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     Volume 8 Issue 64 | April 10, 2009 |

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  Art -Aadil’s Pageant   of Scintillating   Pharaohs
  Art -The Light,   Fantastic Touch of   Impressionism
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  Book Review - A   History and Taste   of Bangladeshi   Cuisine
  Book Review - In   Search of a New   Life After Nagasaki
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Book Review - A History and Taste of Bangladeshi Cuisine

A History and Taste of Bangladeshi Cuisine

Jennifer Reese
(L) Shawkat Osman and (R) his book Khunti Korai

Finding a book on Bangladeshi cuisine in English is indeed a rare occasion. Which makes Khunti Korai, a book on Bangladeshi cuisine by Shawkat Osman, food connoisseur and host of a popular cookery show of the same name on Tara TV, such a treat to go through. It is page after page of detailed recipes of typically Bengali dishes as well as those that can be called purely Bangladeshi, being influenced by various cultures. But this is just a bland description of the book and hardly does justice to the remarkable treasure of information in this publication. Never before has the history and evolution of Bangladeshi cuisine written with such wonderful insight. Starting from the differences between Bengali Hindu meals and Bangladeshi Muslim meals to the history of Bengali cuisine with that of the Mughals to the way we eat our food to the significance of each spice, very little has been left out by this witty, eloquent writer who says he believes in 'gastronomical freedom even if it means an ever-expanding mid-riff'.

(L) Hidol Shutki Bjorta (fermented spicy crushed fish). (R) Doi Eilish (Hilsa in yoghurt), Luchi (fried bread), Shoroshe Mangsho (Chevon in mustard sauce) and Sheer Malaikari (prawns in yoghurt and coconut cream).

The details that the writer has gone into to give a comprehensive account of Bangladeshi food is truly admirable. They are things we have often experienced and consider so mundane that we never think of the reasons behind them. A typical Muslim Bangladeshi meal, for example, writes Osman, "consists of three to five dishes eaten in a certain sequence, depending on the flavour of each. All dishes are placed on a madur (mat) or pati (mattress), or if guests are attending on a dastarkhan (floor spread)." On the other hand a Bengali Hindu meal the author writes "may follow the same sequence (bitter to sweet) but the items are served separately in small kasha (bell metal) bowls to each guests." But from the onset, Osman points out that the variety and sophistication of Bangladeshi cuisine is linked to the Bangladeshi culture of appayan or hospitality which is a national characteristic and gives ample reason for the preoccupation with cooking.

For those not so familiar with our culture will find it fascinating the reasons why we use our fingers while eating:"not only is it easier to pick fish bones, but one also gets a feel of food texture, which is almost as important as the distinct quality of each item felt by the tongue."

Like all good cooking, ingredients used in Bangladeshi cuisine have to be fresh. Different type of foods moreover, are meant to be eaten in particular seasons. Eleventh-century Khonar Bochon (Khona's aphorisms) for example writes Osman, "recommends eating the herb nalita in Vaishakh, matha (buttermilk) in Jaishtha, doi (yoghurt) in Aashar, khoi (popped paddy) in Shravan, taal (palm fruit) in Bhadra, shwasha (cucumber) in Aashin, kochu (yam) in Karthik, bael (wood apple) in Agrahayan, panta bhaat (sour rice gruel) in Pous, making liberal use of mustard oil in Magh, ginger in Falgun and korolla in Chaitro."

(Top) Chitol Pitha (thick rice bread), Chita Ruti (thin rice bread), Dim Chawra (spicy scrambled eggs) and Khejurer gur (date palm syrup). And (Bottom) Eilish Polao (Hilsa pulao)

The book, published by Bangla Television in association with Mapin Publishing, describes the aromatic spices of Bangladeshi cuisine which as Osman explains has evolved from pre-Vedic times and has added to its repertoire hints of Turkish, Arabian, Persian and Mughal cuisine thus giving us those mouth-watering delicacies like korma, biryani, porota and so on.

As for the actual recipes, the names of the items are inspiring enough to make even the non-cook think of taking up the khunti and korai. Maan Kochu Malaikari (taro in coconut milk) Bilashi Baygoon (aubergine in yoghurt and poppy seed), Morich Mangsho (chilli Chevon) are some of the unusual items. Commonly known dishes such as Eilish Pulao (Hilsa pulao) Shorshe Eilish (mustard Hilsa) Labra (mixed vegetable fry) Morog Musallam (Whole Chicken Roast) and of course, good old Katchi Biryani.

