Food Habits of the people of Bangladesh reflect the geographic and climatic conditions of the land as well as effect of social and religious customs. The deltaic plains of the country are drained by a large number of rivers and soaked by abundant rainfall round the year. These factors have through the ages made cultivation of rice and fishing the chief occupations of the people. Numerous varieties of rice are produced in the dry as well as wet seasons. Similarly, hundreds of species of fish are available in the rivers, canals, floodplains, haors, baors, ponds, lakes, and estuaries and in the bay of bengal. Rice and fish, therefore, figure prominently in the food habits of the people.
Bangalis eat rice every day and at every meal. At daybreak a farm labourer or a fisherman starts his long day with a meal of panta, plain boiled rice soaked overnight in water and allowed to ferment a little. This watery rice, mixed with salt and chilli, makes a filling breakfast for the poor. Moodi or hudoom (puffed rice), cheera (flattened rice) and khoi (popped rice) are some other items of a traditional breakfast in most Bengali homes in rural areas. These items are taken with milk or yoghurt and seasonal fruits like mango, banana or jackfruit. They are also taken with gud, raw country sugar made of date juice, palm juice, or cane juice. A great variety of pithas (homemade cakes) is made of rice, especially new rice harvested in the autumn. At weddings, the bridegroom is given naksi pithas demonstrating decorative cake making at its best.
At main meals in homes of the more affluent, usually a number of dishes are served. These are bhorta (meshed vegetable or fish), bhaji (fried vegetables), dopeaji (fish or prawn cooked with plenty of chopped onion, chilli and spice), jhol (typical fish and vegetable curry with abundance of thin gravy) and dal (lentil soup) or tauk (watery soup of vegetable and sour fruits). At a bhoj or formal feast, elaborate dishes are served. Muslims take pride in offering rich mughlai dishes like beef kabab, chicken roast, mutton rejala, biryani or plain polao and yoghurt salad or borhani. Hindus avoid beef and mutton and instead, offer vegetables and fish with plain rice. Tribal people prefer to offer roasted pork and locally distilled liquor. Muslims never take pig meat because of a religious injunction. Alcoholic drinks are taboo in public functions of all communities except tribal. All communities take plenty of vegetables and lentil soup. Rural people grow their own vegetables and lentils and most often catch fish themselves.
Meat does not figure as a common everyday dish even in urban areas because of its high price. Fish is also becoming scarce and expensive because of shrinking of floodplains due to widespread construction of embankments to promote cultivation of high-yielding varieties of rice for the ever-growing population. Salad of cucumber, tomato and onion is very common. The dessert at formal or festive meals of Muslims would be zarda (saffron-coloured sweetened boiled rice), or firni-payesh, a variety of rice pudding. Rasgolla or rasmalai are also in the list of favoured desserts. Often dahi or sweetened yoghurt is offered as the concluding item of the menu. Digestive pan is a must as a finale.
There are other foods eaten in rural Bangladesh. water lily seeds, also known as makna, are eaten raw or at times fried or popped. Sweet potato is eaten in the lean season as a substitute for rice. Between the two harvests, jackfruit too comes in handy if there is scarcity of rice. New food habits are being acquired for sheer survival. wheat has now become quite common in the country. Roti, chapatti or nan made of wheat flour is popular among the masses and parata, also made of wheat flour but fried in oil or butter oil, is popular in the homes of the rich. Roti is usually taken with vegetables or simply with sugar or gud or just a cup of tea. Nan goes very well with kabab or a meat dish. Parata is taken with fried egg, vegetables, curry or halua. Roti, nan and parata are acceptable for all meals. Not surprisingly, wheat has become an important second crop during the dry season, especially in the western region of the country.
Rice is usually boiled and eaten with curry. Occasionally rice and one or more lentils are mixed, fried in oil, and then boiled to make delicious khichuri that goes well with any curry or even without anything else. Rice has other uses too. It may be grounded and made into fine flour for cakes or pithas. Rice mixed with milk and sugar makes payesh or pudding.
Fish is generally eaten cooked as curry or fried with spices. A substantial quantity of fish is dried and preserved every year. Only a real connoisseur knows what a dry fish bhorta or salted hilsa curry or sidhal (sealed in earthen pots and preserved underground) paste with a lot of chilly means to the taste. Marine fisheries have vast potentialities because of the extent of the country's territorial waters. pomfret and vetki are among very popular sea fishes. Another very popular fish is hilsa, which is usually found in plenty in the estuaries where the rivers meet the sea tide. Prawns, shrimps and lobsters are also popular but prices are quite high because of their worldwide demand. Hundreds of shrimp farms have sprung up in the coastal belt in recent decades to meet the demands of the overseas market.
