While Old Town offers timeless classics from the last protected vestiges of the Mughal period, the New Town prefers its servings to be flashy and more global. Which one stands taller in the end is yet to be decided. Against this backdrop, we have another clash of cultures, albeit of a different sort. The World Cup in Brazil offers an interesting clash of footballing culture, but you can see an international-ness creeping up in all the teams. Perhaps it's that presence of this "international-ness" that so far separates the Old and New Town culinary scenes. This year, it can be seen that a lot of restaurant have tried to ensure a marriage between the two different taste concerns of Dhaka, but often times it's a farce, like Samba soccer and the possession game a la Diego Costa. How well the new or old arrangements work can best be judged by oneself, pitting the individuals in the groups against each other.
From the Old Town, sehri means the same whispers of age old combatants. Al-Razzaque leads the front line, having made their sehri offering of chicken/mutton biryani and tea a legendary treat. Be it 1:00 am or 3:00 am, Al-Razzaque is always full during the sehri hours, with long lines seen outside the eatery. Men and women of all ages are seen milling around, usually one hand on a chair occupied by someone, akin symbolically to raising a flag for a new Island conquered in the name of the Queen.
Royal hotel in Lalbagh too has a built a similar following. It's all too easy to believe that people throng the place right after prayers, because the place is never empty. Their badamer sherbet, fortunately, is a relief you can get even without laying claim to a table or chair. These two aren't the only stalwarts, with numerous other legendary names waiting in the wings. Nanna Biryani too isn't far off, one name among many in Old Dhaka's biryani category. At a distance in Chankharpool, Star's first branch stands proud, serving their famous mutton gelassy to an unending wave of customers. The Old Town's biggest advantage is how clustered eateries are in each location, meaning you'd rarely go hungry.
Nazira Bazaar is one such densely populated region. No part of the city looks as alive as this little corner. It's always 5:00 am in Nazira Bazaar, the street buzzing with activity all day long. Whether it's the near mythical kalo bhuna that you are looking for or one of the more well known tea/lassi stalls, Nazira Bazaar offers food at every corner. Apart from the traditional items, Mughalised versions of most things are sold, from cold drinks to chanachur. What sets Nazira Bazaar apart is perhaps the welcoming ambience of the place. It's a fantasy land of hidden, edible treasures, carelessly offered to anyone willing to take a different route. Nazira Bazaar is timeless time travel, a combination hard to beat.
The New Town, to its credit, has made notable efforts to break the monopoly. Last year, Star was the only name people could conjure up when it came to New Town sehri, but now there's more. Backyard Chef is set to return this year with their popular sehri menu. The Uttara outfit will be expected to have learned from last year's lapses at times to be ready to handle a bigger crowd. Joining the fray is also a bunch of lounges, who are now venturing beyond the comfort of their iftar menus. Cafe Thirty-Three, located in Bailey Road, too has attempted to capitalise on Bailey Road's re-emergence as THE food place of the city, by offering their sehri starting at over Tk.350. The menu consists of steamed rice, beef curry, chicken curry and others. This menu reflects a choice of many others, who have decided to keep sehri gastronomically traditional, offering "bhaat" as a staple item. In fact, most New Town sehri menus seem like an after-thought. What most have gambled on is that customers will come in, as long as there is a TV and a football match going on and that's proven to be accurate. Food carts, a common scene in and around the flashier part of Dhaka are also set to make their mark, given the abundance of customers around open-viewing areas where football matches are shown live on huge projector screens. Radisson, Westin, Khazana and Thai Emerald, huge names in the New Town eatery world have preferred to put emphasis on iftar and round off their selection with a buffet and dinner offer. Nando's and Gloria Jean's though prefer to be part of the trend. That could well be a sound decision. For all the ruckus, New Town's culinary grasp of the sehri menu is akin to Raheem Sterling's value to the England team; an over-hyped jack of all trades but the ace of none.
If that were to be the case, then the battle for sehri supremacy seems to be a forgone conclusion. With the Old Town restaurants now more willing than ever to set up TVs showing the football matches and the large crowds they always entertain, this year may too have gone the Old Town's way. The people go where the masses herd and Old Dhaka fits that description to a T.
Eating out after hours, meaning 11:00 pm Dhaka time, was not always seen as a preference but rather an indulgence. Horror stories in early morning headlines about the dark side of the city managed to keep the majority indoors for years. Post 2010, the trend began to break a little. Ramadan presented the perfect premise to get out after 2:00 am and four years later sehri-outings have become more than a passing fad. Given the convenient timing of the on-going World Cup, the sehri market seems all set to see a boom.
As the willingness to eat out during sehri has grown, so has the selection on offer. A few years back, sehri menus outdoors always meant some place in Old Dhaka, more specifically Al-Razzaque. That is not the case any longer. The Old Town's monopoly over this time of dining is now being threatened by a growing list of New Town entrants. A battle within the battle is finely juxtaposed within these two dividing lines, with each having its own unique culinary scene.