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Sylhet Cuisine Memories of delectable food from my youth

Ziauddin Choudhury

My love for food was generated early in my childhood by the delectable cooking of my
grandmother in Sylhet. This was further whipped up by the variety of dishes produced by
her that represented originality and locality typical to Sylhet. My taste buds were also
nurtured and developed by equally delicious food, although of a different cooking style,
prepared in my fathers ancestral home. Luckily for me, my mother combined in her the
cooking styles of both houses, and her cooking was delicious. But lacking the local
products, ingredients, and the environment that added flavor to my grand mothers
cooking, my mother often lamented that the food prepared by her in Dhaka did not quite
match the cooking in Sylhet. Although we, her children, would vehemently disagree, we
would secretly wish that we could travel down to our parental villages where the tradition
of scrumptious local cooking continued in the hands of skilled artists such as our aunts
and other relatives.

With our grandmothers demise and with the migration of our uncles to cities our visits to
the Sylhet villages dwindled over time; but our love for Sylhet delicacies never ceased.
The opportunity to visit Sylhet again in quest of food arose again when Deepika, a
friends wife, an avid food lover, and a food writer of fame, showed interest in regional
cooking of Bangladesh.

Hailing from West Bengal, India, Deepika had spent several years in the US on higher
education where she had met my friend and got married. On their return, Deepika
wanted to go back to writing and was looking for materials for her new book. She had
been to several areas in Bangladesh and tasted a variety of local cooking, including the
famous Dhaka cuisine of Biryani, Kababs, and Parathas. She had also tasted various fish
preparations that came from other districts of Bangladesh. When I informed her that
Sylhet had a unique cuisine of its own, like the dialect we spoke that is very different
from Bengali spoken in most of Bangladesh, she was incredulous. The only way to
convince her, I thought, was to invite her to Sylhetmore precisely to my ancestral
village and let her taste our cooking. Deepika and my friend agreed.

The year was 1974, and traveling to Sylhet by road that time was not easy. It took nearly
a day to negotiate three ferries, badly paved roads, and hazardous traffic. I planned our
trip a month ahead. For the road adventure I secured a sturdy Land Rover, and for the
night accommodations I got the Sylhet circuit house (using my government position).
For the main event, eating Sylheti dishes, I sent appeals to my loving uncle in Sylhet that
these be arranged for our guests in our ancestral village. I left the menu to his choice, but
emphasized that all meals should have local flavor.

We arrived in Sylhet town quite late in the evening, and although it was late February, we
were quite sweaty from travel and exhaustion. Unfortunately, I was not in charge of the
dinner menu in the Circuit House, and therefore, we had to accept whatever was offered
to us by the Cook cum Chowkider. Hungry, all three of us wolfed down a Bangladeshi
version of a chicken roast generously spiced with garam masaala, potato bhaji, daal and
rice. When Deepika looked at me askance, I assured her that this was not the Sylhet food
I had promised her. That would await us in my ancestral village. She said she was
looking forward to it. That night I prayed that my uncle had better not fail me.

The next morning we headed out after having our bed tea in the Circuit House for the
days trip to my ancestral village. As we approached our village home I showed my
guests the green belt of mango trees, betel nut trees, palm trees, and other fruit bearing
trees that surrounded our house. Right in front was a large pond also fringed by trees that
had several flights of stoned steps leading to the water. The pond also carried a large
variety of fish farmed for eating.

We alighted from the Land Rover to the greetings of my uncle who had arrived two days
earlier from Sylhet to prepare the epicurean reception of my guests and me. A crowd of
other visitors had also gathered to receive us. I explained to Deepika that it was a more a
reception of her, than me.

We were taken inside the house, more precisely the Baithak Khana (literally Sitting
Room), which is somewhat akin to the modern Drawing Room in an urban setting. My
uncle asked us if we needed to wash before breakfast, which was ready. We replied that
we had already done washing, and were hungry for the breakfast. We were led to an
adjacent room, where the delectable dishes were laid out on a table. These were already a
feast to the eyes.

There were at least ten varieties of marvelous edibles on display. There were several
different pithas (dumplings, patties, pan cakes), and a variety of mithais, or sweet
preparations. The first pitha, called Choi Pitha, is a steamed rice dumpling sliced and
fried, was to be eaten with minced and fried fish (with options of eating with scrambled
egg and local cheese). The second pithaabsurdly called Handesh (Sylheti
pronunciation of Bengali Sandesh, which is actually a sweet confection of milk), was a
fried patty made of rice flour filled with fried fish, or minced meat (chicken, goat or beef)
cooked with spices. The third variety, called Dhupi Pitha, a preparation of ground rice
shaped into circles, and then steamed with spiced, minced fish (either dry fish or regular
fish) as a filling. A fourth kind was Chitoi pitha, which is actually a pan cake made of a
batter of ground rice, and eaten with thickened milk. There three kinds of mithais; two
kinds of Barfisrectangular concoctions of either coconut and milk or eggs and milk;
and doughs in different designs, fried in oil and then dipped in sugar syrup. I described
each dish to Deepika who diligently took notes while savoring it. In between the dishes
we gulped famous Sylhet tea fresh from the gardens nearby. We could hardly lift
ourselves from our chairs after this heavy but extremely satisfying breakfast.