For those with a sweet tooth and there are many among the Bengali clans, there is a whole collection of salivating recipes of delicate desserts such as roshogolla, sandesh, pitha khirtosh (rice cake soaked in thickened milk) and taaler khir (palm fruit pudding).

The entire book is divided into delightful sections such as food during rainy days, winter breakfast, special festivals such as Eid, Bijoya and Pahela Baishakh. The writer suggests menus for banquets and weddings and even as traditional Bengali Christmas dinner. An exhaustive glossary only adds to the richness of this very entertaining book.

As the author mentions in his introductory comments, everything you need to entertain the Bangladeshi way is here in this book. One word of advice though, make sure you are not too hungry when you leaf through the book. The descriptions and luscious pictures of mouth-watering Bangladeshi food are sure to make you drool.

Photographs: Rukshara Osman
This book is available at Words n' Pages in Gulshan 1.

In Search of a New Life After Nagasaki

Rachel Aspden

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie pp384, Bloomsbury, £14.99
“How did it come to this?" asks Kamila Shamsie's new novel of one man's arrival, shackled and terrified, at what he guesses are the interrogation cells of Guantánamo Bay. In answering that question, Burnt Shadows distils much of the most notorious history of the past 65 years into its pages. It moves in space from Nagasaki to Delhi, Karachi, the Pakistani-Afghan frontier, New York, Canada and Cuba, and in time from the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki to Indian independence and partition, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 9/11 attacks, the overthrow of the Taliban and America's subsequent extra-legal round-up of "enemy combatants". For once, the standard publisher's hyperbole - "sweeping in its scope" - is no more than the truth.

These tangled historical strands are bound together by Hiroko Tanaka, a Nagasaki-born polyglot who belongs everywhere and nowhere. When her German fiancé is killed by the atom bomb, she flees to the home of his sister, Ilse Weiss, and her English husband, James Burton, in Delhi. She falls in love with Burton's Muslim employee Sajjad Ashraf and they leave India to raise their son Raza in the new country of Pakistan, where their lives become fatally entangled with anti-Soviet mujahideen, the Taliban and the CIA, in the shape of the Burtons' Americanised son Harry. Through it all, Hiroko, branded by the bird-shaped scars - the "burnt shadows" - the bomb seared into her back, survives through her skill with new languages, her willingness to assume new identities and her refusal to judge others on their own origins.

Burnt Shadows is an argument for the fluidity of identity: "History had blown them all off course, no one ending - or even middling, where they had begun," Shamsie writes. The novel is pessimistic about the possibility of rootedness. Beloved places prove as ephemeral as relationships; even America, where Hiroko is delighted to hear "Urdu, English, Japanese, German all in the space of a few minutes", ultimately betrays her.

The redeeming counterpoint to all this turmoil, the novel hints, is a loyalty that goes beyond less elevated ties to home and family. The Tanaka-Ashrafs and the Weiss-Burtons "are each other's spiders," says Harry, a reference to the Muslim legend of a spider spinning a web across the mouth of a cave where the Prophet was hiding, throwing his pursuers off his trail. But Hiroko's commitment to this ideal has its own brutality. Days after Harry's death at the hands of an Afghan gunman, she manipulates his reluctant daughter Kim into smuggling an Afghan mujahid across the Canadian border and berates her for judging the man "on five minutes of conversation". As an argument for the merits of freewheeling cultural exchange, it is not convincing.

Burnt Shadows is dense with history and principle, often at the expense of lightness of touch. Shamsie's prose is highly stylised - "Optimism. That was Sajjad's gift. She opened her mouth to breathe it in" - and her minor characters in particular can appear little more than ciphers. Oddly, in a novel so intent on the evils of national stereotyping, the Raj official James Burton lives in a colonial villa named "Bungle Oh!" and expresses his deepest feelings through cricketing metaphors.

When the novel shakes off its didactic tendencies, the results are moving snapshots of its characters' lost worlds. Sajjad recalls his father's story of the Emperor Shah Jehan cutting the Delhi sky with scissors to reveal the beautiful Jama Masjid mosque; Harry visits Karachi's chaotic ice- and fish-strewn harbour; Raza is overcome with excitement at running away to a mujahideen camp in the "vast, thrilling playground" of northern Pakistan. It is these vivid glimpses of particular corners of the world, rather than Hiroko's attempts to free herself from attachment to them, that are Burnt Shadows' best achievement.


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