Happiness as Defiance in Bangladesh


According to the Happy Planet Index, Bangladesh ranks 8th among 140 countries. Just for comparison, the USA, where I live, ranks 108.  How is this possible that a place plagued by a high density of population, poverty, halting traffic, uncertainty and low life expectancy be so….happy? There seems to be no reason to be happy in the developing world. Afterall, most of my family chose to emigrate to the West. What did I miss?

Over my brief holiday stay in Dhaka, I caught glimpses from a fourth story veranda that might explain the high happiness factor.

Here’s my personal observation:

People seem to actively pursue small joys despite the inconvenience of crowds, traffic, workday, etc. No excuses. Morning walks by the lake, tea at the street corner with friends and strangers, wearing vibrant colors, music on the rooftops and streets and prayers on the street. Two things stand out:  socializing and eating. A lot. Everywhere. Based on the quantity and variety of food in the streets no one would believe hunger existed in Bangladesh.

New Year’s Eve there was a government ban on fireworks. Yet, I was woken up at midnight to the sound of fireworks shooting off the rooftops along with a steady stream of rising gentle glowing paper lanterns. Some caught on fire, some blew off to far away places to litter a different neighborhood the next day, there were explosive color and noise, alongside flickering floating lights, there was the sound of laughter, the smell of food cooking on the rooftops. People are willing to burn money for a good show of joy (fireworks are super expensive!) as a social service not mere personal luxury. It was the most private yet shared joy I experienced in any New Year’s Eve celebration ever,  as much a spectacle as a meditation. It was beautiful and unsafe. Whenever I need a moment of magic I’ll remember that dark night sky shot through with color, light, laughter and joyful defiance.  Thank you, Atiya for the photograph capturing the lanterns.

There is no reason to be happy. Like beauty, happiness is not efficient, clean, predictable, convenient or contained. In Bangladesh happiness doesn’t perch on your shoulder gently when you are not looking, as a side effect of ease. It is a  hard-fought battle against difficult circumstances and with considerable risk, along with others sharing tea and snacks.

Snack on and socialize everyone!

May you be happy,









Eating at Home in Dhaka

This plate of food was one of the many delicious meals I enjoyed last week.  It has my favorites: tiny fish cooked with onions and peppers, daal/lentil, rice, shrimp with squash curry and mashed pumpkin (bharta). My plate is missing the small fried fish and the fried squash blossoms. None of this would be available at a restaurant. This is what Bengali food looks like. Vegetable and fish-focused light, flavorful curries, bhartas (mashed veggies with onions and chilies, like mashed potatoes in the West), daal and rice.

I love the idea of eating flowers. These fried blossoms were tender, crunchy and gently spiced.


Prawns with Coconut milk. Classic. Yes the heads are still there. Heightens the shrimp flavor. Taught my girls the joy of sucking on sweet shrimp brains. One of the heavier and involved dishes we had along with the famed Biriyani (goat cooked in a sealed pot with rice, potatoes and spices) from Chef Fakruddin. Luxurious and definitely party food.

We can’t forget desserts. Rice flour and sugar based “Pithas” as well as milk and sugar syrup based “Mishti.” These beauties were not home-made but delicious just the same. Other store bought delights included mughlai paratha (flaky flat bread stuffed with spiced egg), samosas (triangular crispy pastries with beef fillings, not to be confused with potato filled samosas, which are called Shingaras in Bangladesh), Jelabis (funnel cake looking, orange-colored, crispy sweets), patties (chicken or beef filled puff pastry).


It was a week of good eating four times a day, three meals and tea time. I was spoiled, full and happy. Thanks to my mom for planning all the yummy eats and her most talented cook Islam Bhai who fulfilled her plans expertly. He was working too fast and furious for my camera to capture.

The best part of the holidays is around the table eating with family and friends. I had a delicious winter holiday. Hope yours was too.

Wishing you Happy New Year,



Shrimp Koftas In Coconut Sauce

This recipe, from Khulna, is adapted from my favorite Bangladeshi Regional Cookbook. It is similar to the traditional coconut shrimp recipe, Chingri Malaikari except the shrimp is formed into koftas (meatballs) and the sauce is spicy, sweet because of the combination of  roasted onions and chili powder. The ground shrimp balls are airy and almost have the consistency of a dumpling. The spongy texture absorbs the sauce more than intact whole shrimp. It doesn’t really stretch the shrimp because no fillers, breadcrumbs or otherwise is added. But, it is a good use for small or medium shrimp. I wonder if this would be good with polenta or grits, a deshi adaptation of southern shrimp and grits?

