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Memories of Sylhet - I

  • Published at 07:32 pm February 24th, 2019
Sylhet

A culinary adventure in the north

 My love for food was generated early in my childhood by the delectable cooking of my grandmother in Sylhet.  This was further whipped up by the variety of dishes produced by her that represented originality and locality, typical to Sylhet.  My taste buds were also nurtured and developed by equally delicious food, although of a different cooking style, prepared in my father’s ancestral home. Luckily for me, my mother combined in her the cooking styles of both houses, and her cooking was delicious. But lacking the local products, ingredients, and the environment that added flavour to my grandmother’s cooking, my mother often lamented that the food prepared by her in Dhaka did not quite match the cooking in Sylhet. Although we, her children, would vehemently disagree, we would secretly wish that we could travel down to our parental villages where the tradition of scrumptious local cooking continued in the hands of skilled artists such as our aunts and other relatives.  

With our grandmother’s demise and the migration of our uncles to cities, our visits to the Sylhet villages dwindled over time; but our love for Sylheti delicacies never ceased. The opportunity to visit Sylhet again in quest of food arose again when I visited Sylhet after a hiatus of several years since my last visit in 1970 along with a friend. 

The year was 1974 and travelling to Sylhet by road at that time was not easy.  It took nearly a day to negotiate three ferries, badly paved roads and hazardous traffic. I planned our trip a month ahead.  For the road trip, I secured a sturdy Land Rover, and for the night accommodation, I got the Sylhet circuit house (using my government position).  For the main event, eating Sylheti dishes, I sent appeals to my loving uncle in Sylhet that these be arranged for us in our ancestral village.  I left the menu to his choice but emphasized that all meals should have local flavour.

We arrived in Sylhet town quite late in the evening, and although it was late February, we were quite sweaty from travel and exhaustion. Unfortunately, I was not in charge of the dinner menu in the Circuit House, and therefore, we had to accept whatever was offered to us by the cook cum chowkidar. Hungry, all three of us wolfed down a Bangladeshi version of a chicken roast generously spiced with garam masalaaloo bhajidaal and rice.  When my travel companion looked at me askance, I assured her that this was not the Sylhet food I had promised her. That would await us in my ancestral village, and she said she was looking forward to it. That night I prayed that my uncle had better not fail me.

The next morning, we headed out after having our bed tea in the Circuit House for the day’s trip to my ancestral village. As we approached our village home, I showed my guests the green belt of mango trees, betel nut trees, palm trees, and other fruit bearing trees that surrounded our house.  Right in front was a large pond also fringed by trees that had several flights of stoned steps leading to the water. The pond also carried a large variety of fish farmed for eating.  

We alighted from the Land Rover to the greetings of my uncle who had arrived two days earlier from Sylhet to prepare the epicurean reception of my guests and me. A crowd of other visitors had also gathered to receive us.  

We were taken inside the house, more precisely the baithak khana (which literally means the sitting room), that is somewhat akin to the modern drawing room in an urban setting.  My uncle asked us if we needed to wash before breakfast, which was ready.  We replied that we had already done washing and were hungry for the breakfast.  We were led to an adjacent room, where the delectable dishes were laid out on a table. These were already a feast to the eyes.

There were at least ten varieties of marvelous edibles on display.  There were several different pithas (dumplings, patties, pan cakes), and a variety of mithais, or sweet preparations.  The first pitha, called choi pitha, was a steamed rice dumpling sliced and fried, was to be eaten with minced and fried fish (with options of eating with scrambled egg and local cheese).  The second pitha - absurdly called handesh (Sylheti pronunciation of Bengali sandesh, which is actually a sweet confection of milk), was a fried patty made of rice flour filled with fried fish, or minced meat (chicken, goat or beef) cooked with spices.  

The third variety, called dhupi pitha, was a preparation of ground rice shaped into circles, and then steamed with spiced, minced fish (either dry fish or regular fish) as a filling. A fourth kind was chitoi pitha, which is actually a pan cake made of a batter of ground rice and eaten with thickened milk. There were three kinds of mithais; two kinds of barfis - rectangular concoctions of either coconut and milk or eggs and milk; and doughs in different designs, fried in oil and then dipped in sugar syrup.  I described each dish to Deepika who diligently took notes while savouring it.  In between the dishes we gulped famous Sylhet tea, fresh from the gardens nearby.  We could hardly lift ourselves from our chairs after this heavy but extremely satisfying breakfast.  

After breakfast, my uncle asked us if we would like to take some rest in the guest rooms that were made ready for us in the inner sanctum of the house.  We declined as my friends expressed a greater desire to explore the lovely gardens outside.

We sauntered out with my uncle as the guide. He explained to us the different types of mango trees and other fruit bearing trees that were planted over three generations.  Among the fruit trees that we were attracted to were those that bore kamrangabelboroi, and ada lebu. Kamranga (known in the US as carambola or star fruit) is a long, golden- yellow star shaped fruit. The fruits are crunchy, and have a slightly tart, acidic, sweet taste, reminiscent of pears, apples, and sometimes grapes. The fruit is eaten straight like an apple, or as a savoury salad mixed with other fruits and spices.  The bel fruit has grey or yellow rind and a sweet, thick, orange coloured sweet pulp.  The pulp is taken out and eaten as a drink mixed with either water or milk.  The unripe fruit is traditionally used a remedy for dysentery.  The boroi (also known as ber or jujube in some parts of India) is a soft, sweet and juicy fruit the size of a large cherry.  The ada lebu (called lembu in Sylheti) is actually a lemon with a strong scent of ginger (hence the name), which is used as a flavouring agent in cooking, particularly fish.  

As lunch hour was drawing near, my uncle reminded us to get back home. But we were still full from the morning’s breakfast.  We asked uncle if we could eat fruits for lunch. My uncle agreed rather reluctantly as preparations for lunch were already made.  We told him that we would make amends at dinner.

The fruit lunch that we had was also worth remembering. The first item was sliced kamranga mixed with ground coriander, ground cumin, and tamarind water.  The second was boroi slightly smashed and mixed with chopped green chilies and fresh coriander.  There were also whole kamranga and boroi in platters.  For drink we had bel sherbet, which was the pulp of the fruit mixed with milk.  

Before dusk, we went to the back yard where my uncle had a small poultry and animal farm of sorts populated by ducks, roosters and chicken, a few goats, and of course, three cows. It was a wonderful sight for us city dwellers and the hired farm hands there took great delight in showing us the amply grown poultry and other animals.  That night when we were having our dinner, we knew where some of the meat came from.

This is a two-part article. The second half will be published in the next week’s Saturday paper.