Dhaka: An Edible History

“A soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition.
There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.”

– Willa Cather, ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’ (1927)

Is it not absolutely fascinating when you realize that a simple plate of food might just represent an entire nation’s history? You may perhaps be skeptical of the concept at first but think thoroughly: where else are the consequences of ancient trade networks, interactions of empires and invasions, colonial expansion and imperialism as profoundly reflected than in the evolution and transformation of world food cultures? Do we realize that our notion of “authentic” national cuisines isn’t authentic at all? We talk about exclusive “Greek”, “Spanish”, “French” or “Indian cuisines, though none of these are absolutely pure and devoid of influence of other nations.

Here in Dhaka, i.e. the “melting pot” of the country, it’s not any different. Authenticity in our food habits is a pretty complex picture when one considers Bengal’s colonial past and our trading history. Whether one asks the average Bangladeshi directly or does a simple Google search on “Bangladeshi cuisine”, we know it’s almost always going to be “মাছে, ভাতে বাঙ্গালী”. This makes perfect sense because Bengal, as a region, is historically known to be riverian and lush with rice plantations. But consider Dhaka: is that all what our food habits consist of? Absolutely not.

So if one were to ponder about our cuisine, one might say it’s synonymous to “spicy” not just due to the elaborate use of spices but the substantial amount of chilies that go into most recipes. Then comes the delectable, which is nothing without, “Polao, Biriyani, Tehari, Korma, Rezala, Roasts, Kababs” and the likes. We must not forget “Porota, Luchi, Puris or Naan”. Do I even need to mention Pithas? How about those countless Mishtis or Firnis and Kheer? What about Dhaka’s bustling snacking culture? Fuchka, Chotpoti, Jhaalmuri street vendors and the innumerable tea stalls hosting a variety of plain pound cakes, muffins and buns. Your 5 P.M. tea break is unimaginable without biscuits, Shingaras, Samosas and the all important, the irreplaceable beef or chicken patties. Of course, one cannot claim these to be quintessentially Bangladeshi. Almost everyone is aware that bakar khani, the different kebabs, biriyani and polao, lamb, mutton and beef curries, naan breads and barbeques are the direct adaptations of similarly named dishes in Mughal and Adhwani cuisine. These were the dishes developed and transformed according to the local tastes and availability of ingredients during the Muslim rule of Bengal.

On the contrary, European and the English influence aren’t generally discussed. What would it be like if we didn’t have cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and basically Gorom Moshla to spice up our lives? That’s what the Europeans gave us. Aloo Bhorta, Morich Bhorta, Tomato Bhorta or anything with those ingredients, which means almost ALL of our current dishes, exist because of the Portuguese introducing potatoes, tomatoes and chilies.  Okra, eggplants, peanuts and corn are other major imports. The Christians and the Jews influenced the development of baked goods and confectioneries in our region, and our love of patties is like a rendition of the British “pasty” or Jewish “petis”. Tea, the household drink consumed day in and out was introduced to us by the British, and our love of jellies, jam and pickling came with the development of the Bengali middle class during the colonial rule. Through colonial Bengal, we trace the impact of the “Colombian exchange”, the pressure on the Bengali’s to shift to wheat-production (ruti, anyone?), the expansive trading of sugar as well as the British influence in forming the concept of baburchis (yes a British influence).

elma food

Politics, trade and business had much to do with Bangladesh’s culinary culture. Efforts to “Westernize” and the following resistance to this western penetration among the Bengali middle-class led to the development of a modern, hybrid “traditional” cuisine. I’d like to point out that Dhaka, today, might just be going through another phase of influence in terms of food habits. Mind you, this is a different kind of influence, because it is global. A transmission possible through Bangladesh’s inclusion in the global network in all its forms: mass media, transnational finance and capital and technology. This is not just a phenomenon confined to Bangladesh but a consequence of this worldwide fascination over the culinary arts. Dhaka, thus, is only following the footsteps of the rest of the world.

The internet, the epitome of global inter-connectivity, saw a rapid increase in the number of food blogs, sites dedicated to food, and pages for food in social networking sites. In television, films about the culinary world were being made (Julie and Julia, No Reservations, Ratatouille and most recently Burnt) and a tremendous popularity for culinary reality shows, notably Masterchef Australia, developed. That and considering the ease with which Bangladeshis abroad are able to communicate with the locals here, naturally, Dhaka has embraced the world of cuisines more openly than ever. In contrast to the traditional eateries, what has emerged are more restaurants serving “authentic” cuisines such as Italian, Arabian, Turkish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Mexican, Greek, Indonesian, Thai, American, Portuguese, Mughal, French etc. The restaurant business has not only diversified significantly but has become increasingly competitive. The urban youth of Dhaka look towards more sophisticated hangout places, giving rise to the demand for cafes and lounges which are emerging by the dozen. Whereas only a handful of places previously specialized in confectioneries, now countless offer a place to have coffee and desserts, as well as “diner” food. Doesn’t everyone know about red velvet cakes, sub sandwiches and mocha frappes? I am quite sure they do.

But would anyone call this food culture “our own”? They wouldn’t. But that doesn’t take away the fact that we have been and are continuously adopting new habits, new tastes, and may very well have our own version of (if I may exaggerate) a maki roll years from now. One can only hope. But evolution is a tricky thing and history affirms its repeating nature.