Mezban is a regional feast where people are invited to enjoy a meal with white rice and beef.
But it is not only about a meal with beef, it is also a social gathering which pulls together people from different walks of life. It is about the pungent fulsome aroma coming from the meat bowls, it's the time when your plates get overloaded with mouth smouldering spicy beef, but you still cannot get over with it.
It is about one of the biggest celebratory confabs that demand to be marked as the unique culture of Chittagong.
What's the Celebration?
The word Mezban comes from the Persian where it means a host. However at present the word denotes to a community feasting originated in Chittagong. In Chittagong sometimes the word Mezban becomes mejjan or mezbani. An age-old tradition started in Muslim community, people arrange Mezban for various purposes like when someone dies (Kulkhani and Challisha), death anniversary, Eid-e- Miladunnabi, birth and naming of a child, circumcision of a boy child, ear piercing, starting of a new business or just for reunion and social get together.
The Tongue-tingling FoodMezban's beef is not like any other beef recipe. It has a fixed menu which might not give you enough opportunities to explore a number of dishes, but the succulent meat that you have on your plate is all that you need.
Hasan Mahmud, a chef in Chittagong has been cooking Mezban since 1995. “I have learnt this skill from my father in law, late Jamal Baburchi, who was one of the top-ranked chefs in Chittagong,” says Hasan. He gives a rough estimation of cooking Mezban. “For 1 thousand people, generally we arrange 5 cows. It is a beef based meal, and it's open to everyone, hence we always need to have some extra arrangement.”
The main dish of Mezban is its fiery and fantastic beef. The meat is braised with chef's secret combo of pepper, cumin, garam masala and other herbs. “There is one special mixture that we use in the dish to bring the flavour. We buy all the herbs and spices from the local market, and they go through a processing before getting powdered. We call this spice, “Radhuni” (its not the Radhuni company, the spice is called Radhuni.) We put this special mixture in the meat and the result is a spicy meat steeped with thick reddish gravy.”
He claims cooking proper Mezban meat demands a certain kind of skill which only chefs from Chittagong possess. All the dishes are tart and intensely hot, cooked with special chilli powder and spice which are only home to Chittagong.
The second dish is a less hot, but a bit tangy beef stock with marrow bones (locally called Nolar soup). The culinary delicacy of the process makes the tallow or beef fat come out of the veal bones and makes the stock even more tongue-singeing. Previously, the tradition was to place the biggest pipe bone on the Matbar or the respected person's plate.
The third dish is a dal with beef parts, says Hasan Baburchi. “But to most of the people this dish is superfluous as they get overloaded with beef.”
The dishes are served with white rice. For some non Muslims and the people who cannot eat beef for physical condition, Mezban also offers chicken, mutton or/and fish.
There are two kinds of Mezban: Hazia (Fresh) Mezban and Bai (stale) Mezban. Hazia is the one where food is served right after cooking whereas in Bai Mezban the meat is cooked at night and gets served the next morning Unlike other stale things, Bai Mezban gets special preference to people as the meat is marinated and cooked for a longer period which makes it sufficiently softened and tenderised.
Mezban's invitation is also very interesting. In many parts of Chittagong, the organiser invites all the villagers through loudspeaker announcement. In the urban areas, people nowadays send invitation letter. The invitation is open, whoever invited is more than welcome to bring along his extended family and friends. In many mezbans, guests come with boxes and bags clutched to take home some of these mouth-watering delights.
The organisers arrange Mezban in such a way so that at a time a great number of people can sit, eat and leave. Don't wait for anyone to call you over to the table, help yourself to find a seat. The best course of action might be to stick to a chair until the person on the chair does not leave!
Pack of Value
Seventy-year-old Khalilur Ahmed has attended at least 30 Mezbans in his life. A trader in Chittagong, Khalilur's family has also organised quite a few mezbans. “We, Chittagonians value ties of kinships above everything. Mezban is a reflection of our togetherness.”
Khalilur said it right: Mezbans are meant to be shared with family. It bears the age-old tradition of Chittagong hosting guests with great generosity and without drawing any line between the poor and affluent. In a Mezban everyone sits side by side and shares the same meat bowl.
The culture, practised for hundreds of years, also reflects the Chittagonians never ending respect towards their ancestors and their fear of God and the afterlife.
Even though the concept originated from the religious minded Muslim families, gradually it became a one-day food fair for the people of all religions. The mammoth arrangement of Mezban reflects the sense of unity and an egalitarian approach towards life. It also gives us the opportunity to socialise by going beyond our comfort zone.
Not every bird in a flock acts the same way. Chittagong has also experienced Mezban which can be called nothing but a money show. There are examples when affluent people has organised Mezbans in order to display the power of their wealth. There are those who indulge themselves in the unhealthy competition of “if his Mezban has 10 cows, I will sacrifice 20.”
When people sidetrack the key objective of Mezban which is to respect the togetherness and to pray and commemorate the ancestors' departure, Mezban loses half of its beauty.
“It is a social gathering, the most cordial and welcoming food festival anyone could think of. It is important that we show our highest hospitability, not our money,” Khalilur ends.
In a time when we are getting exposed to newer and hipper eateries almost every three months, Mezban's appeal remains timeless. Something Chittagonians could certainly boast of is that their chef's recipe is in high demand not only in other parts of the country, but also outside of Bangladesh.
Because of its popularity, Dhaka hosts quite a few Mezbans. Chittagong Samity- Dhaka has been organising this mass gathering since 80s. “We organise Mezban for around 30,000 people every year,” informs Mohiul Islam Mohim, general Secretary of Chittagong Samity-Dhaka. “The arrangement involves a hectic preparation and dedication of all the organising committees. We form 11 committees who are given different responsibilities starting from buying the best cows, inviting all the guests to ensuring that everyone can enjoy their meal wholeheartedly.”
Standard Chartered Bank (SCB), Dhaka also arranges Mezban for its corporate clients and every other stakeholders. Started in 2011, the SCB makes this arrangement for around six thousand people. “This is a meeting place which is not confined to any social classes or official ranks--starting from the junior officers to the managing director, everyone comes to share this meal. This initiative is highly appreciated among all the invited guests," informs Abrar Anwar, Managing Director of Client Coverage, SCB.
A festival worth going again and again
Mezban offers a way to bond with people over a spiciest meal. It is a real treat where no one will check on how much you are eating. Mezban is majestic, but it does not claim sophistication neither do you need to quietly put a serviette on your lap.
All you need is to grab a chair and become the beef lover that you perhaps are.