In the Bengali menu, what are the items which are truly ours? What delicacies do we make which are the best in the world? What are the foods which should carry a special label, such as the Geographical Indication (GI)?
Before making any attempt in answering these questions, it would be wise to appreciate the foreign influences in our cuisine.
The Bengali palate, one may not be wrong in saying, is rather 'open-minded'! The people of this land have always adapted non-native flavours. The influx of foreign peoples and powers throughout history meant influences on the local cuisine: adaptations and additions and new vocabularies.
The Portuguese, to illustrate, may be credited with introducing different fruits. “They introduced fruits and vegetables, many of which today are so much a part of Bengali cuisine that it is almost impossible to imagine a time when they weren't,” Niaz Zaman wrote in her book, Bosha Bhat to Biryani: The Legacy of Bangladeshi Cuisine.
She further wrote, “It is also highly likely that it was the Portuguese baker whose bread led to the creation of the 'shahi tukra'….”
Meanwhile, there is a huge Persian influence in our menu and so is the British influence, perhaps one of the most important of which has been tea.
Volumes can be written about the myriad influences, but let us not delve into that right now, and instead shift our focus to the treasures of our cuisine.
By 'treasures', we are not restricting to just those foods which are uniquely ours, but to those delicacies too, which we have mastered and are now famed for.
Biryani could be a good case. It is an import. Nevertheless, Zaman believes that the typical 'kachchi biriyani' cooked in Dhaka “… is the best biriyani in the whole world.”
According to Zaman, Dhaka's 'morog pulao' is something which can be said to be truly ours. “You cannot get the Dhaka 'morog pulao' anywhere else in the world,” she stated. “The 'morog polau' of Old Dhaka did not come from Persia. If we want to claim something as ours, it should be 'morog polau'!” Dhaka pilafs do not throw the water away; instead, the chef allows it to get absorbed during cooking. Additionally, the 'morog pulao' requires something special: 'malai' or cream of milk.
Dhaka's rezala is also very special. “If you consider North Indian cuisine, an important rule is that you do not use turmeric and ghee in the same dish,” Zaman explained. “But our rezala breaks that rule, and the product is absolutely delicious.”
Bhorta, a common item in the everyday menu, is also something which we can claim to be ours. So is 'patla daal', the lentil soup, which is another popular item in every Bengali household's menu. “In North India too they have daal, but their dish is much thicker,” Zaman said.
The chef plays his magic in the kitchen. Mother Nature, on the other hand, has endowed us with many treasures in her flora and fauna.
Our hilsa - defined by its geography - is reputed to be of superior quality than those from our neighbouring countries. There is something in the geography and environment of Rajshahi, which makes it possible to cultivate mangoes that are unparalleled in taste and quality.
“There are many such delicacies all across Bangladesh which - due to the atmosphere, surroundings, etc., of that region cannot be found anywhere else, or which possess qualities not found anywhere else,” said Engr. S M Enamul Haque, Assistant Registrar, Department of Patents, Designs, and Trademarks (DPDT), Ministry of Industries, said. These products can be signed up for GI registration, under the GI law, which was passed in 2013, with rules set in place in 2015.
According to World Intellectual Property Organisation, "A geographical indication (GI) is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin."
The GI label has the potential to bring myriad benefits, to the farmers or producers of that product in that region and to the consumers who want to buy that product of that region. Unscrupulous businessmen cannot falsely claim that their products too are from the same origin and of the same quality, whilst it is possible for those products with the GI tag to charge premium.
Of course, much of it rests on proper implementation.
Last year, an application to register hilsa as a GI product was submitted by the Department of Fisheries to the Ministry of Industries' Department of Patents, Designs, and Trademarks (DPDT), along with the applicant. They are currently in the process of GI registration for hilsa.
Like hilsa, there are many such delicacies which deserve to be brought under GI law. "Organisations like trade bodies should come forward and apply to get a product registered," said Engr Md Azim Uddin, Assistant Registrar, DPDT, Ministry of Industries. "The government is also trying to bring out products of fame and reputation from each district of Bangladesh in order to identify the things which could be registered for GI."
Of course, the GI law is not just for food, but surely Bangladeshi cuisine is one of the areas which can benefit from this. We would like to believe that hilsa's application is only the start!
The fusions and imports which we have mastered on one hand, and the delicacies which are uniquely ours on the other, make up the best in cuisine. Identifying and understanding our biggest assets in the culinary realm can be big step towards preserving, protecting and promoting Bangladeshi cuisine.
The writer is a Reporter of The Daily Star and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org