|Home | Issues | The Daily Star Home | Volume 6, Issue 14, Tuesday, April 05, 2011|
For friends Saleh, Tareq and Sahil born and raised in the asphalt capital -- this was an opportunity of a lifetime. Mejban always conjured images of food and food only, but their first actual experience of an authentic mejban at the heart of Chittagong was an experience quite different altogether.
The gathering of nearly two thousand people for a feast was something quite mind-boggling in itself. Bigger than the grandest weddings at Dhaka, this auspicious occasion marks the remembrance of the recently demised or is simply an occasion for social interaction. Feasting was part of this bondage, yet not limited to it.
The menu for a mejban is the same ritualistic, beef preparations but even within this limited selection, variations are achieved through using special herbs, aromatic spices and secret ingredients.
The quintessential dish is of course beef dipped in a watery-gravy. Although different versions of the same recipe are prepared across the country, the taste associated with it varies and in reality, when cooked for thousands of people, a special flavour is imbibed into it.
Beef cooked in 'buter daal' is also a staple recipe for such occasions. As is 'nola', a preparation made from the bones and cartilages of the near dozen cows that are often slaughtered for the occasion. On rare occasions, 'mashkolai dal' is served on the side, along with milled, plain rice in this all you can eat fiesta!
Human interaction is unique to geographical localities and within small segments within that locality itself. Although people outside Chittagong associate mejban as an eating ritual, fact remains that this is a form of interaction between people and their extended family and friends. Food remains a medium for bringing people closer together and is possibly expressed best in occasions like the Chittagongian mejban.
A chef extraordinaire
The man supervising it all was the 'baburchi' -- the chef extraordinaire -- Mumtaz Mia, hailing from the city known as the home of Mejban -- Chittagong. “I have been in this business for 22 years. It has given me a better life. My father was not a Mejban chef, but I had to become one in order to alleviate the hardships that poverty was inflicting,” said a smiling Mumtaz. “It has enabled me to have a comfortable life, and to educate my children.”
The D.O.H.S feast was small change compared to some of the banquets that Mumtaz Mia has arranged. “Today, I am cooking for two thousand people. The biggest Mejban I cooked for was for more than two lakh people and I had to slaughter 105 cattle for it. “
Cooking for such a large number is extremely difficult, as the spices and condiments have to be exactly right in all the cooking pots, giving the whole taste a uniformly excellent taste. Just the fact that he has been doing this for such a long time says much about Mumtaz Mia's terrific quality as a chef. "You cannot teach these things, it has to be learnt. I know by experience just how much I have to put in each pot. I don't have specific measurements," said Mumtaz.
When asked what keeps him coming back to the same job after 22 years of cooking over hot stoves, he said, “It is the feeling I get when I see people really enjoying my food. I don't like to see my pots with food left in them after the mejban," said the chef.
Across the seven seas
Is it 'shatkora' or 'haatkora'? Possibly depends on the dialect but no doubt they both refer to the same ingredient for delicious beef curry!
Cooking beef with 'shatkora' is anything but easy and in north eastern regions of the country, culinary skills are benchmarked with the degree of perfection in preparation of beef with 'shatkora'. Add a little more than that is required and you falter. If it turns a little bitter, well then there is no saving the dish!
'Shatkora' is a citrus fruit grown primarily in Assam and also in the Sylhet region. As a matter of fact, this dish is synonymous to the rich tradition and culture of that region. Thanks to thousands of “Indian” restaurants that have spread throughout Europe and especially in the United Kingdom, this particular cuisine has now breached the shackles of geographical locality and gone global.
The fruit does not produce much juice, is about the size of a small grapefruit and is yellow when ripe. Very sour, somewhat bitter, and extremely aromatic, the fruit is seldom consumed raw or as a juice, but is instead sliced and cooked, either green or mature.
Possibly, one does not like 'shatkora' with the first taste. The aroma may first seem spellbinding but the first taste of the bitterness associated with the meat curry probably acts as a deterrent. But once the taste is 'acquired' one just cannot stop loving it!
Any average foodie who fails to appreciate if not love the attributes of 'shatkora' in beef or mutton curry must think twice before claiming to be a food connoisseur. And for fish with 'shatkora'…that is something quite divine in itself.
Bangalis and salt go hand in hand. A meal without it is never complete, irrespective of the fact that table salt is harmful to health. We could not care less. Be it in mashed vegetables (bhorta), beef or fish curry or even lentils, the need for salt is ever-present.
But name one dish that does not require salt. Keep thinking…if you try long enough you just might get the answer.
Allow me to provide a little hint the primary ingredient of the dish is salt and is based on salt water fish. Of course, not much of a clue but you just may have got it. Some more hints: the fish is a delicacy, and possibly the most popular in Bangladesh. Although taken with mustard, this particular variant goes well with aubergines. It tastes a lot like dried fish (shutki) and indeed it is, but the preparation takes much longer with a whole lot of effort.
If you have not guessed it yet, it is 'nona ilish' I am taking about.
Nona ilish is possibly not the most popular form of taking the silver fish but it has its ardent followers. Although a rarity on the dinner table in recent times, hilsa of the river Padma was once a familiar sight at Kitchen markets. During the months of June-July, the river gave away its bounty of sparkling, 'ilish maach' in abundance and people often resorted to saving this special food for months on end. It is possibly this very necessity that gave rise to this queer preservation of the fish.
The hilsa is first cut into small pieces and not washed during the entire preparation. In a small clay pot, salt is poured to make a layer and the fish placed on top. Another layer of salt is made and the system repeated with consecutive layers. It is essential that the pieces of Hilsa do not come into contact with the clay pot or outside air.
