Bangladeshi food is the brother of India’s Bengali cuisine and shares a similar past, cooking techniques and ingredients. However, it is not the same and food from Bangladesh has a distinct personality that makes it very different from that in India.
- Bangladeshi cuisine
- Bangladeshi eating habits
- Traditional Bangladeshi food
- Traditional Bangladeshi desserts
- Popular Bangladeshi drinks
The cuisine of Bangladesh is influenced by its landscapes and the bounty that the land, the rivers and the sea produce. It is heavily shaped by the country’s low-lying altitude and abundance of water, especially through the annual monsoon.
Besides the land and geography, the cuisine in Bangladesh has been heavily molded on Dhaka’s historical trade routes and the many civilisations that ruled the land. The Mughals brought with the Turkish and Persian techniques and foods, the British left the tea.
As an eminently rural and agricultural country where over 60% of the population live off the land, foods are seasonal and dependent on what grows where. The coastal areas will be more dependent on fish while the hills might eat more meat, but variations are small.
Bangladeshi are predominantly Muslim, so pork is a rare food that you will not find in Bangladeshi menus. On the other side, beef is more common, as is chicken or goat, but meats are not common of the average Bangladeshi diet as many cannot afford to eat them everyday and fish is more easily available.
Vegetables of all kinds are eaten in full, stems and leaves, pulses such as lentils, and grains like rice are the main staples, but bread, usually the deep fried puffy kind or the naan version, is almost always served.
Bangladeshi food features several ingredients in many of the dishes. Root vegetables like potatoes and vegetables like aubergine are commonly eaten.
The many rivers that cover the country and end in the world’s largest delta also produce lots of different kinds of freshwater fish and halsi and carp are the most popular.
Bangladeshi food is generally spicy like Indian food, and chilli peppers are used in almost every dish, so you should expect to feel a degree of heat with almost every dish. The marsala spice mix that is used in India to flavor food is also used in Bangladesh, but the mix is different.
As per cooking techniques, frying is widely used to cook foods, as ovens do not exist in most of Bangladesh rural areas and boiling is less common. Food is cooked in clay, earthen or metal pots over a pit fire or charcoal. Banana leaves are also used to cook food.
Unlike in India, Bangladeshi food is not always fried in ghee but also in mustard or other vegetable oils.
Bangladeshi eating habits
As with all Muslim countries, Bangladeshis eat with their right hand and do not use the left as it is considered impure. This is also common in India and required a degree of skill.
You will notice that locals, like most Indians, are able to cut a piece of bread with just one hand, using three fingers, one to hold the bread and two to pull. My partner, of Bengali Indian descent, is very skilled at this, I always need both hands to pull a piece from any bread.
It is common in Bangladesh for food to be served for sharing and all plates to be brought to the middle of the table with spoons to help yourself. The woman of the house will serve you and may not eat until you are finished.
Traditional Bangladeshi food
Traditional food in Bangladesh reflects the country’s culinary past and its rich heritage influenced by the many empires and cultures that inhabited its land.
Unlike other countries where modern takes of food are prevalent, almost all the food in Bangladesh is still traditional. Despite every household having its own recipes for the famous Bangladeshi recipes, the foundations remain the same.
Even in the capital city of Dhaka, fusion or fine dining Bangladeshi restaurants are practically nonexistent so you are likely to get the real deal no matter where you eat. Of course, street snacks are best enjoyed from street vendors, even though I would not recommend the inexperienced belly to take the risk.
Pitha – rice cakes
Pitha are rice cakes that are made sweet or savory and with several types of rice and then soaked in milk and topped with sugar, date palm syrup, jaggery or molasses. The rice cakes can be steamed, fried or in other ways.
It is a typical Bangladeshi food eaten at the beginning of winter when the rice harvest ends and they are found across the country.
Bortha – mashed vegetables and fish
This is the most common Bangladeshi food of all. Bortha refers to any vegetable that has been cooked and served mashed. This can be anything and everything, from one vegetable only to several, from spicy to mild, from leaves to stems.
Bortha is served in small dishes for sharing and will usually accompany a full meal which includes rice and some kind of curry or fried fish.
Some Bortha can be delicious while others were not my kind, the good thing is that they are usually served in small portions and cost little so you can order a few and see which one you like best.
Biryani is a favorite Bangladeshi food that is very popular in Old Dhaka where it is sold in various stalls and restaurants the oldest of which is Haji Biryani which opened in the 1930s and sells only goat biryani.
The dish is usually made with meat, goat and chicken are very popular but also prawns or beef are used (vegetarian options are common in India), cooked in mustard oil, and spiced with saffron, cumin, cloves, bay leaves, chilli powder, onions and other spices which give it the traditional yellow strokes and flavor.
Biryani is not just meat and rice cooked together, but the result of a long and slow cooking process in specific dum pots and the results is a layered dish with two parts of rice and one of protein in the middle.
