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Cover Story

On the trail of kachchi foodies' day out

OUR quest for good food took us from the lavish halls of Sheraton Winter Garden to the narrow alleys of Old Town, populous Uttara and busy streets of Gulshan. To relinquish our desire for the rich delicacy that is kachchi biryani, we took a spin around Dhaka and this is what we found out.

But first, how it all began…
Bangladeshi kachchi or any other biryani for that matter, differs considerably from its Mughal counterpart. Arguing which is better would prove futile; it is safe to say that the local delicacy suits our palate better. The richness of delectable kachchi, spiced up in the right proportions; the mutton cooked to its juicy softness, the complimentary chicken roast and the glass of borhani. Bliss!

The term 'kachchi' can be literally translated to 'raw'. Cooking it is an elaborate process that involves selection of fine spices and condiments, grinding some while keeping others intact and fresh. The dish is prepared from raw meat - as opposed to other forms of biryani where the meat is cooked separately - marinated in yoghurt and put at the bottom of the cooking pot with a thick layer of rice above and the ingredients covered with a lid sealed on its sides with a layer of dough: a process of pressure-cooking known as 'dum'.

The rice and the meat cook in their own steam and gradually absorb all the flavours. Potatoes are often added and cooked along with the meat. The whole affair poses a great challenge as it requires paying meticulous attention to time and temperature to avoid over- or under-cooking the meat. Only the most seasoned cooks master this art of cooking kachchi.

The whole preparation leaves ample scope for innovation. Master chefs keep to themselves herbs, spices and condiments beyond those featured in ordinary recipes of kachchi biryani. Thus, we get signature preparations, attributed only through taste.

Muslim merchants brought biryani to the eastern regions of the Indian Subcontinent and the effect of Lucknow and Hyderabadi variants of the dish, concocted with a unique blend of local influences saw the rise of popularity of biryani amongst the Muslims of Bengal. The kitchens of the Old Town still bear testament to the Mughal lineage of kachchi biryani.

Back in university, it was a ritual to frequent Star Hotel at Thatari Bazar. Even at the dead of night, Star was one place where you could get savoury delights. At the eatery, eating never stops. And kachchi surely tastes better at the old Star!

The restaurant also scores high on the price factor. It offers high quality, appetising kachchi well within the hundred taka mark. True, the trademark flavours of some of the spices associated with biryani are missing. But the concoction of the ingredients creates a novel taste that flirts with the taste buds and at the end of the meal one is left with a sense of satisfaction.

Doing full justice to the culinary tradition of the Old Town, another name associated with delectable kachchi is 'Nanna Mia' located at Becharum Deuri. Although more renowned for their distinct regal morog polao, which greatly signifies the Lucknow influence of the dish, the kachchi biryani is nevertheless another hallmark of the eatery. The large helping leaves you with a feeling of fullness, with little compromise to the sensory stimulations.

If the food wasn't so delicious, it would have been possible to say that the best thing about 'Nanna Mia' is their low prices; but the food outdoes that aspect. Anyway, with biryani at only Tk 75 a plate, customers are sure to leave with the pleasant feeling of having enjoyed a rare, worthwhile treat.

In traditional kachchi preparation, saffron is an essential ingredient forsaken in most commercial preparation due to the prohibitive cost. This takes away much of the characteristic flavour, but colouring is often substituted using edible colours. A secret to good kachchi is in the selection of rice.

Connoisseurs appreciate the use of only the best aromatic rice for the preparation. The medium to long grained rice, well know for the nut-like aroma and taste proves best when combined with mutton, or more commonly lamb. Once cooked, the grains give a light, fluffy texture that augments the tender meat that comes with the whole dish.

This is probably the hallmark of kachchi at Sheraton Winter Garden. Served exclusively at weddings the dish does justice to the reputation of the Hotel for its good food. The long grained rice used gives off a sweet aroma, missing from most other dining experiences in the city. The tender meat speaks volumes for the group of chefs and the effort that goes behind cooking the complex preparation.

