By Tareq Adnan
Bustling and busy, cars honking and people taking to the streets because vehicles have long since become redundant; from a vantage point it would seem like a scene straight out of a hartal riot scene with people flocking around standstill cars. But it's just Chawkbazar, on a normal Ramadan day, striving to quench one of man's most basic needs… food.
Photo: Zabir Hasan
With Ramadan becoming more a celebration of eating in the evening than one of abstinence, it's not abnormal that Chawbkbazar would get so many customers daily. Man likes his food done well and in many different ways. Gluttonous race that we are, it's only natural that Chawkbazar thrives.
Fasting and then buying luscious food are two things that don't go together well. For one thing, the look on the faces of the people buying there was the same; one of covetous longing that couldn't be satisfied until the afternoon wore down to sunset. While I was there, for the whole of five minutes I forgot about my job and just took in the sights and the smells. Then a kid started hustling me for some money on account that he hadn't eaten the whole day. I gave him a buck because I hadn't eaten the whole day either, we were like brothers.
And then I made my way from the fringes and entered the Chawkbazar proper and full.
The Fried Front:
The most obvious of the Ramadan items on the menu are here in mountainous quantities, be it piyaju or beguni. Even though fried, that's not usually the reason people come here. It's the specialties of the Old Town that attract the masses. Namely, I'm talking about the kebabs that they sell. There are so many that a first time visitor would be well overwhelmed.
Kebabs are usually the items that most of the customers flock to, and because the demand is so humungous that the supply consists of so many different types of fried meat. You have the well known shik kebab, the boti kebab and the jali kebab. These are just the normal meat that Chawkbazars deigns to provide. Then as you venture further, you come across more exotic types of fried meat along the lines of suti kebab, reshmi kebab, nargis kebab (is it just me or is there a connection between the names of the kebab and the female race) shami kebab, Irani kebab (probably vying for nuclear power this one, I'd stay away if I were you), gurda kebab, fish kebab and a whole lot of other kebabs... you get the idea. It took me about ten minutes to figure out the names and write em down. And even then there were more types of kebab to be had. One could populate a buffet menu with just the variances of one item. If you want something grand though, there is certain variety of kebab that can be best described as a few feet long.
And if kebabs aren't your thing, then there are whole fried chickens, mutton and beef roasts to be bought. Although, I have to admit, the sight of that much fried meat exposed to the open air was sickening and disheartening enough to make them not so tempting.
And that's just the kebabs. There was still a whole range of other mountains that consisted of other types of oily delicacies taunting you with their promise of tickling your palettes. And if you happen to want something other than fried meat, the Chawk (as it is affectionately called) does not disappoint. You have like I said before the basic Iftar menu, and then you have the Chawk menu. Included in its repertoire of food, there are shingaras, narikel samosas, doi bora, faludas, jhak kachuri, polao,moglai parathas, Kashmiri paratha, panir paratha and a whole lot of other heart disease inducing fried stuff.
The Main Menu:
And going to Chawkbazar how can one ignore the center of attention, the item that has been there for a century? The Boro Baper Polai Khay, a weirdly named item I admit.
This item was attracting the biggest crowds and trying to get a look see at it caused this writer to go through much pain while negotiating the crowd. Anyway, the item consists, of chicken, beef and mutton, chickpeas and chira all rolled into one.
The Soup Front:
Although it's not really soup, but more like thick stew, halim has always been a staple of Ramadan hasn't it? It combines within the virtues of both lentils and meat. And in Chawkbazaar, the variation of chicken, beef and mutton halims make it one of those items that have a regular clientele. If its meat you want but not fried or roasted, then this is the item that should be on your menu.
The Sweet Front:
If you happen to have sweet tooth and would like to just indulge that certain vice, then don't worry. In the Chawk you can get a hundred different types of jilapi in myriad hues and patterns. Then there are the sweet shops that would sell you the more normal mishti. Then you have a personal favourite of mine, bundia (which resemble small coloured beads… surreal huh).
If you rather want to stick to the more traditional menu, there is always the staple jilapi. However there is a certain breed of jilapi available in the Chawk that mutated into insane proportions and which the locals refer to as shahi jilapi. The riveting about it is that is huge, weighing in kilograms.
And that's about it, the mysteries of Chawkbazar laid bare. On my way back it came to my realization that I wasn't going home, not for Iftar anyway, because traffic seems to be an obsolete service in and out of the Chawk. While contemplating Iftar-ing in the Chawk, the same kid came back to hustle me for some more money on account of fasting without a choice. My Ramadan charity was close to drying up but I still bought him a piyaju.