Bangladeshi Cooks Deserve a Seat at the Table. Let’s Start with My Mom.
This story is part of our At the Table series, created by Kayla Hoang. She has curated this collection of interviews and recipes from BIPOC cooks who have something to say about how their specific cultures are represented (or not) within the wider world of food media.
Because I was born and raised in a small town in New Jersey, my Bangladeshi and Vietnamese identity wasn’t shaped by a large community or immersion into the cultures through travel and language, but rather by food.
My dad, who emigrated from Vietnam with his family in the ’70s, instilled in our family the idea that food is representative of culture. My earliest memory of him introducing my brother and me to Vietnamese food was through a Sunday night tradition of bánh xèo and rice paper rolls. My mom, Saida (nicknamed Dina), came to the United States from Bangladesh in the ’70s with her parents and sisters and settled in Paterson, New Jersey, which has become home to a large Bangladeshi community. She immersed our family in her heritage through daily acts, like sharing her favorite Bangladeshi foods that my grandmother made specially for her or incorporating her favorite spices into family dinners, regardless if the dishes were Bangladeshi or not. Indulging in these foods was an everyday way for my parents to expose us to our heritage and help us better understand our cultures.
Learning how to cook these foods has been an incredibly personal journey. My parents have been really important in helping me learn. My dad takes me through the process of charring the onions and ginger and gently toasting the whole spices for the broth when he makes pho. My mom, who I’ve always watched intently while she cooks, explains how cooking each element separately when she makes keema and cabbage makes it taste better because that’s what my grandmother used to do.
In my family, food is a way to express your feelings, to show you care, or to offer support. Sharing food is an act of love. Our recipes hold stories, traditions, and memories. For so many, especially in BIPOC communities, food is emblematic of their culture. In seeing how the Bangladeshi cuisine that I hold so close is so often overlooked, even neglected, in food media, I can’t help but think of all the cuisines and their people who are left out of the conversation. So many recipes — and the stories embedded in them — don’t get a chance to be shared.
It’s for all of these reasons that diverse and inclusive representation in food is so important to me. True representation means creating space for underrepresented and misrepresented voices to share their cuisine (and, in turn, their culture and experiences) without being forced to fit into a category or be promoted with modifiers like “weeknight” to make their food more approachable for a white audience. BIPOC cooks, the ones who are so often overlooked, should have the opportunity to share their recipes and stories the way they know it — not the way that’ll be most appealing to the audiences who allow them to be left out. Their recipes and stories need to be celebrated beyond their own communities. It’s not enough anymore to say that all are welcome at the table: There needs to actually be a seat for everyone.
This is why, over the next few months, I’ll be uplifting the voices of underrepresented BIPOC communities through their recipes in the At the Table series. It’s a small step towards making food the inclusive place it needs to be. This is a space for everyone to feel heard, seen, valued, and celebrated. To do just that, I’ll be talking to cooks to learn more about their cuisines, listen to their stories, celebrate their cultures, and hear more about what representation means for them — starting with my mom.
Cooking Can Bring Generations Together
My grandmother and my mom taught me, perhaps unknowingly, that making and sharing Bangladeshi food is an act of love. Certain dishes can be laborious and involved, but my grandmother, the best cook I know, made it seem so easy. Not lost on me are all the ways she used her cooking to show her family how much she cares, like through Friday or Saturday night dinners where she and my grandfather would invite their daughters and their families for a full spread of appetizers, dinner, and dessert — plus enough leftovers for a whole other meal — or all the times she’d spend hours cooking my favorite dishes so I could have a special treat when I was home from college. Making sure her family was well-fed was how she showed her love and so much of the reason why Bangladeshi food is so important to me.
My mom’s Bangladeshi cooking journey began when she left for college and found herself craving her mother’s cooking. Without easy access to the internet or Bangladeshi cookbooks, she used her best resource — frequent phone calls home to her mom — to help guide her through making the foods she had found herself craving. It was during this time away from home that she began to teach herself through trial and error how to cook Bangladeshi food. Now, as a parent herself, my mom shares her favorite treats with us, like corners of her shingara (which are absolutely the best part), the crispy edges of teler pitha, or spicy dal puri.
