• Wednesday, Feb 01, 2023
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OP-ED: The indomitable conviction of Old Dhaka

  • Published at 09:07 pm May 2nd, 2021

The food and spirit of Old Town remain unparalleled

As our rickshaw crossed Chankharpul and moved towards Chawkbazar, the pre-iftar excitement was hard to ignore. People wore masks and tried their best to avoid hitting one another on the road but this being Old Dhaka, strict restrictions are often tough to enforce.

And during iftar time, with the food markets bustling and the tantalizing aroma of dishes wafting through the air, one can easily forget about the virus which has been making our lives a nightmare.

Here in the old part of the city, one of the main priorities is eating and hence the Bangla line which epitomizes the spirit of the area: Agey khaia mor (Eat first and then think of dying)! In Old Dhaka, living comes first and that is exactly what we saw in a recent visit to buy iftar from the famous Chawkbazar.

Primordial protein diet

People in the old part of town love meat. Any meal without beef or mutton is deemed uninspiring. 

Actually, there is a Dhakaiya word to describe food without meat: Huda khaon (food without any merit). No wonder vegetable soup is hardly served at the Chinese restaurants in this part. Also, chicken is sometimes regarded as food for the ailing.

Real men live on meat -- it’s a bit primordial but that’s the essence of the gastronomic ideology here. So, as soon as we entered Chawk, we were met with large silver trays filled with roasted lamb legs on one side and whole roasted chicken on the other. 

Of course, the best selling item, as I am told by Raju baburchi, is trussed beef kebab or the beef shutli kebab. “Shutli” means cotton thread, which is used to tie the large chunk of meat in the shape of a roll. Just like a Swiss roll, the pieces are cut and then sold. Shutli kebab sellers once used to go around Dhaka city to sell their products, but now it’s mainly centred in Old Dhaka.

There’s no place for any “please pass me the lamb” sort of courtesy here; you must grab what you prefer and, while buying, there has to be a glint of savage hunger in your eyes. That’s what my Old Dhaka pal Mamun biriyani told me.

Sherbet for Casanova

With the sweltering heat, it’s natural that those fasting would opt for something cold. There’s no place for powdered drinks here; for instant rejuvenation after a whole day of fasting, the preferred beverage is nut-based sherbet. One seller told me that it has ten different kinds of nuts, with an emphasis on pistachio, and is called “Kashmiri sherbet.” Some stalls sell the drink infused with saffron.

It is also a hot selling item during wedding seasons because one tradition of Old Dhaka is to give a glass of potent nut-based drink to the groom on the wedding night. I am sure an elaboration is not required.

The hullabaloo over Boro Baaper Polae Khae

Now here’s a dish that continues to intrigue gourmets and gourmands alike. Boro Baaper Polae Khae means a dish which is eaten by the son of a wealthy father. Why give it such a name?

History has it that sometime in the past, an iftar seller mixed leftover food like beguni, chicken, lentils, and to give it some kick, added purified butter. This was not for sale, but a rich man’s son came and was desperate for some iftari and hence, this concoction was shared with him. He liked it so much that he came regularly, demanding it.

Over time, this ritual came to define the dish -- now a potent mixture of butter, lamb liver, shredded chicken, lentils, mutton, and kebab. The name may allude to a rich man’s son but that does not mean it’s not sold to daughters. 

As for the taste, well, like caviar, it’s an acquired taste. What I mean to say is, not all sons or daughters, irrespective of their social background, will appreciate it. Once, I got it for my father-in-law, who simply said: “Towheed, this should be named fokinnir polae khae! No offense meant, of course.”

Without doubt, the ingenious slogan that is used to sell the stuff: Boro baaper polae khae, thongae bhoira niya jae (The rich man’s son eats it and then takes home some more in a box) is a crowd puller.

In Chawkbazar, you will still find one outlet of Alauddin Sweetmeat -- once the major sweet selling chain around the country, now confined to Old Dhaka. This is the place for some delicious meat-stuffed paratha and, naturally, the yoghurt-based drink labang. 

To end, it has to be admitted that there are countless places around Dhaka where one can get better food in a more sedated/disciplined atmosphere. However, Old Dhaka is not just about the food but the never fading joie de vivre which is seen in all kinds of activities. The boisterous mood is a reminder of the undaunted spirit which has refused to capitulate to corona. 

The kebab seller deplored the impact of corona on business, telling me: “Thelae dhakkae chalaitasi” (I’m running the business with difficulty). But even in his complaint, there was a defiant smile -- the indomitable conviction of Old Dhaka. In these desperate times, we need an ounce of that very badly.

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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