There was a time when kings and governments would try to draw boundaries between regions, claiming each for themselves. But the local populace would try to keep the camaraderie going with their new neighbors based on the one thing that can unite people, transcending all differences – food.
That is how the Dhakai cuisine came into being. It was food that was enjoyed by the people of an undivided India, where the land now called Bangladesh was earlier known as East Pakistan. Dhakai cuisine can trace its roots to the 7th century when Turkey established trade links and ruled the region. Later, Muslims took over, and then the British, which has left a solid impression on the actual Dhakai cuisine. Even the exiled royals, Wajid Ali Shah and Tipu Sultan, who spent their last few days there left a mark on the cuisine.
After India’s partition in 1947 and the Indo-Pak battle of 1971, a large number of people migrated to West Bengal, especially around the border regions, while others moved to different parts of Bangladesh. This explains how the Dhakai cuisine spread throughout the two countries.
THE REGIONAL VARIANTS
Dhakai cuisine traditionally emphasizes freshly caught seafood and freshly slaughtered meat as well as the fresh vegetables and lentils that are served with rice. The cuisine offers plenty of spicy or non-spicy options with freshly ground spices climaxing to give a splendid taste despite of the absence of red chilies, tomato and onion.
The cuisine obviously has variations from Bengali food, as people from Bangladesh or Dhaka shifted their base and re-located to various parts of Bengal. It can be broadly categorized under the following:
Western region: Concentrating on Khulna and Jessore areas as well as those close to the West-Bengal cities of Balurghat, Ingrej Bazar, Murshidabad and Dinajpur, the popular dishes here include Fish Head Curry, Dalna, Chachari, Hilsha with mustard, etc. The gravies are slightly sweet and ingredients are often fried before being added to the gravy.
Northern region: The North Bengal area, especially Cooch Bihar, Jalpaiguri and Siliguri also boasts of certain Dhakai traits. The main characteristic of this region’s foods are they are focused on desserts and use banana, raw papaya, raw mango, urad dal and grilled or smoked vegetables.
Southern region: The Sunderban belt has also been influenced in their style of cooking methods. Dry Fish (Shutki), Bamboo shoots,
sea fish, etc. are the specialty of this region, and the people here use lots of chilli flavours and coconut in their preparations.
Apart from West Bengal in India, there are pockets in Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi where one can enjoy Dhakai cuisine. It is also widely available across certain regions of Europe especially in London, where over 13 restaurants serve this cuisine. Even the Middle East has quite a satisfactory number of people who incorporate this in their staple diet.
Fresh produce, freshly ground spices, dum cooking style and sautéing form the fundamentals of this cuisine. Unlike contemporary Bengali cuisine, which is improvised to cater to customer needs, Dhakai cuisine is more home-style and largely remains unchanged.
What makes this cuisine stand apart is that it derives a natural sweetness from onions, by caramelizing it. Another conventional aspect is that only mustard oil or ghee is used as the cooking medium. Whole black mustard seeds and freshly ground mustard paste are also a typical combination in most dishes. A pungent mustard sauce, called kasundi, forms the base ingredient for fish dishes and
vegetable dishes popular in Dhaka. Some of the well known dishes of Dhakai cuisine include Khasir Gelasi, Morog Pola, Ilish Paturi, Tehri, Kochur Saag and Pati Sapta.
Dhaka’s main staple food of sweet water fish comes from its river-dominated regions, which are home to thousands of fish types like Hilsa, Rui, Katol, Koi, Pabda, Boal, Citol, Magur, Sing, Mola, Dhlea, Kajoli, Kakchi, Aar, etc.
The staples of Dhakai cuisine are rice, with varieties like Chinigura and Kalijeera, which is a common component of everyday meals, and to a lesser extent, unleavened whole wheat bread like naan.
The five prominent lentils varieties used in most dishes include Bengal gram (chola), pigeon peas (oror), black gram (biuli), and green gram (moong). Pulses are used almost exclusively in the form of ‘dal’, except ‘chhola’, which is often cooked whole for breakfast and is processed into our (beshon).
Various varieties of green vegetables and fruits are available throughout Bangladesh. A host of gourds, roots and tubers, leafy greens, succulent stalks, citrons and limes, green and purple eggplants, red onions, plantain, broad beans, okra, banana tree stems and flowers, green jackfruit sapla, Arbi Stem, kochur loti and red pumpkins, are to be found in the vegetable markets or kacha.
Country chicken, seafood, fish and mutton dishes are favorites across Bangladesh and the cuisine also incorporates various drinks such as Labang, Sorbots. A full Dhakai meal might look like it is meant for those with gargantuan appetites, but the cooking techniques involved actually make it easy to digest. You can easily wolf down Paat Patar Bora (fried jute leaves), then scoop up Khasir Gelasi (lamb curry with potatoes) or Boal Do Pyaza (a fish gravy) with some Polao or Chatur Paratha (bread made from gram our), and then polish off some desserts like Chitoi Pith. Then glug down a couple of glasses of Borhani, a digestive drink, to help you deal with any tummy pangs.