Bangladeshi food in a home is the best – it’s cooked with the care and love of a woman’s hands. In restaurants, food is cooked by men for quantity.
— A Bangladeshi friend captures the crux of Bangladeshi food.
Although you may not have realized it, it’s quite possible you’ve eaten Bangaldeshi food. Many of the restaurants along London's famed Brick Lane are actually Bangladeshi in origin. The same can probably be said for other “Indian” restaurants throughout the world. After all, Indian food has much better branding. So after having traveled through India and upon arriving in Bangladesh, we thought its food might just be the same.
Well, not quite. So what about food in Bangladesh? What is it like?
We don’t claim to be experts in Bangladeshi cuisine, but we did our share of dining in Bangladesh. During our nearly six weeks in the country, we took the opportunity to eat on the street, in tea stalls, canteens, restaurants and in village homes.
Here is what we found.
Bangladeshi Food: Approach, Ingredients and Tools
Bangladesh shares a common Bengali culture, language and history with its neighbors in the nearby Indian state of West Bengal. This shared culture also carries over to its food – many dishes are shared across borders and are commonly referred to as Bengali cuisine.
Bangladeshi cuisine is decidedly South Asian in nature. However, it's unique in its abundant use of fish and its employment of a variety of often fiery pastes made from ground roots, spices and chilies. So fiery they are, we're told, that even some visiting Indians can’t handle the heat.
Fish: Bangladesh is a country of rivers so perhaps it’s no surprise that fish is a staple of Bangladeshi food. There’s a common saying: “Fish and rice make a Bengali” (Machh-e-bhat-e-Bangali). Often fish is fried in spice paste to enable the flavors to settle in.
For Bangladeshis, not any fish will do. A river fish, be it from fresh or salt water, is the most highly valued. To Bangladeshis, sea fish just don’t offer the same flavor.
Ground pastes: Bangladeshi cuisine incorporates the use of pastes – spices and roots ground smooth. Green chili peppers are ubiquitous in Bangladeshi cuisine. Other common pastes include a combination of any of the following: ginger, garlic, red chili peppers, turmeric, onion, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, or mustard seed. (South Asian cuisine aficionados will note the use of popped spices as a foundation of Indian dishes as distinctly different from that of Bangladeshi cuisine.)
Mustard oil: Traditional Bengali cuisine makes frequent use of mustard oil which imparts an inimitable bitterness. You can definitely taste this in bhorta, uniquely Bangladeshi balls of mashed vegetables. Although mustard oil is still commonly used throughout Bangladesh, people are making the switch to more neutral vegetable oils.
Traditional stove: Who says you need fancy kitchen equipment to cook well?
A traditional Bangladeshi stove is made from mud or dug into the ground. It includes a place for fire (usually heated by wood, sometimes wrapped in cow dung so it burns slower) with an impression or opening in which to place the pan.
Boti (Knife):A traditional Bangladeshi carving utensil that consists of a curved blade on a shaft that you must secure between your feet. Bangladeshi women use it with lightening speed to cut onions, vegetables, fish — just about anything, no matter how small.
Eating with the right hand: As in other parts of South Asia, food is eaten with the right hand. Bangladeshis appreciated the attempt we made to eat “local style” – one restaurant manager even came up to us and thanked us for it.
Also, as our host mother in the village of Hatiandha told us, “Food tastes better when you eat it with your hands.”
No argument here. When in Bangladesh, eat with your hands.
Eating in a Bangladeshi Village
Not surprisingly, the best food we ate in Bangladesh was served in a family home during a village homestay. We are told that Mrs. Ali, our host mother in Hatiandha is known for her cooking skills. She really went all out for us during our stay.
Please note these dishes are not always eaten every day; some may be considered “special occasion” meals.
Awesome sabzi (mixed vegetables): Ok, the real name for this did not include “awesome” but we were so impressed by this dish that we felt it an appropriate name. Sabzi is common throughout Bangladesh, but Mrs. Ali took it to a whole new level.
In addition to ground ginger, garlic, onion, cumin, and chili pepper pastes, this dish also included fenugreek, fennel seed, black cumin, ajwain, and methi. Add to this carrots, potatoes, eggplant, cauliflower and whatever other vegetables you have hanging around and you've got something special.
