You want your Dhaka clean and specious; stick to the Bashundhara part. You want it rich and impersonal; go to Gulshan-Banani. You want it serene and green, Dhaka University area is your place. But if you want the part with a soul: come to old Dhaka.
Every morning this part of Dhaka sets all its dwellers on a frenzy ride with the daily festival of human existence. With all its exquisite charms and incomparable antiquities, old Dhaka carves a niche in your heart like no other part of this 400 year old city.
It retains a feast of some Mughal-era and colonial-era architecture contrasting starkly with dynamic new buildings with exteriors reflecting something which is known as ‘Dhakaia ruchi’ (Dhakaia taste). But it’s not only the charm of old buildings and alleys that attracts one most, but rather, it’s the food. Old Dhaka does its best to spoil one with its foods.
Homemade afternoon snacks
Obviously, when it comes to Old Dhaka’s food, words like biriyani, morog polau and kebabs flicker in our minds. But I personally admire its afternoon snacking culture. My admiration for old Dhaka’s snacks started with a home cooked meal that I used to have at the house of one of my old Dhakaite friends.
To give a context, let me tell you that there was this afternoon snacking culture in households in the 90’s which seems to have diminished now. It may well be that increasingly busy lifestyles and geometric multiplication of the number of restaurants across the city play their parts in making that homemade snacking culture near obsolete. But I believe it’s a fact that most kids of this era barely find their mothers cooking a nice decent afternoon snack for them.
I spent a big part of my life in one teacher’s quarter of BUET which is known as ‘lal quarter’ (because of the red brick buildings). That quarter has a wall bordering with the Lalbagh part of old Dhaka. A small gate in that wall used to open a whole new world for us – the ‘quarter kids.' I had a lot of friends in Lalbagh who used to visit our quarter to avail its lush and large green fields for playing football and cricket, while we, the ‘quarter kids’, used to visit their dens full of alleys, old buildings in Lalbagh to play hide and seek and rescue (an improvised game that we used to play).
In most cases, we ended up visiting each other’s houses after play hours and our mothers used to cook us delicious afternoon snacks.
It was during one of those afternoon snacks sessions where I had the snack of my life. I went to the house of Jitu, one of my Lalbagh friends after we finished a game of 'Rescue'. There, aunty served us bakarkhani with ‘kata moshlar mangsho’ (meat with whole spices).
Bakarkhani was nothing new to me. As I mentioned, we used to live in close proximity to Old Dhaka and it’s not possible to be staved off from one of old Dhaka’s ‘staples’ for long. But, before that particular meal, I never imagined the possibility of pairing bakarkhani with curried meat.
I can still vividly remember that taste – it was a festival in my mouth. The bakarkhani, which was flaky on the inside, with a soft crust outside, complemented perfectly the slightly sweetened qorma-like (but dry) kata moshlar mangsho. (Later I learned that kata moshlar mangsho is prepared with just chopped onions, garlics, ginger, sugar, raisins, and a mixture of hot spices like cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. No powdered or paste spices are added to it.
I immediately conveyed to aunty how I had never tasted anything better. To my surprise, she told me that this was the most common afternoon snack at their house. I thought of the one served at our house – noodles (my mother’s noodle’s was delicious, by the way) and immediately decided that Jitu’s life was better than mine. Later, I frequented his place to have that dish and aunty never disappointed me.
The treasures in alleys
Aside from the home cooked goodies of old Dhaka, the foods which were found in the alleys of this part of the capital are also like hidden treasures. My friends and I started discovering these after we reached grade seven and garnered enough courage to roam deeper instead of just neighbouring Lalbagh.
One such treasure was ‘Farukul er muri’ (Farukul's puffed rice) of Urdu Road. If you ask any resident of Urdu Road about his favourite afternoon snack, he would invariably tell you that its ‘Farukul er muri’. Farukul bhai, a man in his 50’s, is still selling this in a corner of Urdu Road. He has constructed three houses in Keraniganj by just selling his famous muri.
He mixes muri with ghugni (mashed cheakpeas), lots of spices, crushed peanuts, mustard oil, pickles and if ordered, also meat curry. The speciality of his muri is his spice mix which he has perfected over 30 years of his unique career. Even after making significant wealth just be selling muri, this unpretentious man still makes his famous muri with his own hands without ever employing any assistant. If you want to eat his muri, make sure that you visit Urdu road between 4pm-7pm, which Farukul’s business time. Within three hours, his muri is completely sold out.
Aside from ‘Farukul er muri’, one other treasure that I discovered at Posta in Lalbagh was a makeshift fuchka shop. Before my experience there, my idea of ‘fuchkar tok’ (the tart dipping liquid) was confined to ‘tetuler tok’ (tamarind sauce). But that Posta shop used to make a completely different ‘tok’ with lemon juice, yoghurt and mint. I can’t remember the name of the shop but I do remember it being an in instant hit with anyone who ate there. Later doi fuchka became popular throughout Dhaka but I can tell you that that Posta shop had started it to some extent with its ingenious ‘tok.'