Asian Traditional Food Diary: Bangladesh

Bangladesh traditional food is originally healthy and nutritious. “Nowadays, the problem is availability, quality and quantity of food. People hardly have enough to eat.” says Rontgen. However, just as he is very sympathetic to the sad plight of its people, he also eagerly describes the various native, rich and creamy desserts of this poor country!

Bangladesh was originally part of India. That is why geographically, on all three sides -North, East and West – it is surrounded by India. On the South is the Bay of Bengal. This means that the culture as well as the traditional food was originally Hindu (meaning, pure vegetarian).

Our friend, Rontgen Poresh Bala is a 37-year-old PhD in Education says, “In my family, we are 6 generations Christians. And before that, it was Hindus.” Christians are a very small minority in Bangladesh. The majority is Muslim, but like Rontgen’s family, they have Hindu roots. This means that not too long ago, Bangladesh was actually a Hindu country that became 98% Muslim territory. And this brought about a dramatic change in the people’s diet.

Rontgen continues, “Hindus don’t eat beef. They regard the cow as sacred. They are pure vegetarians. The Muslims are meat-eaters, except for pork – they don’t eat pork. But the Christians – they eat everything!” So because of strong Muslim influence and a bit of Christian influence, meat, fish and eggs are now a permanent part of the Bangladesh diet. “There are very few vegetarians in Bangladesh today. The only vegetarians there are now a few Buddhists and Hindus”, adds Rontgen. However, a closer look at the basic traditional food that Rontgen’s great, great grandfather ate show clear traces of a diet that was once purely vegetable-based, nutritious and healthy.

“In those days, there was enough food for everyone. People had sumptuous food to eat”, Rontgen states. Breakfast consisted of rice, chapati, any of the following vegetable dishes: alu varta (mashed potatoes), alu vagi (fried potatoes), darosh vagi (fried okra), bagune vagi (fried eggplant), full copy vagi (fried cauliflower) a variety of green leaves, torkary (mixed vegetable curry), fresh cow’s milk or goat milk, bananas, papayas or camote (sweet potatoes).

For lunch, there was always rice, a variety of mixed vegetables, beans and grains such as monggo dahl, masoor dahl, and garbanzo dahl. Before meat and fish curry were introduced as basic items for lunch, Bangladeshis used to eat various dishes using mainly vegetables such as potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, eggplant, string beans, squash, pepper, taro (different varieties) carrots, okra, patola, mushroom, cucumber, lettuce, turnips, peas, sprouts, flat beans, water gourd, radish and onions. Other lunch favorites are Piagy made from dahl powder, onion and chili), Chira (flat rice), Muri (puffed rice) Khoi and Pupad (dahl powder poppers).

For dinner, again rice and mixed vegetables or a combination of beans or grains and vegetables are served. “The main food product of Bangladesh is rice”, says Rontgen, but there is also wheat, lentils, dahl and many different kinds of grains and beans. There are also various kinds of fruits such as mangoes, jackfruits, pineapple, guavas and papayas.

With such abundant traditional food, one would think Bangladesh is well on its way to self-sufficiency. But instead of being able to feed its own millions of people sufficiently, every year the World Food Organization has to supply Bangladesh with tons of beans and grains to help feed its hungry people. So many children are dying because of lack of food.

So what went wrong? Why is Bangladesh now ranking as the 2nd or 3rd poorest country in the world? To see Bangladesh in such a hapless condition is a little stultifying. After all, it is a country that was once a part of a very rich culture. “Today literacy is very low. And over-population is a main problem – 150 million people in an area of only 155,000 sq. miles!” exclaims Rontgen. That’s about 1 million people for every 1,000 sq. miles!

Rontgen went on to cite the example of his own village named Ramshil where he was born and raised in. Ramshil is located in the province of Gopalgonj. It is the hinterland of Bangladesh – – a region lying in the inland from the coast. Ramshil is surrounded with plains – no highlands, some areas are even below sea level.

For 6 months in a year (June to November), Ramshil as well as the rest of the other Bangladesh villages are underwater because of continuous rain. “Bangladesh is in a very weak position when it comes to natural calamities. This is the main reason why the country remains poor”, says Rontgen. For a period of almost half a year, there’s 10 or 8 ft. of rainwater everywhere that people have to travel by boat! The rainwater stays for such a long time that it is impossible to plant or grow anything. Rainwater comes from the Himalayan Mountain Ranges and flows to Bangladesh from the northeastern side via the Jamuna River. And in those long rainy months, to be sufficient in food becomes such a daunting task. And so as the pace of the world economic development accelerates, Bangladesh is left behind; it just isn’t agile enough to keep up.

Bangladesh was under British rule for 200 years (1751-1947). In 1947, India gained independence from Britain. Then India was divided into India and Pakistan. Pakistan was later divided into East and West. Then in December1971, East Pakistan gained its independence and became what is now known as Bangladesh.

Bangladesh traditional food is originally healthy and nutritious. “Nowadays, the problem is availability, quality and quantity of food. People hardly have enough to eat.” says Rontgen. However, just as he is very sympathetic to the sad plight of its people, he also eagerly describes the various native, rich and creamy desserts of this poor country! Rontgen tells us warmly, “When you go to Bangladesh, don’t forget to eat Rosogolla, the most popular and delicious sweet dish. It is made from milk, cream, butter, flour, sugar and some spice. It is very delicious!” And then he tells us about Mistanno (sweet rice sometimes cooked with raisins and some nuts), Rosmalai (same ingredients as Rosogolla), Jilaphi (made from flour, sugar and oil), Doi (milk curd and sugar), Pitha (country cake made from rice powder, coconut, gur (sugarcane candy) or sugar as well as different varieties of Pitha such as Kulipitha, Patisapta, Chushipitha, Sujapitha. For us it is indeed a sweet reminder that beneath this country’s impoverished condition lies traces of an ancient civilization’s wholesome food tradition.

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