To Dhaka’s Gastronomy, With Love

By Padya Paramita
November 1, 2018

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JULY 1ST 2016 was one of the darkest days in Bangladesh’s history. A gruesome terrorist attack saw five men barge into Holey Artisan Bakery—a popular café in the capital, Dhaka—and hold everyone inside hostage. Among the victims there were Japanese businessmen, Italian mothers-to-be, and Bangladeshi and Indian students who were visiting their families for the summer. Another unexpected victim of this tragedy was one of Bangladesh’s biggest booming sectors: the food scene.

In the weeks following the attack, restaurants went out of business in fear of another tragedy, unemployment increased, and there was an unspoken anxiety among restaurant-goers when seeking a night out with friends and family. And while the city’s economy suffered, it was the heart and soul of the city that seemed most affected—Dhaka’s identity, which had always been so deeply entangled with its rich culinary history.

Food and Dhaka go hand in hand. One of the most densely populated cities in the world, Dhaka’s spirit is encapsulated in its people and the food they lovingly cook. Food celebrates local culture in various ways. Each dish reflects the devotion cooks put into what they do, as well as the colors and seasons of Bangladesh. Food brings families and friends together; food is at the center of any Bangladeshi occasion.

Everywhere you look in the city there is food. Local schools attract Jhalmuri vendors, who whip up their latest concoction using puffed rice, vegetables, and drizzled mustard oil on top. Near wedding venues you can catch a whiff of the succulent mutton Kachchi Biryani, a dish that dates to the Mughal rulers from the sixteenth century.

Dhaka would be incomplete without the neighborhood treat Fuchka. Similar to the Indian dish pani puri, these crispy shells are filled with chotpoti, a filling blend of chickpeas and tamarind sauce. Some days, you might even encounter the sound of fish sizzling in hot oil from the apartment next door.

The love for food starts from home, where curry is almost always paired with rice and lentils. This tradition originates from the farmers in surrounding villages, who begin the process of feeding the country by harvesting paddy all year, and then selling it to markets nationwide. Whether it is the traditional dinner meal of rice, lentils, and curry, or different globalization-influenced cuisines, Bengalis will always turn to food for comfort and a celebration of identity. 

 
 
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Born in Dhaka, my fondest memories of Bangladeshi gastronomy begin at home. My grandmother, my Nanu, learned how to cook in her hometown, a village called Chowgacha. I was raised on Nanu’s delicious lunches: from vegetable curries made with fresh produce, to Bangladesh’s famous fish, Hilsha, and, of course, my—beef bhuna, a curry made of tender meat, sometimes accompanied by potatoes. To this day, a bite of this dish takes me back to sitting at the dinner table with family, where I would share stories about my day at school.

Curry carries a nostalgia for Dhaka in me that I can only describe as overwhelming in the best of ways.  

The seasons of Bangladesh influence different dishes as well. Summer brings fruit to Dhaka—I remember my father coming home after work in the summer with a heap of fresh mangoes or lychees. During the torrential downpours of Bangladeshi monsoons, mothers often prepare warm khichuri, a delightful marriage of rice and lentils topped with ghee, or clarified butter, South Asia’s gift to the culinary world. Winter, on the other hand, is for the pithas, different kinds of hand-made desserts, some made from rice flour, coconut, and molasses, some deep fried, and some with creamy pudding inside.  

On July 1 2016, I was visiting Dhaka from Boston, after my sophomore year of college. I came home after a dinner out with friends to find that people were being held hostage at the upscale Holey Artisan Bakery. My family spent the night glued to the television, following the developments. The terrorists’ goal was to send a message to non-Muslims, who they had dubbed as “crusaders.” The night was full of tears and panic attacks: our thoughts were with those who were stuck inside the cafe, and were being mercilessly beheaded.

We lost a friend’s grandson in the tragedy. For a month after the event, I couldn’t close my eyes without visualizing a killing spree. I still have nightmares about the kids at the restaurant, the pregnant woman, the innocent businessmen. All they had wanted was to enjoy an evening out. The Holey Artisan’s management was forced to lay off many of its chefs and servers after that night.

The attack was a shock and a setback to a cuisine that is practically a culture of its own. Food, which is usually a symbol of optimism and heritage in Dhaka, became a witness of tragedy.

Naturally, the attack got an immense amount of press coverage. Many international newspapers paired Dhaka with the words ‘tragedy’ and ‘terrorism.’ Not only did this put restaurants out of business, but the association between food and violence also brought a bad taste in homecooks’ mouths. I couldn’t think about eating for days, and my usually strong Nanu did not leave her bed for a long time. I couldn’t bear the pain that was consistently clouding up my chest: the city that breathes cricket during the day, football at night, the city full of flowers and rain, the same city where people go out of their way to be kind and welcoming to others, was suddenly associated with the exact opposite.

Two years later, Dhaka continues to heal. Somewhere in the back of our minds, memories of the attack resurface every time we step outside to eat. Sometimes, when I sit down at home to have a meal, I think about how the families of those affected must associate dinner with their lost loved ones.

There have been steps taken to aid the city’s recovery: the government has increased security, which has provided a safety net and encouraged more restaurateurs to open new locations. And thankfully there have been no major attacks since. The determined spirits of the Bengalis are doing everything they can to fight back. For example, one of my favorite waffle restaurants, which had shut down immediately after the attack because they had always attracted foreign customers, has opened not one, but two new branches a couple of months ago. They have come back better and stronger than ever.

While the tragedy remains a significant source of fear in the food scene in Dhaka, I would be lying if I said that I don’t automatically smile every time I step outside the house and hear the neighborhood vendor’s friendly voice yelling, “Jhalmuri, jhalmuri!” ❖

 
 

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