After breakfast my uncle asked us if we would like to take some rest in the guest rooms
that were made ready for us in the inner sanctum of the house. We declined as my friends
expressed a greater desire to explore the lovely gardens outside.
We sauntered out with my uncle as guide. He explained to Deepika the different types of
mango trees and other fruit bearing trees that were planted over three generations.
Among the fruit trees that Deepika was attracted to were those that bore Kamranga, Bael,
Boroi, and Ada Lebu. Kamranga (known in the US as carambola or star fruit) is a longish
golden- yellow star shaped fruit. The fruits are crunchy, and have a slightly tart, acidic,
sweet taste, reminiscent of pears, apples, and sometimes grapes. The fruit is eaten straight
like an apple, or as a savory salad mixed with other fruits and spices. The Bael fruit has
grey or yellow rind and a sweet, thick, orange colored sweet pulp. The pulp is taken out
and eaten as a drink mixed with either water or milk. The unripe fruit is traditionally
used a remedy for dysentery. The Boroi (also known as Ber or Jujube in some parts of
India) is a soft, sweet and juicy fruit the size of a large cherry. The Ada Lebu (called
Lembu in Sylheti) is actually a lemon with a strong scent of ginger (hence the name),
which is used as a flavoring agent in cooking, particularly fish.

As lunch hour was drawing near my uncle reminded to us get back home. But we were
still full with the mornings breakfast. We asked uncle if we could eat fruits for lunch.
My uncle agreed rather reluctantly as preparations for lunch were already made. We told
him that we would make amends at dinner.

The fruit lunch that we had was also worth remembering. We were in luck as it was the
season for the three fruits that Deepika had fancied. The first item was sliced Kamranga
mixed with ground coriander, ground cumin, and tamarind water. The second was Boroi
slightly smashed, and mixed with chopped green chilies and fresh coriander. There were
also whole Kamranga and Boroi in platters. For drink we had Bael Sherbet, which was
pulp of the fruit mixed with milk.

Before dusk we went to the back yards where my uncle had a small poultry and animal
farm of sorts populated by ducks, roosters and chicken, a few goats, and of course, three
milk cows. It was a wonderful sight for us city dwellers and the hired farm hands there
took great delight in showing us the amply grown poultry and other animals. That night
when we were having our dinner we knew the where some of the meat came from.

When the sun set, I was delighted to see our old house lit by electric lights, something I
could not have dreamed of during my visits years before. Soon it was dinner time, and we
were already hungry. We reassembled in our dining area, this time to be blown over by
the number of eating items gathered on the table. It was truly a Kings feast that was laid
out. There were at least seven fish items, and five meat dishes. There were vegetables, but
these were mixed with either fish or meat. The main meal would be followed later by
several dessert items, but I will come to these later.

The first fish items that we ate were fries of Rohu (Carp), Koi (climbing perch), and Ilish
(Hilsa). The Rohu and Koi came from our pond as also the Katal that followed later. My
uncle explained that the fish were caught the previous day from the pond. The Ilish is not
native to Sylhet, and was bought from the bazaar. The Rohu slices were fried Sylhet style
in mustard oil seasoned in salt and turmeric powder, and then garnished with sliced
onions, fresh radishes, and green chilies. The Koi was similarly fried, but was later
smeared in a sauce of coriander, turmeric powder, red chilies, and tomatoes. The Ilish was
simply fried in oil and served with fresh coriander and slices of tomatoes.

My uncle then directed us to the meat preparations stating that we should change the
palate before we reenter the fish world. The first meat dish was Duck Musamman
(Sylheti for musallam, a spicy roast), a dish made famous by my grand mother and later
by her able daughter, my mother. The dish, which is extremely rich, calls for preparation
of at least twenty-four hours. The cleaned duck is hung upside down in the kitchen
overnight, and later fried slowly in ghee. A special concoction of stuffing made with
different spices, onions, garlic, and ginger is prepared separately, and the half cooked
duck is smeared with the paste inside and outside. The duck is then put inside a heavily
lidded pan and cooked till the meat comes off the bone very easily. The duck was
followed by a beef dish cooked with Hatkora (a large sized lemon grown in Sylhet and
adjoining Assam districts, resembling a grapefruit, which is both sour and bitter in taste).
This was a unique Sylheti preparation that requires an acquired taste for Hat kora. The
dish is spiced up by the hottest pepper known to manthe famous red chili of Jaintyia,
but the chili is tempered by the bitter-sour taste of Hatokora. The third meat dish was
chicken cooked with Kaddu (a kind of squash). This was a relatively less spicy item
cooked with fresh coriander, turmeric powder, cumin powder, and green chili, and
flavored with orange peels. The orange peel gave a unique taste to the preparation.

