Back in December, we spent some time in Khulna, Bangladesh’s third biggest city. It was right before Christmas and pretty cold, but the welcomes we received were warm. One day, we had a tea at a tea stall along one of Khulna’s main thoroughfares. All of a sudden, a guy comes up to us and asks: “Hey, are you visiting Khulna? Why are you not staying with me and my family?”
His name is William Boby and it turns out he’s a long-time member of Couchsurfing who has hosted lots of visitors to Bangladesh. When he saw us, he just walked up and invited us home. We ended up staying with him and his family for one night, right before Christmas eve. After joining Boby to the small Christmas gathering held by his church, we spent the evening with his mother and sister in the kitchen.
The William family live right in the middle of Khulna, the third largest city in Bangladesh. The streets outside their house are filled with vendors selling local street food: chickpeas with chili, steamed coconut cakes and oily egg-filled pastries. But the family prefers to eat most of their meals at home.
Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and most people live in small spaces with the neighbors close by. So does the William family. The five members – mother Orpita, father Bankim, the three children Bony, Boby and Kary – share two rooms and one bathroom, set on either side of a corridor. The kitchen, where Orpita cooks all the meals, often with the help of Bony, is tucked away in the corner of the largest room.
The space allocated for the kitchen is small, but makes a great example of smart compact living. A wooden shelf in the corner stores the basic foodstuff needed for Bangladeshi cooking: rice, sugar, flour and spices like ginger, turmeric and coriander. And, of course, the most important ingredient of them all: green chilies. No Bangladeshi dish is complete without the distinct chili punch.
As she starts cooking, Orpita takes out what is needed for preparing dinner. A small oil burner, pots and a flat pan in which to cook roti, flat, warm bread. There is no fridge or freezer in the house; the family buys whatever they need from the market outside.
The William family’s kitchen, as in most Bangladeshi families, remains the mother’s territory. Many mums of Orpita’s generation are “housewives”, meaning that they work at least as hard as their husbands, if not harder, only in the house and not outside. Orpita’s day starts before dawn, when she begins preparing roti, egg and vegetables for breakfast.
“We eat mostly Bangladeshi food, that’s what we like best,” says Bony, the daughter.
“The basic ingredient of each meal is rice. We eat rice for lunch and dinner, together with a fish or meat curry, or daal.”
While neighboring India has a strong vegetarian tradition rooted in Hindu philosophy, Bangladeshis, who are mainly Muslims, love their fish and meat. This is actually something quite Bengal: even in West Bengal, on the Indian side of the border, many within the Hindu community are omnivores as well.
Bangladesh is a country covered with (and connected through) rivers, and fishery remains an important source of income for many. But, says Orpita, fish has become more pricey.
“We love fish in the family, but as of lately we don’t eat it as much. It has become more expensive.”
Tonight’s dinner is rice and chicken, served with shobji (vegetables): cauliflower, potatoes, onion and chili cooked with oil and spices. The family sits down at the large wooden table and start to eat the traditional Bangla way: with their fingers. In Bangladesh, good table manners means washing your hands thoroughly before and after the meal, only using the right hand and staying away from other people’s plates with your fingers. Many consider eating with their hands and fingers an added culinary experience.
When the meal is finished it’s almost midnight. The streets outside are dark, the city is getting quiet.
“We eat quite late in our family, but most Bangladeshis like to have their dinner late, around nine or ten,” says Boby.
Orpita clears the table. She washes off the plates in a small sink in the corner, puts the foodstuff back on the shelves and clears the floor. Early tomorrow morning, before anyone else is awake, she’ll take it all out again.
Pictures Karim Mostafa.