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Anjan’s dhaka daawat
Pabdar Jhol

Cities habitually welcome newcomers at the airport with a customary billboard-sized message: “Welcome to such and such city.” But which city welcomes you personally to homes, when you are still up in the air? Welcome to Dhaka!

Never the quiet, sleepy co-passenger, I chatted up the jovial businessman from Dhaka seated on my right. As the cockpit prepared for landing, my neighbour extended a warm invitation to daawat, accompanied by clear directions to his house. I thanked the gentleman for his invitation but I was on a very short trip, on business. While a little distraction might be forgiven on such trips, I was on special assignment by appointment to Her Royal Highness at home. It was so great a responsibility that a couple of my own restaurant openings in Dhaka were minor by comparison.

So, I jumped straight into business and headed for Mirpur. This neighbourhood in Dhaka is famed for the finest Dhakai saris and I was led to one traditional establishment after another. Here, too, I tried my best not to think about food and devote myself to textures, designs and colours, a daunting task for one as colour blind as me. But distraction finds you most when your back is turned. I had just become friendly with the elderly owner of an old shop when he warmly invited me to his home, again for daawat. “Please do come for daawat at my home.” I stopped and blinked. Is daawat a festival or a ritual that is being celebrated all around Dhaka? I made up my mind it must be so, as it seems to be celebrated in every home, where even strangers get invited.

Kachchi Biryani

My thoughts confirmed themselves. I met more and more strangers from Chakbazar to Banani, most of whom mentioned the daawat at their home, insisting that I visit. What a pity I could not accommodate visiting everyone’s place, still I was happy to have learnt something new about Dhaka’s social calendar.

OPEN-DOOR DAAWAT

But Syed and his wife Seema are not ‘everyone’. They happen to be a very special couple and friends of ours and I promised to attend this popular festival at their home. I reached expecting to find the festival on in full sway and was warmly received by the impeccably-mannered couple and Syed’s mother whom they lovingly call Ammu. Feeling totally at home among the sweetest of people, I decided to increase my general knowledge about Dhaka. I began by casually asking about the season of daawat, its unique features, rites and rituals. Syed, Seema and Ammu took a long while to understand my apparently simple question. And then when they got it, had a good, lengthy laugh at my expense. “Why should daawat be a festival? It is a way of inviting friends home.” But this logic doesn’t explain why strangers would invite strangers, that too for a cosy dinner. Well, that’s how it is in Dhaka, I was told. Strangers don’t remain strangers for long. It is a feast of friends bonding over good food. As I was doing with the Syeds.

Ammu’s Pabdar Jhol stands out as the highlight of my whole trip. Its thin, light gravy in the colour of winter morning sun belies flavour and aroma so intense that it lends all the rice a rich and penetrating flavour. With her special culinary style from Jessore, I entered a world of cuisine more nuanced and innovative than I had ever tasted before.

Mishti Kumro with Paanch Phoron

My previous encounter with Dhakai food had been heavily inclined in favour of rich mutton gravies, aromatic kebabs and heavenly biryanis served in the old lanes bristling with rickshaws and minarets. I was wandering in Dhaka’s Najirabazar, but I could have well been a traveller in Mughal Delhi. Crispy flat bread called bakarkhani and dry kebabs were being served in the lanes, just as they used to be rationed to the passing Mughal cavalry in the glory days of muslin trade. The making of bakarkhani is a delight to watch as the dough is slapped and stretched and kneaded repeatedly to make it wafer-layered and crispy. Descendants of cooks from Sultanate kitchens keep the taste alive in Kachchi Biryani and Suti Kebab, with meat so tender that you need a string or suti to hold it all together.

BOND ACROSS BORDERS

But the other food, cooked in homes, is far more layered, more well-travelled and rounded in taste. The poncho byanjon has stayed with Bengalis on both sides of the border I could say, from the staple rice, pulses, vegetables, fish and sweets, which returned in ever delicious avatars, daawat after daawat.

I met culinary influences which have travelled from Natore, Pabna, Khulna and Jessore, from Sylhet in the north and Chittagong in the south-east. They add spectacular touches of innovation like Pomfret Shutki Bhorta or old village dishes like Chichinge Bhaji and Mishti Kumro with Paanch Phoron. Homely creativity is at the heart of the cuisine, where nothing is deemed waste. Every stalk, seed, peel, leafy part of the vegetable, bud or bloom is used to add a mind-blowing variety of textures and bring depth to the food. Lau-er Khosha Bhaji tenderises the tough peel of bottle gourd into juicy vegetable dices, its unique earthy fragrance infusing the light dish. Chepa Shutki Kathaler Bichi Curry made me wonder at the ingenious cook who outwits the season or climate with tricks of preservation.

Lau-er Khosha Bhaji

Fish, of course, is the Bengali’s link to the rivers and deltas which weave through his entire consciousness. From its ponds, lakes, rivers and profusion of deltaic waterways come the Bashpata, Shol, Pabda, Punti, Chitol, Chuno, Magur, Ilish and Tepa among the silver hordes that are as plentiful to name as the amazing variations in the ways of cooking them. Very often the fish is dried and preserved to be pickled with lots of hot spices and oil. A true dry-fish connoisseur’s rite of passage being the salted Hilsa Curry with lots of chilli, called Sidhal. It is specially prepared and sealed in earthen pots and then preserved underground.

The daawat is not complete without the mishti, like Bengalis anywhere on this planet. Rajshahi mangoes and litchis are a delectable indulgence. Another surprise was Bogra’s Doi. It is a little town away from Dhaka but famous for its mishti doi introduced by Gouro Gopal Chandra Ghosh. Even today the shop produces top-rate mishti doi which melts all man-made borders. And makes you feel the world of the foodie is endless. And truly beautiful.

Daawat in Dhaka touches many of the deepest emotions of life, which range from friendship to festivity to food. The standard measuring unit of camaraderie, appayon or welcoming guests, begins with hot, homemade nashta and progresses in ascending order with more and more food till it ends in the full-fledged feast. I was not wrong to call it a celebration. It is a celebration of friendship even across borders. What I had not guessed was unlike other celebrations, it does not need a season or a reason to be celebrated. When in Dhaka, you are always welcomed to come home to daawat.