In 1972, Salam was only 12 years old when his ailing father passed away, putting the whole family in a financial crisis. Born in a tin shed room in 1961 right in front of Lalmatia Mohila College, Salam dropped out of school to earn a living and support his family. As his maternal grandfather was a professional 'baburchi' (cook), he joined his grandfather's team.
"There were seven of us in the family and I was always unsure where the next meal would come from," said Haji Salam Miah, sitting at his desk at the Victoria Convention Centre in the posher part of Dhanmondi in September, 2021.
Haji Salam Miah is one the richest cooks in Bangladesh with three six-storey apartment buildings in Mohammadpur, four restaurants called Salam's Kitchen and a community centre named Victoria Community Centre in the upscale part of Dhanmondi in the city.
In the beginning, his tasks involved grunt work in the kitchen such as washing plates, fetching firewood, grinding spices into powders, chopping onions, etc. After work, he would earn Tk2 daily.
From that point, it took him six years to be a professional baburchi, which usually takes 10 years for most, he said. "Cooking is my passion," explained Salam, who remembered being eager to learn, and learn fast.
In 1977, when there was a marriage ceremony at a house on Babar Road in Mohammadpur, Salam was given the responsibility to cook for 400 people. In the morning, the head cook came, gave orders and left - as per usual.
Later that day, "After tasting the food, the head baburchi was astonished. He liked it so much that he came up and embraced me, " recalled Salam, "then he told me that one day I would become a famous cook and gave me his blessings."
In 1981, Salam started his own enterprise. However, in those days, becoming a baburchi for a living was not that lucrative. It brought neither fame nor money. Thinking this, shortly after 1981, Salam decided to go abroad to try his luck.
The turning point(s)
In 1989, he got the job of a cook in a sheikh's house situated in the upmarket area in Kuwait. He ended up working for the family for four years.
"Before I went to Kuwait, I had to live from hand to mouth. But all that changed. There I would draw a monthly salary that was equivalent to Tk50,000," said Salam. "At that time it was a very, very high salary."
This inspired him to return to his own country and put his skills to use in Bangladesh. And so, in 1993, he came back.
The next year, he became the cook for a new community centre called the Priyanka Community Centre that was set up on Iqbal Road in Mohammadpur. He worked there for 10 years.
During the 1990s, a new concept of food business emerged where many began to contract cooks to supply them with pre-cooked food, cutting the cost of time and hassle for the customers. Catering services slowly began popping up in the city.
"When we cooked for five hundred people, we earned Tk5,000 to Tk10,000 as wages because our only task was to cook. The party purchased the ingredients," said Salam.
But in the catering business, "we got upto Tk30,000 to cook food for upto 100 people and earned Tk5000," he explained.
This meant in the catering business, cooking for less people (less work) earned the cooks the same amount of money as did cooking for more people simply as cooks. "So, the catering business was more profitable," remembered Salam.
In 2005, Salam ventured into providing catering service and set up Salam Catering Service on Iqbal Road, Mohammadpur. With increasing orders, the catering service grew popular. In 2011, he set up Victoria Community Center at Dhanmondi.
"I had to spend around Tk1 crore and 25 lakh to set up the community centre," said Salam adding that his catering service is enlisted in 10 major community centres in the city including Bangabandhu International Conference Centre, the Golf Garden, Bashundhara, Sena Malancho, Sena Kunjo and the Police Convention Hall.
The arrival of Basmati kacchi biryani
Bangladeshi food lovers have enjoyed the timeless kacchi biryani for ages. But those kacchi biryanis used to be prepared with pilau rice. The Basmati kacchi biryani is the most popular dish on any social occasion in the country nowadays.
Salam estimated that now 80 percent of people place an order for Basmati rice for kacchi biryani while the rest 20 percent still want pilau rice.
Salam claims that he was the first cook to introduce the Basmati kacchi biryani in programmes around the country in 1993. While there was kacchi biryani before then, cooks used to prepare that kacchi biryani with only 'chini gura' pilau rice.
So how did it happen? One day in 1993, he went to the Kamal Store in Mohammadpur where he used to buy groceries. He found that the shopkeeper put one sack of Basmati rice on sale.
As he used to prepare kacchi biryani with Basmati rice in Kuwait and remembered the quality of the biryani, he bought 5 kilograms of it and prepared kacchi biryani with it at home.
"It was truly delicious. I thought I should cook kacchi biryani with this rice for my customers," said Salam. "Consequently, I told the shopkeeper to bring me more of this rice."
However, it still took time to make the food item mainstream among his customers. He convinced his clients in the catering business that guests would love it. "I have some regular customers who trust me and my cooking. When they received compliments for the Basmati biryani, they thanked me. Slowly, other customers began to order the same item," Salam explained.
He also explained that those who preferred to eat kacchi biryani with pilau rice did so because they often felt that the deshi pilau rice had a different type of flavour and softness relative to the Basmati rice which was more delicious.
"Many other baburchis now serve Basmati kacchi biryani. But the way they cook Basmati will never be the same as the way I do because I have learned it from abroad," Salam added.
The pandemic is no picnic
The catering and community centre-related businesses received a huge financial blow from the Covid-19 pandemic. Services were shut down for more or less over 18 months resulting in mounting financial losses. However, the business has begun to pick up since the lockdown has been lifted.
Before the pandemic, Salam could supply food to more than 40 programmes and could earn Tk1 crore by selling his catering services and renting the convention centre every month. But those days have yet to return. Now, every month his monthly turnover is around Tk20 lakh.
"Middle-class families are avoiding doing programmes because they do not have that kind of money anymore. Only those who have enough money are hosting programmes now," said Salam.
However, he believes that the prospect of the catering business is still good in the country. He said that more than 100 community centres continue to run their businesses in the city along with more than 300 catering services.
Salam currently has four restaurants. They are located in Banani, Uttara, Panthapath and Mohammadpur.
Is it easy to make a fortune by becoming a cook in Bangladesh? Salam responded in the negative.
"There are many senior baburchis who struggle to earn a living in this Dhaka city. Some even ride rickshaws for income. They were not as lucky," said Salam. Because of low wages, many in the same business still live hand to mouth.