Regrettably, I never paid any mind to learning how to make all the dishes I loved so much when I was younger. Now that I’m older, I long to be able to cook those foods that brought me so much joy and comfort and allowed me to understand more about my family. I long to be able to cook the foods my grandmother used to cook for me when she was still able to.
While there are some great video-based resources for Bangladeshi cooking on social media and Youtube, there is a major lack of representation of Bangladeshi cuisine and culture within larger, more prominent companies across food media. The resources that exist can only really be found if you’re looking for them. Rarely seeing these Bangladeshi foods — or the culture, for that matter — is disheartening.
In an effort to begin to change that, I sat down with my mom to talk about the Bangladeshi food that she grew up eating, her favorite comfort foods, and her recipe for one of our family’s favorite foods: aloo chop.
At the Table with Saida Chowdhury
Let’s jump right in. I know Bangladeshi cuisine varies depending on the region as well as the person making it and that you can’t speak for the entirety of Bangladesh, but how would you describe the food that you grew up with?
The Bangladeshi food I know was always made with fresh ingredients and a lot of different spices. We use dried spices pretty generously as well as onion, ginger, and garlic. The food is typically spicy and our family loves it extra hot. We use a lot of fresh peppers or chili powder in most dishes. These aspects are what make the food super flavorful.
There are a lot of different components to Bangladeshi meals. Usually there is a protein — fish is eaten a lot in Bangladesh, but beef, chicken, and eggs are eaten a lot in our family, too. Many of the protein-based dishes are best described as curries. With our curries and saucy dishes, rather than the sauce being thickened with some sort of dairy or coconut milk, they’re often thickened either with starchy vegetables (like potatoes) or by cooking down a mixture of onions, ginger, and garlic with spices and oil until jammy and almost silky.
In addition to the protein, meals usually include some sort of vegetable bhaji, rice (or pulao if it’s a special occasion), and a bhorta. Bhorta is a dish consisting of something mashed, usually with chilies and onion, and finished with mustard oil. If they can mash it, they’ll make it into a bhorta!
You mentioned fresh ingredients as a characteristic of the Bangladeshi food you know. Can you elaborate a little bit more on why you called that out?
In Bangladesh, we lived in a rural area where most of the people grew their own food alongside where they lived. You ate what you grew. When we came to the U.S., we continued to use mostly fresh ingredients because that was what we were used to. Of course we adapted to what was available and began to use things like frozen mixed vegetables for bhaji, but for the most part we stuck to using fresh ingredients.
And in your opinion, what would you say are the key spices used in Bangladeshi cooking?
I’d say the spices used most often are turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili powder, garam masala, and salt. And almost every dish starts with ginger, garlic, and onion.
Are there any specific dishes that immediately come to mind when you think of Bangladeshi food?
When I think about Bangladeshi food, the first dishes that come to mind are the everyday-type foods that Amma [my mother] used to make. I think of dishes like chicken curry or aloo bhorta, which is mashed potatoes with onions and lots of dried red chilies and finished with mustard oil, and dim bhaji, which is, in simplest terms, sort of like a Bangladeshi omelet with onions, chilies, cilantro, and ground coriander and/or cumin. I also think of vegetable bhaji and dal. Oh and rice, obviously. We eat rice with almost everything.
All the different pithas also come to mind too. Pitha, which are typically made from rice flour, are sort of hard to generalize because there are so many different kinds. I love teler pitha, which is a sweet, fried pitha. The inside is tender and sweet and takes on a really specific texture while the outside is golden-brown and the edges are crispy. Then there’s also bhapa pitha that Amma used to make, which is a steamed rice cake with coconut and gur [jaggery] in the center. That one is the best when it’s freshly made, right after it’s been steamed.
And I can’t forget the mishti! Mishti is basically an assortment of different sweets. There are so many varieties, but some of my favorites are rasmalai, gulab jamun, and rasgulla.
She made the best pithas. I can almost taste all those foods and my mouth is watering. And what are (in your opinion) the best, most delicious aspects of Bangladeshi cuisine that you want people to know about?
