Whether it is their focus on traditional and humanely sourced handicrafts or their work in bringing folk culture to the new generation through their weekend music sessions, for many of us Jatra Biroti has come to represent a different lifestyle altogether – one that is healthy, green and places great emphasis on compassionate living. Now, Jatra Biroti brings us a new café with a menu that is completely unique with its emphasis on local home-cooked, healthy meals – and completely vegetarian. This week, we sample some of the delicious items on Shadhu Bhojon's menu, and speak to Anusheh Anadil, founder and owner of Jatra, as well as Rubaiya Ahmad, founder of Bangladesh's first animal welfare foundation Obhyoranno and the brains behind the café's vegetarian menu and recipes.
“We started off with organising weekly Shadhu Shombars at Jatra Biroti. This was inspired by the Meatless Monday movement, which began at John Hopkins University in the late 80s and was taken to the UK by Sir Paul McCartney, and has been spread all over the world. At Obhyoranno, we advocate for the rights of all animals, including those which we generally consider to be food, and while we understand that it can be difficult to go fully vegan, the collective impact of hundreds of people giving up all animal products for just one day of the week can be huge,” shared Rubaiya Ahmad while discussing the inspiration behind Jatra Biroti's new café.
“Only we got greedy, and decided to make it a fully vegetarian restaurant, while the Monday menus are also fully vegan,” she added with a laugh.
In a meat-based urban culture such as ours, a vegetarian restaurant in the city's Banani area might sound like a difficult sell, but the constant coming and going of customers at Jatra Biroti, where the cafe opened only at the beginning of the month, tells a different story.
“More and more people are starting to question the cruelty of raising caged animals in prison-like conditions, only to sate our appetite for meat products, which come with negative health effects anyway,” said Rubaiya. “But what a lot of people don't know that even when we are eating animal products like eggs and milk, we are supporting a horribly cruel system as well. We often get a more sanitised image of happy animals in farms, but the reality is that they are being kept in cages, being hooked up to machines, and being exploited as products for our benefit.”
While fighting animal cruelty and beating a system that encourages confinement and factory farming is an integral part of Obhyoranno's campaign, the ladies also focused on the many other reasons for switching to a vegan diet, if only for a day. For health conscious individuals, cutting out meat and animal products can reduce heart disease, limit the risks of cancer, curb obesity and improve your overall nutritional intake. The other long-term benefits of cutting out meat include minimising water usage, reducing greenhouse gases in your environment (from livestock farming) and reducing fuel dependency.
“We aren't focusing on the terminologies or trying to introduce an idea that is foreign to our culture. We already have so many Bangladeshi recipes that are vegetarian right? We always ate pitha and shorshe begun – it's the donuts and fried chicken that are imported! In our rural areas, people still eat lots of vegetables and have very simple diets. It is only in our urban areas, with the invasion of international fast food chain outlets, that we have changed what we eat. So our focus is on healthy living, organic products sourced from local organisations like Probortona and Organic Bangla, and basically home-
cooked deshi meals that makes you feel good,” said Anusheh Anadil.
But is the food at Jatra Biroti as good as the intentions behind it?
The Spinach Pakora (Tk 150 per plate) was the star of the first course of Jatra Biroti's Shadhu Bhojon.
While it was a pleasant surprise to taste a locally made pakora that wasn't dripped in oil, it had all the satisfying crunch and flavour that one would expect from one. (5/5)
The Aloo Tiki (Tk 150 per plate) did not go beyond expectations like the pakora (maybe we should have sampled that last), it stayed true to the traditional quality of this popular appetiser, and had a melt-in-the-mouth quality that really added to its comforting flavours. (4/5)
The main course consisted of a platter (Tk 500) of five dishes, including a rice dish, customers are more than welcome to mix it up and choose their own sides in the platter.
The Shorshe Begun (Mustard Aubergine) was cooked in coconut oil and included the strong flavour of poppy seeds, and is a real treat for anyone who is particularly fond of this well-loved bastion of Bengali cuisine. Bonus points for cooking it just right, so as not to let the mustard overpower the other flavours of this begun beauty. (4/5)
However, the star of the main course was, very surprisingly, the Sweet and Sour Corolla. As someone with a very real distaste for this high-brow, highly bitter vegetable, I still cannot help but acknowledge how well the tang of tamarind, the sweetness of jaggery and the bitterness of the gourd worked together to create a world of sensations for your gastronomical palate. (5/5)
The Methi Khichuri, we were told, is a traditional Sylheti recipe that is often eaten at mealtimes during Ramadan, and contained an equal amount of rice and lentils. While this meant less lentil flavour than we normally have in khichuri, it also allowed us to taste the fragrant notes of methi and properly taste the other dishes as well. (4/5)
While the other dishes, including the sweet pumpkin bhorta (simple but satisfying) had a lighter quality in terms of taste and involved one/two main flavours to go with the main ingredient, the Mushroom Aloo Bhuna was cooked with more masala for the spice-lovers, and had a meat-like quality that would change the mind of any vegan skeptic. (5/5)
For everyone who has a sweet tooth but constantly have to battle with the guilt that comes with indulging in your favourite deshi desserts, Jatra Biroti's café is for you.
The Dudh Lau, cooked with coconut milk instead of regular milk, had all the incredible flavours of this traditional treat but just rested so well in your stomach. It was sweet but not overpoweringly so, light and dissolved on your tongue with every spoonful. (4/5)
The Carrot Halwa, another staple in our local desserts, is also for those who don't necessarily appreciate the overload of sugar and ghee in our local treats. Sweet but not rich, with a beautifully soft and airy texture – this is halwa as it should be eaten. (5/5)
While the Puli Pitha with its fried coconut and jaggery filling was delicious as well, it could benefit from a bit more stuffing inside. All of the desserts were priced at Tk 150.
Despite being a self-professed meat-lover, this journalist will continue to go back to Jatra Biroti's Shadhu Bhojon again and again. If you are a bhaat daal Bangali and can cut out the maach for a day, this restaurant will treat you with local food that isn't overloaded with spices and oil, and smothered in some sort of masala gravy that all tastes the same. If you want to ditch the junk food and clean your palate with a healthy but delicious meal, if you want to eat food that reminds you of your grandmother's cooking, and if you want food that doesn't come with the guilt of animal cruelty – Shadhu Bhojon is definitely for you.