The edible highlight of my time in Bangladesh was a Bengali New Year’s Day lunch with new friends. The lowlight; munching on an egg roll to discover that the tough bit I was trying to chew through was a cigarette butt. I haven’t touched an egg roll since.
Other than that vomit-worthy low point, everything else I ate in Bangladesh was pretty damn great.
New Year’s Day Lunch
Bengali New Year falls on 14 April and in Bangladesh locals take to the streets in festive red and white to celebrate (and eat).
Our New Year’s Day feast included Hilsa, Bangladesh’s national fish. So beloved is this freshwater fish that it is in danger from overfishing. For two months of every year the government bans Hilsa fishing to allow stocks to increase. This causes issues for local fisher people who rely on the fish for their income.
The lunch also included a spicy fish bhuna and bhorta/vorta – steamed and mashed foods – another cornerstone of Bangladeshi cuisine. Pretty much everywhere we went in the country bhorta made an appearance on the dining table. There are endless variations of this Bangladeshi comfort food of vegetables and fresh or dried fish mashed and spiked with mustard oil, onions, garlic and red chilies. The result is a veritable favour bomb.
The version made with shukti (dried fish) is particularly pungent and spicy.
At the centre of the other dishes was a mound of khichri, a simple staple of spiced rice and lentils, mixed through with fresh vegetables. Khichri is another dish with many incarnations.
For desert we had paish, a rice pudding mingled with sultanas, nuts and spices. As soothing and creamy as it sounds and yes, I ate two bowls.
Bangladesh is home to a citrus fruit called shatkora, it looks a bit like an elongated lime. The baskets of oblong-shaped limes I saw in the markets fascinated me and I was happy to find out that in Sylhet they make a curry with the lime-alike. As my love for lime and chilli knows no bounds this was the dish for me.
It’s made with either beef or mutton but the citrus helps makes this rich meal less cloying and more zesty. It’s also pretty spicy.
“Our version is much better than the Indian version!” was the response I got when I mentioned I wasn’t a massive fan of India’s beloved pani puri. Feeling dubious, because everyone says their version is best, I gave it a go. And you know what? She was right, I do like fuchka better than pani puri.
Fuchka are small fried shells stuffed with mashed lentils, onions, chilli and topped with grated hard boiled eggs. Tamarind and chilli waters (like the ones found with pani puri) get poured on top. For me, the Bangladeshi version is a more delicious and satisfying bite.
I have no idea of the name of these, nor do I know if they are a dish native to Bangladesh. But it doesn’t matter, because they taste great. Pancake batter goes into oval shaped grill pan molds and then one side has an egg added. When the batter has cooked the molds get sandwiched together to form little egg buns. The dough is fluffy and sweet and the whole effect is very good. I managed to find these stalls a couple of times on the streets of Dhaka, a very happy occurrence.
The wedding banquet
In Khulna a local family hosted us via Couchsurfing and once again their hospitality and generosity surprised us. No sooner had we arrived than they were inviting us to a wedding feast. A wedding for a couple we’d never met before.
Wedding feasts here usually consist of Kachchi Biryani – meat, rice and potatoes cooked together. Made with the good rice aka white basmati, for special occasions only. Desert was a smoked curd, which is very intense in flavour, and to be honest, I was not a fan.
Breakfast in Bangladesh is usually parotta and dal on repeat, which I talked about in my breakfast post. Parottas are hard to miss if you visit Bangladesh. But that’s no bad thing, they’re often delicious.
There are no shortage of fried snack stalls adorning the streets of Bangladesh. I’ve already mentioned my unfortunate encounter with an egg roll, but don’t let that put you off. Samosas and singaras (a flaky, balled shaped samosa) stuffed with potatoes and other vegetables are easy to find and make a filling and cheap breakfast. They’re especially good when you eat them alongside some chana chaat – spiced chickpea mix.
Deep fried roti stuffed with eggs and onions are also worth seeking out. The roti gets folded around the stuffing, deep-fried, drained and then snipped up into bite-sized squares. I’d suggest you ignore the amount of oil used to cook it in.
This is a bit of a strange one, and I only came across it once on my trip. In Chittagong I spotted people face down in bowls of this mystery dish. Curiosity pulled me into one of the stalls to try it too. The boy serving me took soaked flat rice and topped it with sliced bananas, fresh coconut shavings and a sprinkling of sugar. The whole lot was then doused in cold milk. It’s like a bowl of cereal, but better. Sweet, soft and milky. Thinking about it now makes me regret having only eaten it once.
Lunch at the beach with new friends
On our way back from an island near Cox’s Bazar we met a young couple on their honeymoon and after a few minutes of chatting they invited us to lunch with them.
As you’d expect from a country woven through with so many rivers, the meal involved lots of fish-based dishes. The shops and bazars in this part of the country are crammed full of all sorts of different dried fish.
One revelation for me was a dish called kolar mocha, made from fried banana flowers. I’d never tried banana flowers before and I am still wondering why on earth not. They’re quite meaty and their texture is like a cross between mushroom and artichoke hearts.
This probably isn’t something you would associate with Bangladesh, but we couldn’t move for grilled chicken restaurants where we stayed in Chittagong. And it’s good grilled chicken; glossy with a spicy coating and accompanied by a refreshing side of salad (that’s Bangladeshi style salad aka some carrots, cucumber, onion and coriander) and piping hot naan bread. Simple yet very effective.
The sweet stuff
Bangladeshis have quite the sweet tooth and so across the country we had no trouble in finding stalls like these, stacked to the brim with sweet pastries. Treats like pithas, small deep fried pancakes doused in jaggery syrup.
Cha (tea). Always. Forever. Tea stalls abound on every street across the country and it comes super sweet.
Seven layer tea is a specialty of a particular tea shop in the tea growing region of Srimangal. It’s more of a gimmick than anything else, let’s just say it looks better than it actually tastes.
Fresh coconuts are everywhere, and Bangladesh is home to the biggest coconut I have ever consumed. It was about twice the size of my head and I struggled to finish drinking the contents.
These are some of the culinary highlights from my trip around Bangladesh. There are, I’m sure, still a bunch of dishes I missed out on this time round.