Bangladeshi food makes me feel a sense of comfort, a sense of home that I can’t get from any other food. No matter how many different foods and cuisines we eat and try, I just always go back to Bangladeshi food. That’s what makes me feel at home and safe.
There’s so much to love about it. I love the contrast of the freshness from ingredients like cilantro and fresh chilies to the flavor of the dried spices that we use. And I love how rich in flavor and generously spiced the dishes are without being too heavy, like in the way a cream-based dish can be.
My favorite aspect, though, is all the different components that make up a meal. Like I mentioned earlier, a standard meal — at least the way our family eats — consists of a lot of different dishes like rice, a protein, bhaji, bhorta, dal, and so on. The dishes are all good on their own, but there’s something magical about the way the food melds when you eat it all together. And it’s even better if you eat it with your hand!
Haha, you know I love eating with my hand! Let’s switch gears a bit. Representation in food has been widely discussed in the past year with many criticizing the way BIPOC cuisines are represented across food media, including who gets to tell certain stories and the importance in providing cultural and historical context. From your experience as a home cook, how do you feel Bangladeshi cuisine has been portrayed in food media?
It hasn’t. I don’t ever really see anything about Bangladeshi food anywhere and because of that people don’t usually know anything about it. It’s kind of like a mystery to them. When I meet people and tell them about myself and where I’m from, they usually ask “So what’s Bangladeshi food like? What’s it about?” There’s just not a lot of information being shared so they don’t know. So many times I’m asked to compare it to food that they do know, but that’s hard because it can’t necessarily be compared.
When I go to look for a recipe for a Bangladeshi dish it takes a lot of searching to find something close to what I’m looking for. There are a lot of people on YouTube now sharing their Bangladeshi recipes, but we didn’t have that when I was first learning. There still isn’t that much beyond that. There isn’t really anyone on TV cooking or even talking about Bangladeshi food either.
Moving forward, how would you like to see Bangladeshi food represented?
I’d like to see more information about Bangladeshi food out there. There aren’t very many people covering it and it’d be nice to see it highlighted more. I’d also love to see more Bangladeshi recipes being published. It’s important to me, though, that those recipes are true to the way Bangladeshi people cook and not changed to be, I guess, more palatable for non-Bangladeshi audiences. Of course, the recipes would vary from person to person and the way they learned, but I’d really like to see more Bangladeshi people be able to share recipes that are true to the cuisine.
Absolutely, I agree 100%. Keeping these recipes as true as possible is one of the most important aspects because of what these foods represent for so many. Bangladeshi food means so much to our family and I think what you shared will be super informative to those who are curious about it. Now, if you don’t mind, tell me about the recipe you’re sharing today.
The recipe I’m sharing today is for aloo chop. It’s something Amma used to make a lot and something I grew up eating. It’s always been a favorite of mine. Sometimes she would add in mixed vegetables that she had cooked or a piece of hard-boiled egg to turn it into dimer chop. Both of those versions are so delicious, but I really love the fresh, spicy punch from this version that’s primarily potato.
Aloo chop is made from mashed potatoes. In this recipe, they’re mixed with lots of fresh cilantro, small green chilies, and onion. The potato mixture is formed into these sort of oblong shapes and then breaded and shallow-fried. They look like they could be heavy, but they’re actually very light and fluffy and have a perfectly thin and crispy breading on the outside that I love. Potatoes are pretty bland by themselves, so a lot of the dominant flavor comes from the cilantro and green chilies. The fresh flavor and spice that the chilies and cilantro give to the aloo chop is my favorite part.
And what does sharing this recipe with me and with readers mean to you?
Sharing this recipe means a lot to me. I want people to experience the flavors and textures that I described that make aloo chop so good. Although it’s simple, I hope this recipe can at least give people a little taste of what they’re missing out on with Bangladeshi food.
In a much broader sense, sharing this recipe and talking about Bangladeshi food makes me really happy because I haven’t felt represented in this context. More than anything, it’ll be nice to feel seen for once. Hopefully we can finally begin to see more Bangladeshi recipes come out. I hope that sharing this and talking about the food helps influence some sort of change.