Maach Bhuna (Fish Bhuna): Bhuna is a style of cooking where spice pastes – red chili, ginger, cinnamon, onion, and garlic – are heated in oil and then cooked with fish, meat or vegetable slices. Add a little water to thin out the sauce. The result is something aromatic, flavorful, and spicy. One of our favorites.
Bhendi Bhaji (Fried Okra): Simple and so delicious. Green chilies, ground onion paste and okra fried together in oil.
Begun Bhaja (Fried Eggplant): Pan-fried sliced eggplant with turmeric and salt.
Chicken Curry: A Bangladeshi garam masala-based curry that features chicken and potatoes. The masala — including cinnamon sticks, big brown cardamom, and small green cardamom — really shines through.
Dal (lentils): Another staple of the Bangladeshi table. Sauteed spices, onions and garlic stewed to creaminess. If there exists nothing else at breakfast time, you'll be sure to find dal and rounds of paratha bread.
Pulao: A rice that uses the small, fine grain of rice (more expensive). It's typically cooked with bay leaf, cinnamon sticks and topped with crispy dried onion. Delicious. You know you are considered someone special when the finer grained pulao comes out.
Bangladesh Restaurant Eating
Unless you’re going to a fancy hotel restaurant or a high-end eating establishment, don’t expect to receive a menu when dining at local canteens, cafeterias or restaurants. You don’t choose curry types; instead you choose chicken, fish or beef. Preparation is the choice of the man in the kitchen that day. It’s as if the restaurant is saying: “This is what we (collective we, like a family) are eating today.”
In this case, the selection is limited, but there’s something oddly binding in everyone sharing the same meal.
Meals are prepared –- and are therefore most fresh — around regular eating times. If you get off-cycle in your eating, you won’t go hungry but your food may have been hanging around for a while. Take note.
Bangladeshi Snacks and Breads:
Singara: Much like samosas, singara (the round items above) are spiced potato and vegetable mixture pockets wrapped in a thin dough and fried. What distinguishes a good singara is the flaky texture, almost as if it's made with savory pie crust. Singara are really tasty and inexpensive snack (as cheap as 24 for $1) that you can find almost anywhere in Bangladesh.
Samosa: In India, samosas are usually stuffed with potatoes and spices. Bangladeshi samosas tend to be triangular, filled with cabbage and other vegetables, and are more heavily fried and crunchier than either singara or their Indian samosa cousins.
Paratha: A thin fried flat bread that can be found everywhere throughout the country. Most often eaten at breakfast.
Fried roti stuffed with egg & onions: Once night hits in Khulna, many of the streetside restaurants were frying up a thin dough filled with egg, onions and spices. It was folded up like a square. More filling than it looks.
Roti Kalai: A thick flat bread made from lentil flour. When we found this on the streets of Rajshahi, women were serving it with freshly cut onions and green chili sauce. More like a meal than a snack since the lentil flour makes it very heavy.
Chana chaat: Chickpeas mixed with chopped onions, tomatoes, and spices often topped with popped rice and fried vegetables. Incredibly addictive snack food.
Naan: Although naan (flat bread cooked in a tandoor oven) is not as common in Bangladesh as it is in India, it is still possible to find it in some restaurants and street stands. In contrast to paratha, you'll find naan more readily available at night.
Pitha: A fried snack – almost like small pancakes – made from rice flour. Can either be eaten straight or covered with ghur (syrup made from the sap of date trees) for breakfast.
Bangladesh Breakfast: Our first meal of the day usually consisted of some combination of sabzi (mixed vegetables), dal (lentils), paratha (fried flat bread), omelette and milk tea. Hearty, filling reliable, good. Also incredibly cheap – we usually paid less than $1 for the two of us. We learned that tea is often eaten after the meal, not with the breakfast so you have to make a special request if you want your cup of tea to arrive with your meal.
Bhorta: Mashed potatoes (or other vegetables) often mixed with shrimp or fish. Usually made with onion, green chili peppers, cilantro and mustard oil — lending it an intense flavor. The restaurant at Western Inn International in Khulna serves up some delicious shrimp and fish bhorta.
Biryani: Spiced rice served with some sort of meat or chicken, sometimes mixed in and other times served on top of the rice. Maybe we just chose poorly, but we never really had a great biryani meal during our trip.
