Culture swap: Bengalis and dolmades

Food, like the language, is a matter of serious pride in Bangladesh. Other foods are generally tolerated (and burgers celebrated as a worthy import from the west) but Biryani, Ilish, Bhorta and Fuschka stand on a pedestal of their own. I have heard more than one person say that Bengali food is the best food in the world.  In fact, I know a story about some friends of friends who went to Bangkok for a work trip and didn’t eat for 3 days because they couldn’t find a Bengali restaurant. Such is the devotion.

I’ve been enjoying my fair share of delicious cardamom-and-clove-spiced foods, but being in any new part of the world is always about sharing – not just learning more about what your adopted country has to offer, but giving something back.

With this in mind, I’ve been slowly introducing my Benagli colleagues and friends to a few ‘Australian’ foods and habits. Famously, Australia is home to the largest Greek community outside Greece, and one of my favourite foods to cook for friends and family is dolmades – those delicious, vine-wrapped mediterranean morsels of sweet and sour snackishness.

Armed with specialty supplies from my recent trip to Turkey, I spent some time in the kitchen over a weekend making a giant pile of the things. They really are a labour of love, taking the better part of an afternoon. Starting with washed vine leaves, you fry onions and raisins in a ton of olive oil, then add semi-cooked risotto rice and fresh parsley. The time consuming bit is rolling this filling into the vine leaves so you have little individually-wrapped mouthfuls. These parcels all go in a big pot, are covered in lemon juice and boiling water, and boiled for about an hour.

I’m getting hungry thinking about it.

At home, I usually make these babies on holidays – when I have lots of down-time and need to do some productive, meditative work with my hands. As a result they always remind me of summer, and when I’d finished this batch and sunk my teeth into the first roll, I was instantly transported to Christmas. I could practically smell the heady mix of pine needles and sunscreen. Making them is also a bit of a special-occasion present for my family (they take so long that usually no one can be bothered), and they never fail to elicit cries of joy followed by extended periods of silent, happy munching.

So when I took my giant lunchbox full of about 100 dolmades to work the next day, it was kind of a special offering. Here were some of the classic bengali reactions:

(frowning, trying to unwrap leaf) “Do I eat the whole thing? are you sure? but it’s a leaf. Are you sure?”

“Ah, I think there are olives in this. Definitely olives.”

“It is OK. It is very sour.”

“It would be better if it was dipped in something. I would like to eat this with a sweet chilli sauce.”

…And maybe if it was fried in turmeric with some cardamom and cloves? 🙂

Maybe I got it all wrong and I need to stick to bringing the ever-reliable mishti (sweets).

Next week: Bengali reactions to Vegemite.

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Travelling for Eid

I’ve been doing a terrible job lately of keeping bideshi up to date, apart from posting a few pictures – sorry about that! Work has been busy, Ramadan has started and, joy of joys, I have been planning my Eid holidays.

For someone used to living at the ass-end of the globe, where every international flight takes an minimum of 8 hours and costs over $1000, one of the amazing things about being in Bangladesh is that it feels like the middle of the world. With East Asia on one side, Central Asia on the other and (thanks to a constant stream of labourers looking for new lives, new money and opportunity) cheap flights to anywhere in the Middle East, there’s a smorgasbord of culture within easy reach. So planning for the upcoming break has seen me bouncing up and down like a kid in a sweets shop. Hand me that paper bag, I’m heading to the pick ‘n’ mix.

Nepal? Myanmar? India? Thailand? China? Bhutan? Cambodia? Pakistan?

It turns out travelling at this time of year has its limitations. It’s monsoon season, so not the ideal time to travel to SE Asia, or anywhere in Bangladesh, for that matter. The mountains are cloaked in clouds, meaning there’s little point in going to Nepal or Bhutan because you can’t see the spectacular views. India is, somewhat surprisingly, impossible to get to at short notice, thanks to its highly bureaucratic visa system and a determination to stop people from Bangladesh trickling over the border.

So what does that leave? Well, how about TURKEY. THAT LEAVES TURKEY.

Ee! Excited!

Ollie doesn’t get to come, but that’s OK, he’s been twice without me anyway (he will never live this down). Because he’s working as a contractor at the moment he’s locked into a 3-month stint at UNDP, so one of the other Aussie vols and I are buddying up to head over.

The flights we got were $1100 return, which is apparently not as low as they go (if you are happy to do 31-hour layovers)  but pretty damn reasonable. We’ll have 2 weeks and do the tourist trail Cappadoccia-Pamukkale-Ephesus-South coast-Istanbul. I’ll try to write at least one interesting thing about the trip when I’m home … See you back in Dhaka!