Salaam! While Derek and I don’t want to play favorites when globetrotting, after visiting several small countries and struggling to find aspects of their cultures in the Boston/New York area, we were relieved that the next country on our list, Bangladesh, would be different. Of the countries we’ve globetrotted to so far, Bangladesh is the one with the largest population (the eighth most populous in the world—Russia is ninth, while our home country, the United States, is third). We felt more confident about being able to find Bangladeshi culture without scratching our heads too much.
Still, I didn’t know very much about Bangladesh before this weekend. I knew it was near India, and assumed that Bangladeshi and Indian culture shared many things in common. I vaguely knew that flooding was a major concern (most of the country is low-lying), and that there were a lot of garment sweatshops in the country, making clothes primarily for American and European consumers. While these things are mostly true, there’s obviously more to Bangladesh.
It was snowing when we woke up on Saturday morning, the first most significant snow we’ve had this winter in Cambridge. While January is the coldest month in Bangladesh, snow would be highly unlikely, since the average January temperature is around 10 degrees Celsius. Given that we first started globetrotting as a way to find activities for ourselves in the winter, we welcomed Bangladesh happily.
Bengal’s history goes all the way back to the Stone Age (artifacts from that era have been excavated), and has been part of many kingdoms ruled over by many dynasties (how’s that for concise and vague?). In 1770, the British came to rule the area. In 1947, West Bengal, which was predominantly Hindu, became a part of India, while East Bengal, which was predominantly Muslim, became a state of Pakistan, East Pakistan. In 1971, after years of tension between West and East Pakistan and the nine-month long Bangladesh Liberation War, East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh.
Since people who identify ethnically as Bengali live in both modern-day Bangladesh and India, that helps account for the overlaps that exist between Bangladeshi and Indian culture. It’s important to note, though, that many other ethnic groups live in India, besides the Bengali people. In contrast, about 98% of Bangladesh is Bengali.
One American traveler posted a helpful blog entry about the food he encountered in Bangladesh, and he identified paratha, a wheat flatbread, and sabzi, a mixed vegetable dish, as components of a typical Bangladeshi breakfast. Although most sabzi recipes I found were potato-based, I decided to go a different route, since I already had plans to make a potato dish for another meal (more on that later), and made kaddu ki sabzi, in which the main ingredient was pumpkin (I used a kabocha squash). Derek worked on the parathas, and we also made black tea (from the Red Label box pictured below) with milk and sugar.
I’m glad that I was able to find most of the spices that the sabzi recipe called for, as the dish turned out very flavorful. Derek’s freshly made parathas also turned out well, and it was nice nursing a hot mug of tea while watching the snow fall outside.
Derek discovered that the library only a few blocks from our apartment has a Bengali language collection, which includes popular Bengali films on DVD, so he trekked out into the snow to borrow several. I’ve been battling a cold the past few days, so I stayed home and started preparing ingredients for lunch.
As for what to make for a Bangladeshi lunch, we referred to a cookbook of ours called Extending the Table, which had been a very thoughtful wedding present from one of my best friends, and one I’m sure we’ll be using often when globetrotting, as it contains dishes from around the world. The two Bangladeshi recipes we made from the book were a potato curry (alu torkari) and a rice pilaf (pilau), and we also had more tea. Here’s an artistic shot Derek took of his lunch plate:
Derek had some grading to do for the course he’s TAing this semester, so he worked on that in the afternoon while I tried to take it easy (which is not so easy for me). I don’t know how Bangladeshis convalesce, so I’ll assume my style–lots of orange juice, lying about and reading–is not quite authentic.
While we prefer to visit restaurants in person, we decided to get delivery for dinner from a Bengali restaurant, Royal Bengal, instead. Derek’s plate is in the foreground, with three pieces of luchi, fried bread. To the left is shorshe maach, fish in a mustard sauce with green chiles, and above that is aloo bhate, mashed potatoes with mustard oil and green chiles. The little dish next to that is spicy pickle, followed by coppi pakoras, batter-fried cauliflower pieces, and a vegetable biryani, which is a rice dish. Finally, to the right of Derek’s plate, is a lentil dal. (And of course, my plate with luchi is in the back, and my glass of orange juice–not Bengali in any way–is next to that, and behind the pakoras.)
