I am everywhere and nowhere. I started tonight’s lengthy journey boarding a train in East London; scaled the Himalayas with a mocktail at Cinnamon Kitchen’s Anise bar; met an Indian goddess incarnate – the Lucknowi-based Savitri Sharma of diminutive charity Find Your Feet; and hung out with an ‘East-meets-West dandy’ who hails from everywhere and nowhere all at once.
So I am feeling a little displaced. And now I am in this place – a little corner of Bangladesh on Brick Lane that stole a little corner of my heart long ago. To inject yet more masala to the mix, I’m here with a trio of Bombay brilliants whose brilliance makes our meal feel more like an Irani cafe confab than a quick Bangla bite.
And, when the noise from these guys’ tummies finally drowns out their endless gupshup, it turns out they’re starving. Hungry, too, to discover more about a cuisine that features familiar flavours, but remains unfamiliar enough to feel alien. I’m feeling apprehensive; suffering the fear struck into one by a foodie friend muttering the doom-laden uttering, ‘this better be bloody damn good.’
But it IS good, as it always is, as I know it always will be. The bad part lies in the choosing from an array of appetising items; the eschewing the chewing of one super supper for another. Luckily, the Bombaywallis and their wallah counterpart are as enthused as I am; together, we’re a greedy gang.
At this stage, eyes are bigger than bellies. But, as an extra table is added to accommodate our excesses, and a multitudinous multi-dish pile-up is strewn across the sizeable space leaving little room for manoeuvre, it seems safe to say that’s soon to change.
Our riot of rice is really rather ridiculous – a quartet of pristine white platters piled high. Sufficient starch? It appears not, so a pair of pliable parathas are plunked down. Lal shak, a dry preparation of red spinach redolent with roasty-toasty garlic that’s just the right side of smoky, is our collective nod to ‘5-a-day’.
That, and the verdant squidge of saag cooked with tiny prawns that squeak slightly too loudly of the ocean for one of our number, a Bombay lass who’s none too fond of that state’s fondness for ‘aromatic’ dried fish dishes. I, on the other hand, lap it up. No cutlery comes into play – if this is what’s meant by a ‘hand-to-mouth existence’, I’m happy to live it.
Feeling your way with the food helps plenty when it comes to steering clear of the plentiful bones that are the bane of a Bangladeshi fish-eater’s binging. Boal fish fried hard in mustard oil is a meaty treat, but by God there’s bones on this flesh. It’s not one you can gobble with gusto.
Chitol kofte, another of our dozen-plus dishes, excellently illustrates one way to banish the boniness of a somewhat spiky species – mincing the rich meat and forming it into tender balls which bob in a thin, spicy gravy. Banish all notions of manufactured ‘fish balls’; these are just dreamy.
‘Dreamy, creamy, marvellous manna’ is my verdict on the brain masala – although for a certain self-confessed squeamish compatriot the notion is more of a nightmare. Similarly the beef liver; to me, it’s less richly-spiced stew than comfort blanket, to her, the dish is really quite discomfiting.
But she finds her own solace in a homey chicken stew, and, to collective surprise (not least her own), in a desiccated dish of minced chitol fish, poi saag and mustard oil. A bowlful of boal roe bowls me over; the unique, beguiling bite of the hard roes a clever contrast to the tender Bangladeshi beans known variously as uri or sheem bisi. We feast, and feast fast… but once all four of us are full to bursting, bounty remains.
So we do what anyone in this situation should – pack up what remains, so we each have a little of that Bangladeshi bounty to brighten our tomorrow. Firm new friendships have been forged through fine food. We started with a moglai pastry cut into four perfect quarters; we end with the four of us forming a perfectly happy whole. One night on Brick Lane, Bombay met Bangladesh – and rather liked what it found.
- For a story of cooking a traditional village-style Bangladeshi wood-fired curry with Lovedesh, click here
- For more on finding brilliant Bangladeshi bits on Brick Lane, click here and here
- For your own revelatory gastronomic experience, visit Tower Hamlets and explore the area around the Osborn St end of Brick Lane and Whitechapel High Street with an empty stomach, and explore the numerous Bangladeshi cafes, restaurants, groceries and sweet shops.
Click for a selection of online resources:
- Virtual Bangladesh food info
- Syeda Farnaz’ blog on Bangladeshi food
- A bit from the BBC on the Bangladeshi community of Brick Lane
- Tower Hamlets residents’ stories from the ‘Bangla Tales’ project