Winter is the season of weddings. Actually these days in Dhaka, the whole year is the season of weddings, but winter is especially tight. Winter is perfect for the Technicolor, intense, chaotic carnival that our weddings are. Winter is also the time a lot of people making their homes outside Bangladesh choose to visit, and invariably these temporary migrants either come to get married, or attend someone’s wedding. So for the last two weeks of December, I was not surprised that I had a wedding event to go to EVERY. SINGLE. NIGHT. Yes they were of different people, and mostly different events of the same three or four weddings. But during winter it is not unusual for many of us to attend several events on the same night, especially on holidays and weekends. A lot of people hate the season for this. There are just too many clashes and too many places you have to be in a frenzied attempt to not upset the hosts. Bangladeshi’s believe that happiness increases the more people you share it with. Over the years I’ve found myself being invited, turning down and attending weddings of people I have never met, just because I am known by association. I appreciate the sentiment and I never miss one I should not. But then after every single night of dressing up and doing the same thing over and over again, I find my resolve to attend wavering. However there is the one wedding staple that I always consider before turning down an event – the wedding biriyani.
The biriyani – this fabled rice dish’s origins are a little murky, being known to hail from Mughal and Hyderabadi cuisine in India. The word itself is Persian. But wherever the origins are, it has made a stable and beloved home in the kitchens and stomachs of Dhakaites. No proper wedding celebration in Dhaka is complete without a decadent Kacchi Biriyani (Biriyani with mutton and potatoes) served in at least one of the events.
No matter how amazing our moms are and how formidable the cooking skills, even they cannot replicate the Wedding Biryani. It is so good, that I love Kacchi Biryani with a passion – and I never eat mutton any other time. It’s just simply different in its lusciousness and depth of flavor. There is no finesse in the actual cooking. Giant pots that reach my waist are filled with rice with an assortment of spices and ghee and cooked on the ground on open flames. The meat and the potatoes are cooked separately, and then combined with the rice. The pots are then sealed with soft dough which acts as a glue to ensure proper pressure – called a ‘dam’. The typical wedding chef is a middle aged man with a team of helpers with years of experience – a baburchi with a snappy name like Idu or Nanna or Zakir – and the really good ones need to be booked months before the event. There are no state of the art kitchen equipment and delicate ingredients. Bangladeshi wedding food is hearty, real, spicy, heavy and dangerous in large quantities. Almost like most Bangladeshis. I suppose the cooking is not that complicated, given how common it is to find good biryani in the hundred weddings of the year. But, there is so much magic that wafts up from the steaming rice and soft meat as it is served in front of you, you find yourself struggling with not going to another wedding the next day.
Love is at the heart of a wedding. Love and happiness and good blessings to be shared among well-wishers. Unsurprisingly, it is also at the heart of a plate of perfect Wedding Biriyani. A plate of perfect Biryani is always loved, always makes people happy and is considered a pretty damn good blessing. Unsurprisingly the two are always found close to each other, and hopefully it shall always remain, for those of us in this side of the world with the chaotic weddings and the delicious food – a match made in gastronomical heaven.
It’s the perfect food. It’s texturally complex with a crispy, flaky, thin puri, filled with a soft concoction of lentil, potato, onions, chilis and an assortment of spices. An expert phuchka eater takes one of the hollow puris on one hand and jabs a thumb into it to make a hole. It’s a little like breaking an egg except you should not bash it against a hard surface as the puri is quite delicate. With a small spoon the expert stuffs it with the filling, careful not to break the puri completely while doing so. Then it is liberally drenched with the tamarind sauce, and popped whole into the mouth, where it explodes with a forcible burst of flavors that make you start assembling the second one while you chew your first.
I can never get enough of these.
It’s quite common to find a small, wooden cart manned by one person, with a stove and a big plastic bag full of ready-to-be-filled puris in the streets of Dhaka. There was a time when we were younger when my sister and I used to eat plates of these once or twice a week every week. While we aren’t that sincere to our dedication anymore, there has been no love lost between us and the phuchka.
It’s beautifully unctuous. It can be made to be mild for those who cannot take the heat. Or you can put your tongue through hell-fire depending on your preference for chili. And it can be addictive. My uncle’s friend who used to live in Virginia would visit our house quite often when he would come to Bangladesh. He would always bring a bag of phuchka with him on the way to our place, and we would over-eat and over-abuse our stomachs. Once we went to one of those carts one evening and he ate through fourteen plates. That’s about 112 phuckas. He lived to tell the tale and he tells it quite proudly.
This particular food, like a lot of food we eat in Bangladesh can be found elsewhere in the subcontinent. For instance, it its Wikipedia page it is called Panipuri, which is the most prevalent term used in India.
Maybe it’s just in my head, but the phuchka from the streets taste better than the phuchka from any upscale place I’ve tried. If you ever find yourself facing a cart of food on a street in Bangladesh, India, Nepal etc, do try out a plate of phuchka, panipuri, golgappa or whatever name it presents its glorious self in.
To the unaccustomed, any spicy street food may lead to unwarranted stomach issues. However you will live through it. You will live through the pain on your tastebuds as the chili threatens to evaporate your soul [Spicy food should be eaten spicy. End of discussion.]. You will swallow a pill to ease your stomach. All the discomfort, if any at all, will be temporary. The magic of the phuchka will begin when you pop one in your mouth for the first time, and will live on in your heart for good.