Food and Eateries of Old Dhaka
This is a homage to the eateries of Dhaka city in the sixties and the heavenly food they purveyed to the city dwellers. Most of these eateries have been long gone, some dishes also; but the genre of food these establishments created still persist and are being sold in many eating places of Dhaka today.
Dhaka in the sixties was a far less urbanized city than the megapolis that it has now become. Restaurant eating was in an incipient stage of being fashionable. We had very few restaurants that a family would actually go into and eat. In the period that I am describing Dhaka restaurants and eateries that went by the ubiquitous name of hotel were mostly patronized by itinerant travelers, working people who lived in establishments called messes, and students who had tired of eating in their boarding houses. Added to that were merchants and litigants who frequented old Dhaka. Even after the torch bearing family restaurants such as Gulsitan, Chu-Chin Chow, or Chung Wah started, the patronage was more confined to men only than a family of husband, wife, and children.
This narrative is, therefore, mostly devoted to the traditional food that Dhaka city would be known for, and the eating places that excelled in these foods.
My acquaintance with this marvelous food came from my many visits to the eating places, first as a student of Dhaka University in early sixties, and then in my early years of work there in late sixties. It was, however, in the first period that I would come to know most of the local foods and the eateries. It was partly a necessity since I wanted to escape the mundane and humdrum food of the Hall that I stayed in. Also it was the company that I kept – a fellow boarder in the Hall Mohammed Ali, an Ismali by faith – who was a walking encyclopedia of Dhaka eateries.
The friendship that I developed with Mohammed Ali was mainly based on food. He was a young man of enormous build, nearly six feet and over two hundred pounds in weight. It was a marvel that, I, who was a shrimp in comparison with him, would be his friend. This happened by accident when in our student dining hall I had once commented to the despicable way the cook had prepared mutton that day. Immediately, Mohammed Ali, who was seated next to me at the table, said he could take me to an excellent place that prepared mutton if I were to shell out some bucks. I agreed right there and from then on began my wonderful and memorable introduction to the food of old Dhaka, under the capable guidance of my friend. Mohammed Ali made good on his promise on the following Saturday. We went to Delhi Muslim Hotel in Nawabpur Road, a place not very far from the old Railway Station.
It was in the evening, if I remember, but the not-too large establishment was teeming with customers. I think we had to wait for ten minutes or so, after which we were ushered into the restaurant and given a table. The place was filled with an aroma of spices, and hot bread. I depended on Mohammed Ali to guide me through the menu that was orally delivered by the waiter. Mohammed Ali ordered mutton chops, and roghan josh along with tandoor bread. I knew nothing of these items until they arrived. I learnt that mutton chops were meat cut from the lamb’s loin (in this case goat’s loin) with a small piece of tenderloin on one side of bone. The chops are slightly pounded before cooking, and then slow cooked in a paste of onion, garlic, ginger, and other spices notably garam masala and coriander. Roghan josh is a preparation of leg meat that uses somewhat similar spices but along with yogurt. Slow cooking in both dishes makes the meat very tender. I dug into the delicious dishes as soon as they arrived dipping our hot tandoor bread into the sauce, and using it as napkin. We had two glasses of sweet lassi to wash down the food. I thanked Mohammed Ali profusely for introducing me to the place where I would return several times, sometimes just by myself. (Delhi Muslim Hotel was also famous for its chicken tikka and shami kabab, both extremely delicious. In my next visit there I had both with paratha.)
Next week Mohammed Ali took me to a self-descriptive place in Chowk Bazar, called Khabar Dabar – Eating Etc. in plain English. Mohammed Ali had told me earlier that the two things the place was known for were the famous Bakar Khani bread and Shutli Kabab, both of which I had heard of before. In fact I had eaten Bakar Khani in a friends house with cheese. Those from Dhaka will instantly recall this famous bread, which is very brittle, but famously tasty to eat. Bakarkhani dough of white flour and mawa thoroughly mixed and kneaded for hours before stretching thin by hand over the entire span of wooden board. Then after spreading ghee over it, flour is strewn on. It is then folded and the process is repeated several times. Khabar Dabar was not a very large establishment. In fact most people bought carry out food there. The restaurant was hot even in a winter day because of the constantly working ovens and grills. We ordered a plate of Shutli Kabab, several bakar khanis, and a glass of lassi for each. Shutli Kabab is actually a large mass of minced meat mixed with savory spices, placed in a skewer, and grilled. The name shutli comes from the thread that is used for binding the meat so that it does not fall off. The kabab used to be sold by weight, and one had to take out the thread from the meat once it was served on the plate.