One might wonder, how do master chefs keep their distinct preparation of kachchi a well kept secret? The answer probably lies in the fact that the cooks are never handed out the recipes. They neither know the whole range of spices used, nor are they aware of the proportions.

Assistants grind the masalas mixed by the chef, another prepares the marinade, while another cooks, as the chef adds the ingredients. This has been a time-honoured practice dating to the times of the Mughal empire.

Wedding ceremonies are fertile grounds for foodies on the trail of good kachchi. Come winter, stomachs churn and ramble anticipating the season of good, appetising food. Just how many of us are disappointed at the sight of morog polao at a wedding? The number in all honesty is not insignificant. It is not uncommon to overhear people declaring to their friends that they are going to have kachchi for dinner before they go to a wedding. Kachchi and weddings are synonymous.

Of course, any discussion of Bangladeshi biryani is incomplete without mention of the two modern giants: Subrat Ali and Fakruddin. Whether at weddings or at personal events, it would be safe to assume that everyone reading this has tasted the delicacies of at least one of these two master chefs; most will have had both.

Fakruddin has opened an outlet in Gulshan-1 where one can go and sample their delicious biryani, and also place orders. Subrat Ali has no such outlets, but caters to events exclusively.

Kachchi, especially the Bangladeshi variety is a delicacy seeped in our culture, and indeed our culture is seeped in kachchi. The above-mentioned eateries are doing a wonderful job of taking a centuries old tradition forward. Treat yourself to this most Bangladeshi of dishes, try it in one of the joints mentioned, and you will most likely be going back for more.

With Pohela Boishakh only a week away, the foodies around town are gearing up to celebrate our culture and everything Bangladeshi...our way. Any Bangladeshi would say that one of the best things about our culture is the food, be it the simple pleasure of dal bhaat, the addictive lure of the ilish, or the unadulterated delight of biryani. Our quest to (re)discover the delights of our cuisine, took us all over Dhaka, which is dotted with restaurants satisfying this very demand. The following is a list of the top five places which we think are best to sample deshi delicacies.

Close to home
When was the last time you dined at the neighbourhood eatery? In all probability it was quite some time ago. Go to a restaurant (read bhater hotel) and chances are plenty surprises await you! Surely the ambiance is the first thing that will draw your attention. Competing in the competitive market, the eateries have under gone a face lift. The tiled floor, newly painted walls, sometimes the large glasses adorning the walls may all seem new to you.

And of course there are some dining joints that haven't changed in the last few decades-the familiar surroundings, the same food, the seemingly unhygienic kitchen and serving utensils.

Price hike has brought in changes in the menu as well. Say for instance the ubiquitous 'lotpoti'. Made from chicken 'spare parts' (read wings, legs, head and liver), as one my friends used to say, it is possibly the best breakfast option outside your home. These days, the 'lotpoti' has been replaced by koliji (liver). Foodies' don't complain as it is equally savoury and certainly a delicacy of Dhaka.

The mixed vegetable, however, is still there; a staple for many who are regulars at the neighbourhood restaurants. The non-vegetarian dishes are often taxing on the stomach, and hence, never a staple.

This happened at a hotel in Komolapur a few days ago. Friends were having breakfast after a night of sleepless 'Oscar fever'. Upon enquiring about the menu, the bearded waiter replied nonchalantly, 'koligi, dim mumlet, shobji, gosh, dal, porota, soup'.

“Soup”…now that's something you don't expect to have at a bhater hotel. “Chicken Soup” he replied upon our query.

We ordered one of everything- the sleepless night had made us all hungry and we were always a voracious lot. And believe me the Soup was simply out of this world. Actually a broth cooked in low heat overnight, the chicken softened to state where the meat and bones had become inseparable.

And of course, there was the porota. Fried in as little oil as possible, it goes well with almost everything the way-side joints serve.

In our list of eateries that you should visit this Pohela Boiskhakh, the Neighbourhood Eatery is number five!

Quenching the thirst
Chowk Bazar, Old Dhaka is synonymous to good iftar dishes in the month of Ramadan. Few, however are aware of Nooranie Soft Drinks, a year-long attraction that has been a traditional treat of old Dhakaiites.

