It is still uncertain whether the word hospitality is simply synonymous to being a Bengali (!) or is it because of the probability that the gene of “feasting” has been implanted in every Bengali without fail, that there's nothing more we enjoy than cooking and eating together! Most Bengali Muslims include this pleasure of sharing in their celebration of the auspicious occasion of Shab-e-Baraat.
Not at all denying or marring the actual significance of this holy occasion, the practice of distributing food and delicacies to friends and relatives has also occupied its place as a ritual. Abiding by the customs followed for years, the traditional halwa and roti is served in every house. A wide variety of delicious halwa is prepared in every kitchen.
A few handy hints:
It is almost a rule that the usual hustle and bustle in the household and especially in the kitchen increases significantly before such an occasion. However, since the significance of the night is not to be forgotten, cooking all day may lead to tiredness later on. Well, not to worry. Since, halwa can be preserved for quite a long time it is wise to begin the preparations at least three to four days earlier. Moreover, some of the halwas, especially the neshestha halwa requires about two to three days in order to attain its optimum taste and texture. Here are some useful tips you could follow to do away with the stress and hassle of the preparations:
* Start off by deciding which dishes you would like to prepare this year and accordingly list the equipments and ingredients. Ask your family members what they would prefer and try out different items to break out of the monotony.
* Find a free evening and get your grocery shopping done. Opt for one of those supermarkets in your area since they usually keep all the required items thus saving time and trouble on your part.
* Hunt for that scrap of paper on which you had scribbled mother's special recipe or the magazine in which you had found an exclusive item. Set them aside so that you don't have to run around looking for them when you have actually started the cooking.
* To make the preparations faster, it may be helpful to soak the semolina or the chick peas one night before and to prepare halwa the next day. You may also utilise the night by leaving the just cooked halwa to set overnight so that cutting into pieces becomes easier the next morning.
* Preserve your food items properly in the refrigerator or cool places. Store them in air tight containers to avoid deterioration of quality. Also refrain from using unclean hands while handling them in order to maintain hygiene.
* Make a distribution list at least a day before, prioritising the important individuals. It is helpful to make the list according to the areas they live in, so that distribution becomes easy and so that no-one is overlooked.
* Packaging the food items is another important aspect of distribution. Look for plastic boxes that you could do away with. The easiest however would be to buy plastic containers and cardboard boxes of various sizes and shapes to suit your requirements. These are easily available in most shops nowadays.
* On the morning of the day, start off by preparing the dough of the roti or parathas. Make sure that they are just off the pan while packing them, so that they remain warm and soft. Also warm the other necessary items just before packing so that they stay warm for a long time.
* Start your distribution as early as possible so that you can return home and grab some quick rest before spending the better part of the night in devotion. Setting out just after lunch and covering the distant areas first makes the process faster.
In attempt to evade all the hassle…
And now for those who absolutely have no time for all these preparations, but still would not like to remain behind in distributing among friends and family, there is good news. Nowadays, almost every sweetmeat store has its own display of delicious halwas specially made for the occasion. Some of the sweet havens you would definitely want to try out would be Sweetmax, Premium Sweets, Prominent Sweets, Rosh and its new outlet Shor, Yusuf Bakery as well as Agora. Here you get packaged halwas of all different types including halwa of booter daal (chick peas), egg halwa, coconut halwa, semolina (suji) halwa, neshestha halwa, halwas made of carrot and so on. All the prices are quite reasonable. You can also get spongy buns in some of these places especially Yusuf bakery and Agora. However, you will have to order these at least a day or two before hand. Packaging is usually done very colourfully, especially by the newer sweetmeat shops, so you don't have to worry about that. So you can sit back and relax, having nothing to worry about except the distribution.
By Nusrat Khandker
Photo: Amirul Rajiv
Special thanks to Dhaka Sheraton
dawn of a new beginning
It's believed that every year Muslims collectively have one particular night when their fates are dwelled upon by the heavens. It's a night when the fate of each person is decided for the next year.
The Muslim festivities generally start from the night of Shab-e-barat culminating in the blood fest of Qurbani Eid where many valiant cows give their lives. The first night is celebrated with prayers, great food and the occasional burst of a cracker. Of course, every neighbourhood celebrates in its own inimitable style.
