BANGLADESH: Green mango bhorta and naga pickle

I’m trying another frozen bhorta, this one made with sour green mango. Bhortas (sauteed spiced veggies) are usually a simple comfort food served with rice. The green mango is wonderfully tart and just slightly spicy. It’s good warm but this would make a really nice savoury summer treat served semi-frozen.

I had with it with the hottest damn hot sauce I’ve had in a long time. Bangladeshi cuisine doesn’t go light on the heat to begin with, but these pickled chillies are hot even by Bengali standards. The first ingredient is naga peppers – likely the Naga Morich, which grows in northern Bangladesh. It’s the hottest naturally-growing chili pepper, at over 1 million Scoville units. As a comparison, jalapeno peppers are about 5000 Scoville. To get hotter than the Naga Morich, you need to start specially breeding the peppers or just using capsaicin extract.

Just a little bit on the plate and this is HOT – full face of fire, sweating, feel where it is in your digestive system hot. It’s also a bit smokey and citrusy (so it goes great with the bhorta) but also holy shit this is hot. Absolutely fantastic. I am in love.

BANGLADESH: More snacks

Another haul of Bangladeshi snacks – this time from the little grocery stores along Danforth in Toronto’s Bangladeshi neighbourhood.

Well Food Ovaltine cookies – Extremely crumbly little cookies made with Ovaltine. Ovaltine is a chocolate malt drink mix that’s really popular worldwide – except in North America, where it’s almost unknown. (Malt drinks are also really rare here.) Apart from leaving crumbs all over my desk, these are not too sweet, with a bit of malty bitterness in the aftertaste.

Frutika – Another thick mango nectar drink, like the Frutta one I tried earlier. Not too sweet, and I think this is from a bigger company, because they have a lot of ads, including this absolutely emotionally devastating one (with subtitles). Remember, this is for a tasty little bottle of mango juice:

Banoful Energy Biscuits – These cookies are advertised as giving you energy, but from the ingredients, I think that’s just because of the sugar. Very soft melt in your mouth butter cookies, quite tasty. I really like the texture of these Banoful cookies – the orange ones were my favourite.

Haque Mr. Cookie Butter Coconut – Really airy and flaky cookies, almost like a rice cookies meets a butter cookie. The coconut flavour is really mild, tastes more like vanilla. But a really lovely texture, even if it makes a lot of crumbs!

Pran Jhal MuriJhal muri is a Bengali street food of puffed rice, mixed with chanachur, nuts, and other little treats. This one has peanuts and fried noodles. They’re wasabi flavoured, kind of like wasabi peas, on top of the more classic Bengal spice mix of cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, chillies and mustard oil. Not the flavour combo I was expecting but pretty good, it’s really satisfying to eat by the handful.

BANGLADESH: Streetviews

There’s really good streetview coverage on Bangladesh – I went down an absolute rabbit hole poking around, there’s religious and historic sites, weird borders, stunning natural beauty and massive urban sprawl. Here’s some neat ones I liked:

In Sylhet, up in the far northeast of Bangladesh, is the Tomb of Shah Jalal. Shah Jalal was a Sufi saint and leader involved in the both the Islamic conquest of Sylhet from Hindu rulers around 1300 and the spread of Islam to the population. Ibn Battutah sought him out on his travels, and found Shah Jalal in his later years living as an ascetic.

This Shaikh was one of the great saints and one of the unique personages. He had to his credit miracles (karamat) as well as great deeds, and he was a man of hoary age.He owned a cow with whose milk he broke his fast. He stood performing prayers throughout the night, and he was thin, tall and scanty-bearded. The inhabitants of these mountains had embraced Islam at his hands, and for this reason he stayed amidst them.

From Ibn Battutah’s Account of his Meeting with Shah Jalal of Sylhet

Much more recently, Bangladesh and India finally settled their really wonky borders, transferring dozens of enclaves (including second- and even third-order ones) in 2015. Only one enclave still exists, a community called Dahagram–Angarpota, that’s a small piece of Bangladesh surrounded by India. This enclave is in spitting distance of Bangladesh, and it connected by the Tin Bigha Corridor, stretch of road that’s less than 200 metres long. The land belongs to India, but is leased to Bangladesh – but there’s still border control, and it was only in 2011 that the corridor was opened for 24 hours a day. Previously, it was only open 12 hours a day, which caused understandable hardship on residents, since there were no hospitals in the enclave at the time.

On the other side of the country, down in Chittagong, there’s what looks like a possible standoff between the Google Car and security staff at the gates of a shipbreaking yard. Note the “no child labour” sign on the gate.

A dizzying drone shot of a hazy morning in Dhaka – look at that urban density!

And more serenely, a floating night market pier in the Meghna River delta. Look around behind you for a bonus beautiful sunset.

