Dhaka discoveries & a Sylheti supper in the East End

Brick Lane street sign

Brick Lane is a coin with two distinct sides. Yes, there’s a gauntlet to be run through persistent touts promising you the world; the best curry in London; or, at least, a ‘free’ bottle of wine. Yes, the curryhouse windows are almost totally obscured with dubious accolades and testimonials from obscure sources. And, yes, the majority of this food is cooked by cynical chefs, designed to extract maximum profit from the most meagre materials.

And you can taste the insincerity. No matter if the food itself happens to be palatable, the experience leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Not so much for the boozed-up brigades looking for a pint of something cold and fizzy, balti by the bucket-load, and the horrible ‘honour’ of huffing and puffing through the hottest dish on the menu, maybe. But for anyone who has a bit of respect for their food, for themselves, and for the people who cook it.

And you can bet you won’t find those people chowing on chicken tikka masala. Post-service, when the curryhouses close, the Bangla cafes fill up with fellows feasting on fish and rice. These joints are what form the other side of that Brick Lane coin. Ensconced here to eat, I feel I’ve won the toss. Keep your korma; shingara, shatkora and sana tost is currency I’m happy to trade in. Add in the guaranteed gyaan baazi  – knowledge exchange – and this exchange rate’s even more favourable.

Tonight, appetite, mind and spirit are fed at Amar Gaon. The initial brusque demand, what do we want to eat?, softens the moment we puff out our cheeks and exclaim, ‘everything!’ Do we like spicy? Do we eat fish? Meat? I spy my favourite Bangladeshi beans, ‘uri’ or ‘sheem’, and point out the stew. Then prawns cooked with the mukhi – eddo – my friend Yasmin included in the Lovedesh Wood-fired Curry we made. I want that, too, and more besides.

Go and sit, Sylheti proprietor Ahmed insists. He’ll take care of it, we’ll eat well. We share the best salty lassi I’ve tried; tart, fresh and frothy. There’s a heaping plate of rice each, then a procession of tiny portions. We eat in near silence, a few grunts attesting to our enjoyment our only exchange. I don’t know whether to close my eyes in pleasure or open them wide in amazement. Whichever way I look at it, it’s all blinking amazing.

Amargaon

I couldn’t wait to start and now I can’t bear to finish. To stuff or to savour, that is the question. We try our best to prolong the ecstacy, but it’s agony. Those tiny prawns are perfect against the starchy softness of the mukhi and tender lau – bottlegourd. Uri add their inimitable earthiness to a dish of hard fish roes in thin, piquant gravy. Brains are cooked into a spicy, ambrosial porridge, rather like warm pate. Finger lickin’ and sinfully sumptuous, suited to the small serving.

I can’t stop carping on about the rui – carp – for days to come. It’s flavoursome, meaty; the richness slaked by the musky, zesty shatkora slices. Yeah, it’s a bit bony – but that slows me down slightly and I’m grateful. Chital is another bony Bangladeshi beasty, but that’s sorted by both forming it into tender kofte and flaking it into shukti bortha – a dry preparation with mustard greens. A moglai finishes us off, the deep-fried ‘Bangla burrito’ filled with keema and egg and authentically anointed with ketchup.

Moglai paratha

My friend hasn’t returned to Dhaka for three years. This is the first time he feels he’s taken a quick trip back ‘home’, the brief jaunt lasting just as long as the food. Such is the power of an honest dinner done well. Flavours are once familiar and alien to him, regional ingredients like shatkora a totally new taste. Back in Sylhet, Ahmed tells us, everyone has a tree laden with the spectacular citrus. I can’t leave a Bangla grocers’ unladen with my own harvest. And now, neither can my companion. Our bill comes with a confession – the chef is a woman. That, chuckles Ahmed, is why it’s so good.

We’d gladly accept his offer of masala chai and mishti, but we’re acutely aware of our need to avoid becoming part of the furniture. If we don’t leave now, we never will. But it’s not an easy decision, or an easy feat after our feast. A few strides down the street, and we find our feet once again…And they lead us straight into the path of temptation. Or, at least, Alauddin sweetmart. I can’t choose, so I don’t. Our table is a rainbow riot of far more sugary sins than are advisable at this time of night.

Alauddin

So, a glimmer of Brick Lane brilliance, and a glimmer of hope that there’s scope beyond the curryhouse. The food market here bursts at the seams with weird world wonders. Although on the surface it seems there’s not yet an appetite for the bounty of Bangladesh, I don’t buy it. Bring it to the foraging foodies swelling this market of a weekend; hungry to try the foods and dishes people genuinely savour rather than simply sell. They will buy it – and be very satisfied customers.

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7 responses to “Dhaka discoveries & a Sylheti supper in the East End

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