One distinction between Bangladeshi and Indian foods is that fish is a staple of Bangladeshi cuisine. Mustard oil is also a common ingredient, which was present in both the fish and mashed potatoes. There were plenty of leftovers, which was good news for the next day. We had also ordered dessert, misti doi, a sweet yogurt, which we enjoyed before settling in to watch one of the Bengali movies Derek had borrowed.
We watched the 2004 Bangladeshi film Lalon, which was based on the life of Lalon Shah, a Bengali philosopher poet and songwriter. Lalon is considered to be the founder of Baul music, and was widely known for criticizing social divisions made by religion (primarily Islam and Hinduism) and the caste system. It was a little difficult for us to engage with the movie since we didn’t know anything about Lalon prior to this weekend, but I assume viewers with more background on the man would have been more appreciative.
Here’s a contemporary cover of one of Lalon’s songs, “Jaat Gelo Jaat Gelo Bole”:
On Sunday morning, Derek made a fresh batch of parathas. We also reheated the leftover sabzi, and made more tea. This time the parathas came out puffier and softer; they had been crisper the day before. While we had liked both versions, we especially liked this second batch.
We watched several videos to learn more about life in Bangladesh. The first was a BBC Bangla short documentary, “A Day in Dhaka,” which interviewed four young Bangladeshis about their lives. Dhaka is home to over 4 million young people–but it was also voted one of the most unlivable cities in the world last year, so the film tried to capture how different young people view their lives, and their prospects for the future. The second video we watched, “Dhaka: A City of Possibilities?” also addressed Dhaka’s ranking as one of the least livable cities. It interviewed many Dhaka residents, asking them what they saw as the city’s biggest problems, and how quality of life could be improved.
The third video we watched gave us a look into what life is like in a Bangladeshi village. We followed two children through the course of a single day, and also learned about rice farming, fishing, tea harvesting, and celebrating Ramadan.
For lunch we had more of the rice and potato curry that I had made for lunch the previous day, and more tea (I guess it’s a good thing that I’m sick when we’re globetrotting to a country that drinks a lot of tea).
In the afternoon, we watched another Bengali film that Derek borrowed from the library, Chokher Bali. While the film is Indian, rather than Bangladeshi, the story takes place in Bengal while it was still under British rule (and is based on an early twentieth-century Bengali novel by the same name, by Bengali novelist Rabindranath Tagore). The story revolves around a young Hindu widow, Binodini, who is well-educated, but according to custom at the time, is expected to live a life of seclusion after the death of her husband. Binodini is invited to come live with an older widow, Rajlakshmi, and her son, Mahendra–who had turned down Binodini when she was first looking to marry. Binodini befriends the young woman he’s married instead, Asha; Mahendra finds himself falling out of love with his wife and in love with the woman he once rejected.
Unfortunately I can’t find a proper trailer with English subtitles, but here’s a short video with clips from the movie:
I’ll admit that the plot does seem rather melodramatic, but I think Aishwarya Rai (whom Americans might recognize for her modeling and brand ambassador work, and for being in a Bollywood-style adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Bride and Prejudice) makes Binodini a complex but sympathetic character.
For dinner we enjoyed our leftovers from Royal Bengal (though we had finished the fried bread and cauliflower pakoras the first night). Having cooked a few Bengali recipes this weekend, I appreciate all the preparation–and ingredients–that went into the dishes we ordered. Ordering delivery is so easy; cooking the food, not so much. We also had saved a serving of misti doi (the sweet yogurt) for dessert.
I’m feeling a little better than I did start of the weekend, and I’m glad that while I stayed indoors the whole time, that we got to experience Bangladesh and its rich culture. Our next post will likely be from a country whose winters are more similar to our New England ones than Bangladesh’s: Belarus.