IMG_2039Shrimp Koftas in Coconut Sauce (Chingri Koftai Narkel)

  1. Process shrimp in a food processor until smooth, yielding a cup. This a good recipe to use small and medium shrimp (preferably on sale).

  2. Saute a cup of chopped onions until roasted and brown.

  3. Add 1 teaspoon ginger paste, 1/2 teaspoon garlic paste, 1 teaspoon chili powder, 1/2 teaspoon tumeric and fry until fragrant (about a minute). The oil will roast all the spices into a sauce. Add a splash of water to keep it from sticking to the pan.

  4. Add 2 cups of coconut milk (one can).

  5. Bring to a simmer. Drop spoonfuls of the ground  shrimp into sauce.

  6. Simmer on low. High heat will break up the delicate shrimp meatballs. Shrimp cooks very quickly.

  7. Add a stick of cinnamon, 2 cardamom pods and a bay leaf and remove from heat. Sprinkle sugar over the tops of the koftas. This adds a sheen and a contrast against the spice.

  8. Serve with rice. Makes about 4 servings.


It was very well recieved by Atiya and Jim. A keeper recipe for me. I hope for you too!

Happy eating,


Daal Basics

IMG_2483I’ll be the first to admit that lentils, beans, chili are not the best-looking dishes. I’ll also admit that a well-prepared daal can be comforting, filling and satisfying enough to overlook the unfortunate  aesthetic challenge. Most uncooked beans are beautiful and vibrant in color. I found vibrant red azuki beans at my local ethnic grocery store and ironically lured by their beauty bought them without ever having cooked the beans before. It became my culinary experiment for the weekend. After an unsatisfying recipe search online, I decided to treat it like any other daal.

  1. First step, boil the lentils (red, split pea, yellow, azuki, kidney, urad etc.) until soft. Add atleast double amount of water…more water the bigger the bean. These azuki beans were soft within an hour over a low simmer. You want the water to cover the beans by atleast an inch.
  2. Add tumeric and salt. A teaspoon of each for every cup of lentils is usually enough.
  3. The next part is where you can get as fancy or keep as simple as you like.  Saute in ghee or the oil of your choice: onion slices for a basic daal….at this point you can also include: garlic, ginger, tomatoes, cumin seeds, garam masala, coriander leaves, dry chili peppers, bayleaves, depending on what you have. You can also add coconut milk or cream for the heavier beans like kidney or azuki to give the daal a heartiness. On the other end of the spectrum for a light summer daal you can boil and strain red or yellow small kernel daals, add lemon juice, cilantro and mint for a bright broth.
  4. Pour the flavored oil over the beans. Mix in or  leave the flavored oil and toasted spices floating above the rich soup. Enjoy as a soup or with rice or bread.

My failed search made me realize that I can make deshi dishes as simple or as complicated as I want. Let your pantry decide for you. If you have the spices use it, if you don’t, staples of onions, garlic, and chili flakes are enough. For the azuki soup,  I included almost everything mentioned above. I was happy with how it turned out. Smooth and luxurious because of the cream, spicy because of the peppers, sweetly warm because of the garam masala and cinnamon. Try your own version soon. Throw in your pantry of spices or don’t. Either way the beans will do most of the work.



My Three Rices


In my pantry I have a large plastic bin with three bags of rice. I remember, Jim’s surprise, a reluctant rice eater at the time, the first time I brought a 20 pound bag of rice home. Regardless of whether I eat rice everyday, I NEED rice in the pantry. Sure, I also have small bags of brown rice and black rice, along with couscous, quinoa, polenta and other grains. But, white rice is my comfortable default.

There are three specific types of rice in my bin: Thai Jasmine, Indian Basmati and Bangladeshi Chinigura or Kalee Jeera. Each kind meets a different emotional register. The first, top left of the image, Jasmine rice is bright and has an almost floral scent. Soft and sticky it is easy to eat with my hand. It reminds me of forming tiny curry flavored rice bites and hand feeding my girls when they were little.  The gentle rice is a gracious host for robust Asian currries and stirfrys .