Our in the far east of Bangladesh is the Kaptai Lake – in contrast to the massive urban density, this area is remote, sparsely populated, and largely only accessible by boat. There’s stunning natural sites, including the Shuvolong waterfall.

Back in Dhaka, I was looking through the planes at the Bangladesh Air Force Museum, and this old DC-3 caught my eye – I love these old planes. They were introduced in the 1930s, and were built until the 50s, but they’re such successful planes that many are still in active use today (like for cargo flights in the Canadian Arctic). This specific DC-3 was a gift to Bangladesh from India. It had been used to drop paratroopers during the 1971 Independence War and is one of the founding planes of the Bangladesh Air Force.

And tucked away on a side street, the oldest surviving mosque in Dhaka – the Binat Bibi Mosque, built in 1454. It’s pre-Muhgal, erected during the Bengal Sultanate. There’s an inscription dedicating the mosque to Bakht Binat, the daughter of Marhamat – it’s unclear if she funded it or if it was dedicated in her memory, but it’s likely she was part of a local wealthy family.

The streetview is from 2013, and the mosque has been in pretty poor shape, despite it’s historic value. Since then there’s been some renovations and restorations, including a beautiful new minaret. It’s hard to see updated photos, but hopefully they’ve restored and kept the two starry domes.

BANGLADESH: The easternmost Indo-European language

Bengali is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. If you go by total speakers, it’s the 7th most spoken, and if you only look at native speakers, it’s the 5th most spoken language (and has way more native speakers than widespread languages like French). Speakers are almost all concentrated in Bengal, both on the Indian and Bangladeshi side, and the fight to make Bengali an official language beside Urdu was a big spur in that Bengali nationalism that led to the eventual breakup of the two Pakistans in 1971.

Bengali is the easternmost Indo-European language (or depending how you cut it, Assamese is, but the point stands). I love the evolution of languages, it’s like the evolution of species, and the spread of the Indo-European family always blows my mind. English and Bengali both descended the same Proto-Indo-European language spoken only about 5000 years ago in the Eurasian steppe – as well as almost every other language spoken between the North Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

It’s also hard to wrap my head around the fact that Bengali is more closely related to English than it is to Burmese, spoken right next door in Myanmar. (And likewise, that Swedish is more closely related to Bengali than it is to Finnish). Here’s a really interesting video on the Indo-European language family, and how people reconstruct Proto-Indo-European:

Bengali has a reputation as a poetic and “sweet” sounding language. There’s actually a lot of linguistic work that goes into why people perceive languages as sweet or harsh – it’s called sound symbolism – but this Indian video gives a good look at what about Bengali makes people perceive it as sounding sweet.

There’s also some fun slang in Bengali – this article on “The funky side of Bangla” from the Dhaka Tribune gives a primer on slang used in Bangladesh. I really like these ones:

  • Fatafati – awesome!
  • Toofan – lit. “tempest”, but means you’re totally supportive of something
  • Chokh palti – turncoat
  • Osthir – lit. “restless” but is used for positive things the same way “sick” is

BANGLADESH: Shami kebab, dal puri, and wood apple bhorta

Got some frozen Bengali food from MF Foodmart, a little grocery with a lot of imports from Bangladesh – I also picked up a bunch of Bangladeshi snacks from there.

Kothbel bhortaBhorta is a classic Bengali dish of lightly fried mashed vegetables that’s real comfort food – it’s used as a main dish, a side, or even as a topping. It’s usually really simple (as opposed to other Bangladeshi dishes) and this one is just wood apple, chillies, salt and oil. Wood apple (kothbel) is a totally new fruit to me – it’s native to the Bay of Bengal, and it’s been called an acquired taste (and uncharitably, “ugly“). It’s got a bit of a funky, meaty scent to it (no worse than durian), but the flavour is really wonderful. It’s smokey and savoury, but also tart and citrusy – almost like smoked tamarind. The bhorta is also nice and spicy, with lots of green chillies in it.

Chicken shami kebabShami kebabs are common across Pakistan, northern India, and Bangladesh – they’re likely originally Persian, and come from the cultural influence of the Mughal empire. They’re usually beef, but can be mutton and chicken. The meat is ground and mixed with chickpea or lentil flour and spices, then cooked. These ones say to bake them – they come out looking a bit like gingerbread cookies. The spice mix is nice, there’s lots of cumin and coriander, and I think a bit of mint. The texture isn’t great, though, it’s pretty mealy and dry. I think I’ll try frying the rest later and see if that improves the texture.

