The late afternoon sun hangs as heavy in the sky as the smell of woodsmoke in the air. There’s a constant, rhythmic pounding in your ears as steady and insistent as your own heartbeat. Your fingers are stained brilliant yellow; your shoulders ache; your stomach contorts with hunger. You’re not in Bangladesh, nor in Britain… you’re in both, and neither.
And you’re mid-way through rustling up dinner with your fellows. They could be villagers, they could be cityboys. No matter – each of you is a vital link in the complete curry chain. It’s simple – play your role, and you all eat. Rest on your laurels, and no-one eats. Today, we’re chomping at the bit and keen to get chomping, so are aiming for the former – and, let me tell you, it’s a labour of love.
The more you put your back into it the better the food seems to taste. It’s that teamwork that makes you eat with such relish, seasoning the dish so perfectly. It’s the division of labour that unites you in savouring the shared result. It doesn’t matter whether you lay your wood-fire in a remote rural village in Bangladesh, or a back garden in London. The experience is the tie that binds.
More than most, Yasmin Choudhury understands the alchemical power of food in fostering understanding, love and respect between alien cultures. Travelling to Bangladesh and hanging out with local folk, she insisted she wanted to learn to prepare and cook wood-fired chicken curry with the women of her ancestral village. Of course, they thought she was mad.
Yasmin’s certainly mad about her cause – promoting travel, trade and tourism within developing countries. Her company, Lovedesh, started with Bangladesh, but hers is by no means a journey with a single destination. She’s as fired up as the wood fire we’ve just built to bring unexplored countries’ traditional culture, cuisine and craft to the UK; convinced their creativity will convince us to take a trip.
And taking part in the pioneering run of the Lovedesh ‘Wood-fired Curry Experience‘ is a real trip for me. We’re a dynamic, diminutive little group who connected up via sheer happy happenstance – and all this bashing and burning has forged a bond between us as indelible as those pesky turmeric stains on my fingertips; a sunny tattoo I wear with pride.
The daily grind for the village cooks starts with a literal daily grind; the hypnotic pounding and scraping of whole spices and seasonings on a sil-nora – the traditional stone. We wear geeky goggles as eye protection – unlike those women who endure the ocular assault from the eye-watering pungency of fresh chillies entirely unshielded on a daily basis. It’s eye-opening food for thought.
There’s plenty of time to mull it over as we mill ginger, garlic, turmeric, chillies, cumin and coriander to fine pastes; a little water to lubricate proceedings our only kitchen aid. This stew is a far cry from what you might mistakenly perceive as ‘Bangla’ food – that base gravy-based nonsense churned by curryhouses. This is subtle, aromatic, simple, nourishing. It’s what they eat in Bangladesh, not what they hawk on British high streets.
Not many high street establishments would afford such effort. There’s no cutting corners; no hurrying the process. The wood-fired curry dictates when you eat; you have little say in the matter, no matter how loudly your stomach grumbles. You pound, you build, you stoke, you stir. You watch, you wait. You add eddoes, you wait aeons. There’s no chivvying the chicken.
And finally, you eat. You chew chicken but taste sweat and toil, tradition and history. The smoke brings ancient, elemental earthiness. The knowledge that your dinner prep involved no smoke and mirrors brings satisfaction. Your second plate brings satiety. The whole shebang brings Bangladesh to Britain. By contrast, our quick-cooked comparison curry fills our tummies but leaves us empty.
Those turmeric stains may have faded, but the sense of privilege at being allowed to take part in the tradition remains. I wish those village women were there with us – but hey, maybe one day. I’ll go to them, or they’ll come to me. We’ll work hard, shoot the breeze, share the spoils. At least now, thanks to Yasmin and Lovedesh, I know how to bash and burn with the best of them.
- Follow @LovedeshScout on Twitter and for more information about Lovedesh, click here.
- To book your own Wood-fired Curry Experience, click here.
- From Autumn 2014, Yasmin and her team of Lovedesh Scouts will be leading trips to Bangladesh. Fancy joining her? Click here for more info.
- Watch the films Yasmin has made with the local Bangladeshi folks to get an idea of what you can expect from a trip with Lovedesh.
- Huge thanks to Foodish Boy for the pictures and for kicking off his ‘52 food jobs across the world in a year‘ quest in style!