A tribute to northern region of Bangladesh
The trilogy of my food travelogues (Sylhet, Noakhali, and Chittagong) kindled an interest among some of my friends to know if my repertoire contains any knowledge of foods from other regions of Bangladesh. My response is, yes it does. I have many fond and mouth-watering memories of food from our northern regions, and of course, of Dhaka, where I grew up. I will narrate my food experience of these two areas, but separately, since it will be unfair to lump the different foods in one article. This article is, therefore, a tribute to our northern region, primarily Pabna, Rajshahi, Bogra, and Dinajpur (the undivided districts of that time).
My introduction to northern food came mainly from my many visits in the early seventies to these districts, trailing behind my boss, Minister Kamaruzzaman - a formidable road traveller, and a food connoisseur. Kamaruzzaman hailed from Rajshahi and was the northern region’s most popular political leader of the time. He combined a passion for politics at the grassroots with a love for everything local, most importantly its food. He avoided air travel like the plague; his preferred mode being road. He never minded the long and arduous trips in jeeps and cars in hot summers, driving through dusty roads. A man trained in politics, he reveled in road side meetings, and was used to lodgings in decrepit rest houses on the wayside. But the rewards of trailing him in these torturous trips in rickety old jeeps were local meals that would be specially prepared for him and his team. Through those trips, I came to know about and love some of the most wonderful preparations of the north offered by cooks in rest houses, and people’s homes. The preparations ranged from mundane to sublime, from fish to meat, from vegetables to lentils, from sour to sweet. I am relating my culinary experience in our northern districts in the narrative below in one stretch, however, as it occurred in one memorable trip.
Immediately after I joined his staff, my boss arranged a road trip in a very dry and hot month of May in 1972. That trip, which lasted over two weeks, took me to five districts in the North, struggling through dusty roads often paved by pebbles and stones, and marked by potholes the size of small ponds. The only delight of those back breaking journeys was the food that we would get in every meal, which was distinct in quality and taste. It was possible for me to know and eat such a variety of cuisine, because my boss possessed a unique liking for gourmet food, along with other stellar qualities, and people who entertained him were aware of his likings.
Travels to the north in the early seventies required several ferry crossings, the most important of which was Aricha Ferry Ghat. It was a nightmarish experience to cross Aricha Ghat where queues of trucks, buses, and cars would be miles long since there were only a handful of ferry boats available. As we approached the infamous Ferry Ghat in Aricha at noon, we invariably found ourselves in a serpentine queue. Even with ministerial privilege of priority, we were informed by the ferry authorities that we would have to wait at least two hours for the next ferry.
The minister was undaunted by this information; he simply opened his famous pan bata, took out a khili, and started calmly chewing his favourite herbal palliative while reclining in the back of his car. I could not, however, stay inside my jeep in the hot sun, and came out in search of a cooler resting place. Aricha Ghat, at the time, had a two storied building that housed the office of the local superintendent of Inland Water Transport Authority, and a small lounge for visiting officials. The superintendent offered the resting place to the minister and his entourage, where in a short while we assembled.
While walking to the IWTA building, we passed by a number of eating places with signboards proclaiming them as “hotels”, patronized by clients of all descriptions. The whole place was giving off an aroma of fried fish, curry and spices. The Minister pointed out a rather large establishment near the IWTA building and remarked that that was one “hotel” that served the best fish and chicken curry of this side of the country. Having said that, he turned toward his personal assistant and asked that we all have our lunch at the “hotel”.
I had one look at the “hotel” which looked like anything but one (for some curious reason, restaurants in Bangladeshi small towns that serve full meals are called hotels). The premises were partly on the road, and partly on the river bank sitting on bamboo stilts. An enormous crowd was eating inside on enamel plates from tables that seemed never to have been cleaned. The kitchen was on the platform over the river bank, where an army of cooks and mashalchis (assistants) were stirring up the dishes in huge pots and pans. As I was wondering if we were to go inside the “hotel” and eat in that boiler room, the Minister relieved my worries by saying that the food was to be ordered for delivery in the IWTA building.
The food that I ate that day brought in from the non-descript Aricha restaurant defies every description of taste, freshness, and quality. There were only three dishes - a potato-brinjal bhaji, fried hilsa, and a chicken curry, which I was told was known as the famous Goalondo Chicken. The vegetable was good, but the fried hilsa was out of the world. It was freshly caught right from Padma river, and each piece was thick, juicy, and fried just right so that the fish retained its freshness. The Goalondo Chicken looked frighteningly red and was equally fiery in taste. The curry was cooked with mature hen meat, with boiled eggs that were, then, fried. The memory of that lunch that hot afternoon while waiting for the ferry was one that would stay with me for a long time.
My first official North Bengal dinner, however, would be in Pabna, where we arrived later that evening. The heat and severity of the long road trip from Aricha to Pabna helped me digest the hearty lunch that I had had earlier, and prepare me for the gastronomic delights later that evening.
The cook in the Circuit House was obviously very familiar with the minister’s favorite foods, and he had prepared these very diligently. He cooked a rather elaborate meal for which we had to wait till late night, as the minister had throngs of visitors. I still cannot recall the number of dishes that the Pabna cook had served that night, all of which were fish or vegetable based. The cook prepared the fish dishes any which way fish can be cooked - frying, steaming, sautéing, stewing, mashing, and even grilling. The variety of fish that we ate that night also ranged from very small (such as taki and koi), to medium (such as hilsa and pangash), to very large (such as rui and chitol).
The evening meal began with a variety of bhartas and bhajis. First, there was the ubiquitous begun bharta - brinjals roasted and mashed with green chili, red chili, coriander and mustard oil - followed by mashed taki fish bharta - minced fish mingled with onions, red chili, coriander and mustard oil. The bhajis consisted of a blend of korola and potato, a chechki of kumro (red pumpkin and potato), and pui shak charchari.
As the evening progressed, the master chef rolled out his more elegant dishes, beginning with koi maach paturi (whole koi fish steamed in banana leaf), and large slices of hilsa fried in onions and green chilies. This he followed with a curry made of chitol fish balls, and a red-hot curry of pangash that brought water both to the mouth and eyes. The rui dish soon followed; the fish was first fried, and then cooked in a base of tomato and coriander accompanied by potatoes cut in quarters. The last was a curry made with large slices of chitol belly (called petti) in a thick sauce. I thought I was living in fish paradise. The meal ended with a thick kheer made from local cow milk. It required an hour-long walk for me in the circuit house compound later that night to digest all that food. However, I would have to wake up early the next morning to resume our trip.