My appreciation of coastal food reached new heights with my tenure in Chittagong that followed my Noakhali stretch. The abundance of sea fish variety in Chittagong and the wealth of ways people in the area prepared and cooked this wonderful food simply overwhelmed me. The other source of protein in Chittagong was the marvelous beef that came from quality animals that were raised only for consumption. The major difference between the cuisines of Chittagong and Noakhali was the preponderance of marine fish in Chittagong, processed and unprocessed, and the dominance of beef. Equally important was the variation in cooking in the two regions. Unlike Noakhali, Chittagong cuisine was also marked by a lot more spices, including some of the most mouth-scalding chilies that I had ever tasted.
In my three and a half years of work in Chittagong, I had the privilege to eat the most authentic Chittagong cuisine several times, which included all types of fish preparations - both fresh and dry, game birds, and of course, beef. Unfortunately I cannot recall in a short span of time all of my culinary experiences that I had in my official trips in the nooks and crannies of the district. I will recall here one my most memorable trips in my initial year in Chittagong, that was planned and intended to introduce me to Chittagong coastal cuisine.
The invitation came from Rasul Nizam, a scion of the celebrated Nizam family of Anwara Thana. Rasul Nizam, a leader in tea trade in Chittagong, was the eldest son of late O R Nizam, a business man and a former mayor of Chittagong city. I had known Rasul Bhai, as I used to call him, since long before I had landed in Chittagong, and I was quite attached to his family. The occasion was dedication of a local high school building which had been established in the memory of O R Nizam, and formal opening of a District Council funded local road.
Although Anwara is located in the estuary of Karnaphuli River, almost opposite Chittagong port, the access to the area is by a circuitous road. It takes about two hours to reach Anwara, and on a normal official trip to the area, I would return to Chittagong the same day after a visit was over. On this occasion, however, Rasul Bhai asked that I stay over one night in Anwara in my next visit, so that he could introduce me to the variety of Chittagong cuisine that he had been telling me about.
We reached Anwara late in the morning, to be greeted by local officials. My residence for the night would be the District Council dak bungalow, while Rasul Bhai would stay at his village family home. We agreed that I would turn up at his village home for lunch after my official work for the morning was over.
I had asked Rasul Bhai that at lunch I would like to taste shutki - dried marine and freshwater fish that Chittagong is famous for. I did not know what my request would lead me to until I arrived at the Nizam family home for lunch. It was not only dry fish galore; it was truly a culinary exhibition of all kinds of fish -- both dry and fresh -- that the coastal area yielded.
After initial salutations and exchange of greetings with other guests, we were led to a large room where a huge table in the corner had numerous dishes laid out on top. Obviously, I needed guidance to explore the dishes and accord appropriate justice to the cook or cooks of these marvelous culinary delights. Rasul Bhai was not only a generous host, but also a consummate guide in this exploration.
The first was an appetizer, a small but long fish, fried crispy. The fish, locally called loitta, is known in the outside world (especially the Anglicized world) as Bombay Duck. The fish is sold after being cleaned, salted, and dried in the sun. This delicious appetizer was followed by rupchanda (pomfret) prepared in a sauce rich with red chilli - a fish to die for. Immediately thereafter, we had a concoction of curry made with koi fish (Perch family), loitta shutki, and white rice. Before I could say I had enough, Rasul Bhai signaled to the waiting staff, and more dishes started to emerge, and my eyes started to bulge.
The next dish was another Chittagong favourite, dried chhuri fish (a long ribbon like fish) fried with onion and green chilli, an extremely tasty local preparation. This would be followed by a large koral fish (Grouper family) roasted in heavy spice, and presented in a large platter. When I was about to cry uncle, a curry made of giant black tiger shrimp swimming in a bed of red sauce made with red chilli descended on the table. I enjoyed the dishes thoroughly, even though my insides were burning like hot coals. Mercifully, the dishes stopped appearing after I told Rasul Bhai that I would not be able to present myself for mezban that night if I had to eat any more at lunch. We concluded the lunch with locally made doi (yogurt) topped with cane sugar. This helped to put down the fire inside my stomach caused by so much hot food.
The pièce de résistance in the evening, which I was looking forward to, was the traditional mezban -- a Persian word literally meaning a host. The word now means 'community feasting', a tradition that originated in the Chittagong region. It is usually hosted by rich people and the occasions include the death anniversary of an individual, the birth of a child, any special achievement by someone, inauguration of a new business, or celebration of the entrance to a new residence. Organizing a mezban symbolizes a high profile of the host. Mezban organizers take pride in the number of people joining the feast, which sometimes may go up to a few thousands.
The notable feature of the Mezban is its simple menu: just rice and beef curry. But it is not just a simple curry. Its preparation takes a whole day and night, and the spices that go inside the curry make it unique. The number of beef cows used at a mezban depends on the number of invitees as well as the financial wealth of the host. For the Anwara event that night, two cows had been slaughtered the day before our arrival.
The cooking is entirely done by men, in the open, in large brass pots over a freshly made hearth using firewood as fuel. The meat, along with the bones and other body parts of the cow (head, liver, and trotters included), are mixed in the huge pots (two or three, depending on the quantity) with onions, garlic, powdered red chilli, cumin, coriander, a specially fragrant herb (I cannot recall), and oil. Then, it is cooked over slow fire, covered, for several hours (about six to seven) until the meat becomes very tender. Usually no water is added, as the beef generates enough juice to make a stew. This delectable curry is then served with steaming parboiled rice accompanied by a salad of onions, green chilly, and tomatoes.
Needless to say, I was hungry for this mouth-watering dish as soon as I entered Rasul Bhai’s ancestral home once again in the evening. The fragrance of the food wafted across the rather chilly evening air, making me giddy with expectations. We were seated this time in a canopied meeting and greeting place where a dozen tables were set up to accommodate a large number of guests. After the evening formalities were over, we sat down to our tables, first to be entertained with fresh lemonades, and then straight on to the main course. There were no varieties; it was the one and only mezban beef, bowls of them accompanied by hot, steaming rice. I instantly dug in, and immediately experienced a heavenly sensation with my taste buds that only mezban can produce. That is one tasty creation that only Chittagong can provide.
I returned to the dak bungalow with a full belly, but a completely sated mind. I would carry that remarkable culinary experience of Anwara for the rest of my Chittagong days.