Bangladesh: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Food

| July 15, 2013

Zomppa Board member Gabe is on a six-month sabbatical with his wife. As the two wander the world, volunteering, they are also testing and exploring new foods and cultures. Check out New Yorker Gabe’s thoughts on his first time eating in Bangladesh. For more on his ventures with his wife, please check out their blog.

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My love of food explains a lot about my life and the choices I have made. I live in New York City, in part, because the quality and variety of food are second to none. And I suffer from chronic wanderlust, again in part, because I get to eat my favorite cuisines right from the source.

 

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And here I am in the middle of six months off from my job as a lawyer in New York City to travel in Asia. I pitched this sabbatical to my employer as a journey of self-discovery and a chance to make a difference volunteering. And it is all these things. But perhaps myprimary motivation is that my sabbatical is a chance to eat really good food. My goodness, I am salivating at the thought of what is to come:  eating in Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc.

 

 

But before I eat my way through Southeast Asia, I am presently finishing up two months in Bangladesh, where my wife and I started our p3sabbatical doing volunteer work. My response to the food here has been mixed, as when I first arrived, I was deeply uncomfortable, and my discomfort extended to the food. I wasn’t used to Bangladesh’s busy streets scattered with random piles of waste being picked at by people, dogs, crows, and the occasional pig. I wasn’t used to the smells in the heat of the summer either. Within such an environment, I initially found it difficult to relax and enjoy the food.

 

 

Then there is the fact that Bangladeshis believe that eating with one’s hands is a more natural, purer way to consume food. Conversely, metallic silverware taints the food’s taste. I admit this makes some sense, though I still haven’t entirely given up on the fork and knife. Although I have my occasional Ethiopian food in the U.S., I found myself in a bit of a cultural dilemma. In Bangladesh, it is imperative to eat with the right hand, never the left, since the left hand is used when one goes to the restroom. I won’t elaborate, but since I’m a lefty (my right hand is useless), I find it difficult to eat with my hands without making a complete mess and violating all Bangladeshi rules of etiquette. In addition, because I was uncomfortable with the cleanliness, my discomfort extended to eating with my hands.

Moreover, it took me a little while to adjust to Bangladeshi cuisine. Most meals are meats or fish with a thick, buttery brown curry sauce p4served over enough rice to feed an army. The expectation is that you will eat several pounds of rice with each meal or the cook will be gravely offended. In addition, as someone who favors rare/medium meats, I often found the meats and fish to be overcooked. Then there’s the Bangladeshi lifestyle, which ensures that meals stay with you well after you finish. After lunch, it is custom to lie down, apparently to help with digestion. Dinner is eaten late, generally around 10 pm. Then you go to bed for the night to pack on the pounds. Also, the concept of exercise hasn’t quite found its way into the mainstream.

 

p5At first, my sole goal while eating in Bangladesh was not to get sick. Although I’m a fairly well-seasoned traveler, I was a bit paranoid with my Western belly so I doused myself in hand sanitizer and avoided anything mildly suspicious, like a medium-rare piece of beef (I was “that guy”).

But that all seems like another lifetime ago. It has been nearly two months in Bangladesh, and in a startling transformation, I have come to enjoy the food here. Somewhere along the line, I started to like Bangladesh. I looked past the things I wasn’t used to and started to focus on all the good. And Bangladesh has a lot going for it, mainly, having some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. As I started to appreciate this country, I started to appreciate its food too.

 

 

p6Dhaka, as Bangladesh’s capital and most international city, offers a cosmopolitan assortment of restaurants. A standout is the Turkish food at Istanbul. The lamb is succulent and flavorful, just like it would be in the real Istanbul but without the massive political unrest. There are also several authentic Korean restaurants, owing to Dhaka’s sizable Korean population. There is even a North Korean place, Pyongyang, part of a restaurant chain run by the North Korean government. Pyongyang serves up stellar Korean cuisine; noteworthy dishes include the dumplings and the kimchi. Apparently the restaurant is a valuable source of revenue for the cash-strapped government back home. (Had I known this earlier, I would not have eaten at Pyongyang, but in this case, ignorance was bliss). I was most p7surprised that Dhaka has a serviceable Mexican restaurant, El Toro. Apparently a local pursued his graduate degree in New Mexico and returned to Dhaka with dreams of introducing Tex-Mex food to his compatriots. This enterprising Bangladeshi got the food just right, at least when I compare it to the Tex-Mex restaurants I grew up with in suburban New Jersey. I ordered the Mexican Flag, a substantial provision of three enchiladas and sides of rice and refried beans.

