FOOD AND FOOD HABITS :
The deltaic plains of Bangladesh have been famous for rice production which has been the chief occupation of its people since the neolithic age. Rice, therefore, figures prominently in the food habits of the people. It is their staple food.
The Bangladeshis eat rice, not just a small quantity to go with vegetable and meat, but a lot. They eat rice every day and at every meal. At day-break, a farmer or a labourer starts his long day with a breakfast of
'panta', plain boiled rice soaked overnight in water and slightly fermented. This watery rice mixed with salt and chilly, either green or fried dry ones, makes a rather filling breakfast for the poor to start their heavy toil.
But this is not just the only sort of breakfast. `Moon' or 'huroom'
(puffed rice) or 'cheera' (flattened rice), or
'khoi' (popped rice) are other items of a traditional breakfast in most Bengalee homes in the rural areas. These are taken with milk or
yogurt and seasonal fruits like mango, banana or jackfruit. It is also taken with `gur', a crude form of country sugar.
During the harvesting season breakfast consists of a great variety of `pithas' (rice cakes) of different sizes and shapes, salted or sugary, fried or boiled. During weddings the bridegroom is given
'nakhsi pithas'-carved and decorated rice cakes, which are a real treat.
During the main meals at homes of the more affluent, a number of dishes, not less than five, are served. Hence Bangladesh is called
'pancho banjoner desh' (the land of five dishes). In a `bhoj' or a formal feast elaborate dishes are served.
A `bhorta' is prepared with vegetable or cereals or fish, fresh or dry. These are first boiled, baked or cooked and then meshed. Added with salt, spices and herbs this is a real delicacy. `Bhaji' is sauted or fried vegetable, `dopeaji' is cooked with plenty of chopped onion, spices and other ingredients. Cooked in low heat and for long this could be a dish of fish or meat. `Jhol' is typical and an exclusive dish of Bangladesh. It is a vegetable and fish curry with a lot of thin gravy in it, usually very hot with chillies. `Dal' or the lentil soup is taken with rice and nearly always at the fag end of the meal.
`Tauk', a watery soup of vegetable and sour fruits, is sometimes a substitute for dal, the sour component being green mango, tamarind, or tomato, depending on what is available in the season.
Meat is not a common everyday food in the rural areas owing partly to agelong habit and partly to stringent economic conditions. On a festive occasion, particularly in the urban areas, one may find dishes other than the ones mentioned here. Such a festive dinner has
`borhani', a spicy yoghurt drink to start with followed almost immediately by
`biryani' (fine rice and mutton or poultry cooked in `ghee' or clarified butter). Chicken roast or mutton rezala is served with it, roast being a spicy braised dish and rezala, a meat preparation, with a lot of whole green chilly added to an otherwise mild dish. Salad of cucumber, tomato and onion is made to go with the main dishes. The dessert on such an occasion is
`zarda' (saffron-coloured sweetened boiled rice) or
'firm/ payesh', varieties of rice puddings.
There are other foods in rural Bangladesh. Waterlily seeds, also known as makna, are eaten raw or at times fried or popped.
'Misti aloo' (sweet potato) is eaten in the lean season as a substitute for rice. Between two harvests jackfruit too comes in handy if there is a scarcity of rice.
It is difficult to deny a Bangladeshi his bowl of rice, so ingrained is the habit. But new food habits are being acquired for sheer survival. Wheat has taken on and is quite common in the country. Cassava has been experimented with limited success.
Food Varieties : Food varieties in Bangladesh are limited: rice, wheat, fish, meat, vegetable, fruit, eggs and milk are the most obvious ones with rice claiming a large share of the daily intake.
Rice is usually boiled and eaten with curry. Occasionally rice is fried in ghee or mixed with lentils making a delicious gruel called `khichri' that goes well with meat. Rice has other uses too; it may be grounded and made into fine flour and this could be the ingredient for rice cakes or pithas. Rice mixed with milk and sugar could make payesh or pudding.
Wheat is another variety that is fast carving out its own place as a staple item. Nearly two decades ago when wheat was seriously tried, people showed disliking but in the average Bengalee home today it is a common item for breakfast. As flat bread or leaves of puffed bread, or flat bread fried in oil, wheat is fast becoming important. It has become an important second crop during the dry season. Wheat is gaining popularity among the poor on purely economic grounds. It is simple and economical to make a dough with and baked on the back of an earthen pot the poor man's dinner is ready.
