A culinary adventure in the north
When the sun set, I was delighted to see our old house lit by lanterns, evoking memories of my visits years before. Soon it was dinner time, and we were already hungry. We reassembled in our dining area, this time to be blown over by the number of food items gathered on the table. It was truly a King’s feast that was laid out. There were at least seven fish items, and five meat dishes. There were vegetables, but these were mixed with either fish or meat. The main meal would be followed later by several dessert items, but I will come to those later.
The first fish items that we ate were fries of rui (carp), koi (climbing perch), and ilish (hilsa). The rui and koi came from our pond, as did the katal that followed later. My uncle explained that the fish were caught the previous day from the pond. The ilish is not native to Sylhet and was bought from the bazaar. The rui slices were fried in Sylheti style, in mustard oil seasoned in salt and turmeric powder, and then garnished with sliced onions, fresh radishes, and green chilies. The koi was similarly fried, but was later smeared in a sauce of coriander, turmeric powder, red chilies, and tomatoes. The ilish was simply fried in oil and served with fresh coriander and slices of tomatoes.
My uncle then directed us to the meat preparations, stating that we should change the palate before we reenter the fish world. The first meat dish was duck musamman (Sylheti for musallam, a spicy roast), a dish made famous by my grandmother and later by her able daughter, my mother. The dish, which is extremely rich, calls for a preparation time of at least 24 hours. The cleaned duck is hung upside down in the kitchen overnight, and later fried slowly in ghee. A special concoction of stuffing made with different spices, onions, garlic, and ginger is prepared separately, and the half-cooked duck is smeared with the paste inside and out. The duck is then put inside a pan with a heavy lid and cooked till the meat comes off the bone very easily. The duck was followed by a beef dish cooked with hatkora (a large lemon type fruit grown in Sylhet and adjoining Assam districts which is both sour and somewhat bitter in taste). This was a unique Sylheti preparation that requires an acquired taste for hatkora. The dish is spiced up by the hottest pepper known to man—the famous red chili of Jaintyia, but the chili is tempered by the bitter-sour taste of hatkora. The third meat dish was chicken cooked with kadu (a kind of squash). This was a relatively less spicy item cooked with fresh coriander, turmeric powder, cumin powder, and green chili, and flavored with orange peels. The orange peel gave a unique taste to the preparation.
We were then redirected to the remaining fish dishes. The first was a koi cooked with orange segments, another one of my grandmother’s creations, followed diligently by my mother. The combination of spices and orange sent heavenly delights down our palate. This was followed by ilish cooked with pineapple, another prize-winning dish of Sylhet. The katol fish (a variety of carp) was cooked in a light sauce of red chili, turmeric, coriander, and onions with orange peel. The last fish item was ghania (a kind of bony perch) cooked with ada lebu, that supremely fragrant lemon from our garden.
The dinner was rounded off by desserts of three kinds. We had hardly any more space left in our stomachs, but struggled somehow with our full bellies to taste them. First was tenga (sour) doi (yogurt) sweetened with gur (jaggery), and then kheer (rice pudding) made with khejur rosh (date palm juice) followed by biroin bhat (sticky rice) with thick, creamy milk and jaggery. At the end of the feast, we wished someone would carry us to the guest rooms. We thanked uncle profusely for his generosity and sauntered to our rooms.
The next morning, we had to leave early as a friend had invited us for lunch at his family tea garden in Srimangal, on the way back to Dhaka. Our morning breakfast was brisk and light, compared to the stupendous meals we had the day before. Nonetheless, we savoured some local delicacies such as chira (flattened rice) with doi and a special banana called champa (very small and sweet), some left over pithas and tea.
We reached the tea garden a little after midday. The manager received us very cordially and conducted us to his beautiful, large bungalow that dated from the British days. On the way, we passed through patches of tea garden where the female workers were busily plucking tea and throwing the harvest into the baskets tied to their backs.
On arrival at the bungalow, we were served cold lemonade made with limes fresh from the garden orchards, and chunks of pineapple grown locally. A little later, we were called to the lunch table by our host.
The lunch was notable in many respects, as it included items and dishes that Sylhet and my grandmother were famous for. The first item that attracted my attention as well as of my friend was the appetizer -- chunga pitha, which is sticky rice cooked, or rather steamed, in segments of a special type of bamboo grown locally. The rice thus cooked is taken out of the bamboo segments after slitting them so that the rice could be presented as a tube in the dish. The tube of rice is sliced and eaten with spiced dry fish, or any other meat. As a side dish there was mashed potato spiced with hidol shutki (a dry fish of sorts fermented in a clay pot, with a very strong smell) and a red-hot pepper called naga. The second major item was spiced rani fish (a very special small fish resembling sardine with yellow stripes). I had not tasted the fish since I had last visited Sylhet. This was a prized fish item only available in Sylhet. Next was a meat dish, again a Sylhet specialty, duck cooked with korul (Sylheti for bamboo shoot).
The last item -- the pièce de résistance for me at least, was pancha khatta, a semi bitter-sour dish of beef trotters cooked with hatkora. This dish, made immortal by my grandmother and mother, calls for boiling beef trotters and parts of the shin with garlic, onion, ginger, and turmeric powder for several hours. Hatkora slices are then added to the stew, and gradually thickened. The gelatinous stew, fragrant with the scent of hatkora, is eaten with rice. I ate to my heart’s content. To my surprise, I found my non-Sylheti friend also enjoying the dish enormously. We had little appetite for any dessert after this enormous lunch, but we did taste some tasty morabbas, squares of pineapple cooked in heavy sugar syrup, and the ubiquitous caramel pudding – a staple of tea garden lunches.
We had great trouble in getting up and leaving the tea garden that afternoon. But leave we must, and therefore we laid our full but heavily satisfied bodies in our Land Rover. A dutiful but alert driver took care of the road while we dozed off in the vehicle, reminiscing and reliving the taste of our 36-hour food journey to Sylhet.