Mohammed Ali told me that another dish the place was famous for was Khashi Moragh Bhuna (curry made of neutered rooster meat). I said I would have to try that some other day.
Perhaps my most memorable introduction to old Dhaka food was when Mohammed Ali took me to the place people would give their eye tooth for eating in that period. It was Pahlowans Murgh Polao restaurant in Islampur, near Lion’s cinema. It was owned by a person who went by the nick name of Pahlwan (Wrestler) because of his large muscular body. The legend had it that Pahlwan would himself prepare this famous dish with pure ghee with spices that were his trade secret, and he would cook only one big pot every day. There would be a long line formed every evening and the polao was sold only by plate. You had to come away empty stomach if you were late. Mohammed Ali took me to the establishment one afternoon well before the curtain time. This was one polao to die for. The saffron colored rice (polao) was fragrant with spices with several pieces of chicken bobbing over the rice. A side dish of salad made of onions and green chili was also provided. I realized what kind of artist Pahlwan was with the first morsel. After finishing one plate I asked for more. But it was all gone. I would have to come back to the place many, many more days I decided then and there. (I understand that the famous place has now moved to Farm Gate and sons of Pahlwan are keeping up the tradition.) The other famous place that Mohammed Ali introduced me to was a small eatery called Capital, located near the Nawabpur railway crossing. The signature dish of the place was Mughlai Paratha, which is a clever preparation of paratha with an omlette folded inside. The paratha was very fluffy with the omlette that was made with onions and green chili and some other spices. The dish was served with a small salad of onions and green chili (again). Although the place served other preparations such as Aloo Chop, chicken cutlets, etc. people frequented it mainly for its Mughlai Paratha.
My introduction to other famous and not so famous eateries of Dhaka that period did not all come through Mohammed Ali, however. Some came through serendipity and others through many friends that I would come to know later. One such discovery was Salimabad restaurant near the Secretariat Building. It was a tin-roofed spacious place frequented by sportsmen and football players, being near the Paltan Maidan. I had heard of the place and the inexpensive meals that were available there. However, my introduction to the delicious meals of the place came one day when the dining place in my residential hall was closed.
A friend and I dropped at Salimabad and were astounded to find the long lines there. People were actually hovering around tables where other persons were already eating. The waiting people would occupy the table as soon as the diners before them left the table. We had to do the same. But the food experience was worth the rather undignified waiting. We had a regular Bengali meal; a delicious chicken curry, daal, bhaji, and iced sherbet a house specialty. Salimabad also offered Shingara as a snack in the afternoon, which I ate later over a cup of tea. It was simply out of this world!
My introduction to the more upscale restaurants and eateries of mid and late sixties would come later, after my graduation. The more upscale places that still abound in memory both for the ambience and quality of food were Gulsitan, Rex, Casbah and La Sani, all of which were located in the general area of present Bangabandhu Avenue.
Both Gulsitan and Rex were famous for both deshi and continental dishes. However, our preference was for Gulsitans sandwiches, and Rexs paratha and seekh kabab. The Dhaka seekh kabab, which is known as Bihari Kabab in Pakistan, is a specialty of Dhaka like the Dhaka biriyani. Seekh Kabab is made with thinly sliced beef marinated several hours with several spices, and grilled slowly in a skewer. Eaten with paratha and a salad of onions and green chili, this is one of the most memorable dishes of Dhaka, and the kabab and paratha served in Rex were probably the best.
Two other mouth watering dishes that were available in a restaurant the name of which I cannot recall now were Nehari and Magaj Bhuna. The restaurant was ensconced between Gulsitan restaurant and Gulistan cinema, and it could seat only about twenty people or so. But it carried out a hectic business. The Nehari, which is actually a very spicy soup of goat or beef shank, was its star item. Magaj Bhuna (goat brain sauted in onion, ginger, garlic and chili) was its second best seller. Both dishes came with hot tandoor bread along with a bowl of fresh coriander, green chili, and sliced ginger. I can still recollect the smell and taste of these marvelous dishes.
Remembering the dishes and eateries of Dhaka of the bygone days is a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Most of the places have disappeared, but fortunately the foods that these places celebrated are around us still. In my last few trips to Dhaka I found several new restaurants where good old food of old Dhaka is still available. Among those I was especially impressed by Star restaurant not far from Sonarga Hotel (with branches in Banani and elsewhere) that is carrying on the tradition.
Ziauddin Choudhury writes from USA
e-mail : Zchoudhury@worldbank.org