Every area in Dhaka has a personality. Like a person it comes with its own identity and certain characteristics that are unique to only that place. The benarasi sarees in Mirpur, the wholesale goods market in Chawkbazar, the ancient buildings in Old Dhaka, all of these make these areas different from the others.
Over the years, Mohammadpur has grown into a vast residential area. Unlike Dhanmondi and Lalmatia, this place remains untouched by commercial giants. Although the once quaint neighbourhoods are now teeming with restaurants and shopping malls, they have not yet fully corrupted the area, or changed its original character.
We may love our fish and rice, but we are also big meat eaters and we love our kebabs. Despite burger and fried chicken franchises taking over the palates of Dhaka residents, they still prefer the traditional dark, smoky chunks of sheek or the golden fried chaap (our version of a spicy schnitzel). Smothered with a mustard sauce or a simple mint chutney or wrapped in a crispy luchi, these meat dishes can beat the juiciest of burgers or steaks any day.
The most popular meat joints in Dhaka are situated in Mohammadpur, beside Residential Model School, in an extension of the Geneva Camp. In one line, you will find "Rohim Kabab", two branches of 'Muslim Varieties Kabab and Soup' and two others of "Mustakim Varieties Kabab and Soup" and another shop titled "Kashmir Kabab and Soup".
The days that you want a calorific meal yet your wallet cannot bear its brunt, you could come to the "chaap side" of the town. The luchis, although no bigger than a dime, are priced at Tk2 per piece. Even the most expensive piece of meat costs no more than Tk120.
The shops do not open till 3:00pm and they serve customers till as late as 12:00am. Although shutters remain rolled down in the mornings, cooking preparations such as marinating the meat and making the dough are done in the kitchens behind.
"12 years ago, my father Abdur Rohim opened Rohim Kabab. On some days, as many 300-400 customers would come to taste our dishes. But what can I say apa, business is no longer thriving as before," sighed Md Shamsher Ali Sumon while talking to The Business Standard.
On good days, Rohim Kabab uses 10-12 kilos of meat including 10-12 whole chickens and 2-4 kilos of gurdas and kolijas (chicken giblets) and 10-12 litres of oil. The staffs are paid a daily wage, which is usually Tk5,000-6000 every day.
When asked about the ingredients, Shamsher Ali said, "We use a blend of Indian and local spices to bring out the authentic flavours of chaap and kebabs. I source some of the spices from Chawkbazar."
We moved on to the first branch of Muslim Varieties where its owner, or Mahajan as they are more commonly known as in that area, Walid Hussain was sitting at the cash register and helping a staff roll some dough balls.
"We have been in this business for almost 25 years now and now my son is looking after the other branch. Sales is good during weekends and with winter coming, we will soon be neck deep in work," he said.
The oldest and the most famous among the shops is Mustakim and two of his sons now own the two branches. 32 years ago, Mustakim started its journey as an authentic chaap shop and back then, there were no other chaap shops. Their quality may not remain the same, but food lovers from all over the city flock here every day.
When we visited Mustakim's, nine to ten staffs were dashing in and out of the restaurant with platefuls of chaap and luchi. The marinated meats, stacked on another side, were fried to perfection as soon as the customers ordered them. Five to six of them were swiftly cutting the dough balls and rolling them into the tiny luchis. Another two were deep-frying them in kadhais full of hot oil. The staff were too occupied to talk to, so we decided to take some pictures and left them with their work.
Some of the shops have small glass door shelves that display vibrant condiments that are put inside folded cones of beetle leaves. These are not meant to replace desserts, and the trick to eating these is slowly chewing them so that all the flavours come out and mingle into one sweet, tangy and pungent pulp that you can devour.
Our next destination was 'Bobar Biriyani', situated inside the camp. The name of the shop is however 'Fayezan-e-Madina Biriyani House' but it came to be known after one of its oldest servers who is speech impaired (boba in Bangla). One of the staff informed us that his real name is actually Waqeel.
It was nearly six in the evening and not exactly the time for dinner or even a late lunch, yet the tiny shop was brimming with customers. We barely had any space to move around so we decided to stand outside and talk to one of the owners.
Md Akhter Hussain established the shop nearly 22 years ago and the recipe for the biriyani has remained untainted for all these years. Opposite the shop, there is a space for cooking the biriyani in gigantic dekchis or pots, and each takes 30 kilos of rice and 30 kilos of meat at a time.
Ispak, the main cook, opened one of the lids and showed us the fragrant rice that was being cooked inside. He enthusiastically blurted out, "Every day we start cooking from 5:00am and I have been cooking for twenty years. For 30 kilograms of biriyani, we need eight litres of oil, one litre of ghee, 15 kilograms of potatoes and a variety of spices worth Tk4,000-5,000. We never compromise with the quality of rice and meat, our boss is very stern about it!"
The menu is simple and cheap, a full plate of kachchi biriyani is sold at Tk80 whereas morog polao is sold at Tk120 for a plateful. There is a special kachchi biriyani, which costs Tk120 a plate. If you want something to quench your thirst, they also sell borhani (a traditional spicy yogurt drink) and soft drinks from a tiny lopsided fridge nearby.
Seven of Akhter Hussain's eight sons now look after the shop that now has two other branches in Dhaka. One of them, Shamsad Hussain offered us to have a taste before we went off to write about this special biriyani.
In his words, "How can you write if you have not tasted!" On his insistence, we took spoonful of the steaming kachchi and had there not been hygiene issues (as it is with any street food), it would have tasted as good as it looked!