Hardly any chef of Bangladesh has had such a grand opportunity. Being hired as a baburchi (chef) to cook Mezban for an auspicious event in Australia is no joke.
Abul Hossain, widely known as Abul Baburchi, is a renowned chef and master cook of Chattogram's traditional Mezban, a big beef fiesta. He now has the glory of cooking Mezban in Australia under his belt. The 61-year-old is also credited with being the top-ranking Mezban chef of the present time.
In his long career, he has visited Dubai to cook Mezban. He was supposed to be in the US this month for a big Mezban event, but it was cancelled because of Covid-19.
Mezban lovers admire Abul as a culinary artist, whose food has delighted crowds for decades. With an impressive career, he played a remarkable role in promoting this traditional food of Chattogram both at home and abroad.
"Abul is the chef of chefs in Chattogram, or as we used to consider him, the maestro of Chattogram's Mezban," President of Chattogram Community Centre Owners Association Mohammad Sahabuddin told The Business Standard.
"This man not only contributed to taking the tradition of Mezban to a different level; he also broke many records of the history of this heritage. His culinary skill is ground-breaking as it has redefined Mezban for the people of our time."
Abul was born in 1959 in Chattogram city as one of the five children of the then famous chef Khalilur Rahman. Since the 50s, the family has lived in Kazir Dewri area where Abul spent his childhood.
Being a great cook may not be a genetically passed on trait, but having a father who was a famed chef definitely helped Abul. Eventually, it successfully passed through the blood.
"As a kid, I was foolhardy. However, I loved seeing my father cooking for various occasions. I always admired the way he cooked and was admired by people," Abul recalled in a conversation with The Business Standard at his office.
The maestro unveiled the history of his association with the cooking profession. "At the age of 12, as I showed early promise as a cook and had no interest in school, my father involved me in the work. At the primary stage, I was given small tasks like mixing the spices or moving the cooking items."
"Soon, I became an avid learner and learned the art of cooking Mezban by heart. When my efforts started impacting and touching the taste of people, the legacy became a passion and addiction to me rather than a mere profession," he added.
Abul said it would not be inaccurate to say that he had decided to become a chef when he was growing up. He had been into cooking since he was 12.
"However, it is understood that my father played a very significant role that deeply impacted and moulded me into the kind of chef that I am today. In my entire career, I have learned that regardless of origin, ethnicity or religion, people love Mezban. It brings people together," he said.
A chef to be jealous of
To Abul, cooking Mezban or traditional Chattogram food is not just a family tradition; it is a family passion. This passion led him to pursue excellence in the areas success had chased him to.
There is a saying that Abul has dominated the cooking world of Chattogram. His name has reached tables across Bangladesh for more than three decades. In that respect, aspiring chefs around the country already have plenty of reasons to be envious of his name and fame.
Along with Mezban events, he is regularly hired to cook for weddings, social rituals, and almost all types of ceremonies. Though he has expertise in cooking all kinds of food, his Mezban, kala bhuna (special beef curry), and aakhni (special rice cooked with meat) are the most mouth-watering dishes.
Asked about the frequency of his working days, Abul said, "Before the pandemic, I would usually be booked for every day of the month, mostly for Mezban and marriage ceremonies. Every month, I attended more than 20 Mezban events on average. However, the pandemic has changed a lot of things for me."
The veteran cook gave a rough estimation of how much he charges for his service. Normally, he takes Tk10,000-15,000 per bull weighing between 100 to 150 kilogrammes for a Mezban event.
"As Mezban is open to anyone, generally thousands of people gather at a fiesta. It takes five cows to feed this number of people. If I have to cook for an event of only one cow, usually five to six people work as my assistants. But if it is an event of 10 cows, I need at least 30-40 co-workers," he explained.
He pays a team of 40 co-workers every month.
"Usually as I have to bear a monthly cost of employees and other expenses, at the end of the month, I have a net income of around Tk1 lakh. However, unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the amount has dropped significantly," Abul said with regret.
Reminiscing about a feast for 100,000 people
Many people in Chattogram have fond memories of Abul's Mezban. From a very young age, he has spent countless hours feeding numerous people food cooked with his magic touch.
When asked how many people he had fed in his entire career, he was uncertain. However, he has memories worth remembering. The mega Mezban event that he managed so far in his life still gives him a sense of glory.
