Kishwar Chowdhury's breathtaking run in the Australian Masterchef reality TV show has brought unprecedented spotlight on Bangali food in the international arena. The 38 years old housewife, born and raised in Australia, reimagined Bangali food in that show, resulting in her phenomenal rise from obscurity to international stardom.
This article is not yet another tribute on Kishwar's achievements. This is, rather, an attempt to grapple with something more fundamental. What would it take to make Bangali or Bangladeshi cuisine truly global?
It is true that Bangladeshi food and restaurants are already found in most prosperous cities of the planet, thanks to the relentless outward migration of Bangladeshis over the last half a century. London's Sylhety restaurant scene has already broken the glass-ceiling in the British culinary culture, although those restaurants are mostly known as Indian restaurants, not as Bangali or Bangladeshi. It couldn't make Bangali cuisine "truly global", at least not in this article's context.
"Truly global" in this context means something like the Chinese food or Mexican Food or Italian food – where people from all over the world voluntarily prepare, cook, serve, and demand these cuisines in their normal course of lives, without actively seeking to indulge in something "ethnic". In other words, these cuisines have been integrated into the dinner tables around the world to such great extents that they have become "internalised", and no longer remain "ethnic". Some examples could include Mexican Tacos or Italian Pizzas or Chinese stir fried vegetables with shrimp or chicken.
There is a popular belief among the Bangladeshis that our cuisine could not achieve international adaptation and success only because we, the Bangalis, never patronised or championed or provided exposure to our cuisine to the global scene. Sudden international outbursts of attraction towards Bangali cuisine due to the success of celebrities like Kishwar will undoubtedly address this lack-of-promotion problem.
Bangali cuisine, however, never lacked the exposure to the world, at least not to the Europeans. Bengal was the capital of British-India after-all for centuries. The Spaniards, the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch, and of course, the British fought their way into the Bengal delta primarily for Bengal's resources and wealth -- one of which was obviously Bengal's spice and culinary ingredients.
If Bangali food was indeed that much coveted in its current state, the Europeans would have adopted it long before as their own; they are good at doing such things. But that did not happen. There must be something fundamentally different in Bengali cuisine that separates it from the international cuisine scene. What could be those fundamental differences?
Bangali cuisine, with all its varieties in colour, flavour, and texture, remains primarily a "rice-based" offering. From regular dal-bhat, to Biriyani, Polau, Kacchi to deserts like Khir, Payesh, Semai, or even Pitha, have something to do with rice. In many instances, Bangali cuisine remains "carbohydrate over carbohydrate" – which historically has found difficulties becoming popular in the international restaurant scene.
There is not a single authentic, popular, Bangali entre which you primarily serve with just protein and vegetables.
The fundamental presumption of Bangali delicacy is that it will be consumed using the bare hands, something that doesn't go well in the international fine dining scene. For example, think about the most popular Bangali rice with fish menus. It is almost impossible to consume the famous Hilsha fish with dal and bhat without using your hands -- thanks to the many small bones in the body of the Hilsha, the "national fish".
Bones in Bangali fish and meat curry is not just an accidental presence either, it is rather a required element of the Bangali cuisine, because without keeping the bones in, you cannot stir any fish or meat in hot water for half an hour (i.e., "Koshano"). Boneless meat or fish will simply be smashed into granular particles ("jhuna") after some good "koshani" – Bangla style.
Bangali cuisine is still not as modular as Thai or Chinese or Mexican or Italian cuisine. Modular in this context means you prepare the carbohydrate and the proteins separately, then add pre-made sauces or gravy to mix things up before the final presentation. This modular approach makes it easy for the restaurant operators to offer such cuisine and manage their inventory. Bangali curries or biriyanis, on the other hand, require large scale preparation in one-shot, which creates inventory management issues for a restaurant that is not a dedicated Bengali outlet.
The way authentic Bangali cuisine is prepared, cooked, and served will rank it as some of the most time-consuming cuisines of the world. Bangalis living outside of Bangladesh, without access to kitchen aides or helping hands, often move away from the Bangali cuisine solely due to the time consumption aspect of it. The same rationale will make Bangla cuisine difficult to find a permanent stay in the international fine dining restaurants even if there is some demand.
It will take some serious usage of technology, global thinking, and a ton of re-imagination to recalibrate the Bangladeshi food so that it stays close to its roots, but overcomes some of the road-blocks mentioned above.
International celebrities like Kishwar, being foreign born and raised abroad, can help in this regard, given that they are not bound by the Bangali history or traditions.
Whether the Bengalis, who remain ultra-nationalistic when it comes to their cuisine and culture, will gladly embrace such newly-made, re-imagined Bengali cuisine will be an entirely different topic of debate; but for another day.
Shafquat Rabbee is a geopolitical columnist who writes from Dallas, TX.