The Spice of Life
It sat there temptingly on a plate on the office table: the last delicious milky sweet. I was engaged in a tussle with myself, a dialogue between my heart and my head, or rather my mouth and my waistline. “Shall I? Shan't I?” Just as I reached a conclusion in which heart and mouth were emerging victorious, my colleague leaned forward and popped it into her mouth. In one go. Leaving me to reflect empty-stomachedly on the ups and downs of living in a culinary culture.
Make no mistake, Bangladesh, and South Asia in general, represents one of the premier cooking cultures of the world. And this phenomenon is evidently exportable so much so that so-called “Indian restaurants” (usually Bangladeshi-run, at least in the UK) have for decades taken the world by storm, and a government minister in London made headlines a few years back by naming the invented recipe known as Chicken Tikka Masala the national British dish.
There are other countries such as Italy, Turkey and China, which also go to great lengths to work with and embellish the basic foodstuffs that grow out of the earth or walk on it. But there are also nations where food means simple goat or pulses, boiled in water and then gobbled down. Or one central European country we once lived in where the national dish was a sort of floury potato-based dumpling, which was actually grey. Grey, I might add, is not a great colour for food. Anyway it's clear that here, food, in attractive colours of course, has been a recipient of devoted care and attention for millennia. Only a high culinary culture could think of a dozen ways to cook simple lentils, each with its different name, and all complemented by a bewildering array of spices. Incidentally it's also a great place to be a vegetarian. I've never come across so many delicious vegetables, except for Korolla (bitter gourd) which I am convinced was designed by the Almighty as a punishment for wayward human behaviour.
Still, despite the fact that we are clearly a food centre of excellence here, from the impressive concoctions at high-end restaurants to the delicious variety of snacks available at any roadside, there are nevertheless a few things about attitudes to food which puzzle me. Can anyone provide enlightenment?
One is the sheer amount that people (above the poverty line of course) can put away. At an average day-long workshop for teachers, for example, participants can come in after a hearty breakfast, get through a whole boxful of morning snacks, a mountain of rice for lunch, a plate of mid-afternoon sweetmeats and still leave complaining of being hungry, although the evening meal cannot be far off. Is there an inherited national memory of times when food was in shorter supply, and a need to compensate in case it happens again? Not for nothing are many people from a certain class somewhat challenged in the waist region.
I suppose that in defence of those with bulging midriffs this is a very sweet-toothed place, where sugar is added to almost everything. If it's true that we are what we eat, then Bangladeshis must be the sweetest people on earth. It's certainly the only country in the world I've had to ask a waiter in a big hotel not to add sugar to scrambled eggs.
On top of this, it's clear that despite the astonishing effort that's often gone into making delicious meals, they disappear down the hatch with alarming speed. At a wedding party recently, where after meeting the bride and groom, the main focus of the evening was to eat, the guests tucked in like Olympic sprinters, clearing the huge plates of rice in seconds. Eating is seen in practical terms, and people talk plainly of 'filling our stomachs'. Not for Bangladesh (in my experience) the more European-style lingering over food, savouring it, discussing it, in which meals can stretch on for hours. Once our plates were cleared, we all stood up and left almost immediately. No after-dinner chat, jokes or anecdotes.
Of course, in all cultures, food was originally merely a source of energy, fuel for the day's enterprise, so why hang around afterwards? There's work to be done. Has the memory of this too remained in everyone's mind, making us get up and get on with the day so soon after eating? It's food reduced to functionality, which is fine, but is slightly at odds with the loving care that has gone into making it. The same thing used to happen in China, where we would get up immediately after a banquet, despite the presence on the table of exquisitely carved watermelons and intricately-formed dishes. The only difference there was that we stood rather more unsteadily, having toasted each other several times with tiny cups of lethal rice wine.
For the visitor to Bangladesh, another enjoyable challenge is learning the etiquette of being a guest at someone's home for dinner. It begins with what to take. At home we'd turn up with flowers or a bottle of wine, but it hardly seems appropriate to arrive bearing a bottle of vintage Pepsi or Sprite. More sweets perhaps? At least you know they'll never go to waste.
But it's when the meal begins that the real cultural differences come into play. Food here is about touch as well as taste. Eating with your hand is initially a challenge: until I arrived here the only things I'd eaten with my hand were pizza, chips and chocolate, so it took me a while to get into the spirit of rapidly scooping up rice and vegetables, squishing them into a pleasing lump, so that you feel as well as taste. However, I still make a mess of it and am in constant admiration of the deft movements of my friends. Maybe in another ten years I'll get the hang of it.
Then during many meals there is the noisy accompaniment of lip-smacking and chewing, and why not a healthy burp to finish off, just as a sign of appreciation? It's a far cry from the stern injunctions we received as children to use our knives and forks daintily, to eat quietly, close our mouths, never to talk while eating. And I'm sure a round burp back then would have been followed by a clip around the ear. But are these manners really important? I'm beginning to think not. The way we eat here brings us into a closer relationship with the food.
And what happens when you find you are full and can't manage more? Back home offers of more are made, but the response is all-important. If your guest refuses, you may well clarify with an 'Are you sure?' but beyond that you accept they are sated, and perhaps offer an open invitation to 'help yourself'. At a recent meal at a colleague's house, however, my host's wife (who, naturally, is not sitting at the table with us) hovers close by, always ready to ladle more on to my plate, encouraging, urging me to add more. 'Go on! You haven't eaten a thing! Isn't it good? Here you are!' Each time I take a mouthful, another pile of vegetables arrives on my plate. I am fighting a losing battle with a magic food mountain. In the end, I have to physically shield my plate to signify I can't possibly eat any more, but then in a momentary lapse of concentration I look away, and another gigantic spoonful of rice is deftly added.
Perhaps best then to leave the plate half full and push it gently away. Despite the guilt at not eating everything up, (again something I learnt to do as a polite child), I am aware that an empty plate simply means you haven't had enough. It's a straightforward clash of two cultural imperatives: I feel obliged to show how much I have enjoyed the food by polishing it off: my hosts feel obliged to show how much they value me as a guest by piling it on, up to and including the sweets..
In the end, it's my hosts who win this particular round, and I roll home vowing never to eat again. But by the next morning of course I'll probably be ready once again for that shondesh. And this time I'll be quicker off the mark.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007