"The worthiest event that I can brag about is the Mezban fiesta hosted by former mayor ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury to celebrate his first victory in Chattogram City Corporation elections in 1994. It was a historic day for the people of Chattogram. That day also blessed me and my brother to cook for our first ground-breaking Mezban event for 100,000 people," Abul said with a proud smile.
He added, "If I am not mistaken, the number of cows slaughtered for that event was around 60 to 70. As I can remember clearly, raw meat was coming in incessantly from outside, and our hands and feet were in a flurry to manage the big dekchis (cooking pots) scattered around. We cooked curries with the help of 100 co-workers like some cooking robots, and the hot, spicy dishes were making their place in the eating tables continuously."
Abul said the programme was full of people regardless of their political affiliation, place of residence, religion, age, or profession. People from various spheres of life attended the event, and the food was so luscious that they ate voraciously at the drop of a hat.
A milestone: Local cook hired abroad
You may have heard of the trend of arranging Mezban outside Chattogram, especially in the capital. The Chattogram Samity in Dhaka holds Mezban events annually where they invite the VIPs.
Sometimes, we see Mezban events held abroad, organised by the Chattogram communities in countries like America, Dubai or in other Middle Eastern countries. Many prominent chefs have been hired to prepare Mezban outside Chattogram. Yet, none of them have had the opportunity to fly abroad for their craft, except Abul.
An annual Mezban feast named Chattogram Utshob was recently arranged by the Chattogram community in Australia. Last year in October, the organisers hired Abul to prepare Mezban. He was invited with other special guests to highlight Chattogram's heritage.
Describing the event as one of the memorable achievements of his life, Abul delightfully said, "The organisers spent a huge amount of money on my visa processing, flight tickets, and my 17-day stay in Australia. I had no specific demands, but they honoured me with bunches of gifts and paid me Tk1 lakh before my return to Bangladesh."
For that auspicious social and cultural programme, Abul cooked for 4,000 people.
"As I went there without my team, I got 20 young men who helped me out. I did not make any compromise on the usual ingredients. I took with me all the necessary spices and culinary items to give them the actual taste of Mezban," he said.
A fact about the programme Abul wanted to emphasise was the traditional outfit. "I landed in Sydney on October 25 wearing a lungi all the way from my home in Kazir Dewri. To cook for a traditional occasion outside the country, of course, I had to wear traditional clothes. The composition of lungi and Mezban simultaneously showcased the rich heritage of Chattogram in the heart of Australia."
Abul shared another memory from his work abroad where he attended a mega event in Dubai in 2004. He was asked to go there to cook Mezban for a hotel opening ceremony.
"Though that story of mine is not widely known to all, it was the first time in my career that I went abroad as a cook. I was told to prepare food for 500 people on the inauguration day of the hotel owned by a Bangladeshi. I stayed there for a week and was paid well enough," he said.
Needless to say, despite not having any local or national recognition, the master chef made a milestone in the history of Chattogram Mezban. The maestro has made the century-old Chattogram cuisine known to the world on a different level, and made it possible for local chefs to be internationally recognised for upholding the tradition.
This is not the time for Mezban; yet hope is alive
So far, the pandemic has brought some bad news for this culinary artist. This month, he was supposed to be in America as he was invited for another Mezban event by the Bangladeshi community there. Sadly, the event was cancelled.
"I was booked for a mega Mezban festival there. But the pandemic has left me here," Abul said regretfully.
His hands, which are usually busy making the most savoury dish of Chattogram throughout the month, now remain idle.
"Preparing dishes every day reconfirms our reputation and gives meaning to our life. Unfortunately, this is not a time for Mezban, and the essential part has been missing for a long time, compelling me to adapt to this unusual habit. Therefore, some small occasions are now the only things to rely upon," Abul said with a long sigh.
However, ignoring the worst part and focusing on the best, Abul thanked his creator for still being alive.
"This crisis has taught me a lot of things and gave me the feeling to cherish life more than before. This has fuelled my thought with more hopes and inspired me to exceed my previous achievements," he said in a motivational tone.
To introduce the real taste of Mezban to more people around the globe, Abul has a longing to visit more countries. "My next target is to promote the actual Mezban to the Bengali communities in America, Canada and the UK. I am eagerly waiting for the situation to return to normal again."
Finally, the maestro expressed his last wish. "The last desire that I have is the desire to cook a Mezban of about 250 cows where all previous records will be broken."
Faisal Karim is a contributor for The Business Standard