Bangladeshi cuisine is vast and varied, influenced by Persian, Moghul and Southeast Asian flavours. Core ingredients include mustard oil, panch phoron (Bengali five spice), date molasses, coconut and dried and fermented fish. There is a focus on locally grown and seasonal produce, which makes Bangladeshi cuisine rich in vegetarian and vegan dishes. While rice is a staple in everyday meals, often featuring in every meal, fish comes a close second. Fish is fried, steamed in banana leaf and cooked into light stews and rich curries.
Bhorta, a mash made of mainly vegetables and also fish and meat, is integral to everyday eating, mixed and eaten with plain rice. These make for a simple lunch or first course to a multi-course meal. Bangladeshi food is traditionally eaten in courses, unlike other countries in the subcontinent, starting with vegetarian dishes, then fish, meat and ending with something sweet. Bangladeshis have an affinity with sweets, and no get-together or celebration is complete without an assortment.
The flora and fauna of the country manifests itself in the many festivals that take place, and can be seen in the artistic motifs of pastries: fish-shaped shondesh (milky sweetmeats) and birds cut into rice dough to make nokshi pitha – intricately decorated pastries. Pitha are rice-based sweets and savouries, which includes crêpes, steamed dumplings, fried pastries and puddings, made with new rice and served during special occasions such as Eid, Pujo or weddings.
Dining out in Bangladesh – especially in the cities such as Dhaka and Sylhet – food options are many, from classic, traditional fare to modern and fusion cuisines. Popular street food offerings include chotpoti (spicy chickpeas and potatoes topped with cucumber, tomatoes, egg and pastry) and puchka, pastry shells stuffed with potatoes and chickpeas in tamarind sauce.
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Whole braised chicken in a rich gravy (duruj kura)
This showstopper of a dish originates from the Chittagong district, and is traditionally served to welcome a new groom into the bride’s family. Mellow, lightly spiced and creamy, the skinless chicken is melt-in-your-mouth and flavoursome throughout, thanks to slow-cooking and bhagar, or tempering of golden fried onions. Serve it with shada pulao for the ultimate meal.
Fragrant rice with ghee and whole spices (shada pulao)
The scent of onions caramelising in fat is universally regarded as wonderful – and, in this case, it’s made even more so with a generous amount of ghee coating each grain of rice with its nutty aroma. When I was growing up, pulao meant one thing: dawats, or feasts, with aunties and cousins dressed in their finery. Cooked using the absorption method of one part rice to two parts water, this recipe can be quickly rustled up when you’re entertaining, or feel like treating yourself to something to accompany a curry or stew. Any leftovers make a great brunch dish with a fried egg on top.
Ground rice pudding with cardamom (firni)
If you haven’t tasted firni, you are in for a treat. This refined cousin of rice pudding makes appearances at weddings, Eids and other special celebrations. Scented with cardamom and pandan extract, firni is served chilled, scattered with rose petals and pistachios, either in individual portions or in a large sharing dish. I make various versions of this pudding, but this is my favourite when entertaining, as it can be prepared ahead of time and needs to be chilled overnight. The perfume of pandan is matched with the citrussy floral notes of cardamom, and both are delicious with the milk and rice.
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