Spices are important to creating flavourful food, and in their varying combinations, are often the main differentiating ingredient among cuisines of different regions. Apart from the numerous health benefits associated with different spices, each adds a distinct aroma and flavour to food, and the art of cooking lies in balancing just the right amounts to create a scrumptious medley— and in case of spices, a little goes a long way. So where do we find these spices in Dhaka? Obviously, many are available in the superstores and general stores, but where do they go to get their own supplies? That hub, the mecca of spices in the capital, lies in Shyam Bazar of Farashganj in Old Dhaka.
Situated right beside Sadarghat, Shyam Bazar is one of the older market places in Dhaka. It has that distinct “old town” ambiance that we are familiar with and even the shopkeepers give you that vibe when you talk to them.
Shyam Bazar is a rather colourful place in more than one sense. In literal terms, you will notice bright colours all around you as soon as you step in the bazar. There are piles of onions, garlics, chillies being displayed in every shop and their colours are sharp. If you take a sneak peak in one of the shops, you will notice that each of them has their own supply of spices, arrayed in various hues.
One might expect a room full of dusty brown sacks when speaking of spices, but in Shyam Bazar, it’s the exact opposite. The onions are packed in semi-transparent red sacks. The garlic comes in the blue ones. Together, they stand out rather well.
Aside from the colours, one might notice the encompassing vibe of this market. The sirens of the steamers/ships can be heard... The place is oh so busy! The truth of life in this place is business. The goods here are brought in by the water route as well as on trucks, making this place one of the busiest places in Dhaka.
Imagine this if you will, a place so crowded that one might actually have to wait for their turn to walk. More importantly, as soon as you get there, you will notice that unmistakable tingling in your nose announcing the presence of red chillies. Their attractive colours may tempt you to forget about the tingling sensation but only to fall prey to the rich aromas of ginger and turmeric, and that is Shyam Bazar for you.
The people in the Indian subcontinent like their food spicy. Yet, a visit to the bazar might make you wonder how so many powerful flavours and aromas coexist in food, and at the same time, marvel at the cuisine’s sheer brilliance in the use of spice to create variety.
In this mad busy hub of spicy commerce, you might wonder if the shopkeepers actually took out time to organise the items in this aesthetic way, even though they didn’t.
“The best thing about Shyam Bazar is that we bring in the goods every day and from all across the country. Everything here is as fresh as its gets,” said Abul Khair, with obvious pride in his voice. “I’ve been here for 30 years,” he added about his days at Shyam Bazar.
Another interesting thing one might notice is the use of chalk and slates, even in this modern day. Because of convenience (and perhaps tradition as well) there are slates hanging in almost every shop, with the daily ware prices written on them, saving the customer’s the trouble of asking about each individually.
With the signature grandeur of old Dhaka, dedication of people like Abul Khair and the healthy habit of maintaining regular fresh supplies, Shyam Bazar is always abundant with the spice of life.