We were then redirected to the remaining fish dishes. The first was a Koi cooked with
orange segments, another creation of my grand mother and followed diligently by my
mother. The combination of spices and orange sent heavenly delights down our palate.
This was followed by Ilish cooked with pineapple, another prize winning dish of Sylhet.
The Katol fish (a variety of carp) was cooked in a light sauce of red chili, turmeric,
coriander, and onions with orange peel. The last fish item was Ghania (a kind of bony
perch) cooked with Ada Lebu, that supremely fragrant lemon from our garden.

The dinner was rounded off by desserts of which there were three kinds. We had hardly
any more space left in our stomach, but struggled somehow with our full bellies to taste
them. First was tenga (sour) doi (yogurt) sweetened with gur (jaggery), and then kheer
(rice pudding) made with khejur rosh (date palm juice) followed by biroin bhat (sticky
rice) with thick, creamy milk and jaggery. At the end of the feast we wished someone
would carry us to the guest rooms. We thanked uncle profusely for his generosity and
sauntered to our rooms.

The next morning we had to leave early as my uncle had arranged for lunch at a Tea
Garden in Srimangal, on way back to Dhaka. Our morning breakfast was brisk, and light
compared with the stupendous meals we had the day before. Nonetheless we savored
some local delicacies such as Chira (flattened rice) with doi and a special banana called
champa (very small and sweet), some left over pithas and tea.

The Manager of the Tea Garden where we stopped on the way for lunch was a former
student of my uncle. We reached there a little after noon time. He received us very
cordially and conducted us to his beautiful, large bungalow that dated from the British
days. On the way we passed through patches of Tea Gardens where the female workers
were busily plucking tea and throwing the harvest into the baskets tied to their backs.

On arrival at the bungalow we were served cold refreshments of lemonade made with
limes fresh from the garden orchards, and chunks of pineapple grown locally. A little
later we were called to the lunch table by our host.

The lunch was notable in many respects as it included items and dishes that Sylhet and
my grand mother were famous for. The first item that attracted my attention as well as of
Deepika was the appetizerChunga Pitha, which is sticky rice cooked or rather steamed
in segments of a special type of bamboo grown locally. The rice thus cooked is taken out
of the bamboo segments after slitting them so that rice could be presented as a chunga
(tube) in the dish. The tube of rice is sliced and eaten with spiced dry fish, or any other
meat. As a side there was mashed potato spiced with Hidol Shutki (a dry fish of sorts
fermented in a clay pot, with a very strong smell) and a red hot pepper called Naga. The
second major item was spiced Rani Fish (a very special small fish resembling sardine
with yellow stripes). I had not tasted the fish since I had last visited Sylhet. This was a
prized fish item only available in Sylhet. Next was a meat dish, again a Sylhet specialty,
duck cooked with korul (Sylheti for bamboo shoot).

The last itemthe piece de resistance for me at least, was Pancha Khatta, a semi bitter-
sour dish of beef trotters cooked with Hatkora. There are few Sylhetis who will not
swear by and will be prepared to give their eye teeth for this. This dish made immortal
by my grand mother and mother calls for boiling beef trotters and parts of the shin with
garlic, onion, ginger, and turmeric powder for several hours. Hatkora slices are then
added to the stew, and gradually thickened. The gelatinous stew, fragrant with the scent of
Hatkora, is eaten with rice. I ate to my hearts content. To my surprise I found Deepika
also enjoying the dish enormously. We had little appetite for any dessert after this
enormous lunch. But we did taste some tasty Morabbas, squares of pineapple cooked in
heavy sugar syrup, and the ubiquitous caramel puddingstaple of Tea Garden lunches.

We had great trouble in getting up and leaving the Tea Garden that afternoon. But leave
we must, and therefore we laid our full but heavily satisfied bodies in our Land Rover. A
dutiful but alert driver took care of the road while dozed off in the vehicle reminiscing
and reliving the taste of our 36 hour food journey to Sylhet.

I am recording this momentous event after more than three decades simply because my
friend Deepika never narrated this in her food writings later. Did she really forget this
journey, or was it just my imagination?