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Flavours of home

A culinary exploration of Bengali roots and recipes in a foreign land

Having spent my entire life in Bangladesh, I never envisioned leaving my home. However, plans changed and I ended up moving halfway across the world to Canada in pursuit of a better education. While I grew used to Canadian culture, one constant yearning persisted—the flavour of the food back home. 

For me, Bengali food is heaven in the form of food. The blend of spices, the array of colours, the tangy yet spicy taste and the intense herbaceous aroma made me want to run back home.

The love affair with food

The relationship Bengalis have with food is quite poetic, akin to a love affair but with food. Even now, I find solace in replicating my mom’s recipes, each attempt a nostalgic journey. Rice is a staple in our cuisine, paired with a medley of dishes, be it meat, lentils or vegetable stir-fry. Our meals are a celebration of diversity.  

One dish that I love is beef curry, a dish containing a blend of spices such as turmeric, chili and coriander mixed with caramelized onions, ginger and garlic until the kitchen is filled with a wonderful aroma.

Chunks of meat are tossed and cooked until they become a gorgeous brown colour and then cooked further in milk, water, curd and potato chunks. Eventually,  it is reduced to a thick curry with chunks of beef and potato.

It is then served with white rice. Sometimes, if I feel a bit homesick, I will serve it with potatoes mashed with chili flakes, onions, salt, coriander and mustard oil. The rich fragrance of the dish and the soft chunks of beef make the complexity of the cooking process worth all the effort. 

Beyond hearty meals, Bengali street food adds another layer to our culinary tapestry. Bengali street food includes everything from sweet rice cakes to savoury snacks that fill one’s heart and stomach all at once. 

Fuchka is one such dish. Lentils are cooked in stock with spices (mosholla) to a thick gravy and then served with tamarind chutney inside a crispy puffed hollow ball made of flour. Various toppings are included such as chili, boiled egg shavings, coriander and onion slices. 

Besides food, Bengalis are also passionate about tea, or cha. Completely different from  the taste of chai lattes here, Cha is a warm, spiced concoction of tea leaves, milk, sugar and aromatic spices like cardamom and ginger which is a thousand times better in taste. When I say I would choose cha over my usual vanilla lattes any day, I am not lying. 

A homecoming for the Bengali soul

In my search for authentic Bengali food in Halifax, the absence of dedicated restaurants pushed me to become my own chef. Learning how to cook these dishes has been a way of reconnecting to my heritage.

Exploring the usage of spices, their importance and the delicateness of each dish took me back to the time when I used to watch my mom and my grandma cook for me back home. Video calls with my mom, learning not just the recipes but the history behind each dish, were therapeutic, a bridge between generations.

As I sat with my mom almost every weekend learning a new Bengali dish, she told me how to make each dish and some of its history. Some dishes my grandfather taught my mom how to cook. Others were passed down for generations. 

One time she told me about Shahi Tukra, a ghee-toasted bread soaked in milk and spices that originated from the Mughal Empire. Bengali dishes are a fusion of Mughal, Persian and Arabic influences dating back to the 13th century when the Arabs conquered Bengal. 

This December, I returned to Dhaka. It was a culinary homecoming and reconnected me with the dishes that I missed while staying in Canada for the past two years.

My new profound love and respect for Bengali food now knows no bounds, and every day has been a reward in terms of food. I have been trying to savour different dishes and learn how to cook them from my mother, my aunts and my grandmother. 

This year has underscored the importance of staying connected to one’s culture, and for me, that connection is forged through the timeless art of Bengali cooking.

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