Achaar, very simply put, is pickle. But the Bangladeshi variations, especially as compared to the picked fruits and vegetables of the West, will make your head turn. They can be made from anything, the most popular being mango, olive and tamarind to chilli, onion, etc., pickled in mustard and other oils with an assortment of spices.
They're usually sour but can also be sweet and are almost always spicy. They add flavour to any snack or meal and are the best way to ruin a perfectly controlled diet because achaar will simply have you eating more and more of whatever it is you may be eating.
Bakarkhani is a dry, crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth type of bread-like food, very popular with people of Dhaka who have it as a snack or breakfast. Though bakarkhani may be consumed as a standalone, it goes well with other food such as deshi omelette and shutli kebab.
Bakarkhani comes in different flavours such as mishti (sweet) bakarkhani and paneer (cheese) bakarkhani, which is very popular.
Bakarkhani from Old Dhaka is also particularly popular and sought after; there are many restaurants in the old part of the city where people go just to have bakarkhani. Stacks of freshly baked bakarkhani lined up at Old Dhaka bakeries is a common sight.
If you're hungry but not too hungry and just want something to nibble on, you're almost sure to come across some 'chanachurrrrr' and jhal muri wala anywhere in the city.
Chanachur is a spicy mix of lentils, peanuts, chickpea flour, corn, vegetable oil, flaked rice, fried onions and curry leaves with nuts and chickpeas fried into it.
It can be mildly spicy, though that is rare, bordering on quite hot, yet once you sprinkle that first fistful into your mouth, you're bound to get hooked.
Chanachur can be had dry the way it comes in readymade packs, or, for vendors on the street or the more dynamic people at home or at work, it can be done up with mustard oil, chunks of tomato, onions, green chilli, coriander leaves and even a bit of cucumber, lending it a sharp, spicy, hot and tangy taste all in one.
If you are desperate for a quick snack and do not have the energy to deal with too many ingredients at once, chapri would be a good idea. Dough balls made of wheat are flattened (like pancakes) and cooked without any oil on a fry pan.
To literally add spices to the whole concoction, bits of green chillies and onions are mixed with the dough before cooking.
Chhit ruti is light, floury bread with little pores and thus the 'chhit', somewhat like pancake but thinner and lighter. It is usually had for breakfast, with everything from eggs, bhaji or fried vegetables, meat or gravy. The challenge is to eat the delicate layers without tearing them.
Chotpoti and phuchka
It's usually a hard choice between chotpoti and phuchka, with them being similar yet having subtle differences. The base of both is boiled chickpeas, doused in tamarind sauce, with potatoes, a bit of onion and green chilli. Garnishes on the chotpoti include everything from more green chilli, onion and coriander leaves to boiled egg brought almost to a powder and sprinkled on top.
A similar concoction makes up the filling for the phuchka which is then nestled into small flour shells. These are broken up and sprinkled onto chotpoti as garnish. Both come with similar yet separate 'tauk' or a sour, sweet and sour, lemony sour or simply hot and sour tamarind juice mix to add even more flavour.
The trick with a plate of phuchka, with usually eight to 10 shells brimming over with the filling, is to get each one in one big mouthful.
Doi bora is a snack for the spice lovers! Small balls made of lentils are dipped inside dahi/doi or curd. For a special taste, many like to mix the dish with different kinds of seasonal spices and coriander leaves.
Haleem occupies a special place in many of our tables, especially for those residing in Dhaka and the other urban centres. This preparation of wheat, meat, lentils and spices is especially popular during the month of Ramadan, although the dish is available in restaurants and food stalls all throughout the year.
Although over the years, haleem has become a local dish for Bengalis, it is likely that haleem is a foreign import. Haleem is a Persian word, and the dish is available in Iran, Turkey, Northern Iraq, the Caucasus region, Pakistan and India. The variety of haleem varies from region to region but it always includes wheat, meat and lentils.