Fish is a major food item. 'Mache Bhate Bengalee' (Bengalees fed and nourished by fish and rice) so goes the popular saying which has become almost proverbial. But the yearly inland catch is not enough. While inland fisheries have scope for improvement, marine fisheries have vast potentialities within its territorial waters. A few varieties of sea fish like the
pomfret, vetki and sole are very popular. Fish figures very prominently in the Bengalee cuisine. It is generally eaten cooked as curry or fried with spices. A substantial quantity of fish is dried and preserved every year. Only a real connoisseur of dry fish knows what a
dry fish bhorta or salted hilsa curry or
'sidhal' (sealed in earthen vessels and preserved underground) paste with a lot of chilly means to the taste.
Vegetable, a large variety of which is taken to add taste to the bowl of rice, is yet to be able to lessen the role of rice in Bengalee food habits. Green plants are popular, boiled or fried in oil with green chillies. Potato cultivation has increased, partly owing to increased domestic consumption and partly due to the increased cold storage facilities. But potato is not yet deemed as a substitute for rice. Gourd, eggplant, beans, raddish are common vegetable in the rural areas while varieties like cauliflower, cabbage, tomato, carrots are popular in urban areas.
Fruits as a food variety have immense potentials for development. Various kinds of tropical fruits, including oranges in winter in limited areas, are grown in Bangladesh. The appeal of jackfruit is universal though the sticky substance melt in peeling may seem formidable to a foreigner. The j ackfruit is grown in abundance and the poor welcome it as substitute for rice during the lean season.
Eating Rajshahi mango is a real tasty and sophisticated experience. There are a number of varieties each having an exotic name differing in taste, varying in texture and sweetness and even in flavour. The lichis of Rajshahi are juicy and colourful, pleasing both to eye and the tongue. Pineapple is another treat. Lots of them are grown on the hill terraces of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and Sylhet as well as on the plains. The Srimongal variety known as calendar is the best. Bangladesh grows other fruits too-guava, plums, melons and banana, to name only a few.
Meat produced in Bangladesh is not enough to meet its domestic demands. The number of cattle is not so small, but these are mostly animals, not specially reared for quality meat. The condition of poultry is improving.
Milk is scarce but users of milk products in Bangladesh have evolved a technology exclusive to themselves. The `chhana' (curdled milk) is unique. The names of different kinds of sweetmeat are exotic and evocative of the experience itself. Try a `pranhara' (heart winner) or a lady kenny (named after Lady Kenning, wife of the British Governor of Bengal) or a `rashmalai' and you will know what it means to the taste.
Lentils, the poor man's protein, are grown in Bangladesh but only in the dry season. Different kinds of lentils are grown but the use of `masur' is universal. A bowl of rice and a little dal is what satisfies the poor.
`Dhaka kabab' and `bakerkhani' are metropolitan Dhaka's speciality. The kabab was introduced by the Mughals. Kabab is made of chunks of meat skewered on an iron spike. Then a charcoal fire is lit and the spike is slowly turned from time to time. This is the basic principle for preparing kabab.
Dhaka kabab differs from the others in that it is drier and can be eaten even after a few days. Bakerkhani is a dry flat bread baked in `tondur', charcoal peat. Bakerkhani and Dhaka kabab were the field-ration of the Bengal cavalry of the Mughal era. For sweet dish or dessert, generally `roshogolla', `doi' (yoghurt) or `mishtanna' (rice pudding) are served.
`Doodhbhat' (milk and rice) is very common as the last item of a meal. This is eaten with seasonal fruit like mango or banana or just with gur (raw sugar or molasses). Sweetmeat is served to a guest any time of the day or night. It also accompanies a messenger who would carry a piece of good news to a relative or a man of importance. The word `swandwesh' means good news.
Swandwesh pitha, also known as poa pitha or taler pitha, is prepared from a mixture of rice flour, gur and water and fried in mustard oil. This pitha or cake remains fresh for a few days even in the hot climate. It goes with the messenger in earthen pot along with the swandwesh, a common practice in rural Bangladesh.
Other pithas or cakes are `chitwa', a mixture of rice, flour and water cooked dry in a earthen pan or especially designed clay pans. It is eaten with biryani of duck on off-the-bone chicken or meat.
Chitwa is also soaked for a day or two in evaporated milk. `Pati shapta' is a variety of rolled pancakes with `kheer' filling. Kheer is the milk thickened through continuous boiling. Kheer is also eaten as a sweet dish with rice. There are many kinds of pithas. These are generally baked, fried, steamed, sundried or cooked.
All you need to know to travel Bangladesh: