When Ahshanul Shourav came to Australia from Bangladesh in 2009 to study economics, the thing he missed the most from his hometown Dhaka were the banyan trees. “There are lots of these trees around Bangladesh. The universities have many trees and there are a lot of stalls under these trees making bhorta, curries and fish,” says Shourav.
He tried replicating Dhaka's street food at home, experimenting with what he could find here and calling his mum for technical advice. "Every day I used to cook. Whenever I got home from work, even one in the morning, I'd fry some fish, make dal and enjoy my meal. Then it came into my mind, ‘Why don't I try this as a business?’”
Without any experience in commercial cooking or hospitality at all he opened Bottola, a tiny Lakemba restaurant serving everything you'd find under a banyan tree, with business partner Arifa Ferdous. The most notable feature of Bangladeshi cuisine isn't a single dish. It's a balance of flavours. “In the Bangladesh tradition we use five types of spices – chilli powder, turmeric, cumin, coriander and salt. These are the basics, they go everywhere,” Shourav says. The intuitive combination of these is what makes a Bangladeshi chef great.
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The most typical snack is bhorta. “They're like side dishes, but many people eat [a few of] them as a meal. It’s usually just whatever you have at hand,” Shourav says. Boiled potatoes smashed with mustard oil, chilli and onion is the most basic. You’ll also find begun (a spicy, soft eggplant dish not unlike babaganoush); shutki (a dried fish relish); beans; and prawns.
The bhorta combo is more common for a solo eater. Groups tend to churn through Bangladeshi classics such as kaachi biryani (a mixed-rice dish with curried goat and an aromatic regional rice variety called kal-jeera); fuska (bowl-shaped chickpea fritters stuffed with potato, peas and egg and served with a sweet-and-sour tamarind water); and Bangladeshi river fish done different ways. “Hilsha is the national fish of Bangladesh. We do it a couple of ways: shorshe, which is with mustard sauce and bhuna, a curry with onion and tomatoes,” Shourav says.
Other dishes are popular simply because they’re hard to find outside of Bangladesh. The offal dishes (fried beef tripe, brain masala and more); the chap paratha (a heavily spiced steak served with salad and paratha, a freshly baked, buttery flat bread); and beef kala bhuna (a dark, slow-cooked and pepper-heavy curry) are good examples.
After a rough start to restaurant life, Shourav feels he's got the hang of it now. He's still got work to do before he reaches the same understanding of the cuisine as his original mentor, his mum. “After Ramadan, en shallah, she will come [to Sydney]. I might tell her to come and cook with me. That will make more business for me. She’s a better cook.”
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