Cooking in Bangladesh
I cook Bangladeshi and British food – although I appreciate both cuisines, I like to keep them separate. I was born in England, but as kids we spent every summer in rural Bangladesh, living together with the wider family in one house, or under one ‘rice’ as we called it.
Most days we would have rice with seven or eight dishes, usually fish or vegetarian, and we’d eat a little bit of everything. We only ate meat if it was a special occasion. Bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, turmeric, chilli and cardamom were used a lot, but Bangladeshi cooking involves many spices and we had to be creative because we wasted nothing.
The secret of delicious rice
My parents and I were raised on rice. My grandad was a rice farmer and grew many types. It’s one of the first things I learned to cook and I quickly realised that if you want to do it well it helps to know a bit about starch.
Cooking biryani and pulao
For a biryani or pulao you want very dry, separate, fluffy rice grains, so you need to minimise the starch. To do this, soak the rice for a minimum of two hours and then rinse it well before cooking. This also reduces the cooking time; the water soaks into the rice so you need to get less into it from the cooking.
Cooking sticky rice
Sticky rice is glutinous and contains a lot of starch, which you don’t want to lose in cooking. Wash the rice quickly, boil it and then let it cook in its starchy water for about 10 minutes over a low heat. We often eat it with spicy fried fish. My sisters and I also make pudding out of it by cooking it, then leaving it to dry and harden – my grandma used to give us slices of this dipped in sugar.
Frying can make an inexpensive treat
Many vegetables grow in Bangladesh, and street food vendors make something special by turning them into fritters or pakoras, including onion bhajis. My family didn’t cook pakoras at home – they didn’t want to waste oil by deep frying – so my grandad would go to a bazaar and come back with them wrapped in newspaper. It could be as simple as potato cooked in spices.
The golden rule is that the oil must be hot enough to make the pakoras crisp and light, but cool enough to cook them right through to the middle without burning the outside. Finely chop or thinly slice the vegetables and then lightly salt them to dry them out. For the batter, it’s best to use chickpea flour, although you could use up to a third rice flour to increase the crispness. Mix the flour with spices such as ground ginger, finely chopped green chillies and ground turmeric, and enough water to make a batter just thick enough to coat the veg (you want more vegetable than batter). You can make a pastry dough for samosas in a similar way, as shown in the next step.
You can even make your own easy version of parathas by rolling out puff pastry and cutting out circles, then placing them in the freezer for 15 minutes before frying them in butter or oil in a chapatti or frying pan.
Don’t be afraid of heat
The first rule of cooking over a high heat is you must prepare all the ingredients ahead because you have to fry or grill quickly. My grandma cooked on dried wood – it’s a fierce heat and she controlled it by simply pulling out sticks.
Don’t be afraid of lightly charred flavours. I think they go really well with sour foods. Try squeezing lemon or orange juice on food as it cooks on the barbecue, or serve it with sour pickles.
If we wanted to protect food from the heat of the barbecue we’d wrap it in banana leaves, as in my whole fish in banana leaf recipe (see step eight).
Serve pickles and preserves
My parents taught me that if it can be eaten, why throw it away? They are very mindful of waste and never throw away leftovers. Fifteen years ago not everyone in Bangladesh had a fridge, especially in rural areas. My family had no way of preserving food, so it had to be dried or cooked and eaten.
In Bangladesh they have the joy of 37 or 38C heat (they think 30C in winter is cold), so everything gets dried, even fish and lentils. My family would dry it on the roof all day, then store it. Even in England, my mum tries to dry things by laying them on a mat and then putting them on the shed roof!
Pickling is a traditional way of preserving. In Bangladesh if there was a storm and inch-wide mangoes fell from the trees, my grandma would collect them in buckets and give a handful to everyone in the village. They’d pickle them – it’s a ‘waste-not want-not’ culture. We might make a fruit pickle by mashing up a garlic and oil paste, sometimes adding onion and ginger, then cooking it with chopped fruit and a mixture of spices over a low heat for 15 minutes. For a fresher chutney, you can grill the garlic for 10 minutes or until charred, then peel and mix it with thinly sliced red onion and fruit, lemon juice, a little oil and fresh coriander.
Have lots of ways to cook fish
Fish is our staple, our star. We mostly eat freshwater fish – everyone used to have a fishery in their village. The big fish are a treat, but people also cook the little ones. My mum cooked fish in 100 ways to make sure we had variety in our diet, and we’d eat fermented fish and dried fish. I’m anglicised and make fish cakes, which she thinks are a step too far from Bangladeshi food. Here are three of my favourite treatments for it.
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