Whatever its origins, haleem has become local for many Bengalis. However, haleem is hardly available in the rural areas, especially in those places that are located far away from Dhaka. Preparing haleem can be a lengthy process, although the use of modern day conveniences has made the preparation easier.
Made with flour, milk, sugar and eggs, some of the main ingredients which bring out the taste in this popular sweet dish are carrots, pineapples and different kinds of seasonal vegetables. A dish of halwa is a common desert item for the guests to try after a wedding dinner or even an evening snack.
A regular item on the wedding dinner menu, this particular desert is orange in colour and resembles rice. This after dinner snack is best when accompanied by mini gulabjamuns or other kinds of sweetmeat.
An age-old sweet dish is the payesh or the kheer. Plenty of traditions and ancient stories revolve around this snack, made of milk, rice, sugar or gur. In some households, having a few spoonfuls of payesh before setting out to work is considered to keep the body and the soul running strong for the day.
For those with an extra sweet tooth, morobba is the ultimate treat. Boiled mango or pumpkin is cut up into pieces and soaked in sugary syrup. Some leave it soft and moist in the syrup itself, while others let it dry and harden into a sugar crust with the fruit soft and jelly-like inside.
Mughlai parata is a delicious, special bread-like food item, mixed with eggs and fried in oil. The very name suggests the origin of this mouth-watering parata (a special preparation of bread).
Mughlai paratha originated during the Mughal rule in the subcontinent from those imperial kitchens of the palaces, which have gifted much to the cuisine of this subcontinent. The imperial kitchens of the Mughals are credited with contributing other delicious food items to this region such as chicken tikka masala, boti kebab, shikh kebab to name just a few.
In Bangladesh, Mughlai parata is available almost everywhere from roadside stalls to the posh restaurants in Banani and Gulshan, although the taste and quality varies according to the restaurant.
Pithas are truly a Bangladeshi specialty. 'Cakes' does not do justice to the whole range of pithas that people make, depending on which part of the country they are from, what ingredients are available and popular and what suits the taste of the locals.
The very basics would have to be coconut and jaggery, but can include everything from milk and flour to bananas and even meat. Although most pithas are sweet, they can also be salty or even spicy, with vegetable and/or meat stuffing.
They can be fried golden brown in oil or soaked in milk or sugar syrup. Like the popular winter bhapa pitha, they can have a warm jaggery filling inside or like the long and elegant pati shapta, have a smooth cream filling.
Samosas and shingaras are common snack items amongst office goers, on campus amongst students and also in many restaurants and eateries. Vegetables or meat are stuffed inside lumps of dough made of flour and deep fried in oil. The complete snack is usually accompanied by cups of tea or soft drinks.
A sweet dish made especially on Eid, to a first-timer this snack will look like noodles! Made with rice powder or sometimes even cabbages, shemai looks and tastes better with a little sprinkle of coconut powder on top.
Jhal muri is a similar concoction to chanachur, but the bulk of it, even if one chooses to add all of the above to it, is puffed rice. All of the above is shaken into the mix in the rusting tins carried by the vendors. Minus the oil, it is a rather clean little snack, but of course, as with most Bangladeshi snacks, the riskier their ingredients, the tastier they are!
What says culture better than a country's cuisine? Within the culinary traditions of a nation lie small secrets that reveal slices of its inhabitants' lives, their habits and history. Bakarkhani speaks both of a Mughal past and winter evenings spent sipping tea interspersed with cautious bites of the flaky delight. The chotpoti or phuchka conjures images of a bright light shining through a grimy screen window of one of the thousands of mobile stalls in the city, and the crackle of collapsing phuchka shell as the shopkeeper thumbs holes into the crunchy shells to serve his eagerly awaiting customers, who may be a family or a group of friends. This week, Star Lifestyle takes a look at some quintessentially Bangladeshi snacks that have formed an indispensable part of our lives and contributed to our identity as Bangladeshis.
Photo: LS Archive