p8There are standout restaurants serving Bangladeshi cuisine as well. My favorite is Dhaba, which takes its name from a term for a street food merchant in the Indian subcontinent. Thankfully, Dhaba is an actual restaurant, which is a good thing because countless locals have warned me to stay away from the street food as it can be hazardous to one’s health. Dhaba has several notable dishes. It is best known for its doi fuchka, made of fuchka (potato, chickpeas, and tamarind) topped with doi (or yogurt). I think it tastes like nachos. Then there’s the beef and chicken rolls: fried paratha, or flat bread, stuffed with savory meat spiced with chilis. My favorite dish is the beef and chili onion, a fiery brown curry over rice. This brown sauce is a little lighter and more flavorful than most.

p9I would be remiss not to mention my lunch at Haji Biryani It is a Dhaka institution:  founded about 80 years ago, no sign, impossible to find, cramped seating, and serving only one dish, delicious mutton biryani for 125 taka, or around $1.50. A biryani is a rice-based dish made with spices and meat or vegetables. Mutton is goat. At Haji Biryani, you step in and are welcomed by a man with a giant spoon mixing up the one dish in a cartoonishly large pot. You proceed to sit down at one of the communal tables, no orders are taken, and your biryani arrives straight away. The flavors bleed together into greasy decadence. Here I had no choice but to eatp10 with my hands as there was no silverware. In so doing, I tapped into my inner caveman as I gnawed the fat off of bones of mutton and sucked the grease off my right hand. Finger-licking good indeed.

However, the best Bangladeshi food I have had is at the homes of the people who have graciously invited my wife and me to dine with them. In particular, my wife has maintained a remarkable friendship with the family who hosted her while she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh from 2003 to 2005. When my wife and I spent three weeks in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, we ate a meal at the host family’s apartment almost every day. My favorite by far was our last meal, which featured a chicken p11biryani. This biryani was made with a long Pakistani rice with a subtly sweet taste. On top of the rice was chicken that had been cooked for about two hours in a sauce of garlic, ginger, cloves, yogurt, and black pepper. p12It was a tasty combination of pungent spice and mild sweetness that was creamy but not heavy. All in all, the best meal I had in Bangladesh.

 

Another standout at the host family’s was their kichiri, where the rice is cooked in daal and retains a hearty, earthy taste. It’s Bangladeshi comfort food. I much preferred the dishes like biryani and kichiri, where the rice and sauce complement the meat/vegetable, instead of overwhelming it. (I still don’t understand the prevalence of the Bangladeshi brown curry; perhaps it is simply cheaper and/or easier to prepare). p13

But alas, there is another food in Bangladesh that lies closer to my heart. My all-time favorite Bangladeshi food is the mango. Although May and June are considered the worst months to visit Bangladesh, owing to the stifling heat and humidity, it is also the time when the juicy fruits are in p14season. Right now, the mango reigns supreme. In many ways, my time in Bangladesh has been an unending parade of mangos marching from fruit stands at the side of the road to be washed, cut, and summarily eaten. Bangladeshis are similarly obsessive about their mangos and talk with fierce pride of those grown in their home districts, especially Chapai Nawabganj. A good mango is subtly sweet and soft, just the right taste and texture. The fact that your face will be covered in juice and pulp is irrelevant. In Bangladesh, mango truly lives up to its nickname:  “king of fruit.”

Adjusting to Bangladesh has allowed me to enjoy the wonderful foods this country offers. In my few remaining days, I hope to finish strong by revisiting some of the above-mentioned places, trying new recommendations, and eating plenty of mangos. My next stop is Burma, where recent democratic reforms have opened up its society, as well as its cuisine, to Westerners like myself. My stomach and I look forward to reaping the rewards of the Burmese spring.

 

 

 

 

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  1. Amy Tong says:

    Great post. I think the best way to learn a new culture/country is through food. Glad you do enjoy the food there, after all. 🙂 And I feel bad about the “hand situation” you have to face. oh….and mango is one of my favorite fruit. I think over all the tropical fruits are better in Asia.

  2. cakewhiz says:

    Awesome post! There is so much delicous food pictures that I am hungry now…lol.
    I got married in India and LOVED the food there and there was sooooo much variety!

  3. GG3 says:

    Chicken biryani sounds unbelievable.
    wonder where I could get it in NYC or NJ.
    Or perhaps you know the recipe.

  4. Beth says:

    What an amazing post! You’ve summed up the best part of travelling – that it forces us out of our comfort zones, lets us try new experiences (and food), and best of all, gives us the pleasure of meeting people in a different country. I loved this post, and hope you do a similar write-up on all the countries you visit!

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post – it’s interesting how we change our view of the country through actually living there and experiencing each day. I wish that I have another chance to live in different places – it’s a wonderful experience!

  6. Amy says:

    I was in the desh from 2003-2005 and overlapped with Evelyn. My host mother was the most fantastic cook. The food was the thing I loved most. Say hello to Evelyn!