The second and middle pile, is Basmati. With long elegant grains, it has a nutty, warm taste. Best sauteed in ghee and spices, Basmati makes the best pilafs. Fork friendly and fluffy it is the ideal introductory rice served across Indian restaurants in the world. Cooked with strong cumin seeds, cardamom and cinnamon, Basmati doesn’t loose it’s texture or nutty flavor. Perfect with South Asian and Middle Eastern flavors.

The third (lower right in the image) rice, Kali Jeera or Chini-gura, is a small grain Bangladeshi rice. The tiny kernels are strong like Basmati and flavor-wise gentle like Jasmine. Good to eat with my hand or my fork. Just as fantastic in a fragrant Biriyani, as it is as a plain boiled rice with a light curry. I have used it for dessert, baby food and festive food. The only reason I don’t use it everyday is because it is expensive, sometimes not so easy to find and so very special.

For me, these three rices map my taste buds that range across Asia and the Middle East.

What is your preferred rice?



Bringing Bitter Back

The 2015 December issue of Saveur includes a Bitter Melon tofu stir-fry recipe. It reminded me of my grandmother who would, much to my childhood discontent, insist on starting every lunch with Bitter Melon Bhaji. Worse, she would offer the second course, usually a delicious light fish or chicken curry, only after evidence of a finished bitter melon plate. Bitter Melon was the unwelcomed gatekeeper of lunchtime deliciousness.

My grandmother was a staunch believer in bitterness, a Bengali version of the British stiff upper lip. For her, all sweetness came at the price of bitterness. “The more you laugh, the more you’ll cry,” all the cousins joke. Bitter Melon wasn’t a vegetable, it was a philosophy. I had misinterpreted the lesson as a prescription to avoid the sweet, in order to avoid the bitter. Instead, it should be: accept the bitter and the sweet, equally. It makes life full and robust, a meal savored and stretched between bitter, salty, spicy and sweet. An appreciation of bitterness maybe a taste that is acquired by diligent practice and age. My love of cooking is no small part due to my grandmother’s slow, methodical, everyday practice of cooking. Here’s to you, Bubu.

I’d like to bring bitter back as a taste to be savored along with others, instead of avoided or feared. This is my bittersweet New Year’s Resolution: To finally embrace the Bitter Melons of my life.

Recipe for Bitter Melon Bhaji (Serve 4-6)

  1. Wash two or three bitter melons depending on size.IMG_2372

  2. Slice length-wise and scoop out seeds (some leave seeds in if melons are young)IMG_2373IMG_2374

  3. Massage with salt and rinse with cold water for a few minutes. Rinse. Drain. Let dry.IMG_2375

  4. Put 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a hot pan.

  5. Fry a medium sliced onion until soft and starts to brown.

  6. Add 1/2 a teaspoon of turmeric and salt to taste.

  7. Add a julienned medium potato.

  8. Fry until coated with turmeric. Bright and yellow.

  9. Add the bitter melon. Fry over gentle heat. Cover.

  10. Simmer, covered until potatoes and melon are soft and edges start to brown and caramelize.

Serve with warm white rice and digest all the day’s bitterness away.

Examined Eating in Fortworth, TX

The plate is a left-over recreation of a meal that my fantastic cook and all around awesome sis-in-law, Moli made for us. Goat biriyani, chicken roast, and potato chop (like a croquet), olive pickles [missing the mixed vegetable dish and the cucumber raita salad]. It was a festive meal, full of familiar flavors associated with joyous celebrations. I was ten again eating and celebrating with my family. It was delicious nostalgia. Thank you so much Bhabi for feeding us so well.

img_2312 Bhabi led the stroll-down memory lane with many snack stops that included, “jhal muri” [a combination of puffed rice, tomatoes, onions,cilantro, mustard sauce (kashundi) and chanachur (fried crispy spicy lentils, nuts and chips)], patties, chow mein noodles, paratha and butter chicken, home-made salsa and chips, pudding, kheer, ras malai and more.