The origin of the word and the food are unclear and lots of versions explain how it arrived in India but the most likely one talks about the trade routes between Persia and Bengal which brought this way of cooking and recipe to India and from there to Bangladesh via the Mughal Empire.
Biryani is famous in several parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, each with its own mix of spices, type of protein and cooking method. In India, one of the most famous biryanis comes from Hyderabad.
Phuchka or Fucsa – Pani puri
Pani puri is an Indian snack that is also eaten in Bangladesh and is known by different names depending on the part of the world you eat it at. While in Dhaka and the Bengal Bay it is known as Phuchka, Chittagong calls it Fucsa and Indians refer to it as pani puri.
Pani puris are small, crispy, puffed breads that are broken at the top and filled with usually potatoes, maybe some vegetables, spiced tangy water and then topped with spicy sauce. They are usually eaten in the street, standing by the stall owner who makes them, and popped in the mouth at once before they become soggy.
Pani puri are the most famous Indian food and they are one of the best street snacks, even if their origins are unclear. Because they are eaten on the spot and can’t be taken away, you will keep on getting more from the stall owner until you say enough, each prepared to be eaten right now.
Samosa and shingara
Samosa are triangular-shaped and deep-fried pastries filled with potatoes, peas and spices and commonly found in street stalls across India and Bangladesh. Shingara are made with a different kind of dough, flakier and crumblier, and with a rounder shape.
The difference between the two, obviously, is that samosa are triangular and crunchy while shingara are rounder flaky. In Bangladesh, you may well be served a shingara instead of a samosa or you may find both being sold in street stalls as the eminently filling street snack.
As with most Indian and Bangladeshi foods, the origin of both are unknown but it is believed that they came with the Mughal and evolved from a meat filling to the more pervasive potatoes.
Bangladeshi food is often accompanied by rice and bread, most commonly the naan or luchi types.
Naan bread is very popular in the northern parts of India and is a flatbread made with wheat flour and ideally cooked in an oblong-shaped tandoori oven. Luchi bread is a puffed and deep fried bread made with maida flour.
Other types of breads eaten as street snacks or at meal times in Bangladesh are roti and paratha. Roti, also known as chapati, is the simpler version of naan bread, thinner and cooked on a flat griddle rather than on a tandoori.
Paratha are a layered version of roti bread cooked with ghee which makes it a delicious yet far unhealthier option.
Seafood curry and Egg curry
Curries are a very common way of cooking food in Bangladesh and are eaten with rice. They tend to be spicy and made with vegetable oil but in the south of the country they can also be made using coconuts.
All kinds of food are cooked curry-style but most notably prawns, fish, goat, chicken, beef and even eggs. Vegetable curries are also possible but less common since vegetables tend to be served mashed.
The curries in Bangladesh have an onion and tomato gravy base instead of the Southeast Asian coconut milk base and one of the most prized ones is the fish head curry which is offered to guests and is called muri ghonto.
Bangladeshis love to eat fish, as mentioned above, this is one of the main staples, especially in the cities and especially freshwater fish.
The most common fish is halsi but also carp fish. They are both white fish and they are quite nutritious. Halsi is often served fried or as a whole fish baked in the oven. Because it is really boney, it is quite a lot of effort to eat it.
Dal is a lentil soup common of India too but in Bangladesh it is runnier and more liquid, closer to a soup than the thicker version that is eaten in India, and without any of the cream.
Dal in Bangladesh is also less spicy and the lentils have been broken down into smaller pieces. Onion is added in, sometimes also potatoes and carrots. No meal is complete without a serving of dal and rice.
Chotpoti is a combination of potatoes, chickpeas and onions in a semi soup format that is eaten in the street as a warm snack.
White rice is one of the most important foods in Bangladesh and served with every meal. Unlike in India, the rice in Bangladesh is not basmati but the short type, and usually served boiled, on its own, or topped with small pieces of fried shallots.
Traditional Bangladeshi desserts
Bangladesh food has to end with a generous dose of sweetness and that is easy because the local desserts are incredibly sugary and sweet so they top a spiced and spicy meal.
Bangladeshi desserts use palm sugar, jaggery, honey and milk which is processed into cheese, yogurt, curd and other milk derivatives.
Firni, kheer and payesh
Firni, or kheer, is a sort of rice pudding made by boiling broken rice or other grain in milk and sugar. The concoction can be spiced with cardamom, raisins, saffron, cashews, pistachios, almonds or other dry fruits and nuts. Payesh is very similar to firni but made with whole rice grains.
Halwa is a common dessert of many countries and a distant cousin of both the Turkish delight and the Spanish/Sicilian turron. You will find it across the Middle East and also in countries which were part of the former Ottoman (Balkan countries like Albania) or Persian Empires such as the Caucasus (eg. Azerbaijan), the countries in South Asia like India and east (i.e. Somaliland) and north Africa.