Most of the traditional norms are maintained with diligence by the denizens of Old Dhaka. Every religious rite is followed to the letter. Womenfolk spend their days fasting and preparing all kinds of sweet delectable goodies. Dishes of all imaginable types are prepared for a sumptuous feast. In the evenings after the Asr prayers food is charitably handed out to the poor folk, Milad is held and some more food is distributed among the needy after the Maghrib prayers.
The scene changes drastically as people go to graveyards to pay their respects to their loved and departed ones. Many people are seen standing around silently praying or simply spending a little time with the memories that never go away. It is an eerie sight.
In other parts of the locality, mosques are brightly lit up and decorated. That's when the food distribution among the neighbours begins. It is a tradition that is still maintained in most places.
Neighbours send over their delicious snacks to each other on trays known as 'khancha'. These are neatly arranged and sometimes covered with a decorated cloth. After all, a large part of the eating deals with the visual impact they create. Speaking of visual treats one of my earliest memories include making different shaped 'roti' or breads that captivated our imaginations. The dough was prepared couple of days in advance and were cut out into many different shapes to resemble flowers, leaves, hand fans, dolls as well as the oddly featured frogs and crocodiles. The creations were varied and the makers let their imaginations go wild. Doll shaped bread was decorated with other materials to form eyes, nose, mouth etc. The desire to eat these was far less than that of storing them in a toy box. Such breads are still available and sold on tables set outside shops. They make a great treat as well as a gift for favoured kin.
Another tradition that is more of a religious rite than anything else is that of praying and reading from the Quran. In this way people ask forgiveness for past sins and more importantly a better time in the coming year. Many neighbourhood women get together at a particular house to perform their prayers together. In between prayers they participate in loud and bright displays of fireworks with children and others blowing crackers and lighting up sparklers.
All these celebrations last well into the night and end the moment the sun starts to rise. Finally it's the dawn of another new day.
By Sultana Yasmin
Translated by Ehsanur Raza Ronny
an explosive evening
Everything in life happens to have a purpose no matter how mundane. Even the human appendix which apparently serves no function in the human body has a purpose. It allows surgeons to become richer in financial terms.
Hence crackers are born with the purpose of going out with a bang. Popularly (or otherwise) known as 'potka', crackers have been the epitome of celebratory madness. And madness can sometimes be so much fun. The night of shobebarat is one such occasion when crackers reign supreme. They make their explosive entrance the moment the prayers are completed and the streets are relatively emptied out.
Now the good side of a cracker is that when it goes 'boom' it is a heck lot of fun. The bad side of a cracker is that when it goes 'boom' it can be very annoying to many people. It is a nuisance. Primarily, a cracker is supposed to act like most politicians. It should make a lot of noise but not actually do anything. Take for instance your regular candy sized, shaped and similarly wrapped potka that has a short fuse. Light it up and it explodes with nothing more than a loud bang. As a child I had one exploding in my hands. It stung for a while putting me in doubt about whether ten years later I would become famous for my writing. Dreams of having women throw themselves at me for my fame have disappeared in a whiff of potka smoke. I am yet to see fame or jittery women come my way so that means crackers can be very dangerous and need handling with extreme care.
Small crackers can still be found in certain places best not mentioned here for as little as 5 taka apiece. Put into small tin cans they make a louder noise and are quite a spectacle as the pot goes airborne. Then there are your classical firecrackers that look like a bunch of miniature dynamite sticks tied in a series. A lot harder to find, these blow up with a staccato effect. But the mother of all is known as 'hunter'. Built with the proper or rather improper ingredients a harmless cracker can turn into a weapon. These can be quite dangerous and are more expensive. Cylindrically shaped and as large as a small bottle these are powerful enough to create vibrations in nearby buildings. The ingredients are relatively easy to find especially the wrong ones.
Ready made crackers are more easily found in the bordering districts and villages where better, bigger and louder explosives are brought in over the fence. But I can't help but feel a little relieved that there is a ban on the use of loud crackers. Police, especially the dark kind, patrol all around with the inherent threat that anyone blowing things up will be made to feel at one with a cracker. Streets last year were quieter.
Yes, it will never be quite quiet and that in itself offers the night of shobebarat a certain charm. Kids now generally have to make do with sparklers or 'tarabatti' and other similar fireworks that do not under any circumstances go 'boom'. At best they can blow up a plastic bag that goes 'bang'. And that in itself is how shobebarat should probably be. After all it is a night for prayers hoping that the coming year will be one of peace. Hence, it should start with a little peace and quiet. It may turn out worse but it sure does not hurt to be hopeful.
By Ehsanur Raza Ronny