Of Rice and Remembrance

Table Talk takes on two this time! Atuly and Shakil share their experience unpacking what it truly means to be Bangladeshi, and their patriotic allegiance to white rice. 

“Winter in Dhaka is something, haan! I remember, when I was young, waking up in the cold to go to class and on the way, my mum would treat us to some pitha. That’s what probably dragged me out of bed too! Those winter mornings and eating pitha on my way to class with my sister and mum, are one of my earliest and fondest memories of food.”

I’m excited to sit down with Atuly, our pitha (rice cake) enthusiast, and Shakil. A few years ago, work across the Indo-Bangladesh borders brought us together and food sealed our friendship. Meetings would be planned around biryani lunches and frequent cha breaks planning our next meal helped get through long workdays. I always suspected that they would use my visit as an excuse to eat (more) and as our friendship progressed, I realized I wasn’t entirely wrong.

“Being Bangali means loving bhaat (rice) and maach (fish)”, shares Shakil. “I’m a bhaat person all through!”, chimes in Atuly. Atuly and Shakil, though not originally from Dhaka (meaning, they were not born in the city) call Dhaka home. They are quick to establish that, similar to most people from the Indian Subcontinent. We tend to be very particular about where we ‘come from’, or as we endearingly call it, “our native place.” For some, it is the land on which they’re born. For some, a place in which they grow into themselves, And for others, it’s an emotion they can bundle up and migrate with, defying geographical boundaries. For both Atuly and Shakil, exploring the idea of calling Bangladesh home, of being Bangali, has been a journey into their own lives and the lives of their nation. From exploring aspects of Islam from a modern lens to reconciling with Bangladesh’s tumultuous political past, to unpacking present-day effects of colonialism, it’s been quite an experience. And while that has often been unsettling, a mound of bhaat, at the end of a long day, has never failed to deliver.

It’s worth noting that the humble grain of rice, one that is often absent-mindedly served on the plate, finds itself deeply embedded in the Bangladeshi heart and belly. It plays a vital role in Bengal’s larger narrative, finding itself on both sides of history - one that tells tales of luxury and prosperity and one that’s stained by irreversible natural and political disasters. Its stories are venerated through both prose and poetry, passed on from generation to generation, like a coveted heirloom.

“I believe the various famines changed the way we looked at rice, food and just eating in general.”

Atuly grew up in a home where food was an integral part of being a family, especially when her father was in town. Having taught children in the Korail slum of Dhaka city, she has also seen how one of the largest slums of Bangladesh, interacts with food. We often see these vignettes in isolation, when the truth is that they exist in context to history. “I believe the various famines changed the way we looked at rice, food and just eating in general.” shares Atuly. While Atuly refers to the various famines that have hit Bangaldesh over the decades, we turn towards looking at the Bengal Famine of 1942 in particular.

In 1942, a massive cyclone swept off the winter crop, which formed a substantial portion of the region’s annual crop yield. While some historians cite that as the main reason for the Famine, others look to inhumane colonial wartime policies that perpetuated the effects of the natural calamity. The broken policies began to emerge in the backdrop of World War II, Burma fell to the Japanese forces, causing a massive exodus of Indians residing in Burma. These Indian refugees fled to British India, entering through the Bengal province (present-day Bangladesh and North-East India). By 1943, grappling with the aftermath of the cyclone, a growing migrant population, heavy military presence, all exacerbated by failed colonial policies, a once-thriving land was destroyed, claiming close to 3 million lives. Today, as we read about it as an event that occurred and settled down like forgotten dust, the ghosts of the famine continue to live on in kitchen rituals and habits. Like the comforting bowl of khichuri, a brothy rice-dal dish has a culinary footprint that can be traced back to relief camps across Bengal.  A humble reminder, bridging the past with the present.

While rice plays an important role in seamlessly bridging memories and flavours, one cannot commit the crime of overlooking the role of the other member of this two-part band: maach or fish. The staple rui fish, lathered in a yoghurt gravy and tempered with mustard oil is every Bangladeshi’s home-base meal. The region’s beloved hilsa fish comes a close second and requires a mysterious skill to separate the bones from the flesh, one that cannot be taught and must be inherited. Beyond this, Bangladesh’s regional cuisine is alive with diversity. Atuly talks about chui jhal , a dish unique to the region of Khulna, where chui, a type of a tree-line creeper, is cooked with meat or fish. Chittagong’s famous mezbaani mangsho, beef slow-cooked for hours in a spicy gravy, usually made in huge quantities for social gatherings, has put the region on the culinary map of the country. And almost as an afterthought, the labra, a stew of vegetables, takes care of the vegetable department in the Bangladeshi diet.

“There is full truth to the saying mach-e-bhaat-e-bangali. Rice and fish make a Bengali!”

Interestingly this diversity is also encapsulated within the capital city of Dhaka. Shakil shares stories about Old Dhaka or Puran Dhaka, a part of the larger cosmopolitan city of Dhaka, like a forgotten page torn out of a history book. Here, he shares, one finds a unique array of Mughlai food served with a side of Urdu, a legacy of the Mughal Province of Bengal. While “Bihari camp” style kebabs and pre-partition lassi stores tempt the wandering soul, rice, in all its glorious forms still takes centre stage. The pulao, or spiced rice, in this part of town is elevated to a “Mughal biriyani”. Now one would think that the rest of Dhaka has enough-and-more of its share of biriyani, but both Shakil and Atuly vehemently point out that “Puran Dhaka biriyani is just not the same.”

“Rice, and the belly that comes with it, is integral to the Bangali identity. There is full truth to the saying mach-e-bhaat-e-bangali - rice and fish make a Bengali!”, shares Shakil as Atuly nods in full agreement. I find myself nodding in agreement as well, thinking back to all the meals I’ve shared with friends and family, who call Bengal their home. But today, it also rings slightly differently. While the saying may be true in spirit, one cannot look away from the complicated history that the grain of rice carries today for many across the subcontinent. Some look at it with wistful nostalgia and a sense of home while others carry with them the inherited trauma of darker times. As the modern Bangladeshi plate shifts to make space for ‘modernization’ (“pizzas replacing daal-bhaat meals” as Atuly’s grandmother shares often in dismay) there seems to be an almost underground movement to preserve the ‘authentic’ Bangladeshi meal, honouring the legacy of an important cuisine. Whether housed in boutique restaurants or in simple homes, there is no doubt that the way to get to the heart of Bangladesh, is through its belly.

It becomes clear to me that I may never look at a plate of rice in the same way. I may never take for granted the intoxicating, perfumed smell of the ambemohar rice ( a western Indian variety of rice I grew up eating). I hope I pause to listen to the rumble of my stomach each time a soft, fluffy mound of rice hits my plate, acknowledging the journey it’s taken to make my home, a home. And while I will never truly be able to fathom the journey, I hope it always serves as a plate of remembrance.