Halwa is an incredibly sweet dessert made with water, rose water, ghee, flour, sugar and various nuts and spices such as cardamom and cinnamon. Halwa is usually served either as a mash or cut in rhomboid shapes and decorated with almond pieces on top.
Rasgulla is one of the most popular Indian and Bangladeshi sweets and one with international reach and a long history that was cause for internal fights between two Indian states eventually resolved when the Geographical Indication registry named West Bengal the origin of rasgulla.
Made with curdled milk called channa (similar to paneer or cottage cheese) and sugar, and then decorated with spices or nuts a confectionary master from Kolkata K. C. Das, claims to have invented this and rasmalai.
Every family and restaurant cooks rasgulla their own way and the level of sweetness can vary significantly.
Rasmalai is a traditional Bengali dessert of India and Bangladesh made with small rasgullas soaked in sweetened milk with spices like cardamom and decorated with ground pistachios. Its name is made from the Hindi words for cream and juice and its origins are tied to that of rasgulla.
Kalojam or gulab jamun
Kalojam also called kalo jamun, is similar to gulab jamun but darker in color. These bullet-shaped sweets made with milk solids, fried and soaked in sugar syrup often scented with rose water are one of the sweetest desserts there are and a Bangladeshi food eaten on special occasions.
The milk solids are made by boiling milk over low temperature for a really long time and then balls are created, fried and soaked in syrup. In confectionary shops, you can see them being sold decorated with small gold leaves or pistachio.
Like halwa, gulab jamun is a very popular sweet found across the world, from Pakistan to Myanmar. It is thought that the sweet came to India with the Mughal Empire and the words gulab come from the Persian words for rose scented water.
Kachagolla is another Bangaldeshi sweet that is also made with sugar and milk, like all the rest, but this one starts by turning the milk into chana which is the Bengali version of cottage cheese.
Chana is made by boiling the milk until it becomes similar to a cottage cheese and then grating it and kneading it. The mixture is then cooked with sugar in a pan and then made into small balls. Kachagolla is one of the least sweet Bangladeshi desserts.
Sweetened homemade creamy yogurt; prepared by boiling milk until it is slightly thickened, sweetening it with sugar, either guda/gura (brown sugar) or khajuri guda/gura (date molasses), and allowing the milk to ferment overnight.
Among all the sweetness of Bangladeshi desserts, you might want to enjoy a fresher and healthier option by eating some of Bangladesh’s best tropical fruits which will change with the seasons.
Expect ripe mangoes, coconuts, papaya, jackfruit, lychees and bananas, which account for 40% of the fruit production in Bangladesh and come in various shapes, forms and colors.
Popular Bangladeshi drinks
Bangladesh food is pretty spicy, very hot at times and extremely flavourful so it needs a drink to match it. Because the majority of the population is Muslim, alcohol is only found in hotels and some bars so non-alcoholic drinks prevail.
There are three ingredients which make most of the drinks in Bangladesh. Tea, brought over by the English, is the drink of choice at all times of day and night. Fruits make for the most wonderful drinks. And lastly, dairy, as mentioned across most of the desserts, Bangladeshis love dairy products.
The British brought tea with them and started Bangladesh’s long tea tradition. Walk into anyone’s home and a glass of cha will be offered. Cha is sold in street stalls all throughout Dhaka and all you need to decide is how much sugar and whether you want milk.
In the street, cha is served in small glasses and you drink it quickly, while standing by the side of the stall, then give the glass back.
This popular street drink sold across the country is made on the spot by crunching sugar cane stalks using a rudimentary machine to extract their juice.
Sugarcane juice is found across Asia, from Singapore to India and beyond. It is sweet, but less than you would expect, and greenish in color, worth trying it at least once.
Lassi is an Indian smoothie, a yogurt drink made with curd and fruits which is one of my most favorite South Asian foods also enjoyed in Pakistan and India.
Lassi can be made with many fruits but the most common is mango, and it is the best company to spicy Bangladeshi food because the yogurt will tame the chilli heat.
Plain or fruit lassi can be sweet or savory depending on whether sugar or salt is added and it seems to have improved significantly since the time of the Raj. The word lassi is of Sanskrit origin and means stickiness.
Borhani is often considered a type of lassi because it is a green savory yogurt drink made with mint and spices such as chilli, ginger, pepper, and cumin which give it a very distinct flavor. I will admit it, borhani is not for everyone and I just could not stomach it, but it is a very popular drink in Bangladesh.
With so many tropical fruits you bet there are fabulous fruit juices to go with any type of Bangladeshi food. But bear in mind, oranges and apples, which might be more common in the West, are not native of tropical climates and do not grow in Bangladesh so we are talking about more interesting juices like watermelon or mango.
Seven layer tea
This interesting sounding tea invented in the north of Bangladesh is made with seven layers of different teas interlayered with condensed milk and sugar. Because each tea has its own density level, when blended together they stay in separate layers.