Diving into Noakhali Cuisine
The second act began with the arrival of Bata fish (a kind of large sardine), fried in turmeric and garnished with green chili, and fresh coriander. This mouthwatering fish, exclusive to the coastal waters, is very oily but extremely soft. One could eat several of them in one go, which I did. When I was thinking if I should have two more of Bata, the server reappeared with another local fish variety—fried Chiring fish. The small, almost translucent fish crawls to the shore during ebb tide and is local to the Noakhali coast. I had seen the fish live, and I never thought I would like to eat it. But when I tried the dish, it tasted rather delicious.
When I thought that the lunch items were over, my host announced that Nona Ilish—the local delicacy was next. The server again appeared with a large dish containing a curry made of Nona Ilish. I had so long only heard of Nona Ilish, but had never seen it, not to speak of tasting it. As he was ladling out a piece of Nona Ilish on to my plate, Kalam Sahib explained the process for making the dishes.
The Ilish is cut into small pieces without washing. Then the pieces are put in a clay pot in thick layers of salt and covered with a piece of cloth. The fish pieces are allowed to remain in the pot for several months, even a year, before they are taken out for cooking. Before cooking the pieces are washed with a lot of water since they retain a lot of salt. The Nona Ilish can be cooked as a curry or fried.
As I tried the preparation, I was overwhelmed by both its smell, and extremely salty taste. I ate only one piece with some difficulty, and in deference to my host’s sensibility. Kalam Sahib realized that and said that one had to acquire a taste for Nona Ilish, and I readily agreed. I was now looking for the washing bowl to appear, but instead the server appeared again with a new dish—the famous Black Tiger Prawns cooked in a red-hot chili sauce and coconut milk. I grabbed the dish to wash away the taste of Nona Ilish.
With the relatively milder Prawn dish washed down with a glass of coconut juice I was ready to throw in the towel. Kalam Sahib winked and said it was the last but not the least. I half expected a whole roasted goat to appear but was relieved to see the server appearing with the famous Char Doi (island yoghurt) in clay pots.
This yogurt is unique to the chars of Bangladesh, which is made with unpasteurized buffalo milk, without any additives or sweet. The yoghurt is very creamy due to high fat content and has a sour taste. But after a meal laden with red chili, the yoghurt can be very soothing to the palate and the stomach. I helped myself to one small clay pot. Finally, to my delight the server appeared with the hand washing bowl. I got up with difficulty and headed out to the District Council bungalow.
After this elaborate lunch I was not sure I would have any desire for food that night. But I was fortunate that I had a schedule later that afternoon that required visits to the fair, and several other places in the island of Hatiya such as schools, and cyclone shelters, all on foot. Thus, after four hours, and five or six miles of walking I was ready for the dinner that awaited me late in the evening.
Kalam Sahib had organized the dinner at the District Council bungalow since he had asked several other local officials and elites to the dinner. This time, he did not follow the island tradition of sequencing the arrival of the dishes. Instead, the dinner was arranged buffet style, with all the fares laid out on the table.
For dinner, Kalam Sahib had only meat items in the menu, and the meat came from all known sources in the island. For starters, we had Kadakhucha (Snipes), which were previously marinated in ginger and chili paste, and then fried whole. These were very crunchy to taste.
Alongside were the famous Haryals (green pigeons), cut into halves. These small birds resembling ordinary pigeons, but somewhat greenish in color, are local to the area. The birds were roasted in a light spice and garnished with sliced onions.
Next item we ate was also a game bird, Lenja or Pintail Ducks, which are available aplenty in the char areas in winter. The ducks were cooked in light gravy of onion, ginger, garlic, and garam masala.
Kalam Sahib then directed us to what he called the main entrée of the evening—a roasted island Duck –called Khashi Hash (neutered male duck). This is a large duck, about twice the size of a normal duck, which is fattened on plenty of grains. This island specialty is normally offered to visiting guests only and is not commercially available. The duck, which requires about two days of preparation, was exquisite in taste. The meat almost fell off of the bone.
I wanted to declare myself done with the three dishes, but more remained on the table, and I could not say no. I will describe only the two other dishes that I tried. One was sheep head masala, whole head of a sheep broken in pieces (thankfully without the eyes, but with brain), and cooked with chili and other spices. Addition of brains to the sauce gave a good flavour to the dish.
The other item was buffalo meat stew, made predominantly with the famous red chili of the island. The meat was fibrous, but it had softened quite a bit because of slow cooking for several hours. The gravy was so hot that at the end of the meal I was totally soaked in the head from perspiration. The dinner ended with binni bhat, a sweet preparation of special rice, milk, coconut, and local jaggery; and island yoghurt.
I could not leave Hatiya before having one more taste of local food. It was breakfast at Kalam Sahib’s house. I had asked, in fact begged him not to spread out another large fare, and he had agreed. Even then I was confronted with at least five to six food items that he had assembled that morning.
We began with bread made of rice flour and jhuri ghosht (shredded beef that have been stewed several days, then fried with onion and other spices), and followed it with three types of sweet pithas. Among the pithas that I remember were Pakwan Pitha, and Bibikhana Pitha. Both are made with rice flour, but Pakwan Pitha is mixed with moong dal, shaped into intricate designs, fried and then dipped in syrup. Bibikhana pitha is more like a large cake that is cut into pieces before serving.
I could leave Kalam Sahib’s house that morning only after promising that I would return another time to taste of the food that were still untouched. I did come back to Hatiya several times later and ate in different places, but the first taste of local food would always remain with me forever.