Occasionally, a cookbook comes along that lures you into hours of reading. The recently published Recipes from Bangladesh by Fawzia Mowla (fondly known as “Lisa”) is one such book.
The cookbook was recently launched on April 4 at the EMK Centre in Dhanmondi, with Tasmima Hussain, editor of the women's fortnightly, Annanya; Sultana Kamal and Khushi Kabir, speaking.
Sultana Kamal recalled the reverence with which the poet and social activist Begum Sufia Kamal --her mother-- approached cooking. Despite her extremely active public life, she regularly cooked for the family, meticulously cutting the vegetables according to strict specification. Each dish required that a specific vegetable, fish or meat had to be cut precisely at a certain angle, in a certain shape, size, and thickness to complement the other ingredients; details were also critical for how effectively a dish absorbed and refracted the aroma and taste of herbs and spices-- just so.
Traditionally, offering food has been all-important for demonstrating welcome and respect for a visitor. In turn, the quality and generosity of the cuisine has acted as proof of the graciousness. As such, knowledge about food types and proficiency in cooking has always been important to women's social lives. The unique strength of Recipes from Bangladesh is that it is not the work of a professional chef. “I am not a chef,” Lisa insists, “but I love to cook.”
Rather, the book is a deeply personal reflection of a young woman's experiences growing up in a household in the 1960's-- when the home dominated the social landscape, and cooking and the kitchen were all-important. In Lisa's case, her home was dominated by gourmands with very demanding standards for cooking and food preparation.
Consequently, while most cookbooks resemble a laundry list of recipes broadly separated into groups according to their main ingredient (rice, vegetables, chicken, beef, etc.), the context of Lisa's book is very different. It was Lisa's son who, having witnessed Lisa record recipes for years, urged her to bring them together in the form of a book. Recipes from Bangladesh is a token of a mother's love and gratitude for the son who passed away in 2014.
The recipes in the cookbook are rooted in the preferences of Lisa's family members; the practical hints acquired from her mother, grandmother, and the cooks hired to help in the kitchen; accordingly, ever so often, a recipe (e.g., pea polao) is described as a specialty of her grandmother. Many are listed simply as “Ma's recipe.” One dish (khosh) is described as being on top of her father's list of favourites. Then there is vegetable biriyani that Lisa had to invent when one of her brothers suddenly became a vegan.
For Lisa's friends and family, the book markedly bears the influence of one more family member in its organisation and attention to detail and precise sequencing of steps-- her father; “the most avid fan and most scathing judge of my cooking,” Lisa hastens to add.
Because the recipes are sourced from the family kitchen, Lisa's selection of dishes has welcome balance of “special occasion” dishes for weddings and formal gatherings; and everyday dishes. Lisa's festive food like polaos, kormas, and kababs are legendary and form the core of orders that her exclusive catering business fields from her home in Dhanmondi.
Not only do the recipes for everyday meals cover the gamut of preparation methods from boras, bhajis, bhartas, chorchoris, and dalnas, but they also include specially prized varieties within each group. For example, nothing comes close to beating the aesthetics and taste of kumraphul (pumpkin flower) pakoras. The choice of bhajis, dalnas etc. also ring true. Based on using local vegetables like kochu, thor, amra, raw mango, echor (raw jackfruit), and kathaler beechi (jackfruit seeds) and shojna, they take one back to times when each variety of vegetable and fish food seemed to have a flavour and individuality of their own.
Another plus point of the book is that it is wonderfully chatty. When her family lived on Aga Masi Lane in Old Dhaka, the author confides, she was able to witness the evolution of a humble operation, which used to sell biriyani in bowls made from jackfruit leaves into an urban legend. That legend is none other than Haji Biriyani of today!
The recipe for a rice dish called khosh, e.g., carries the cautionary suggestion that if the kalijeera rice is new, one needs only 3 ½ cups of water to 2 cups of rice. However, rice held over from prior seasons call for 4 cups.
The preambles to some of the recipes resonate with voices from another era.
When introducing a recipe for khichuri made with the humble kaon (millet), considered to be bird feed, the author seems to echo the voice of her grandmother when she adds, “We don't throw away anything that is edible.” The theme recurs in the recipe for boukhooda, where the author adds that winnowing rice to separate whole from broken grains has been a daily routine in Bangladesh. When enough broken rice is accumulated, women use it to cook a delicious rice dish. Seasoned with ginger paste, garlic paste, sliced onions, salt and oil, boukhooda is scrumptious with chapashutki.
Finally, Recipes from Bangladesh has benefitted greatly from the author's decision to open up the book to recipes from outside the family---particularly recipes from the Hill Tribe regions. Thanks to this, the book now contains directions for a number of scrumptious dishes such as shujoni dine morich baitti (dry prawn bharta in steamed cabbage leaf), hurau tudaiya (chicken bharta), pajonton (a vegetable stew), maachh khola (rui fish); bajo shumo loi maachh (fish cooked inside a bamboo), hangara loi shuguri gulo thone (crab with sweet pumpkin), hurau era toon (chicken curry), etc.