Family Houseboat in Bangladesh
Those of you who have been reading The Silk Road Gourmet for a while know that Bangladesh has a special place in my heart. I have been there many times and am in love with the country and the people and their endless ingenuity in making the best of their home on a semi-hospitable flood plain. In slightly less than 40 years since independence, the country has gone from sweeping famine to a country of bustling cities with a rapidly growing middle class – and this development and rising prosperity is due principally to the industriousness and works of ordinary Bangladeshi citizens. The cities are permeated with a feeling that almost anything can happen – sort of what I imagine the American Wild West was like back in the mid-1800s. The countryside, on the other hand, is peaceful and moves to a slower rhythm that is all but gone from the west – women cooking and raising children and men fishing or farming in accord with daily and seasonal cycles.
When visiting Bangladesh, I was often up before dawn – listening for that first human sound that separated night from day – the revving up of a gas-powered generator for the cleric’s microphone and morning prayers. Then across our camp on the Gangetic delta, his voice would echo – rising and falling and calling the faithful to their morning devotion. At more exciting times we would race with river dolphins in the Brahmaputra, trying to outrun an incoming cyclone or surreptitiously try to make our way through the streets during a general strike. Night time in Bangladesh is a wild time. The cities glow with incandescent light as people bustle from place to place. Even in the best neighborhoods, cats mewl, dogs bark and birds of all kinds take noisily to stands of trees to proclaim their territories.
The ancestors of modern Bangladeshis are a blend of the indigenous tribes that inhabited the area in prehistory, Tibetan and Burmese peoples who came over the Himalayas into the country, Dravidians from Southern India and the Indo-Aryans from Northwestern India. In addition, Iranians, Arabs and Turks also settled in the area in the late Middle Ages bringing Islam with them as they came. Long before that time, however, Bangladesh was first a Vedic Kingdom beginning in antiquity and later it came under Hindu stewardship which lasted until the mid 8th century. During these successive states Bangladeshi rulers were amongst some of the most powerful on the subcontinent and their empires extended well beyond the borders of the modern state and across the Delhi plateau and into what is now Pakistan. Some histories say that these kings even kept Alexander at bay with only the threat of reprisal by a strong, well-trained and prolific military.
The Buddhist Pala Empire ruled from the mid 8th century until the dawn of the 12th century and created a period of stability and prosperity with the building of major public works including temples and palaces at that time. The Palas were also responsible for spreading Buddhism to Tibet, Bhutan, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia as their traders and merchants bought and sold goods along the land and sea routes of the Great Silk Road.
Islam made its first appearance in Bangladesh rather late – with the arrival of Sufi Muslims in the 12th century. The Pala kingdom had all but disintegrated by this time and was replaced by a rapid series of sultans of Turkic, Bangladeshi or Afghan origin who remained independent from Delhi despite attempts to rein them in. It was during this time that the country began to be known as ‘the land of the rebels’ or Bulgapur. During the late 15th century, the Portuguese arrived and peacefully – at first – set up trading businesses and religious missions in coastal towns and cities. The Mughals of Delhi reasserted control in the late 16th century and their rule continued until the mid 18th century when the British East India Company gained control. Continued protest and rebellion from the Bangladeshis and brutal repression caused the British government to take control of the area in the mid 19th century and they held sway until Indian Independence and partition one-hundred years later.
Bangladeshi food bears the marks of all of these civilizations. Although it is superficially similar to Indian and some Pakistani food, generally speaking, it is much more delicate and subtle in flavor with a tendency towards sweet rather than sour. Bangladeshi cookery also tends to be less hot than other subcontinent cuisines – much of this is due to the addition of chili peppers or chili powder towards the end of cooking or just before serving – more as an afterthought instead of a main idea. Many recipes also often call for spices to be dissolved in water before cooking which has a tendency to dampen the flavor a bit as well.
Shared with the Persians, Afghans and the Mughals are the love of fruit and nuts in meat and rice dishes as in Lamb Rezala, Shrimp and Coconut Curry, Kebab with Raisins and Mint and Chicken and Pineapple Curry. Of these dishes, my current favorite is the Chicken and Pineapple Curry which is a great sweet, slightly hot and spicy dish that is mellow enough to serve to most diners. Serve with plain or slightly spiced long-grain rice.
A Bangladeshi Chicken Curry
Chicken and Pineapple Curry
3-4 chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 medium onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 cup water or chicken broth
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Seeds from 3 cardamom pods, crushed
2 whole cloves, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup finely chopped pineapple
1. Heat peanut oil in a sauté pan and over high heat sauté the chicken pieces until they become firm and opaque – 3-5 minutes or until done.
2. Add the onion slices and sauté onion until it softens and starts to color. Add grated ginger, turmeric and chili powder and stir well. Then add the water or chicken broth to moisten the spices and heat until the sauce is warmed.
3. Add coriander, cinnamon, cardamom seeds, whole cloves, bay leaf, salt and pepper and stir well. Add sugar and stir. Then add cooked chicken and cook to heat 5-8 minutes. Once heated, add pineapple and stir well. Cook to heat until pineapple is hot and then serve.
The great thing about this dish is just how much a product of the Silk Road it really is. Southern Bangladesh was an important link between the land routes coming down off the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and the maritime routes coming across from Indonesia and the Thai peninsula and those coming in from eastern and western Indian ports and Pakistan. These brought tropical fruits like pineapples and eastern and Pacific spices like ginger and cloves into Bangladesh.
During the heyday of the Silk Road, Bangladesh was a powerful kingdom and important trading post for goods as well as a melting pot of cultures. Today the Bangladeshi’s are working hard to break the back of the poverty that has afflicted them since the arrival of the Caucasians several centuries ago. If the incredible progress from famine to a growing middle class that they have made since independence are indicative of future, they should shake off that yoke by the end of the next century to become another important, democratic voice in Southern Asia. Till then, I hope to return at least a few more times to walk on the wild side of an ancient mix of Silk Road cultures at the heart of a fantastic and rapidly developing nation. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of the Bangladeshi Houseboat and A Crowd on the River by © Ryuivst | Dreamstime.com)