Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dining in Bangladesh - Bengali Gastronomy

I'm no connoisseur on Bengali dining, but there's one thing I know, and that's what to do with my hands during a meal (besides washing them before meals). Eat with your right hand, as the left hand is considered "dirty" (left hand is used to service your toilet needs). Of course you can break bread or hold your fork with the left, but the one that feeds you is your right.

Bengali dining introduced me gradually to the generics of Indian continent's culinary. The dhals, the rottis, the chapatis, and a general preference to vegetarianism.

Bengali Cuisine Overview

This is from wikipedia on Bengali cuisine:

With emphasis on fish and lentils served with rice as a staple diet, Bengali cuisine is known for its subtle (yet sometimes fiery) flavours, its confectioneries and desserts, and has perhaps the only multi-course tradition from South-Asia that is analogous with the likes of Japanese, French and Italian cuisine in structure.

From the culinary point of view, a key influence to the food came much later, when Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Avadh was exiled to Metiabruz, in the outskirts of Kolkata. He is said to have brought with him hundreds of cooks and masalchis (spice mixers) who, on his death, dissipated into the population, starting restaurants and food carts all over Bengal.

Bengalis also excel in the cooking of vegetables. They prepare a variety of the imaginative dishes using the many types of vegetables that grow in the country year round. They can make ambrosial dishes out of the oftentimes rejected peels, stalks and leaves of vegetables. They use fuel-efficient methods, such as steaming fish or vegetables in a small covered bowl nestled at the top of the rice cooker.

The use of spices for both fish and vegetable dishes is quite extensive and includes many combinations not found in other parts of India.

Fish is the dominant kind of meat, cultivated in ponds and fished with nets in the fresh-water rivers of the Ganges delta. Almost every part of the fish (except fins and innards) is eaten; the head and other parts are usually used to flavor curries. The head is often cooked with dal or with cabbage.

Bengali people are primarily rice eaters, and the rainfall and soil in Bengal lends itself to rice production as well.

Luchi (circular deep fried un-leavened bread) or Porothha (usually triangular, multi-layered, pan fried, un-leavened bread) are also used as the primary food item on the table. It is considered that wheat-based food came in from the north and is relatively new in advent. Both Luchi and Parothha (paratha) could have stuffed versions as well, and the stuffing could vary from dal, peas etc.


This is followed by shaak (leafy vegetables) such as spinach, palong chard, methi fenugreek, or amaranth. The shaak can be steamed or cooked in oil with other vegetables such asbegun (eggplant). Steamed shaak is sometimes accompanied by a sharp paste of mustard and raw mango pulp called Kasundi.


The đal course is usually the most substantial course, especially in West Bengal. It is eaten with a generous portion of rice and a number of accompaniments. Common accompaniments to đal are aaloo bhaate (potatoes mashed with mustard oil), and bhaja (fritters). Bhaja literally means 'deep-fried'; most vegetables are good candidates but begun(aubergines), kumro (pumpkins), or alu (potatoes) like french fries, or shredded and fried, uchhe, potol pointed gourdare common. Machh bhaja (fried fish) is also common, especially rui (rohu) and ilish (hilsa) fishes. Bhaja is sometimes coated in a beshon (chickpea flour) and posto (poppyseed) batter. A close cousin of bhaja is bôra or deep-fried savoury balls usually made from posto (poppyseed) paste or coconut mince. Another variant is fried pointed gourd as potoler dorma with roe stuffing.

Another accompaniment is a vegetable preparation usually made of multiple vegetables stewed slowly together without any added water. Labra, chorchori, ghonto, or chanchra are all traditional cooking styles. There also are a host of other preparations that do not come under any of these categories and are simply called tôrkari - the word merely means 'vegetable' in Bengali.
Now, most of the dish seen in this post do not have names or labels.
Acknowledgement: Wikipedia’s entry on Bengali Cuisine.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

New Alamin Hotel and Restaurant. This hall is for their male customers only. Females are sequestered at a separate cloistered cranny at the side of this hall.

Chicken is a relatively new entrant in Bengali cuisine, but I had to have something that's "familiar".

This is a mint-flavored post-meal confection, served with a toothpick to somehow "freshen" your breath from all the spices. This is free, and a common feature in most meals across the sub-Indian continent from India to Bangladesh and Nepal.

This was a snack served bread at a very small store in Sonargaon. This is served with cha (tea).

There wasn't a proper breakfast to be had early in the morning, and I wasn't too happy with the hotel restaurant's paratha so I ventured outside and bought some bread (notice the accompanying spicy sauce). Sprite seems to be the most common soda, not Coke.

Fish is the dominant meat.

Gosh, what were these? I tasted each but wasn't too happy.

Milk-based dessert! Delicious! Anyone can offer a name?

This was my border-crossing bus' free meal consisting of roti, dal and a not-too-sweet banana.

