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Dessert, anyone?

  • Published at 06:58 pm June 22nd, 2016
Dessert, anyone?

Before I get into anything else, I would like to admit that I think Nadiya Hussain is a remarkable woman.

She’s strong and talented, she’s dedicated to her work, and she’s really good at it. She has a dedicated fan-base, the media adores her, and even the queen seems to have taken a liking to her.

Which actually makes her recent Guardian interview feel a little more hurtful than it should have. The piece starts off with sentences like “There were no chairs back in Bangladesh.” It might just be bad phrasing, but nevertheless, there is the underlying suggestion of how Bangladesh is a country poor enough to not have chairs.

Yes, the effect may be unintended, and what she possibly means is that her home back in Bangladesh didn’t have chairs. But why couldn’t she just say that instead?

“Rice was our staple, with seven or eight curries at each evening meal, Bangladeshi style.” Most Bangladeshis (or those I know) don’t eat seven or eight curries at each evening meal. Maybe at dinner or lunch parties (or dawats as we call them), but not regularly.

Rice and curries are indigenous to Bangladesh, eating seven or eight of them per meal isn’t. Just to clarify, it’s not even always a cost issue (though considerable portions of the population do struggle to put food on the table) -- it’s just too much food.

“Anglicised curries”? Okay, she actually isn’t that wrong there. Curry as it is known in England is quite different from how we do it in Bangladesh. Balti Britain is really an English culture, even if it is romanticised as a foreign exclusivity. Quite like the concept of Chinese restaurants in Bangladesh.

On a side note, her parents do sound very lovely. Moving on.

“The concept of dessert doesn’t exist in Bangladeshi cuisine.” This came like a knife to the back. Especially from a woman who loves desserts as much as I do.

Now, to be honest, the Western concept of finishing the meal with a dessert item isn’t embedded in Bangladeshi culture. Some practice it, others don’t.

But when it comes to lunch and dinner parties (dawats), I can’t remember any without provisions for dessert.

Then again, I’ve only attended dawats in the cities of Dhaka and Sylhet (only one in Chittagong); it would be unfair to speak for the rest of Bangladesh. That’s the thing, there’s no monolithic image of a Bangladeshi cuisine; there never will be.

But we will always have desserts: Shemai, payesh, doi, firni, mishti (of which there are various types), bundia, faluda, fruit salad, pudding, custard (Bangladeshi versions of a Western concept), halua (of which also there are various types), and pitha (still more than one type, a lot more).

Do we necessarily eat them after a regular meal? No. More often than not, we eat them as nasta items, in-between meals.

The list of desserts I have given here is a small one. The 64 districts of Bangladesh may all have their own variety of dessert items. Can I really know them all? No. It just vexes me how Nadiya can speak for the totality of the Bangladeshi cuisine, when she has lived only a small part of it.

And we do know that cakes exist. Or at least Bangladeshis I have seen or known do. We buy them at bakeries (by “we,” I mean the segments of Bangladeshi population who can afford to buy things from bakery stores), generally for occasions such as a birthday party or a wedding.

There are surely Bangladeshis out there who make them at home; I just haven’t met any of them yet.

“I also have a senseless love affair with cheese. My mother never bought any because there was none in Bangladeshi cuisine.” Cheese plays a small role in Bangladeshi cuisine; it is not an ingredient in any regular meal, rather its use is limited to a few rare nasta items.

However, saying it doesn’t exist in Bangladeshi cuisine is inaccurate. Nadiya clearly hasn’t seen street vendors at New Market (a place in Dhaka) selling cheese (or poneer as we call it) to customers who are well adept at haggling.

I like how Nadiya explores her personal and family life. I love how she acknowledges her anxiety issues -- there’s a lot of honesty in it.

Her identity is that of Britain. Her fan-base, admirers, clients, and audience -- it’s all rooted in Britain. Why Nadiya doesn’t insist on being a role model for the English remains a mystery to me. And why doesn’t Britain see her as one?

Those parts seem very relatable. But her experiences shouldn’t be generalised as that of an average British-Bangladeshi Muslim woman’s life, much less that of a Bangladeshi and/or Muslim woman’s life, because there’s clearly more to it than meets the eye.

Otherwise, we just end up with another stereotype. And nobody wants that.

I feel let down as Nadiya talks about becoming a role model “for Bangladeshis, bakers, Muslims, women and all.” The thing is, Nadiya’s success story is a British tale. The origins may be Bangladeshi, but the rest of it is distinctively English, and rightfully so, because she is in fact an English woman.

“British-Bangladeshi” is the politically correct term, and Nadiya definitely carries a bit of Bangladesh in her. But her identity is that of Britain. Her fan-base, admirers, clients, and audience -- it’s all rooted in Britain. Why Nadiya doesn’t insist on being a role model for the English remains a mystery to me. And why doesn’t Britain see her as one?

This reminds of the column Zia Haider Rahman recently wrote in the New York Times. He spoke about being identified as “born in rural Bangladesh” and “a Bangladeshi banker turned novelist.”

Zia Haider was rather surprised at such identification. He goes on to describe how he doesn’t have a Bangladeshi passport, but a British one (actually two), and has never spoken Bengali. It’s apparently only across the Atlantic in America that people ask him if he’s British.

So, when Nadiya Hussain speaks about being a role model to Bangladeshis, I remember Zia Haider’s words: “It does not come easily for white Britons to speak, face to face, of a non-white Briton’s nationality.”

Britain isn’t willing to let Nadiya become a role model, but she wants Nadiya to generalise her “otherness,” to make a stereotype out of her “Bangladeshiness” and/or “Muslimness.”

But what this great country is forgetting is that people like Zia Haider and Nadiya Hussain are a part of its own heritage, and not that of Bangladesh. Their origins may be non-white and non-European, but their stories are distinctively English.