We also went to a grocery store that had a whole aisle of frozen Bangladeshi fish, shelves of Radhuni (Bangladeshi brand) spices and other very specific Bangladeshi products. This was about far away and long ago eating, different from the farm-to-table principles I’ve been researching. Is it possible to merge the two forms of community building immigrant and local into a transnational glocal convivium? That requires more eating. Back at Forth Worth’s India Bazaar, we had tea and samosas (the crispy meat filling kind, not to be confused with the potato filled Shingara). It was like a flipping through an old photo album with my mouth.  The nostalgic magnetism of remembered tastes is so powerful.

I used to believe that these familiar tastes were my only home, but now, having been at home with many tastes, I realize that my “home” has grown to embrace more people and places than ever imagined. This ability of food to put us at ease is magical.

Thank you, Bhabi for the trip back, reminding me how wide my tastes have grown and sharing your recipes.

Wedding Feast Chicken Roast (Moli and Mithun Recipe)

[rough translation]

1 Chicken

oil – 1/2 cup

salt – 2 tsp

sugar – 2 tsp

saffron color – a little

ginger paste – 3 tbs

garlic paste – 1 tbs

chili powder – 1tsp

fried shallots – 1/2 cup

Special Garam Masala -1 1/2 tsp

[2 1/2 tbs cardamom+ 1 1/2 tbs cinnamon + 1 1/2 tbs Shah Jeera-cumin + 1 tsp nutmeg + 1 tsp mace + 1 tsp white pepper = ground in coffee grinder]

Prunes, raisins, rose water 1 tbs, ghee 1/4 cup

  1. Saute skinless chicken pieces.

  2. Add salt, sugar, color. Saute.

  3. Add ginger, garlic, chili pepper. Saute.

  4. Add fried shallots, garam masala and water needed to help meat tenderize.

  5. Add prunes, raisins, rose water and ghee.

  6. Simmer on low until gravy clings to chicken and fragrant.

Looking forward to trying this in my kitchen and re-posting with an update.

Bangladeshi Cookbooks and National Identity

The emergence of a national cuisine in contemporary India suggests a processual model that needs to be tested comparatively in other postcolonial situations in the contemporary world. The critical features of this model are the twin processes of regional and ethnic specialization, on the one hand, and the development of overarching, crosscutting national cuisines, on the other. These processes are likely to be reflected and reproduced in cookbooks designed by and for the urban middle classes, and particularly their female members, as part of the larger process of the construction of complex public cultures involving media, travel, and entertainment.

This quote is from Arjun Appadurai’s conclusion to his 1988 essay, “How to Make a National Cuisine.” I like the parallelism between the dynamics of regional specialization and national cohesion on the one hand and national specialization and international cohesion, on the other. Food as a cultural site that fosters the cooperation of variety and unity, difference and identity on familial, regional, ethnic, national and international levels make cookbooks diplomatic documents of a given time and place. When I look at cookbooks in this light of cultural collision and exchange, the recipes become interesting exercises of culinary diplomacy.

I always found it difficult to explain how Bangladeshi food is related, yet distinct from Indian cuisine (as defined by Indian restaurants serving the West). Now I realize, this question of a national Bangladeshi cuisine in the international, expat context addresses only one side of the identity crisis. There is also the question of a Bangladeshi national cuisine that recognizes all it’s regional cuisines. Cookbooks by definition are for those who wander from tradition or from home. The more we wander and wonder, the more we build our collective identity. Isn’t that poetic? There is a philosophical impulse as to why so many food blogs combine food, travel and family.

I, a hungryphilosopher, believe, shared questions, not answers, unite us. “How does it taste?” is a loaded cultural question! Over the years, my mom, supplier of cookbooks and avid collector of recipes, gave me three cookbooks that support Appadurai’s dual model of making a national cuisine. They show the growing urban, literate, middle class, as well as, an interest in travel both domestic and international. On a personal level, these books represent my mom’s hope that I retain tastes of Bangladesh that flavor my identity.

All these books are primarily intended for domestic consumption and ex-patriots hoping to recreate “home-food.” The more willing a nation is in supporting regional and cultural differences, of recognizing internal “ethnic-others” the stronger it is able to cook a national cuisine. The progression of Bangladeshi cookbooks in my library shows an emergent respect for regional cuisines but has yet to embrace “ethic-others” into a conversation about a national Bangladeshi cuisine.

