Jacob Gomes adds tomatoes to carmelized onions while making a Bengali fish dish Wednesday, October 26, 2011 in Olney, MD at Namaskar. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Immigrant’s Table: The river culture of Bangladesh

Editor’s note: The Immigrant’s Table is a new monthly column in which we explore the international cuisines (and the people behind them) found in the strip malls and suburban sprawls far from the expense-account dining rooms of downtown Washington.

If I were to reduce the cuisine of Bangladesh to a single word — and isn’t a bottom-line reduction what you’re after when discussing the tangled colonial and cross-cultural influences of another nation’scooking? — it would have to be “rivers.”

Bangladesh is drowning in rivers and tributaries, not to mention lakes and floodplains, a country seemingly in danger of being washed into the Bay of Bengal. It is the fish from these fresh waters that have fed the East Bengali people of this nation — and the state before that (East Pakistan) and the nation before that (the British Indian Empire). No matter where the people of Bangladesh roam, Old World or New World, they never seem to lose their taste for those river fish. Small wonder: Fish constitutes more than 60 percent of the protein eaten in Bangladesh. There’s even an adage, “machte bhate Bangali,” that roughly translates to “fish and rice make a Bengali.”

My introduction to the freshwater fish of Bangladesh comes at a well-stocked market in Arlington, where a sizable expat community lives, enough apparently to support three such stores in a cramped strip center off Lee Highway. I should note that there’s also a restaurant (Deshi Spice) in the same humble string of brick storefronts, and it bills itself as the “only source of authentic Bangladeshi Food in the Washington Metro area.” (More on that claim later.)

Prabhat Thapaliya works at Bangla Bazar, and he guides me through the market’s dizzying array of imported fish: minor carps and minnows such as punti and mola, catfishes such as magur and shing, and perhaps most popular of all, a carp species known as rui or ruhi. The Bangladesh community here, Thapaliya says, can’t seem to adapt to the flavor of most locally available fish, save perhaps for salmon, which is similar to his native country’s ilish, a sea fish that migrates up rivers to reproduce.

In their adopted countries, Bangladeshi transplants often find that their preferred river fish are hard to obtain or that locals view the oily imported seafood as something akin to monkey brains. That, in part, explains why so many Bangladeshi restaurateurs have sublimated their culinary identity to instead serve a modified (bastardized?) form of Indian cuisine, similar to the cultural repression that Washingtonians discover every time they walk into a “Mexican” restaurant run by former Salvadorans. Natives of the Indian subcontinent, I should note, generally frown on Indian food prepared by Bangladeshis, and by “frown on,” I mean dismiss as inauthentic.

Bangladeshis aren’t always tickled with the situation, either. Consider what historian Lizzie Collingham wrote about such restaurants in Britain in her book “Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors” (Oxford University Press, 2006): “Some Bangladeshi and Pakistani restaurant owners find it irritating to be labeled ‘Indian’ but many encourage the misunderstanding, as India conjures up romantic images in the mind of the British public.”

Mohammed Harun Rashid understands the business complexities involved in running a restaurant away from his native Bangladesh. He used to operate five inexpensive eateries in the Queens area of New York under the name Aladdin Sweets and Restaurant. His specialties were Bangladeshi desserts and river fish, a cheap and comforting taste of home for the many transplants who found themselves far away from the Ganges delta.

But when Rashid moved to the Washington area in late 2009 and opened an Aladdin restaurant last year in Rockville, he kept the desserts but mostly ditched the river fish. (You can still order the seafood by special request.) He also modified the name of his business. It’s now Aladdin Indian Kitchen, to which Rashid has affixed a pair of taglines: “The Flavor of Bengal” (exterior sign) and “With a Touch of Bengal” (on the menu). The compromised menu and name are necessary concessions to conducting business in Rockville, Rashid says. Locals are just more familiar with Indian food.

“We need a lot of walk-in people . . . to come in and pick up the food,” Rashid says. “This area doesn’t call for” Bangladeshi food.

