steeped in tradition
Finely chopped onions mashed with red chilli flakes; a tablespoon of limejuice; salt to taste.
In the Haque household, for nearly five decades, this simple concoction has been the staple iftar chutney.
Fazlul Haque picked up the simple recipe almost half a century ago during his stay at a mess in the Old Town. He enjoyed many a pleasant chitchat with friends and colleagues over fried tempuras, piping hot tea and a pack of cards.
The recipe was handed down to his mother and like family legacy, it has now reached his only daughter-in-law.
Tradition is, if nothing else, arbitrary. On a grander scale if we consider chickpeas, piyaju and other tempuras, and puffed rice as the national choice for iftar menus, one still finds ritualistic staples like chutney, juices and other food items peculiar to specific households.
Halim, which was once such a delicacy, has now evolved into a staple in itself. The same is true for dahi bora, faluda and kebabs - an obvious non-Bengali influence on local culinary heritage.
The iftar bonanza at Chawk was once a glorious part of our Ramadan heritage. People flocked there in hundreds, if not thousands, to sample savouries unique to the Old Town. Sellers claim to trade sutli kebabs in hundreds of kilograms (almost equivalent to an entire cow!); and the famous "boro baaper polay khai" was also sold in equally grand proportions.
Abdus Samad, now 29 and a banking executive, has spent his entire life at Bangshal in their ancestral home. A Dhakaiite to the core, he and his family are strict adherents to traditions.
"Most people who come to dine in our house" Samad says "are often taken aback by the fact that there is no dining table in our household. We still eat lunch, dinner and share snacks sitting on the floor."
But even in this house wrapped in tradition, orthodox concepts of Dhakaiya cuisine and practices shatter. "Iftar is a very simple exercise in our house. It is usually the staples that we see almost everywhere else in the country but all dishes are prepared by the womenfolk of the household. Lassi is compulsory and the same is true for muri bhorta."
Badal, the eldest son in the family claims to have perfected the art of making this queer preparation. In a large bowl he puts puffed rice, chickpeas, various fritters, chopped onions and tomatoes and a few spoonfuls of mustard oil; sometimes he adds sautéed beef chops to the mix. The end result…something truly extraordinary in taste, despite the fact that it may not suit everyone's palate.
Shifting to a more posh scene, in the avenues of Bailey Road or uptown Banani, Ramadan is synonymous to stagnant traffic jams, rows after rows of shops selling halim -beef, mutton and chicken - jilapi and bundiya. Some sell Calcutta Rolls while others make brisk business over taana paratha and beef chaap.
Thousands of takas worth of food merchandise are sold in these shops within a few hours everyday throughout the whole of Ramadan. Makes one wonder where self-control fits into the equation.
At corporate iftar buffets, soups are served along with chicken chowmein and mango juice. Pizzas and shawarmas are the preferred choice of the younger generation bored with tradition and the ritualistic fry-frenzy.
Tradition is woven in time. Today's oddity may just become tomorrow's staple. So, how will we evaluate iftar and tradition 30 years from now? I, for one, couldn't care less as long as there is halim on the side.
By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed