahmud
blend me up that concoction!
When it comes to thirst, water will do, but what we all really want is something frothy, creamy, decadent and a little special. And so to the rescue comes juices, punches, and hot treats that are the beverage equivalents of air conditioning or room heaters or stress busters depending on what you're drinking, in what season and the benefit you're longing for! And when we want something extra in the flavor something rather pedestrian about these local blends then no fear…we have our very own neighborhood street vendors churning out these specialties.
To stay thanda during our scorching summers, our trove of beverage treasures of icy cool, sweet and fizzy sharbats are endless! Aakher rosh (sugarcane juice) is a great favorite with many. There's something really hypnotic about watching the canes being crushed between the two metallic cylinders as the vendor turns the wheel furiously on his machine, squeezing out the juice into a jug, then topping it off with a lil' squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt.
Then there's ghritokomol or aloe vera juice, purported to have a huge impact on a person's overall well-being through cleansing and detoxifying, hence giving you an energy boost. As aloe juice tastes bland and slimy, a variety of other ingredients is added to this drink, like olotkomol, tokma, isobgul, and joshthi modhu, the last being a tree bark which helps sooth sore throats… All you singers out there…are you listening?
And when you're near the premises of our public schools you're bound to spot a vendor with his rainbow row of bottles of orange, green, red, blue and yellow food colorings, selling ronger shorbots or sugar syrups in eye-catching hues. In places like Chittagong and Bogra, this drink has been tagged with the name ruh thanda, ruh standing for atta or soul and thanda meaning cool.
Then there are the seasonal superstars juices made from aam (mango), tormuj (watermelon), bel (woodapple), pepe (papaya), etc. when they're available, served in tall glasses filled to the brim with crushed ice yummeh!
We also have our very own local version of a yoghurt shake sans sugar, diluted with three to five times its volume of water, and with just a pinch of salt and other spices - matha or ghol. With just the right intensity of tartness and saltiness, it's said to actually improve the blood circulation, and of course is oh so thirst quenching!
By far the best drink to beat the heat has to be daab'er paani (green coconut water), a rich source of sugars, minerals and chlorides. The percentage of proteins in daab'er pani is said to be higher than that in cow's milk?! It also contains both vitamin C and B. And best of all it's 100% natural no added anything!
Finally, when it comes to staying toasty warm during the winter or just giving yourself a much-needed wake-up call, there's nothing like a cup of piping hot, rong (minus the milk) or dudh cha (milk tea) at the tong'er dokans. There are many who just love the hint of lobongo (mint) and aada (ginger) in rong cha, while at times you just gotta indulge in a creamy, sugary milky tea.
So the next time you're feeling parched, scour the streets of Dhaka for a vendor to pour you a chilled glass or hot cuppa of your favorite drink!
By Simin Saifuddin
Photo: Munem Wasif