Bela biscuit, Chattogram's popular traditional bakery item, has a long history. During World War II, Bela biscuit was a common item – apart from bread – on the breakfast menu of soldiers stationed at the Chattogram military base.
Army camps were established – from Chattogram in Bangladesh to Arakan in Myanmar – and Abdul Gani Sawdagor, the owner of Gani Bakery, won the contract to supply them breakfast.
However, the origin of the biscuit's name is unknown, said Ahmad Mamtaz, assistant director of Bangla Academy, who has researched about Gani Bakery and the Bela biscuit.
Gani Bakery, located at Chandanpura College road in Chattogram, has been producing Bela biscuit for about 200 years. The bakery is so popular that the area has been named after the bakery – Gani Bakery Mor (intersection).
Chattogram's bakery industry thrived during British rule. Many Portuguese people settled in the district back then. Bakery items such as roti, bread, and biscuits were on the grocery lists of the Mughals and the Portuguese. Their diet expanded the bakery industry in the district, said Researcher Ahmad Mamtaz.
The century-old tradition of making the biscuits is being carried out even today. Like Mezbani meat, Bela biscuit is a traditional food in Chattogram. For the local people, there is no alternative to Bela biscuits as a companion to their morning tea or a snack over an evening chitchat.
However, the century-old Bela biscuit manufacturing industry is under threat as demand is declining.
"Even a decade ago, an average of 30,000 Bela biscuits were sold, daily; which has declined to an average of 6,000 biscuits, daily, now. This is a drastic fall. Each piece sells at Tk2.25 so, monthly estimated sales are Tk40 lakhs," said Abdullah Mohammad Ehtesham, the current owner of Gani Bakery.
A Canadian firm used to import Bela biscuits from them, but for numerous reasons – including shipment related complexities – the firm stopped importing them, Ehtesham added.
When asked about the reasons for the decline in demand, he said, "A variety of biscuits are available on the market and bakeries are making alternative foods. So, the demand for Bela biscuits is falling," Ehtesham stated.
"We are continuing to produce the biscuit in order to sustain the tradition," Ehtesham said.
The biscuit is produced in a unique way. First, the biscuit's khami (dough) is prepared with: flour, dalda (vegetable oil), powdered milk, sugar, salt and oil. Then, a special type of mawa (mixture of milk, ghee and sugar) is added to it. After placing it in a clay oven for a day, it is baked for one-and-a-half-to-two hours in the first phase. In the second phase, Bela biscuits are made after final baking.
The stories of crunchy Bela biscuits are even found in the works of poets, littérateurs and historians.
Former Vice-Chancellor of Chattogram University and Litterateur Abul Fazal in his autobiography "Rekhachitra" included a line about the Bela biscuit. The line goes, "After waking up in the morning, we are having tea with Bela biscuits or cookies instead of 'Panta Bhaat.' In English, it is called cookies but in original 'Chatgaiya' it is known as Bela."
On a visit to the shop, this correspondent found most of the customers come to the bakery to buy Bela biscuits though the bakery produces 30 items. The biscuit factory is adjacent to the shop and biscuits are prepared in two clay ovens. The bakers said depending on demand, 6,000 to 8,000 biscuits are produced daily.
In this regard, Ehteshan said, "Our business focuses on Bela biscuits. We have kept the clay oven to maintain the tradition. We produce Bela biscuits following a century-old tradition. We have kept the price affordable for our customers. The price for 40 Bela biscuits is Tk90."
"Chattogram Porikkroma," a history-based publication, says, though Abdul Gani Sowdagar set up Gani Bakery in 1870, his ancestors already owned a bakery business. Abdul Gani's forefather, Lal Kha Subedar, and his son Kanu Kha, started the bakery business.
Abdul Gani's ancestors were residents of Bardhaman district of West Bengal. They came to Chattogram with the East India Company. Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, Abdul Gani Sowdagar became involved in the bakery industry.
When the childless Abdul Gani died in 1973, in his will, he handed over the responsibility of running the business to his brother's son, Danu Miah. Danu Miah died in 1987, so, then, his son Advocate Jamal Uddin took charge of the business. He ran the business till his death.
After Jamal Uddin's death, his son, Abdullah Mohammad Ehtesham, inherited the business and has been running it ever since.
Though Bela biscuits were popularised by Gani Bakery, many other Chattogram-based bakeries also produce Bela biscuits.