Feast from the East: Dhakai cuisine beckons Kolkatans (Foodie Trail)

Kolkata, July 1 (IANS) Dhakai (Dhaka) cuisine, or the signature food offering from Bangladesh, is often compared to its cousin from West Bengal for the characteristic extensive use of fish, rice and the pet condiment, mustard. But dig a little deeper and you uncover a world of sugar-free cooking and mashed-up goodies from east Bengal or opar Bangla (Bengal on the other side).

Chefs responsible for whipping up the diverse Purbo Banglar Khabar (east Bengal cuisine) menu at the Buzz diner at the posh The Gateway Hotel here travelled across the border to learn the secrets of Bangladesh's famed delights and uncovered how baby onions substitute sugar, a staple in West Bengal.

"The meat is mostly slow-cooked and instead of sugar, baby onions are primarily used to provide the sweetness," Asish Kumar Roy, the hotel's executive chef, told IANS.

"The food there is influenced by the British, the Armenian and the Mughlai style of cooking. Some of the items may seem heavy to digest but because of the cooking method, even meat dishes become comfort food," he added.

In addition, finely ground spice pastes instead of powders are used to infuse robust flavours into meat dishes like Khasir Gelasi or slow-cooked lamb curry with potatoes or Boal Do Pyaza, a sweetwater fish in spicy gravy.

Speaking of spicy gravy, the Ilish Paturi (mustard paste-marinated hilsa cooked in banana leaf parcels) will leave a mark on your tummy's girth and your olfactory senses.

The pungent flavour of the revered mustard, a bit of its yellowy bitterness, a slight hit of the green chillies and tender fish breaking off from the green-brown steamed banana leaf, is seductive to say the least, so it's no point worrying about the calories you are piling on.

But take your bhortas (mashed balls of fish or veggies with mustard oil, bits of onion and spice pastes) and fritters of seasonal flowers and vegetables or boras, like fried jute leaves (paat patar bora) seriously. This side of east Bengal's food culture is a myth-buster, said Roy.

"Lamb and fish dishes are well-known but the Bangladeshi diet is well balanced due to the marked presence of vegetables and leaves," he said.

Roy informed that the nuggets of bhortas can be had without any accompaniments, like a complete evening snack in itself.

Like Indian food, there are distinctions in Bangladeshi cuisine too, based on geography, the chef explained.

In capital Dhaka and surrounding areas, kebabs, biriyani and parathas (flat bread) are popular whereas in northeastern regions like Sylhet, freshwater fish is in demand. Down south in Chittagong, seafood, dryfish and saltwater fish dominate the palate.

"Some combinations in the menu have been chalked out in keeping with the variations so that one dish doesn't hamper the taste of the other," Roy explained.

Take the chef's suggestion and savour the main course of curries and non-vegetarian items with boiled rice, bhuna khichri or the fish pulao. There's also chatur paratha (flat bread made from roasted gram flour), the Dhakai version of parathas, which is similar to the flat-bread in the Indian state of Bihar.

Wolf them down with thick lentil soup tempered with spices and to ease your digestion with sips of Borhani, a spicy yoghurt drink with dashes of mint and garlic.

To round it off, go for the sweet offerings of the famed pithas or casings of rice flour with stuffings of coconut, jaggery and condiments.

"No meal is complete without pithas and we found out that the distinct flavour is due to the use of the Kali jeera rice variety found in Bangladesh. We specially procure that for our dishes," said Roy.

(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at sahana.g@ians.in)