To the uninitiated, Aladdin’s menu wouldn’t seem much different from one found at a garden-variety Indian restaurant. You’ll find samosas and pakoras, palak paneer and butter chicken, chicken biryani and lamb vindaloo, a sort of greatest hits of subcontinental cooking as prepared by Rashid and his wife, Shiuli Rashid, the primary cook at Aladdin. The flavors of Bengal can be found on the margins (like on the dessert menu, where the sweetened fresh-cheese dumplings known as rosogolla and rosomalai can be ordered) and, more to the point, buried deep within every dish.

“I’m from Bangladesh,” Rashid says. “Anything I prepare has a distinct flavor that will remind you of Bangladeshi food.”

Trying to pin down the flavors of Bangladesh — and how they differ from those in Indian regional cooking — is a task for culinary anthropologists, not daily journalists with a deadline. Some say Bangladeshis don’t use curry-leaf powder or coconut milk in their dishes. Some say natives embrace beef because the Muslim-dominant country has no religious restrictions against the meat. Some say Bangladeshis prefer mustard oil over other types of cooking oils or that they favor a five-spice blend known as panch phoran, which usually includes cumin seed, fenugreek, fennel seed, radhuni and Nigella seed. Others, of course, say that none of those things define the country’s cuisine.

But everyone agrees about the river fish.

You can find the fish at the aforementioned Deshi Spice, which may or may not be more authentic than Aladdin, but it is (insert a loud clearing of the throat) obviously not the only Bangladeshi-minded restaurant in the area. The place serves both ruhi and ilish; Deshi Spice even serves a Bangladeshi favorite known as shorshe ilish, a pan-fried fish dish with a pungent mustard-onion sauce. The restaurant suggests ordering those specialties in advance.

On the surface, the advance notice seems strange for a fish dish, which typically doesn’t require the cooking time of, say, Frank Ruta’s roasted chicken at Palena (a pleasure that demands nearly 45 minutes of culinary foreplay). But if you step inside a Bangladeshi kitchen, you begin to understand the need for time to cook the country’s signature fish.

I didn’t exactly get to step into a Bangladeshi kitchen; instead, I had a Bangladeshi chef step inside The Post’s ninth-floor kitchen to demonstrate how to prepare two classic dishes: black tiger shrimp bhuna and a ruhi masala, both made with frozen seafood imported straight from South Asia. (The farming of river fish, I should point out, has increased significantly in Bangladesh given the polluted and overfished waterways in the country.)

Jacob Gomes is a 64-year-old native of Dhaka, Bangladesh. For 30 years, Gomes was the chef for the sultan of Oman, says Francis Gomes, who employs his father-in-law to cook for his restaurant and catering company, Namaskar, in Olney. (Hey, Deshi Spice: That’s three and counting!) The chef has a relaxed, unruffled air about him, well-suited to standing over a stove and stirring onions, tomatoes, water and spices until they combine into the desired texture and aroma. It’s a long process, a good 40 to 50 minutes from the time he removes the fish and shellfish from the marinade to the moment he assembles everything on a beautifully garnished plate.

This is a la minute cooking, Bangladeshi-style. In an ideal world, there would be no pre-made sauces for black tiger shrimp bhuna and ruhi masala (although restaurant cooking sometimes requires otherwise). Each dish should be prepared with its own individual sauce, which develops its own flavor as it also flavors the seafood in the pan. What’s surprising here is that, despite the length of time required to prepare the dishes, the seafood never toughens into rubbery nubbins. Credit the chef’s technique of adding just enough water to the pan to keep the fish moist.

The finished dishes are unlike anything you’ve had at an Indian restaurant: pungent, aromatic, slightly sweet, slightly spicy and, in the case of the ruhi masala, unmistakably meaty and fishy. This is not bland, flaky white fish. This is fish for people who love the oily taste of fish. And for people who love the sensual experience of eating. Bangladeshis, after all, don’t use forks and knives. They eat with their fingers. It’s much easier to fish out and discard the many bones found in these creatures that roam the rivers of Bangladesh.


Fish Masala

Shrimp Bhuna