Ranna, Khaddo, Pushti (1978) and Bangladeshi Curry Cookbook (1984)  by Siddiqua Kabir


In 1976 first edition introduction Siddiqua Kabir, the pioneer in Bangladeshi cookbooks,  talks about the book as serving women’s curiosity for foreign foods as well as a need for preserving traditional recipes. In contrast, the introduction to her 1984 Bangladeshi Curry Cookbook, written in English, aims to introduce Bangladeshi curries to non-Bangladeshis.

Secret Kitchen of Tommy Miah (2007)


This dual-language, Bangla and English, book with glossy images and advertising (for dish washing liquid) on every page shares the fusion recipes of celebrity-chef Tommy Miah.

Bangladesher Ancholik Ranna by Runa Arefin (2009)


This book written in Bangla is my new favorite. The introduction talks about rescuing threatened regional recipes and traditions, about meeting cooks across the country, about a collective respect for the craft of cooking. I’ve learned a lot about what I thought was familiar yet overlooked.

A more detailed study of Bangaldeshi cookbooks might show a developing national cuisine with its own unique characteristics. How do other emergent national cuisines cook up their identities? Any readers out there willing to share? Belize, Costa Rica, Nepal, Cambodia, Nigeria, Bosnia……

Deshi in the Dorm Kitchen- Moli’s Moghlai Porota


This recipe is an expanded version of my sister Moli’s recipe. When I asked her she said….oh its so easy… you just stuff the packaged porota with keema and bake it in the middle of oven. This is what happens when you ask an experienced cook for a recipe. So, this is my attempt to explain the process for Amani, my baby deshi in the dorm.

Here’s what you need:


2 packages of frozen Paratha (I ran out and tried it with frozen chapati…not as yummy)

You’ll get five stuffed porathas out of this recipe.


2 Eggs (beaten)

Here’s a quick recipe for keema (the beef stuffing)

1 lb of ground beef

1 tsp ginger paste

1 tsp garlic paste

Salt and Pepper

1/2 cup cilantro, 1/2 large onion, 2 chilli peppers…chopped fine.


Brown beef with a 1/2 cup of water, ginger, garlic, salt and pepper.

Optional: Sprinkle a teaspoon of garam masala, 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, 1/4 of a lime juice.

Turn off stove. Top browned beef with onion mixture, cover and let sit for 10 minutes.


Now your keema is done. You can use it for this, for samosas, aloo chops, patties….for any deshi filling.

1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees

2. Defrost porota enough to be pliable

3. Spray two oven trays with oil.

4. Place five porotas on the trays.

5. Brush each with egg.

6. Top each with keema (about 3 tbs/each). Reserve extra for later.

7. Add more egg on each if desired (warning, the egg might leak out if you put too much)


8. Cover each with another porota.


9. Bake for 30 minutes. Center of oven. May need flipping in order to brown all over.

It tastes like a spicy, flaky and delicious meat pie. Great as a snack with sweet chai.

Enjoy! Thank you, Bhabi!

Deshi in the Dorm Kitchen (Chicken Rezala)

Dear Amani,

Here is the chicken rezala recipe. When cooked the yoghurt will look a little curdled. Don’t be alarmed. After it cooks down and you add the fried onions (and the oil you fried it in)…chili pepper, sprinkle sugar and squeeze lemon, it all looks good. Very yummy with porata but rice always works. You can add sauteéd mushrooms to stretch the dish and make it more non-deshi friendly.

The mixed vegetable dish is one that your Dadi makes really well. My shortcut and take on her recipe is simply to boil a bunch of vegetable together (be sure to cube the same size). In this case eggplant and squash (lao?). Boil with spices, half a teaspoon of each until the vegetables are tender. Add water almost covering the vegetables.

Cumin, Coriander, Chili powder, Tumeric, Ginger and Garlic (paste)

Salt about 1 teaspoon.

Fry half an onion sliced and one clove of garlic with ghee, butter or oil. If you have “panchforan” and cilantro, add it. If not, no problem. Finish with a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of lemon.

Eat well.



Photo from Sep 2014 Photo Stream

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