Monday, 24 August 2009
Food, food, glorious food. (Or: baath, baath, moja moja baath).
Last week there was a ripple of excitement amongst foodie-Bangladeshis I know (i.e. most of them), for Bangladesh was on tv, not on a news special about floods, poverty or climate change, but purely from a culinary perspective, as the final destination on Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey (I was puzzled by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka’s inclusions as part of the Far East, but whilst the moniker might be geographically odd, I can see the connections between Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan food with Malaysian and Thai more clearly than Lahori/North Indian cuisine, which is so much richer, heavier and more meat-based).
Now I felt quite smug about this – I’ve always thought that given Bangladeshi food revolves mostly around fish, this’d be the perfect place for Rick Stein to go. I in fact had visualised (and as is my daydreaming wont, mentally sold) a series featuring Stein travelling around BD sampling its different regional cuisines. So this wasn’t quite a series, but an hour was more than I had ever imagined would be dedicated to proper deshi food on the Beeb.
I found the episode to be a mixture of things: informative, amusing (hilarious Steinisms such as “colonial tea plantations had their own schools and hospitals, there really wasn’t any reason for workers to leave” but also the ridiculously over-posh pretensions of a Bengali couple) but mostly evocative and moving. I’ve not been to Bangladesh in almost two years now, and my heart ached for Dhaka whilst watching.
As Stein observes, whilst 90% of Indian restaurants in the UK are owned by Sylheti Bangladeshis, the food you get in them is usually a world away from authentic deshi dishes. Everyone knows of the chicken tikka masala, but even the rogan joshes and baltis of the restaurant trade lean much more towards Lahori cooking and aren’t things we as Bengalis would eat at home. Fish is definitely a major feature – Bangladesh is the world’s largest delta, and criss-crossed by rivers, so this makes sense, and Stein made curries using rui and hilsa, our two most prized of fishes. I’d also have liked a mention of pithas – sweet and savoury cakes made with riceflour, of which there are hundreds of regional varieties (some of which are really ornately decorated). – Actually it is an ambition of mine to do an anthropological sideproject titled “The Pithas of Bangladesh” in which I’d travel around Bangladesh sampling said cakes and recording recipes and stories. It’d be tough, and I’d probably get diabetes, but such sacrifices must be made for the cultural good...
Anyway, it’s still on iPlayer until Thursday, so please do watch it for yourselves. It made me glow with pride and sob with homesickness. The only other disappointing omission, for me, was the absence of a mention of shutki, which is sun-dried fish (and of which there are many different varieties), a mainstay of Bangladeshi cooking.* It is pungent and smoky (somewhat akin to Thai fish sauce in taste and scent), used sparingly or in chunks in curries, or pounded with garlic and onions to a paste and eaten with plain rice. I’m totally addicted to the stuff – but it is an acquired taste (my sister and brother, for example, can’t stand it). This is a curry my mum cooked last week, with the freshest, sweetest fine green beans (on the right of the plate; a simple spinach bhaji is on the left). Yum. I’m hungry now!
*I was amused by an astute entry on a Facebook note titled “You know you’re Bangladeshi when…” which said “when you or a relative have tried to smuggle shutki through customs in your hand luggage.” Of course, neither I, nor any of my family, have ever done this – we dry our own in the blistering Surrey sun ;)