Dal puri – This is a snack that’s eaten not just across the subcontinent, but has also become a staple of Caribbean cuisine. It’s a crispy flatbread, somewhere between panipuri and naan in texture, with a filling of spiced lentils. These puff up huge when cooked, with a big air pocket (watch the steam!). The lentils have a pretty mild flavour, but it’s the hot crispy bread that’s the really satisfying part.

BANGLADESH: 1971 by Anam Zakaria

1971 by Anam Zakaria is a book deeply connected to Bangladesh, but the author isn’t Bangladeshi – she’s Pakistani. And that doesn’t mean she’s a neutral observer – this book is about the Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.

This isn’t a classic history book on the war, instead, 1971 is about unpicking the myths, propaganda, and national narratives around the war that have grown up in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. All three countries have a piece of the truth and focus on what fits their side of the story the best, but together you can add up a much more chaotic and realistic picture of the war.

Partition not only split Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan, but divided Pakistan into two disparate wings – the Urdu-speaking West Pakistan, and the Bengali-speaking East Pakistan (which was already the product of an early partition of Bengal, solidified into Hindu Calcutta and Muslim Dhaka in 1947). Discrimination against Bengali people and language by the rest of Pakistan grew into discontent, then rebellion when the government in Islamabad refused to accept the election results that would but the Bengal-based Awami league into power. Military invention by West Pakistan into the East and the killing of Bengali nationalists and intellectuals in Operation Searchlight erupted into a brutal war, with targeted killings of civilians by both soldiers and neighbours. The war was only settled when India joined in on the side of East Pakistan, which then was able to declare victory and become Bangladesh.

Anam Zakaria travels through all three countries to interview witnesses, survivors, former soldiers, the families of victims, politicians and academics, and young students raised on each country’s narrative of the war. She gives her interviewees the space to tell their truths, but also tries to get under the easy (and contradictory) national histories and share the complex realities of this shared history and how it’s remembered.

In Bangladesh, the story of 1971 is the year of national liberation – Pakistan is the violent oppressor, and the mass killings by the Pakistani army remain as bitter memories. Travel is difficult between Pakistan and Bangladesh, and many Bangladeshis are antagonistic to Zakaria as a Pakistani when first interviewed. However, attitudes towards Pakistan and India aren’t set in stone – depending on the back-and-forth of political parties, sometimes Pakistan is the enemy, sometimes a fellow Muslim nation against India (especially in cricket).

In Pakistan, 1971 is seen as the “dismemberment” of the country, and blame is laid at India. The war is chalked up as an Indian plan to damage Pakistan by fulminating discontent and revolution in Bangladesh. In fact, it’s seen so much through the lens of India’s involvement, that it’s often described as the Third Indo-Pak War. Killings of Bengalis are downplayed, instead the focus is on the killing of Biharis (used as a generic term for pro-Pakistan non-Bengalis) by Bengalis during the war.

India as well sees 1971 as a continuation of its perpetual conflict with Pakistan, and one where India resoundingly defeated Pakistan. Bangladeshis themselves are largely seen as an afterthought, and this friendly but paternalistic attitude continues even today.

Complex histories become simplified for convenience and over the decades to match national narratives, but Zakaria lets her interviewees talk, and carefully draws out the nuance of personal experience. Tales of being saved by neighbours of the ethnic/religious group that was seeking to kill you are common on all sides, as well as the chaos of the fog of war.

It is a really illuminating book about the 1971 war and the massively different memories of it in the three countries. It’s also a really fascinating meta-study into the construction of narratives after a major event, both by people and groups. Humans are hardwired to create a coherent narrative about individual events, and to then defend that narrative, including selecting the pieces of truth that feel more “true” to the story.

BANGLADESH: Podcasts

National Martyrs’ Monument, Dhaka – Source

I got fooled several times looking for interesting podcasts from Bangladesh – there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but while the titles and descriptions are in English, the podcasts themselves are most often in Bengali – you don’t find that out until you’ve already downloaded and started to listen! While English is used in higher education in Bangladesh, despite/because of the colonial history (see French in Algeria), it doesn’t serve as a lingua franca like it does in India, as the vast majority of Bangladesh’s population speaks Bengali. That means a lot of podcasts and interviews with Bangladeshis in English are from outside sources, especially India or Britain.

BBC History Hour: The Birth of Bangladesh – A really useful primer on the creation of Bangladesh, with interviews and archival news clips. This overview covers Partition, the 1970 Pakistan election and the refusal of leaders in West Pakistan to transfer of power to Sheikh Mujib, Operation Searchlight, the Independence War, the effect on civilians (especially women), and India’s intervention on the side of East Pakistan/Bangladesh.

Cricket with an Accent: Mohammad Isam talks about the Bangladesh Cricket Landscape – I still have only the vaguest sense of the rules of cricket, but this interview with a Bangladeshi sports journalist is less on the game itself, and more on Bangladesh’s struggles to build an internationally strong cricket team, and how money and political influence play a big part in professional cricket and sports journalism in the country.

