Bangladesh in Birmingham: The search for seven colour tea continues…
As I make my way through the countries of the world, the only constant is that my expectations are dashed. For example, when I turned the page and discovered my next destination was Bangladesh, I was sure I would soon be able to pontificate about the difference between Indian and Bangladeshi food… but it turns out the answer is not so simple.
Alright, it’s very complicated.
If I have understood correctly (and please do let me know if I am wrong), between 1765 and 1947, the Bengal Presidency was a subdivision of the British Empire in India. This area covered Bangladesh, West Bengal (now India) and other places where Bengali was mainly spoken. The food across this whole region was therefore pretty similar. In 1947, East and West Bengal were split, then East Bengal becoming East Pakistan in 1955… before transforming into Bangladesh in 1971. Bengali food is therefore pretty similar be you in West Bengal, India or Bangladesh…
It is those final years of East Pakistan that are the backdrop for Tahmima Anam’s unforgettable the Golden Age. The novel starts in a time when Hindus and Muslims live happily together, but such harmony soon falls away as she details the horrors of war and how it tears communities, families and lives apart. Anam does not sugar coat the terror inflicted by the Pakistan army, but she does wrap the tale in a love story full of titbits about Bangladeshi culture.
It was the perfect book for an armchair journey as it name-drops food you can then go hunting for such as Phuchka (a small shell stuffed with potato, chickpeas and tamarind water) which I have always known as Pani Puri.
I can’t remember any character eating dhal bhuna for breakfast, but we did, rather late in the morning as it took a hell of a lot longer to make than a bowl of cereal. Luckily the family loved it, which is more than can be said for the chapri I attempted a couple of days later. Perhaps they would have been a bigger hit if I had followed the recipe properly and served them with syrup.
Breakfast may have been hard work, but dinner was easy thanks to having a Bangladeshi restaurant Sweet Chillies just round the corner! I ordered anything veggie that mentioned Bengal. This included: Satney Bora Chop (Potato cakes); Pyaji Bhaji (fried onion balls); Aloo Dengi (garlic potatoes); Shobzi bhaji (mixed veg); neramisha (red beans with HUGE green Bengali beans); Dhaka special rice (rice with fruit herbs and saffron) and Bengal spiced naan (filled with garlic and coriander — hold the cheese).
The combined taste was revelatory and it was great to try dishes that I would have ignored had I not been trying approximate life in Bangladesh!
Our evening’s entertainment came via Netflix, starting with Sincerely Yours, Dhaka, a series of short films about life in the capital. The most entertaining tale gave the perspective of young women growing up in the city, but generally it was a little too slow… so we upped the tempo with Extraction, a truly awful film which is set in an imaginary Bangladesh. It was actually filmed in India and Thailand and whilst it is always entertaining to watch Chris Hemsworth running around doing improbable things with his improbable muscles (like diving off a cliff to meditate under water), watching the film brings you no closer to Bangladeshi culture!
We also failed on music (let me know if there is anything you can recommend) and on drink (I am desperate to try “seven colour tea”, but could not find it anywhere).
Despite the failures, mainly thanks to Tahmima Anam and our local curry house, Bangladesh was a real hit and I am looking forward to seeing whether Barbados can top it next week!