You want your Dhaka clean and spacious; stick to the Bashundhara part. You want it rich and impersonal; go to Gulshan-Banani. You want it serene and green, Dhaka University area is your place. But if you want the part with a soul: come to old Dhaka.
Every morning this part of the Bangladeshi capital sets all its dwellers on a frenzy ride with the daily festival of human existence. With all its exquisite charm and incomparable antiquity, old Dhaka carves a niche in your heart like no other place.
While most other areas of this 400 year old city of 16 million have uniformly metamorphosed from Mughal or colonial backwaters into exploding megalopolises, this particular part has still been maintaining the pulse of the good old 'hospitable Dhaka'.
It retains a facade of some old-era architecture, contrasting starkly with dynamic new buildings with bright exteriors, something which is known as 'Dhakaia Ruchi' Dhakaia taste). But it's not the charm of old buildings and ancient alleys that attract one the most, rather it's the food. Old Dhaka does its best to spoil one with its offering of gastronomic delights.
Homemade afternoon snacks
Obviously, when it comes to Old Dhaka's food, things like Biriyani, Morog Polau, Kebabs flicker in our mind. But I personally admire its afternoon snacks culture. My admiration for old Dhaka's snacks started with a home cooked meal that I had in one of my old Dhakaia friend's house.
To put in context, there was an afternoon snacks culture in the middle class households in the 90's, which is no longer that visible in people's house anymore now. May be the increasingly busy life and the geometric growth of the number of restaurants across the city play a part in making the homemade snacks culture obsolete.
I spent a big part of my life in one of the teacher's quarter of Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology (BUET), which is known as "lal quarter" (because of the red brick buildings). That quarter has a wall bordering the Lalbagh part of old Dhaka. A small gate on that wall used to open a whole new world for us – the "quarter kids." I had a lot of friends in Lalbagh who used to visit our quarter to avail its lush and large green fields to play football and cricket, while we, the quarter kids, used to visit their dens full of alleys, old buildings in Lalbagh to play hide and seek and rescue (an improvised game that we used to play).
In most cases, we ended up visiting each other's houses after play hours and our mothers used to cook us delicious afternoon snacks.
It was during one of those afternoon snacks sessions where I had the snack of my life. I went to the house of Jitu, one of my Lalbagh friends, after we finished a game of "rescue." There, aunty served us bakarkhani with "kata moshlar mangsho" (meat with whole spices).
Bakarkhani was nothing new to me. As I mentioned, we used to live in close proximity to Old Dhaka and it's not possible to stay away from one of old Dhaka's "staples" for long. But, before that particular meal, I never imagined the possibility of pairing bakarkhani with curried meat.
I can still vividly remember that taste – it was a festival in my mouth. The bakarkhani, which was flaky on the inside, with a soft crust outside, complemented perfectly the slightly sweetened qorma-like (but dry) kata moshlar mangsho. (Later I learned that kata moshlar mangsho is prepared with just chopped onions, garlics, ginger, sugar, raisins, and a mixture of hot spices like cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. No powdered or pasted spice are added to it.
I immediately conveyed to aunty how I had never tasted anything better. To my surprise, she told me that this was the most common afternoon snack at their house. I thought of the one served at our house – noodles (my mother's noodle's was delicious, by the way) and immediately decided that Jitu's life was better than mine. Later, I frequented his place to have that dish and aunty never disappointed me.
The treasures in the alleys
Aside from the home cooked goodies of old Dhaka, the food found in the alleys of this part of the capital are like hidden treasures. My friends and I started discovering these after we reached grade seven and garnered enough courage to roam deeper, instead of just neighbouring Lalbagh.
One such treasure was "Farukul er muri" (Farukul's puffed rice) of Urdu Road. If you ask any resident of Urdu Road about his or her favourite afternoon snack, they would invariably tell you that its Farukul er muri'. Farukul bhai, a man in his 60's, is still selling this in a corner of Urdu Road. He has constructed three houses in Keraniganj by just selling his famous muri.
He mixes muri with ghugni (mashed cheakpeas), lots of spices, crushed peanuts, mustard oil, pickles and if ordered, also meat curry. The specialty of his muri is his spice mix which he has perfected over 30 years of his unique career. Even after making significant wealth just be selling muri, this unpretentious man still makes his famous muri with his own hands without ever employing any assistant. If you want to eat his muri, make sure that you visit Urdu road between 4pm-7pm, which is Farukul's business hours. Within three hours, his muri is completely sold out.
At Alauddin Road, I stumbled upon a small kabab shop run by a father and son duo. I couldn't remember their name now but one distinctive feature of the father was that he had one eye (in place of other eye, there was a scary gaping hole).
The kabab stall was renowned as Kanar Kabab in the locality. They used to grill Seekh kababs and chicken legs on small skewers and serve those with luchi. Full of char grilled flavours, their bite sized kabab was juicy and succulent and was fantastically paired with a green mint sauce that they used to make.
One other treasure that I discovered at Posta was a makeshift fuchka shop. Before my experience there, my idea of "fuchkar tok" (the tart dipping liquid) was confined to "tetuler tok" (tamarind sauce). But that Posta shop used to make a completely different 'tok' with lemon juice, yoghurt and coriander. It was an in instant hit with anyone who ate there.
Later doi fuchka became popular throughout Dhaka but I can tell you that that it was that humble cart in Posta which probably introduced the concept of doi fuchka to Dhakaites with its ingenious 'tok.'