Naan Curry with Sadaf and Archit: How to eat like a Bangladeshi with Dina Begum – Another cross-border interview, this one between Indian and Bangladeshi food experts. They cover the differences between the cuisines of West Bengal (Indian side, around Calcutta) and East Bengal (Bangladesh), as well as Pakistan, and how options for South Asian cuisine are slowly diversifying in Western countries.

Desi Crime Podcast: Hercules: The Vigilante Killer – If you’re a true crime fan, this podcast covers all kinds of stories from across the subcontinent. This episode looks at the case of a vigilante killer in Bangladesh murdering men who had assaulted young women, with a larger discussion on police corruption, the crisis levels of rape in South Asia, the pressures on victims’ families, and the ethics of vigilantes.

Bangladeshi Trailblazers – Interviews with Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, with a focus on young female entrepreneurs. I listened to the episode Finding spaces in Dhaka with Farhia Tabassum, who co-founded the app Chaya, which is like an AirBnB but for photoshoot locations, and then has expanded into rentals for individuals, especially women.

The World: Tintin in Bangladesh – A short, fun podcast with radio personality Zahidul Haque Apu, who during the pandemic started drawing covers for fictional Tintin books set in Bangladesh. While Tintin never visited Bangladesh (he did go to India, Nepal, and China, among others), these are fun what-ifs. The podcast also touches on comics in Bangladesh, where Tintin is particularly beloved, to the point where people assume it’s a local comic (old colonial stereotypes aside). I loved Tintin comics as a kid – these are just great.

BANGLADESH: Chicken biryani and aam panna

I was down in Toronto for a work event, and got some time to poke around Toronto’s Bangladeshi neighbourhood out on the east end of Danforth. There’s a whole lot of Bangladeshi and Bengali restaurants there to choose from. I first went to Dhaka Kebab, a spot with a huge selection of Bengali food, including takeaway desserts.

I ordered the chicken biryani – a massively popular dish in Bangladesh. Recipes look incredibly complex, so I figured it’d take the easy way and get a dish made by the experts. Biryani is usually layered, and so was mine, with spiced rice on top, and a hard-boiled egg and two pieces of chicken underneath. The chicken was fantastically tender, and the rice was moderately spicy with all kinds of beautiful flavours – I could taste the warmth from the garam masala, especially the cardamom. It was also a huge plate, had to take extra home with me!

I followed that by heading down the street to Star Plus Kabab House – I was hoping to try their jolpai juice, but unfortunately they were out. Jolpai is an olive-like fruit grown in South Asia, and it’s supposed to be nice and tart – it’s also used for pickles and chutneys.

Instead, I got a different drink – aam panna (also called amm pora sharbat). It’s green unripe mango, blended with ice, mint, cumin, black pepper, and hot chillies. It’s a summer drink, meant to cool you down and give you back nutrients lost in the sweltering heat. While it wasn’t that hot a day in Toronto, it was very cool and refreshing, sour and sweet, with just a little bit of spice.

BANGLADESH: Snacks

There’s a nice little Bangladeshi grocery in Ottawa, MF Foodmart, that’s right next door to a great Salvadoran restaurant that I tried when covering El Salvador. At this rate, I’ll be working my way through every grocery and restaurant in town!

Kishwan Litchi Drink – A non-carbonated lychee drink. Given how sweet a lot of South Asian snacks and desserts can be, I was actually expecting this to be super sugary, but it’s not. It’s just the right level of sweetness, and tastes very much like lychee juice, though there’s a slightly artificial aftertaste.

Top Orange Biscuit – A light digestive cookie with a really lovely orange flavour, kind of like fresh orange juice. A bit crisp and crumbly, with a similar texture to arrowroot cookies. I really like these.

Frutta Mango Drink – It’s a mango drink, not a juice, but it’s thick like mango nectar. Sweet and with a really nice natural mango flavour.

Banoful Hot Chanachur – Chanachur is a savoury snack mix, usually sold as “Bombay Mix” in North America. The ingredients vary, but it’s usually nuts, roasted legumes and rice, dry cracker and noodles, and spices. There’s a lot of it in each bag, so you really get your money’s worth, and this brand has got good heat and lots of flavour from the spices – there’s lots of cumin, coriander, black pepper, and more.

Kishwan Twist Potato Snacks – These are spicy tomato flavour, though you can only taste a little bit of tomato. There’s a pleasant bit of heat – they won’t melt your face off but there is some genuine spice to them. A lot of time “spicy” chips don’t even have that! They also have a really satisfying light texture and aren’t greasy – kind of halfway between Israeli Bissli and Thai tapioca chips.