Diving into Noakhali Cuisine
Inspired by my friend Deepika’s interest in regional Bengali foods my quest for local cuisines continued even when I had moved out of Dhaka on government assignments to other places. Two such places where I had the privilege to work and taste local foods first hand were Noakhali and Chittagong—both coastal districts. I had heard about the distinct cuisines of our coastal areas that featured a variety of marine fish, concoctions of Shutki (dry fish) dishes of Chittagong, the game birds of Noakhali chars (islands), and of the legendary Mezbaan food of Chittagong. I must confess that I would not have had these experiences by eating the miserable food prepared at the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow by callow cooks. To taste the authentic local food I had to travel to the villages of both Noakhali and Chittagong as a guest in some of the houses celebrated for their recipes handed down from generations.
The Noakhali food experience happened at the invitation of Kalam Sahib of Haitya, an off-shore island of the district. Kalam Sahib belonged to the land-owning gentry of the island, a former member of the Parliament, and a local leader known for his dedication to development of the island. Hatiya in those days (in mid-seventies) was accessible by motor launch that plied between Chittagong and Barisal coasts. From Noakhali coast, however, one reached Hatiya by ferry boat which operated only in fair weather. Most other times people depended on large country boats that plied between Hatiya and the mainland defying the choppy waters of a roughly twelve-mile-wide the sea channel, which separated the island from Noakhali coast.
My first visit to Hatiya was in the ferry boat in the company of Kalam Sahib. This was a brief visit, and I had little time to know or indulge in any local culinary delights. But during the visit I did notice a substantial variety of freshly caught marine fish in the fishing boats off the island as well as very well-fed water buffalos that roamed the marshy parts of the island. The place also reeked of a strong fishy smell, which I was told came from Nona Ilish, salted Hilsa fish, a specialty of the island and much of coastal Bangladesh. Kalam Sahib had invited me to stay the night to taste his island food, but I declined as I had to leave that day. But I told him that I would be delighted to eat some local food in my next visit.
My next visit to Hatiya was not until three months later, in winter, when the channel waters are relatively calm, and the weather is cool and dry in Hatiya. The occasion was an agricultural fair that Kalam Sahib had sponsored with government support. I stayed there for two days to acquaint myself better with the island and its problems as well as to give myself an opportunity to eat local food. The last part was really the courtesy of Kalam sahib who insisted that I eat at his house while staying at the District Council rest house. I agreed.
I arrived at Kalam Sahib’s ancestral home at noon the first day for lunch. The home must have occupied over two acres of land fringed by coconut and beetle nut trees. It had two houses built with brick walls and tin roof, separated by a court yard where chicken and ducks roamed freely. I was taken to the outer house meant for guests.
I was told by Kalam Sahib earlier that for lunch he would arrange different types of local fish and fish products, and meat for dinner. What I did not expect, however, the varieties of fish that I would have at lunch, and the different ways that fish could be cooked. Also, the unique manner the food would be presented.
When I sat at the lunch table I was struck by the appearance of only plates and glasses, some green chili with nary any food in sight. After we sat down at the table a servant appeared with a washing bowl, water in a pitcher, and a towel. This was the local custom of washing your hands at the table since there was no sink in the room, and the toilet was far away at the end of the house. After ablutions another servant appeared with glasses of fresh coconut milk, which we drank.
As we finished the cooling drinks and put down the glasses another two servers appeared, one with a dish that displayed a whole Koral Fish (a Bhetki type of sea fish), and another with steaming brown rice. As they dutifully put down the dishes, Kalam Sahib got up and cut up the fish and placed a slice on my plate. I helped myself to several spoonful of rice and got down to business. The fish was delicious. It was fried, and then smeared with a sauce of onion, red chili pastes, turmeric, and coriander. I went for a second slice of the fish. When I was about to reach for the third slice thinking that this was the whole menu, Kalam Sahib politely said that there was more to come.
(To be continued)