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Food for the soul

  • Published at 12:01 am December 3rd, 2016
Food for the soul

After the humid, cloying heat of the monsoon season, the arrival of winter in Bangladesh brings a transformation to these ancient lands. It was ever the way.

Well, even in writing “ever,” the need to amplify that suggestion comes to mind.

It has taken millions of years, of course, for the snowmelt of the Himalayas, and the waters of the annual monsoon to deposit along the length of Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers, the enormous depth of rich, alluvial, and, above all, highly fertile soils that comprise the greater part of these deltaic lands.

And, even today, despite evidence of fossilised human remains in the nearby foothills of the Himalayan range dating back up to 100,000 years, we cannot be truly certain of when the lands that are those of Bangladesh came to be settled.

South of the lands, in Kerala, and in the Andaman Islands, there is substantive evidence of the “Out of Africa” migrants, presumably on their journey that is believed, via Pacific islands, to have eventuated in Australia, taking with them the indigenous Indian dog, which seems to have morphed into the dingo.

There is no real reason to suppose that some of these migrants did not pass through Bangladesh; and the evidence of crude, Palaeolithic period tools recovered, both in the eastern hills, and, indeed, as close to Dhaka as the low ridge upon which the ancient city uncovered at Wari Bateshwar, near Narshidhi, suggest they may have been, possibly, the earliest inhabitants.

The fossilised remains of humanity in Myanmar and those in the foothill nations of the nearby Himalayas, suggest that, at least, the low ridges that run, even today, through the swamp lands of Bangladesh, were certainly visited from very early times.

The incredibly fertile soils of the deltaic lands, on which, we know from archaeological evidence, domesticated rice was being grown about 12,000 years ago -- only a millennium, or so, more recently that in the Yangtze valley of China -- suggest that settlement reaches at least that far back. And the list of worldwide vegetation that may well have had origins in this fertile “Garden of Eden” is apparently endless.

“Indian” cuisine has become the favoured “go to, for eating out/take away food in the UK, and other countries around the world. It remains unfortunate that the vast majority of operators of such catering establishments around the world still lurk behind the widely understood description of “Indian” when, in fact, up to 80% of the operators originate in Bangladesh, with its own fine traditions of cuisine.

Even more unfortunate, perhaps, is that, even in Bangladesh, the historic tradition of a unique cuisine is rapidly being engulfed -- not least by what is speciously described as “fusion cuisine” -- in fact, neither one or the other.

At a presentation by one international aid agency a few years ago, the announcement of support for local businesses culminated in the announcement of “bringing pastry chefs from Singapore. To teach how to make Danish pastries!”

It would, of course, have been rude to enquire whether the expat who made the announcement had ever travelled the highways and byways of Bangladesh, and experienced that, today, almost unique experience of the roadside “tea shop,” with its rich and diverse tradition of snacks, not to mention a wonderful selection of spiced teas.

Who needs layered teas when there are so many spices with which to, in some cases quite literally, “ginger up” locally grown teas?

Not only has tea cultivation, for sure, a very ancient heritage as a “medicinal beverage,” in the foothills of the Himalayas, which, even today, reach into Bangladesh in Sylhet and Chittagong Divisions, but so, too, have that wide diversity of spicy and sweet “pastries and snack foods.”

The travellers’ experience in Bangladesh, today, seems, a little sadly, to be disappearing in the face of those who, affecting to despise Western traditions, actually seem to regard embracing them as something of a status symbol. Indeed, in Dhaka, it is not easy to find many of the often localised “treats” of snack food cuisine.

As one perches on the primitive benches of a roadside teashop, with the open oven delivering both an appetising aroma, it is not hard to imagine a similar, ancient, heritage of passing travellers and traders

There is, of course, one practical reason for that. Travellers from abroad are often cautious about the roadside tea shops; but it is the freshness of production (one can often even tell the time of day by whatever snack is fresh from the traditional, flame heated oven) and rapid sale that ensures hygiene.

Food poisoning from restaurants in cities is, sadly, far from rare. Even food from the kitchens of so called five star hotels seems not immune. But in over 15 years of roadside eating, this writer has never been laid low with after-effects.

Amongst other advantages of the onset of winter in Bangladesh is the greater ease of travel across the lands so often seasonally flooded in summer.

It was, surely, traditionally, the beginning of the trading years upon the arrival of monsoon borne ships from the West.

It is, still, the season, of course, for holidays, weddings, and the arrival in the larder of fresh vegetables; it is also the season of “winter cakes,” such treats as cakes made from amongst other ingredients, coconut and raw sugar.

Just how far back this heritage of roadside foods reaches, it is hard to be sure, but since, from at latest, the middle of the last millennium BCE, we know of traders passing through these lands, especially along those highways of the ancient world, the rivers.

It is, therefore, probably safe to assume that the tradition reaches far back into the cultural traditions of Bangladesh.

The origins of food traditions in the lands are, unquestionably, based upon vegetables and fish. We do not know when beast arrived in the lands, and was farmed, but the ancient animist, Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions were all averse to meat eating, and, if not entirely vegan in tradition, not far from it.

That was, of course, a matter of availability as much as faith, but it appears that the two co-existed well, if not originally interdependent.

It was, of course, the arrival of Islam that saw the rise in meat consumption as a staple of the diet, but heritage foods, especially the famous sweets, probably owe much to heritage agricultural crops, including rice and sugar, both of which are amongst the crops that it seems likely that the lands of the great delta, essentially the lands of today’s Bangladesh, have given to the world.

As one perches on the primitive benches of a roadside teashop, with the open oven delivering both an appetising aroma, and then the flavour of fresh-baked snacks, and the warm, social atmosphere somewhat akin to the famous, traditional country pubs of Britain, it is not hard to imagine a similar, ancient, heritage of passing travellers and traders.

Gentrification to appeal to a rising, socially insecure, and pretentious, indoctrinated contemporary traveller is rapidly destroying the British country pub, but the same influences, thus far, fortunately seem slower to wreck this great social and cultural heritage of Bangladesh.

Of course, the urbanisation that Britain experienced was then followed by a return of the more affluent to the countryside; urbanisation in Bangladesh has not yet been sufficient to destroy, altogether, traditional countryside pleasures.

From an extraordinary diversity of flavours offered by such as shingara -- almost every tea shop seems to have its own recipe -- to that ultimate “diabetic desire” of the sweet, conical kadma, there must be, perhaps, hundreds of local specialities.

It is, for this writer, an abiding part of the fond memories of Bangladesh, from Mughlai Paratha, through Samosa, Nimki, Chola, Pua, Puri, to Balushahi, Khejur, Khazi, Goja, and, of course, that other diabetic delight, the crunchy, syrupy Jilapi, and many, many others, that can conjure up the friendliness, the flavours, and the sheer relief of any resting traveller. One wonders if it can, possibly, be for ever.

Not if Danish pastries become substitutes for this incredibly rich tradition of towns, highways, and byways of Bangladesh.

Not, of course, that even Danes would relish most of what the world describes as the modern, soulless, “Danish.”

Still, the local snack foods, and traditions of Bangladeshi cuisine, remain real food, for both body, and, above all, soul. A Bangladesh to relish, with every sense.

Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.