Parata and Egg omelet with chili

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dhaka Like The Pictures In My Mind

Some moments go by so fast. They feel like split-second images sliding by from couch windows in fast-moving trains. You blink and they are gone forever. I am grateful for the technology that allows me to stretch some of these moments into eternity. A flightless phoenix. An avenue of hundreds of news papers. A kaleidoscope of drying garments. Minaret rising proud. Random directions. These constitute a montage that helps to paint Dhaka in my internal canvas. And who says that Dhaka isn’t for those who slumber?
This is the Eye in the Sky!

An early morning at a street in Motijheel. Here's one side...

And here's the opposite side...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Persecuting Presidents & Zia Mausoleum Complex in Dhaka Tales

There wasn’t much to do when visiting the National Assembly Building. Our auto-rickshaw dropped us along Lake Road, directly facing the National Assembly which was more than a hundred meters from the sidewalk. There’s a wired gate preventing us from walking over the immaculate grass at the front yard. After an unusual number of photo opportunities with me in it (there wasn’t much to do really), we went back to our auto-rickshaw to take us at the back. The scenery is even lovelier. It was a Mausoleum Complex of Shaheed President Ziaur Rahman (“…martyred president…”).

The nation’s international airport, if you remember, used to be called Zia International Airport, but has since been changed into a hard-to-remember name of a Sufi saint (Shahjalal). Zia was named in honor of this president. Bangladesh has to stop re-naming major landmarks, as it gets ridiculous already. It complicates people, not to mention the degree of desecration upon stripping the name of an honored hero. What? Suddenly, President Zia becomes less important than the Sufi Saint Shahjalal?

Approach Bridge

This Mausoleum Complex is a memorial of President Zia, as he was popularly regarded. He was a hero of the Bangladesh Liberation War in the early 70’s. He revolted against the West Pakistanis during the genocide of East Pakistan. He eventually stepped up as the 7th President of Bangladesh where he ruled for 4 years. Unfortunately for President Zia, he suffered the fate of most of Bangladesh’s esteemed leaders.


Remember Mujibur, the Father of Bangladesh Independence who became Bangladesh’s 1st Prime Minister? Murdered during a coup! Ershad, who staged a bloodless coup against the series of military iron fists, became president and was later sent to prison! President Zia, who staked his life against the Pakistanis and against genocide, became president and was murdered during an abortive coup in 1985. Bangladesh is notorious for sending former heads of state to jail – or to their grave!

It was easy to admire the mausoleum grounds in honor of President Zia. It was just reeking with charm- a romantic Crescent Lake, a bridge; the diamond-shaped glass roofing over the tomb; a well-maintained backyard garden; a biographical museum, and the immaculately maintained grounds! This is a fitting homage to Bangladesh’s most popular and most controversial political leaders.

After a satisfying visit around the mausoleum complex, my guide Mafuz and I went to the northwestern lake for a sip of Coke, while Mafuz regaled about his girlfriend (a history student). Of course he never stopped texting and calling her during my tour. In fact, we must have stopped 3 times just so he could reload his mobile. Such was his devotion. I listened with a smile pasted on my face. So this is how Bangladeshis live and love. Well, they’re not all that different from us, I thought.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Crescent Lake as the mausoleum front yard.

Diamond-shaped glass roof of the mausoleum.

Shaheed President Ziaur Rahman fought against genocide. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia.

Memorial Hall

Friday, October 15, 2010

An Intriguing Architect & the National Assembly Building (Dhaka)

It was a welcome experience riding into the National Assembly in Dhaka. The area is Sher-e-Bangla Nagar where the streets are wider. At some point from Old Dhaka, rickshaws were blocked entry, thus we had to take the auto-rickshaw, also called baby taxis (“metered” motorized rides with seats at the back of the driver). Buildings around the area looked newer and better maintained, and the air smelled fresher.

The Bengali name is Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban – the National Assembly Building, which is one of the largest legislative complexes in the world.

The National Assembly Building comes off like a set of concrete rectangular blocks and cylinders, with circular and triangular apertures instead of windows. If you were air-borne on a plane or helicopter, it would look like a pre-arranged set of Lego blocks spread on a green carpet. The concrete wall is divided into marble-partitioned rectangles.


Like most visionaries with a considerable amount of talent, fame or notoriety, Louis Kahn was an interesting fella. The world-renowned American architect was of Estonian Jewish origin based in Philadelphia. As a child in Estonia, he grew up poor. His face was riddled with strictures from a burn accident when he was younger. As he got older, his family’s economic situation did not improve. He couldn’t even afford to buy pencils. He would use burnt twigs to indulge in his drawings, which he’d peddle to earn money. Aside from his art, he would play piano to accompany silent movies. His father deliberately moved their family to the U.S. in order to escape military draft for the Russo-Japanese War.


In 1963, Kahn was commissioned by the Pakistani government (this was prior to the independence of Bangladesh) to design a regional capital for East Pakistan. Due to the ensuing war and liberation movement, construction dragged on for years, and was completed 19 years later – in 1982. By then, Kahn had been dead for 8 years. He succumbed to heart attack at a toilet in a New York station. In fact, he just returned from a work-related trip to Bangladesh. His body was unidentified for 3 days because he suspiciously crossed out the home address written in his passport. How come? He was involved with 3 women, one of whom was his legal wife. And despite his international acclaim, Kahn was heavily in debt.


