We have a great 'product', but are we promoting and selling enough? Promoting a country's cuisine is akin to promoting the country's culture, heritage and diversity. From tapping tourism potential to upholding our legacy, promotional activities and campaigns bring a lot of invaluable benefits.
How do you go about promoting Bangladeshi cuisine? Of course, there are no simple answers, but an accumulated effort from different stakeholders and parties would surely help our cuisine make a better mark in the culinary map of the world.
Presenting Bangladeshi cuisine to tourists
Trying out local food ranks high in a tourist's things-to-do list. A satisfied tourist is not one who has simply visited scenic places, or one who picked up souvenirs from local shops - a satisfied tourist would also have tried the food which the locals eat.
"Worldwide, gastronomy is a big part of tourism nowadays," Syed G Qadir, Managing Director of the travel agency Wonder Ways Ltd., said.
And what better outlet for promotion of a country's cuisine could there be than offering foreign tourists the firsthand experience of local food? Travel agents, when setting the itinerary, can therefore play a huge role in presenting Bangladeshi food to a worldwide audience.
"European and American tourists are keen on trying our food. Some of the things they enjoy are the curries, daal, eggplant items, and fish," Qadir spoke from experience. "When a tourist signs up with us, we make sure to introduce them to our food and restaurants."
And there are big brands in our country which attracts tourists and consequently play a role in promoting Bangladeshi cuisines. Eateries like Kasturi and Star Kebab are flagship brands, and travel agents and tourism campaigns ought to highlight them.
It might not be a bad idea to have a broader spectrum of Bangladeshi cuisine in Dhaka for tourists and locals to enjoy. Chittagonian food - with 'mezbaan', 'kaala bhuna', etc – has successfully made a strong foothold in the capital city, thanks to the several Chittagonian eateries, which not only serve great food, but also provide decent ambience and service.
Other regions of the country have their specialities, and indeed there are a tiny number of eateries serving them, but the number is far too few. Bangladeshi cuisine is diverse; this diversity should be presented and promoted well.
Travel agencies can indeed play a big role in promoting our cuisine. "There have been efforts to highlight Bangladeshi food among tourists, but the best result would come if efforts are conducted in a more structured and organised way, with all relevant stakeholders coming together," Qadir opined.
Another important issue is hygiene. "We are very conscious about picking the right restaurant. Water is a serious concern for tourists; bottled water is the way to go," Qadir explained.
Promoting healthy and tasty
On one hand, there is concern about hygiene, which, in the long run must be dealt with effectively and not just for tourists but for the general public as well.
"We should sell our cuisine on the point that it is healthy as well as tasty," Niaz Zaman, a revered author, academician and an expert on Bengali culture and folklore, said. From a long list of fish items to rice and the way we cook it to a wide array of vegetables and vegetarian delicacies, being a healthy and tasty cuisine provides ample opportunity for promotion.
More fests - both here and abroad
Fortunately, holding food expositions or food festivals is not unheard of in our country. The restaurants in hotels sometimes seem to be in a frenzy of arranging culinary events. Many of these so-called festivals feature a particular cuisine, be it Thai or Arabian. From time to time there are fests which focus on Bangladeshi cuisine. Holding more such food festivals can help in spreading awareness regarding the country's cuisine.
However, restricting these festivals to our country may not be enough. One of the ways of reaching foreigners and educating them about our cuisine would be to hold Bangladeshi food festivals abroad. "Just like hotels fly in chefs from another country for a food fest featuring that country's cuisine, it would be helpful if hotels in different parts of the world similarly invite our chefs to hold culinary events," Qadir suggested.
Bengali celebrations; Bengali food and the 'panta bhaat' debate!
A bulk of the fests which promote Bangladeshi food occurs during special dates and events, such as the Bengali New Year, Durga Puja, etc. Such dates provide a fantastic opportunity to promote our cuisine to both locals and foreigners.
Let us take Pahela Baishakh as an example. The New Year celebrates all things which are Bengali, including food. During breakfast, it has become extremely popular to indulge in 'panta bhaat', hilsa, bhorta, etc. Eating panta bhaat for breakfast in Pahela Baishakh is usually met with a lot of criticism, as naysayers argue that while it is traditional food, it is not a celebration food for Pahela Baishakh at all. There is also the common perception that panta bhaat is the 'poor man's breakfast'.
We asked Niaz Zaman about this issue. "I do not think that it is mockery," she informed. "Pahela Baishakh is a Bengali celebration, and it is a perfect occasion to celebrate Bengali cuisine."
Zaman believes that such occasions like New Year and Nabanna Uthsab invoke private organisations and homes to have traditional Bengali food on the menu - which in turn is a great way of upholding our cuisine.
The most important thing is to remember that awareness begins at home. If you cook traditional Bengali food, if you serve Bengali food to your guests from abroad, and if you suggest celebrating Bengali occasions at your office, you are essentially educating yourself, your children, and your friends and acquaintances about your country's cuisine. Educating about our cuisine means promoting it.
Change starts with you!
The writer is a Reporter of The Daily Star and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org