A garden of gastronomic delights | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 10, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 10, 2011


A garden of gastronomic delights

A friend of mine always keeps reminding me that if we were asked to rank our most pleasurable activities, the ingestion of good food would always find a very high spot on everybody's list. Yes, I couldn't agree more. It seems as time goes by and I get more opportunities to sample a wider range of food, the truth is sinking in. When men reach a certain age, they like picking through their memories. We are indeed willing slaves of our taste buds. How else do you explain the obesity epidemic or the explosion of cooking/dining shows on primetime television?
Of course every country, region, tribe, religion, even language, has its own food habit/cooking style peculiar to it. The principle that I personally subscribe to is that food is an acquired taste. The more I ponder on it, the stronger is my adherence to this principle. Take shutki maachh (dry fish), for example. I could eat all variations of it thrice a day for the rest of my life but some of my friends will not even allow it inside their homes. For that matter the luscious kathal (jackfruit) is anathema in some households. As for myself, I pity those poor souls who do not like shutki maachh or kathal. They just don't know what they are missing out. Well, to each his own. Another principle that I much revere.
If summer be the season of mellow fruitfulness then in the Bangladesh context winter must be the season of gastronomic delights. As we bid adieu to summer now that the last mangoes are gone too we are in a state of limbo and look forward to approaching winter. That too is quite a few months away! It's a joy looking forward to a raft of winter vegetables, whole range of spinach and --- need I mention? --- the mouth watering pithas that are these days more bought and enjoyed in shops and at outdoor winter festivals than painstakingly prepared at home.
Ever notice how much dining out or eating away from home is getting into vogue? The younger generation having been brought up on fast food just cannot seem to wean itself away from burgers, French fries and soda! As they grow up and enter their income generating phase, they keep on frequenting restaurants, albeit of a more upscale and varied nature. In Dhaka you now get a whole range of culinary styles from Japanese to Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese or Greek. The choice is quite simply endless.
People attend breakfast joints like my favourite Star Kebab in droves. Even a decade back, other than in Old Dhaka, having breakfast out was almost unthinkable. Now, I have initiated a breakfast club and even before Ramadan ended, somebody posted on my facebook wall when our next breakfast outing would be? If we arrive late, say after 7:30 a.m. my favourite paaya is sold out!
We members of The Reading Circle during Ramadan initiated an iftar-cum-dinner buffet. It's been such a hit that we are setting it up as a once-a-month regular affair and you'll be amazed at the wide ranging choice we have on offer and at great prices from the downright economical to the opulent. I'd recommend the website DhakaSnob.com to checkout what's on offer.
Entertaining at home having guests for dinner is such a strain on the hosts that only the super rich with a passel of servants --- cooks, maids, servers, etc. --- can carry it off with aplomb and they too get a lot of stuff catered from restaurants or clubs, trust me. We resort to outside catering full time. Actually, just my wife and I, with our part time maid, have our hands full in dusting the premises, washing, wiping the crockery, polishing the cutlery and getting the house ship-shape! The food is catered and I can tell you, with careful planning the stuff one can serve can have exquisite variety to satisfy the most discerning palate. Indeed, you can choose from the best chefs in the city! I prepare and serve the drinks myself and being a teetotaler all I serve is mocktails, but they can be most enjoyable and come in a rainbow of colours too! The desserts can be most creative and, to top it all off, in the privacy of your home, without any servants snooping on your conversation, the host and particularly the hostess can also dress up for the occasion and mingle with all guests to have a very enjoyable evening --- leaving the washing and cleaning up for the maid in the morning.
Eating out, however, is a wholly different experience, whether it be quiet dining with a treasured friend or a few friends or in my opinion a maximum of a dozen guests. Like minded people --- and the conversation flows. Enjoying good food in the company of treasured friends is as much a gastronomic delight as high quality social intercourse, although over-indulgence can be telling on the waistline.
Twenty-first century hectic lifestyles are very demanding on our time that is available for socializing. This is compounded by the evolution of the internet and social networking, particularly facebook. We interact on the net, which is more convenient and precludes the need to get together for a tête-à-tête. So “social dining”, as I like to coin the phrase, brings about a combination of two pleasurable activities. In our dear city of Dhaka the catch is to rendezvous at the designated venue on time and our innate tardiness complicates matters further. So, as I've mentioned earlier, we've taken to gathering at breakfast on Friday/Saturday mornings, though some friends like to sleep late on weekends and can't make it. The sparse traffic on Friday/Saturday mornings is a big help and we communicate who picks up who in advance and the congregation is great fun! The ladies, I notice, are quite enthusiastic --- the morning breakfast chores at home are a distant memory, I guess.
Street food is an entirely different genre. Dhaka doesn't have too much of it, though, and then hygiene is an issue, as is a lack of open spaces like parking lots where alfresco dining can be set up in the evenings. Our choices are limited to phuchka and chotpoti mostly, but a variety of eateries a.k.a. snack bars are sprouting up in the most unlikely of places with a wide ranging menu. One yearns for the food courts in the neighbouring countries. Oh, but I confine my discourse to Dhaka only.
All said and done, the dining scene in Dhaka has radically changed in the last decade. The trendy lifestyles of the young professionals, their paucity of time and induction of educated young women into the workplace means lesser time left in hand to spend in the kitchen. The dwindling supply of domestic help is also a critical factor. With more disposable income in hand and having travelled abroad the well-off younger generation try to emulate the lifestyles of the developed nations. Glossy magazines, cable television, Hindi movies, the internet glorify fast paced urban lifestyles where the kitchen does not really fit in.
The exception of course is recreational cooking, where people indulge in cooking to try out their hand at preparing mostly non-traditional as also traditional fare in a fusion style, bringing in cross-cultural influences in their cooking repertoire. This is becoming wildly popular with the upper-class, middle-aged slice of the population. These are mostly rich people who have travelled widely, are discerning and have acquired a taste for the good things in life. They like fine dining, entertain a lot and enjoy experimenting and sampling newer, more exotic food. For them are the cable TV shows depicting glamorous lifestyles, faraway fairytale locales where gourmet food is de rigueur.
So, after all, modern times are getting a hold on us, bringing about a change not only in the way we live but also radically changing the traditional Bangalee “Dal, Bhat, Maachher Jhole, Shobji Bhaji, Aloo Bhorta” regimen that was our daily fare just a generation ago. Indeed, the world is getting smaller and we are becoming part of the global village.

Tanveerul Haque likes to think of himself as a teetotalist bon vivant who's passionate about food, reading, music, movies and travelling. A businessman and member of The Reading Circle, he can be reached at tanveerhq@yahoo.co.uk

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