I had never faced as many verbal and non-verbal hyperbolic expressions of surprise as I did when I announced my decision to spend a few days in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. In fact, when I landed and deplaned my flight from Kolkata, even the surly immigration offer at the city’s Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport shot me a flummoxed stare, as he asked me, “Why Dhaka!?” All this, while I anxiously waited for him to bestow his ‘welcome stamp’ onto my passport.
Garnering a bad reputation thanks to its gritty countenance and unbridled urban chaos, the city by the Buriganga River barely registers a blip on the tourist radar. But I soon realised that for the adventurous of palate, it holds great sway with its unique and rather distinct cuisine. One that’s paradoxically both similar and remarkably different from what most of us know as “Bangla Cuisine”. Yes, the same one majorly co-opted by the more well-known Western Bengali macher jhols, kosha mangshos and other shosher-(mustard) laced delicacies.
And so, a quick food-forward interlude after a work trip to nearby Kolkata was what I had planned for my rather abridged stay in a place that held a different sort of promise for the Bengali food lover in me. My quest was to hopefully find that same love of all things mustard and coconut in the Dhakai cuisine that I had heard so much about. Little did I know then, what a different kind of food adventure awaited me.
I soon realised that the rather fruity and nuanced Dhakai cuisine is a genre in its own that is both comfortingly familiar, yet distinct from its West Bengal counterpart. If I were to recommend some top-notch specialties that you simply must try here, I would have to start off with the legendary kacchi mutton biryani at Sunami Restora near the Zigatola Bus Stand at Dhanmondi. This fragrant treat—that I was told was brought in to Bengal by the Nawabs of Dhaka—is served with a glass of borhani, which is the drinkable Bangladeshi version of raita.
A twist on the Indian vegetarian khichdi, the vuna khichuri of Star Kabab & Restaurant in Banani is a meat feast. Here, pieces of chicken or beef are stewed along with the rice and lentils, resulting in a delectable concoction. I’ve actually come back and tried my hand at making my version of a goat meat vuna khichuri to great success.
Not the biggest fan of the slightly muddy taste of fresh water fish, I succumbed to the “when in Rome...err, I mean Dhaka” adage and chase the khichuri with a serving of ilish macher paturi. This uncrowned national dish of Bangladesh is made with hilsa that has been marinated with ground spices before it’s wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. My favourite mustard shows up (both seeds and oil) in the spice paste coating the slice of fish, along with chilli and holud or turmeric.
Though not Dhakai, I try the Sylheti speciality of thoikor tenga at a friend’s home for lunch one day. This fish dish features prominently the thoikor, a bitter citrus fruit that grows in Bangladesh’s Sylhet region. Giving the dish a certain bitter-sour astringency that’s not in the least offensive, but one that imparts a certain je ne sais quoi to the complex dish.
To indulge my set of 32 sweet teeth, my friends Misbah and Yemen insisted I end my lunch by trying out a few typically Dhakai sweets like ros bhora (nothing like a rasgulla) made from lentil flour and sugar syrup. I chase this with the Bangladeshi version of the patisapta (a roll made with flour with a sweet filling) that you will find being sold at almost every street corner. We settle for a modest sweet shop in the upscale Gulshan neighbourhood in central Dhaka for my sweet sampling.
But for a real taste of the city, I was told to hit the streets of downtown Dhaka the next day and try out the version of Bangladeshi chaat that ranges from fuchkas and jhalmuri to mince cutlets and the piquant chotpoti. The latter being a bhel puri-like dish made from potatoes and chickpeas that are mixed with chillies, onions, tamarind sauce, salt and spices and served with grated hard-boiled eggs. Epic yum, this!
Now, while it may look and feel like something straight out of a science fiction flick, the ubiquitous Dhakai aloe vera fotafoti shorbot sold at every street corner like our shikanji, is known to take the edge of the unrelenting heat unleashed during summer which was when I had visited Bangladesh. Served up straight from a squeezed stalk of aloe vera, the sap-like juice is mixed with soaked sabja (basil seeds)—that are coolants by themselves—along with a syrup made from jaggery and stirred till the mixture starts resembling liquid egg white. But look past its slimy, gloopy countenance and you will find that this detoxifying, immunity-building drink glides down your throat and almost instantly acts like balm for your insides, leaving a delicately vegetal taste at the back of your throat.
It also kind of summed up my entire Dhaka food adventure. One that took a while to get used to, while still leaving me craving more to this very day..
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.