As an architect, he adopted a back-to-basics approach, an insight he gained after visiting ruins of ancient buildings in Italy, Greece and Egypt. Kahn’s style gravitated to the monumental and monolithic; his buildings do not hide their weight, material or manner of assembly. The National Assembly in Dhaka would be among Kahn’s crowning glories, and it’s clear why. In this work, he gives in to the concept of light and space. In his own words, he offered: In the assembly I have introduced a light-giving element to the interior of the plan. If you see a series of columns you can say that the choice of columns is a choice in light. The columns as solids frame the spaces of light. Now think of it just in reverse and think that the columns are hollow and much bigger and that their walls can themselves give light, then the voids are rooms, and the column is the maker of light and can take on complex shapes and be the supporter of spaces and give light to spaces.” Don’t you just love it when artists explain their works? Pablo Picasso should’ve tried explaining his.

His fascinating life is documented in an Oscar-nominated documentary, “My Father, The Architect”, a title I have in my collection, but haven’t seen yet.


The National Assembly is bound by 4 streets: Lake Road to the north, Rokeya Sarani to the east, Manik Mia Avenue to the south (facing the Mausoleum Park of Zia), and Mirpur Road to the west. Most times, tourists are not allowed inside the Main Building, although Lonely Planet mentions a way of getting “seats” inside, which may take time, and is largely dependent on chance. However, the Jatiyo Sangshad Complex is open to visitors. The easiest access is through Manic Mia Avenue and Lake Road. If you aren’t that lucky, just head to the south and take a stroll at the beautiful garden grounds of Zia Mausoleum.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Back of the National Assembly in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar.

Louis Kahn suffered from burns at a young age. He was a critic and an architecture professor in Yale and other universities.

Some of Kahn's works. Notice the interplay of space, monolithic structures, rectangles and triangles.

Immaculate grounds of the National Assembly Building. This one is facing Lake Road.

Auto-rickshaw or "baby taxi"

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Mausoleum of 3 Heroes & a Mosque at the Suhrawardy Udyan (Dhaka)

There was one place in Dhaka where I took the time to sit back, relax and soak in the peaceful atmosphere around me – the Mausoleum of 3 Heroes (Tin Netar Mazar) at the Suhrawardy Udyan which is a national monument in Dhaka. The sprawling compound used to be a British military club, but at the end of the colonial rule, transformed into the Ramna Race Course.

I did ask Mafuz, my guide, the significance of the place. He told me it was where 3 of their national heroes were laid to rest. He didn’t elaborate, but I actually wanted to know what made them larger-than-life heroes. The undulating shell-like architecture of the mausoleum is such a feast on the eyes.

Tin Netar Mazar - Mausoleum of 3 Heroes


I walked around the whole structure before checking out the individual tombs which looked similar. Who were these heroes- A.K. Fazlul Huq, Khwaja Nazimuddin and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy.

A.K. Fazlul Huq was a popular Bengali statesman in the first half of the 20th century. He was often referred to as “Sher-e-Bangla” (Tiger of Bengal) and held several positions (including the 1st muslim mayor of Calcutta). With the partition of Pakistan from India, Pakistan was further divided into West and the East (aka Bangladesh) where Huq was Advocate General.

Khwaja Nazimuddin is a Dacca-born Bengali who was educated in Cambridge (and even knighted in England). Upon his return to his country, he rose into the ranks that ultimately “crowned” him the 2nd Prime Minister of Pakistan, prior to the independence of Bangladesh.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was a Bengal politician prior to the division of India. When Pakistan was born, like the khwaja, he rose into the ranks and became the 5th Prime Minister of Pakistan. He would also found the political organization that would eventually become the Awami League.

Dacca-born local heroes: A.K. Fazlul Huq, Khwaja Nazimuddin and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy


A stone’s throw from the mausoleum is an earth-colored structure with lovely domes. It was a mosque. Its eye-catching architecture competes with the mausoleum’s radical curves. After sitting down the marble steps to catch my breath, I headed towards the mosque. Its name is Hazrat Haji Khwaji Shahbaz Mosque and Darga Sharif.

I stepped closer from the side where I saw some men lying down the platform outside. I saw an inscription that says this “darga sharif” (tomb) and “mosque” was built by a merchant prince of Dhaka in 1679, during the viceroyalty of Prince Muhammad Azam. His name was Khwaja Shahbaz. I recalled some photos during my readings showing the mosque bearing a laundry line, and that someone seemed to reside in the mosque, which is a disappointing fact. How are you going to preserve something that existed 331 years ago if you’re gonna reside in it? But then, it isn’t my country; so who am I to say?

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Hazrat Haji Khwaja Shahbaz Mosque circa 1679. A merchant prince's mosque.

Mosque entrance.

Darga Sharif - Khwaja Shahbaz's Tomb

Just outside the Udyan compound, there was a crew filming. Check out our separate post about this scene.