The soft muddy soil of Bangladesh is ideally suited to producing a large variety of vegetables. Fruits, seeds, roots, tubers, bulbs, stems, leaves, or flower parts add taste to the bowl of rice. Green plants are popular, boiled or fried in oil with green chillies. A large part of the vegetable production is exported to the Middle East and UK and this tends to push up prices in the home market. Potato cultivation has increased, due partly to increased domestic consumption, and partly to increased cold storage facilities. But potato is not yet deemed as a substitute for rice. gourd, brinjal, beans, radish, cauliflower, cabbage, tomato and carrots are popular in both urban and rural areas. A concerted health campaign to encourage increased consumption of vegetables, especially leafy vegetables, to prevent night blindness among children and to attain a better balance in food in general has generated greater interest and increased their intake by the rich and the poor.
Various kinds of tropical fruit, including oranges, are grown in Bangladesh. The appeal of jackfruit is universal and it is grown in abundance. The poor welcome it as substitute for rice during the lean season. Eating varieties of luscious Rajshahi mango is a real treat. The juicy litchis of Rajshahi are pleasing both to the eye and the tongue. Pineapple is another treat. Lots of them are grown on the hill terraces of the Chittagong hill tracts and Sylhet as well as on the plains. The Sreemangal variety, known as calendar, is the best and resembles the Hawaiian variety. Bangladesh grows other fruits too, such as guavas, plums, melons, bananas and berries, to name only a few.
The meat produced in Bangladesh is not enough to meet domestic demand. The shortage is met by import of cattle through the porous borders of India where cow slaughtering is forbidden (or restricted in some states). The availability of poultry has increased because of the setting up of a large number of breeding farms all over the country. Farm eggs are now available in plenty.
Dhaka kabab and bakarkhani are specialty of metropolitan dhaka. The Moghuls introduced Kabab. It is made of chunks of meat skewered on an iron spike and cooked well in charcoal fire. It is like the donar kabab made in Turkey and shwarma made in the Middle East. Bakarkhani is dry flat bread baked in tandoor or charcoal peat and that goes very well with kabab.
milk is scarce and the shortage is met by import of dried milk powder from Western countries. A major consumer of milk and milk powder as well as sugar is the sweetmeat industry. It uses chhana (curdled milk) to make a wide variety of exotic but delicious sweets like rasgolla, rasmalai, sandesh, pranhara, mohanbhog, khirmohan and kalajam. All classes of people consume these sweets as often as they can. These must be offered to the guests at home and at festive occasions like child births, birthdays, successes in examinations and job searches, promotions, weddings, and to inaugurate entering a newly-built house or a business office. A visit to a relative's house is unthinkable without carrying a packet of sweets.
Sandesh pitha, also known as poa pitha or teler pitha, is prepared from a mixture of rice flour, gud and water and fried in mustard oil. This pitha remains fresh for a few days even in the hot climate. As a common practice, it is carried by a messenger in an earthen pot to convey a good news to the family of a close relative or friend. Another popular pitha is chitoi, a mixture of rice, flour and water cooked dry in a clay pan. It is eaten best with the thick gravy of off-the-bone chicken or duck. Chitoi is also delicious when soaked overnight in sweetened milk. Pati shapta is a variety of rolled pancake with a filling of kheer or thickened milk. Kheer is also eaten as a sweet dish when cooked with rice in the ratio of 16 parts of milk and one part of rice.
The food habits of the people have been undergoing changes according to the demands of the time. Working people these days flock to roadside eating shops for quick meals at a low cost. Such shops have sprung up all over the country to cater to the needs of construction workers, truck drivers, rickshaw pullers, vendors, shop assistants and, of course, travellers. These shops offer rice, vegetable, fish curry, chicken curry and pulse. Bottled cold drinks and even bottled water are on offer. A cheaper alternative is green coconut water. Tea is available everywhere. So are potato chips, biscuits and choc bars. In the urban areas hundreds of restaurants, often air-conditioned, offer Chinese, Thai and Indian cuisine for affluent families and business clients. Restaurants of classy hotels offer a wide variety of oriental and western dishes and often cater to large lunches or dinner parties in an air-conditioned ambience. Alcoholic drinks are also served at these parties. Fast food restaurants have lately been coming up in a big way, mainly to cater to the needs of the younger generation. Sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs and cold drinks or coffees are favourite items. Trendy clubs have also come up in major cities with restricted memberships. These clubs have good restaurants and also bars and are frequented by families desiring exclusiveness. Tourist hotels and motels at selected sites and resorts also offer a variety of food items to their guests. [Enamul Haq]