Egg curry: Hard boiled eggs served up in a creamy curry sauce looked a bit odd to us at first, but the taste: remarkably good. Served with crispy onions on top.
The one segment of Bangladeshi cuisine that most resembles Indian cuisine: desserts.
Mishti Doi: Sweet curd served in ceramic bowls. Our suggestion is to go for the semi-sweet variety. The best doi we found comes from a chain of shops called “Rosh” in Dhaka. We frequented the Gulshan 2 outpost, just on the circle. Go early: Rosh sells out of the semi-sweet doi very quickly.
Ras Malai: A heavy sweet made from balls of paneer (pressed Indian-style cottage cheese) served with sweetened clotted cream and topped with ground nuts and/or sweet spices like cardamom.
Rasgulla: Another heavy sweet made from balls of local cottage cheese mixed with semolina flower and cooked in a sugar syrup. The syrup absorbs into the ball. Intensely sweet.
Drinks in Bangladesh
Local Bangladeshi restaurants typically don’t offer a wide array of drinks. While tap water is available for free on tables, choices are usually limited to bottled water (a wise choice for visitors' tummies) and basic soft drinks (e.g., Sprite, Coke). Alcohol is forbidden.
Cha (tea): Bangladeshis are a tea drinking people. You’ll find little tea stands throughout the country with a few people sitting and drinking a small cup, perhaps with some snacks. Tea drinking and tea stands offer a great way to engage with and meet people. Most tea is black tea served with condensed milk and sugar, but you can also request “red” tea which is without milk.
7-Layer Tea: The famous 7-layer tea can only be found at Nilkhantha Tea Cabin outside of Srimongal (beware of imitations in the nearby village). The recipe is a secret, but combines three varieties of black tea and one green tea. Condensed milk and various spices (cinnamon, cloves), perhaps a dash of lemon and a hint of asafoetida make up the other flavor layers.
Lime juice and sugar cane juice: You can find juice stands on the streets of Old Dhaka and other big cities. Just be careful that you’re just getting the juice and not a mixture with local water. Otherwise, Bangla belly might come to haunt you.
How to Avoid Bangla Belly, Getting Sick in Bangladesh
With all of our eating at local and street restaurants throughout Bangladesh, we never once got a case of “Bangla belly.” Use common sense when eating and be careful of freshly cut (and uncooked) vegetables and fruit. Don’t take your chances on local tap water – buy bottled water or sterilize tap water yourself (e.g., SteriPen or tablets). And be sure to use wash your hands before and after meals.
Restaurants in Bangladesh
We generally ate very well (and very inexpensively) while traveling throughout Bangladesh. If the food is being made fresh and it looks good, and there are a lot of customers creating a high turnover, then you will probably be OK.
Dhaka Restaurants: Although we didn't eat out frequently while in Dhaka, everyone agrees that some of the best food around is in Old Dhaka. As you walk the streets around Shakari Bazaar, keep your eye out for streetside restaurants and guys like this serving up freshly cooked meals, paratha, singara and more.
Tasty. Friendly. You won't be disappointed.
Khulna Resturants: The streets come alive at night along Upper Jessore Road with men cooking up fresh roti, naan, meat kebabs and more. For our money and experience, this is the place to go. For a higher end meal, try Western Inn International for fish bhuna and tasty bhorta.
Srimongal Restaurants: There are several good eating options along Station Road, but Kutum Bari became our favorite. It’s a bit more expensive than other restaurants (i.e., $5 for two people), but it offers a wider selection than most and serves up delicious Indian and Bangladeshi favorites in a pleasant, unstuffy atmosphere. Staff are exceptionally friendly and are not afraid to explain and recommend dishes. Our favorites: the chicken tikka masala and fish bhuna.
For a regular local canteen, try Gram Bangla Restaurant on Station Road. Great breakfasts, traditional cuisine (dal and sabzi) and singara.
Eating in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT): Traditional food in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is another experience, entirely. For the most part, you will find traditional Bangladeshi or Bengali style food. However, in ethnic homes and restaurants in CHT, you will find cuisine that more closely resembles Burmese end of Southeast Asian food. We will address this in a future piece on our experience in the CHT region.