One can only believe the above upon seeing the demand of the drinks served at Nooranie. With only three variants served at the bar, they make sure that no one can drink just one! A second helping is a must.

The recipe behind their success is of course a secret and possibly lies in the making of the yoghurt, hand-blended into a glass of lassi in front of the customers. One can only guess on the ingredients used - yoghurt, sugar, rose-water, a pinch of salt. This however is left completely to speculation.

Their lemon juice is also a foodie's delight. Lemon green in colour, the juice tastes a wonderful blend of sugar and salt, just in the right proportions. Priced at Tk 10 this is a must have.

Pohela Boishakh is a day associated with activities. The summer heat brings in a need to savour drinks. So, number four on our list, we have Nooranie Soft Drinks.

Of legacy I speak…
Hajir Biryani has been a cherished delicacy in the Dhakaiite's palate. Biryani is a possible misnomer for the dish, tehari being more close to the variant served. Our inquisitive minds have often wondered on the cooking secret of the biryani, and of course we never made our way into the lime long secret. “It's made of mustard oil”…duh! Any foodie worth his salt can figure that out. But frankly, when a plate of delectable hajir biryani is served before you, who in the world would ponder on the secret that lies behind it.

The restaurant lies on a small way side room at Kazi Alauddin Road, Old Dhaka, and has been there since its initiation. One of the curious feature of the restaurant is that it opens one in the morning, and the evening. Legend has it, that they cook only two large vessels of the meal, which ensures preservation of the taste associated with the dish.

The serving area being strong for the great demand of this dish, take-aways are a popular option. Here lies another interesting fact. The food is served in a top-open box made of dried, jackfruit leaves. This too has been a time long tradition and probably has nothing to do with the aesthetics of serving. Inquired why, we were told, 'Preserves the taste'.

For the legend and the quality of food served, Hajir Biryani takes up number three on our list.

A small adventure
As far as fried meat goes, the chaap is well nigh peerless in most Dhaka foodies' estimation. The Bihari camp, at Mohammedpur is famous for its roadside shops selling a range of fried foods that has customers coming back for more.

Although some worry about the state of hygiene in the shops as they are quite ramshackle, such doubts can be dispelled if the waiters and the cook are told to be careful. Moreover, all your food will be cooked practically under your noses. So, leave all those fears behind, and embark upon a special taste adventure.

Hotel Mustakim is the largest of the shops there, and possibly the best. The mogoj bhaja there is literally to die for. For those who have not been there before, expect to be stunned by the great taste in a setting where you would never have expected it. Besides the mogoj bhaja, popular items include khiri kebab, boti kebab and, of course, chaap. Have these with luchi, which are quite light, enabling you to have as much of the fried delights as possible. They also offer a chicken corn soup with a distinct, spicy Bangladeshi twist.
Hotel Mustakim, in Bihari camp is number two on our list.

Back to base
Deep in our hearts, our favourite meals are those we eat at home regularly. They require no special flourish and are simple and satisfactory. That is why we have placed Kasturi at number one. Having been in business for nearly thirty years, they certainly know how to stay at the top, and exemplify what is meant by Bangladeshi cuisine. They do this by providing high quality food done in the style we are used to at home. Although many restaurants have used the Kasturi name, they have no affiliation to the original at Purana Paltan.

Quality, at Kosturi is maintained by constant monitoring. The owner himself ventures out every morning to market to purchase the supplies needed to keep the eatery running. The day's menu is then put out depending on what is available and in season. Their menu contains everyday staples such as shada bhaat, chingri bhorta, Ilish bhorta, mishano shobji, rui maach dopiaju, and all of them are delectable. Also, as the food is bought that very day, it is always fresh.

There are so many places to include that any top five listing is inescapably arbitrary. Bangladeshi cuisine is one of the shining lights of our existence, so, on Pohela Boishakh, just get out there and give the taste buds a treat, the Bangladeshi way!

By Mannan Mashhur Zarif and STS
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed



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