My Life with Rice
I was born in Benghazi, Libya and by the time I was 6, my mom had started letting me off on my own and I ended up crossing the hallway to our neighbor, Ambarka’s. With its Mediterranean food influenced by the Arabs and Italians, Libyan food offers a deliciously varied platter and Ambarka’s simple meal of rice, with meat and vegetables, cooked for her family of rowdy boys, offered me an opportunity to eat like the locals. With an inclination towards adding far more tomato paste and spices than my mother ever did, Ambarka served the food in a cavernous bowl as we sat around it on the floor. I was given a spoon to dig in as we ate directly from the dish, while I constantly sniffled through the meal as my eyes streamed from the spices! With a Bangladeshi father and Pakistani mother, my dinner table was a cultural mesh, but Ambarka’s food was so delightfully different to how my mother cooked that the budding foodie in me returned every day. The next year when we moved back to Bangladesh, which is primarily a rice eating nation and the land of six seasons, my culinary discoveries continued and I found a new favourite!
In a culture where wasting food is looked down upon, there were all kinds of concoctions for rehashed meals and one of my personal favourites was bhaat bhaja. Plain rice left over in the morning was fried with some onions, turmeric, chilli powder or sometimes vegetables like aubergines or potatoes; a bit of chopped coriander to top it off and you have a savoury breakfast. My father however, highly disapproved of his youngest child eating a plate full of spicy rice in the morning as opposed to something healthier, so I often resorted to sneaking into the kitchen and gulping down mouthfuls when no one was around! More than the spicy food though, I relished the deviation from my usual set of flavors and to this day, the smell of bhaat bhaja spirals me into nostalgia!
My mom however, carried on the Libyan legacy at home and made steamed cabbage or spinach leaf wraps or abraak, stuffed cucumbers and peppers (maahshi) and placed these, in a large dish full of the same rice mix used to fill the vegetables. We simply called them Libyan rice and it was a heady mélange of mint, parsley, onions, cumin, peppers, tomato paste, green chilis and the insides from all the emptied shells of the vegetables used for stuffing. I started associating the taste of this rice to my younger days in Benghazi and this still remains my favourite happy meal.
But in Bangladesh, where rice is a staple and the country produces more than 50 varieties of it, we had access to a larger selection of preparations. Plain rice is the everyday fare for people in the villages as well as the cities and rice cooked with mutton, beef or chicken are popularly served at weddings or parties. The kacchi (uncooked) biryani, (as opposed to the normal biryani) is made with large chunks of uncooked meat layered within the folds of the fragrant rice, flavored with spices and kewra or pandan leaf extract and the result is a redolence that consumes the entire neighbourhood. At weddings especially, a yoghurt drink called burhani is consumed, that is mixed with around ten different spices from cumin to mint leaves, which helps cut the heaviness of the meal. Weddings are enthusiastically attended in anticipation of the biryani to be served as cooked on a large scale, the flavors differ slightly to the home cooked version.
Bangladeshi cuisine literally revolves around rice as it is also ground up into a flour and this in turn is converted into a staggeringly large array of preparations, collectively called peetha. From fried pancakes to steamed ones, layered with jaggery and coconut or simple ones consumed with a spicy coriander and mustard oil chutney, peethas are traditionally eaten during the winter season, hot off the fire!
And then there is the Khichuri, which I only learnt to appreciate after I discovered Kosheri in the streets of Cairo. I was a teenager visiting the archaeological sites of Egypt and was thrilled to find a dish that sounded like the lentil-rice mix, khichuri, we ate in Bangladesh. This was the first time I had realized the importance of food as heritage and how it links us culturally, and the flamboyance of Kosheri compared to our plainer version thoroughly intrigued me. A one pot dish, the khichuri lends itself to versatility as the basic combo of rice with lentils can be eaten plain with fried spicy aubergines or, cooked with a clarified butter (ghee) tempering, with beef, chicken or vegetables, adding a bit of decadence. As monsoon hits hard between July and September, a khichuri with fried aubergines is one of the most popular meals, accompanied by a bevy of pickles and spicy chutneys, flavors that complement the incessant rains. On the other hand, kosheri was a popular street food and embellished with chickpeas and the tangy tomato sauce and fried onions, lead me to my second revelation of discovering food coma, as I succumbed to the different elements of the dish. Khichuri owes its roots back to ancient India but the variations it has seen over the centuries pays homage to the simplicity of the recipe.
On a similar note, another rice preparation that calls for embellishments is paanta bhaat, a very traditional dish of cooked rice, that is immersed in water and left overnight, resulting in a tasteless, cloudy mix. It is therefore consumed with fried fish, fried red chillies, mashed foods (bhorta) mixed with mustard oil and anything that adds depth. However, in the cities it is popularly eaten on the 14th of April which is the Bangladeshi new year, served in a concave earthen bowl and a large collection of bhortas, fried fish and chillies.
My saga of discovering rice dishes continues as I find myself in Greece, with its Spanakorizo, a simple spinach rice dish that reminds me of the plain rice meals back home. And as we say in Bangladesh – “maache bhaate Bangali”, the fish and rice you eat makes you a true Bengali (or Bangladeshi)