It is possible to store ilish for up to two to three months. Before cooking the fish is washed with a lot of water as it becomes extremely salty. The fish is cooked without any additional salt.
Kawon chaaler payesh
And the band played on. One popular tune to another, the wedding band easily caught the vibe of the crowd, now on their toes dancing on what seems would be a long night.
Shaoli remained seated on the woven 'paati' with myriad dishes before her sweets, savouries and kebabs. Nervous and tensed, Shaoli felt the pressure of the built up to the big day ahead and felt nauseated.
One dish that remained untouched was the 'payesh' made by her granny her favourite, 'kaoner payesh!' Her ailing granny wasn't fit to attend the 'holud', but she had sent the 'payesh' as her blessing for young Shaoli.
She grew up tasting the 'payesh'; Eid was never made complete without it. And sitting on the 'paati', she could only reminisce pleasing moments that form a large part of her childhood.
Shaoli lead a restless childhood, never settling for a moment. Her mother tried in vain to calm her down, running after her with a plate of rice from her cradle days, well into her university life. Her restless nights spent on the phone was accompanied by mugs of coffee and the ubiquitous 'payesh', made by Fakhru her granny just for the granddaughter.
Shaoli likes the granular taste of the preparation, a feature that separates 'kauner payesh' from the rest.
And on this day, the memories seemed sweeter than before. This was a new beginning for her; her take on life, and the plunge in to the unknown where she too would start a family, have her own children and grandchildren. Maybe she would pass the legacy, the secret recipe of 'kaoner chaler payeesh'.
She wiped the tears and put on her shaky smile. And the band played on, “Aaj tomar mon kharap meye…”
The bride's surprise
Omelet, most would agree, is a heavenly gift to mankind; goes great with bread. But to the Bangladeshi palate omelet is synonymous to 'bou-bhat'.
When I was a child, this was our ritualistic Friday breakfast. It did not seem appealing at that time but the nostalgic memories that it now conjures makes the now seasonal feasting of bou-bhat an anticipated event.
Bou-bhat is made from broken kernels of milled rice. Seasoned cooks are aware that made from husked rice, the dish results in a sticky consistency, much different from the fresh, dry preparation.
Bou bhat tastes good with meat preparation but also works well with fish and fried aubergines. The secret is possibly in its simplicity but the result, something quite extraordinary.
LS EDITOR'S NOTE
Box of fancies
At the age of seven, my most treasured possession was a Bata shoe box stuffed with cut pieces of cloth I gathered from my mum's famous tailor shop, Crown's, and rag dolls that my nanny, whom I fondly called mashi, made for me.
I loved playing with dolls; I had a big expensive doll, which I think was bought for Tk.200 and in the early seventies it was sinful to spend such an exorbitant amount on toys. But it had blue glass eyes that could blink, it stole my heart and I guess I threw a big enough tantrum to own it. It was a source of enormous joy for me, her soft blonde curls, floral print frock, and pink lips were as close as I could get to foreign lands at that time.
I also had a lovely fleeced doll that wore a blue hood; this was presented to me by my uncle, and he bought it from one of his sojourns to China. (However this doll met with an ugly end, my horrid little brother slaughtered it with a steel scale while playing Qurbani Eid in later years, and threw the head in the drain. I still fail to understand the vicious motive behind it by the way. But some secrets are best left undisclosed.)
Anyway, I had at least a dozen cloth dolls that mashi made for me; fancy ladies in benarasi saris and men, little boys and girls in fine clothes. Mind you they were our deshi version of rag dolls, made from rags; they also had long glossy hair meticulously made from silk yarns that were stitched on them.
I remember braiding them with black, thick daagas or threads and changing their saris and shirts all the time. The countless cut pieces I got from Crown's, ended up being their gorgeous wardrobe or home accessories. The shoe boxes had tiny windows and doors in them and I painted them or stuck clothes on them to make them look extravagant.
The best part was my dolls' weddings or putul biye; my dearest father took active part in all my fancies; he even made me a wooden small bed to house my bigger dolls. Always fond of good food and parties, he used to order mashi to make polao, kormas in honour of the groom's or bride's party. These were my cousins and putul biye was in reality exchanging my good one with my cousin's best possession. Whichever doll I planned to get married off, putul biye was an elaborate affair with tiny Nabisco biscuits and Mimi chocolate bars.
I honestly miss those days, it was a time when I didn't know that Barbie existed, I didn't have fancy doll houses or kitchen sets but each one of my evenings with my dolls was a merriment I still cherish.
We lived in a modest flat, near my grandma's in Purana Paltan; the three-storied house was old fashioned and had long verandas, and unnecessary stairs inside the flat to make levels. I turned one such space under the stairs into my play corner and had all my stainless steel and terracotta pots and pans lined up there. Interestingly, whatever I cooked in my make-believe playtimes my father was always invited, and without any doubt he took part in it and pretended to be delighted by my cooking of inedible leaves
Today's girls, even the girlie girls like me, hold no interest in putul biye or dolls. A few try to amuse themselves with Barbie and Ken but that's about it. And on top of everything the entire affair of dolls is now so expensive and without love; like everything else it's a competition too. I must have three Barbies because my friend has five and honesty who is going to get them married off? They literally cost you a fortune. Frankly children today are more into virtual reality than these foolishly meaningless playthings.
I guess putul biye, playing with dolls and making food with flowers and leaves are lost traditions that are now abandoned in old Bata shoe boxes along with their contents and shelved in our attics to gather dust.
Today's lifestyle, dear readers, is zeroing in on a few deshi vanishing traditions that are long forgotten, I hope you enjoy reading about a few nostalgic lost moments of your yester-life with us.
-- Raffat Binte Rashid
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