Land of Rice and Fishes by Tahmida Hossain

Food is something that brings me to my roots. Everything I eat and cook plays an important role in my life. When I think about food, I think about comfort, and that includes my mom, my country, my home back in Bangladesh.

Bangladeshis eat rice every day and with almost every meal. Generally, people start their breakfast with plain wheat bread, mixed vegetables, eggs, and a hot cup of tea. I remember my mom used to make the best milk tea ever. Everyone makes tea differently, but hers topped them all. Her secret was to put a little bit of ginger in it. My favorite thing in the morning was talking to my mom over a hot cup of tea. Sometimes when I feel homesick, I think I can still smell the beautiful aroma of the tea that my mom used to make.

For Bangladeshis, lunch is the most important meal of the day. Most of the Bangladeshis take plain rice with either bhorta or bhaji (sautéed or fried vegetables with green or fried chili and other spices), and then fish or meat. There is a saying for Bangladeshi people: “Mache bhate Bangali”, The Land of Rice and Fishes. There are so many kinds of fish in Bangladesh like Ruhi, Katla, Pangas, Reetha, and the most famous of all, Hilsha, which is the national fish of Bangladesh and also my personal favorite. It has a very unique smell and taste. There are many ways you can cook Hilsha, but my favorite is when my mom used to cook it with sautéed onions, turmeric, red chili, a little bit of cumin and coriander, and ground mustard seeds. The taste was like heaven.

After I moved to the US, I found out that there are some Bangladeshi grocery stores that bring Hilsha along with other fishes from Bangladesh. I was really excited when I found out about the stores. I tried to cook the Hilsha following my mom’s recipe, but it still did not have the same taste as the freshly caught Hilsha I could get from the local markets in Bangladesh.

In the late afternoon we have a sort of snack time, but better. It was fun time for us because we got to chat, gossip and eat Samosas (a deep fried pastry filled with potatoes and vegetables), Dal puri (a round, deep fried pastry filled spicy lentils), and desi sweets such as Rosh Golla (homemade curds shaped into balls and soaked in a sugary syrup). Sometimes neighbors would join us and it was a good opportunity to catch up. They didn’t need an invitation to come over. Now when I want to socialize, with everyone’s busy lives and schedules, we have to make arrangements to meet. Sometimes we go to the Bangladeshi restaurants to have some samosas and sweets, because hearing my native language and eating Bangladeshi-style food gives me a sense of being back home, even if it’s for a short period of time.

For dinner, it was mostly rice with vegetables and one source of protein (some days we had chicken curry, and other days I would maybe eat fish or beef curry). But sometimes I didn’t feel like eating meat or vegetables, so I added milk to the rice instead, which yielded what we call Dudhbhat. And to make it more interesting, I sometimes added seasonal fruits like mango, banana, or jackfruit to the Dudhbhat. My favorite was rice with milk and mango. It’s funny that I still do the same during the summer when mangoes are in season.

At home in Bangladesh, there are special foods for different occasions. For weddings or any other celebrations, Biriyani, a fine rice cooked in butter with chicken or goat meat, would be the main course. It could be substituted for Pilaw (plain fried rice) or Khichuri (rice, lentil and spices). All these would be served with chicken roast or Rezala (heavily spiced and rich goat/ mutton curry) and salad. A yogurt drink, Borhani, at the end helped gulping down all these easily. In the US, all the Bangladeshi people try to keep the tradition alive by cooking traditional foods, but nothing compares to the authentic, mouth-watering taste of true wedding cooking in Bangladesh.

I would be amiss if I forgot to mention the Pithas, a local form of cake or desserts, during the winter, which is mild in Bangladesh. Mostly from ground rice baked or fried, soaked in dense milk, sugar and natural flavors, the Pithas came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and they were cooked in many different ways. It was a special time for us during the winter when I used to go to my grandma’s house. We all woke up early in the morning to go for a walk, and there would be small vendors along the sidewalk that sold bhapaphita (rice cake filled with cane sugar) and date juice (a juice extracted from the sap of date trees). One funny thing about it is that there is a certain time of day you should drink it, during the morning, because it doesn’t taste good afterwards.

Once I moved to the US, all the food that I was used to was hard to come by or simply was not available nearby. The meat and the vegetables looked alien, and the taste was bland. So, I struggled a little and it took me a while to get used to the unfamiliar flavors. I nearly choked the first time I tried a burger, a pizza or simple pasta. But now I actually crave for a burger or pizza at least once a week. Food can be your identity, but lately I’ve been feeling as if my identity is being masked by the Western food culture surrounding me. I’m not saying it’s bad; I enjoy all the variety of foods here also. I feel grateful that I get to try so many different kinds of food from different cultures here, but still I long for a taste of home. Even if it’s hard to cook the way we cook, I still do it because I also want my kids to grow up with some of the traditions that I grew up with, and I want them to be familiar with the tastes.

Looking back, I wonder how life changes so quickly. It is a little surprising, when I think about it, how I associate everyday common food as one of the biggest parts of my life and lifestyle. It’s been so many years that I’ve lived here in the US, over a third of my life, but I still want to go back and sit next to my mom, watching her cook. I want to wait for my dad to come back from the market with fresh fish and vegetables. I want to walk through the foggy, wintery mornings with my grandmother.

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Land of Rice and Fishes by Tahmida Hossain

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