Food and Culture: Bangladesh

Bangladesh and its culture have a long history. Geography, climate and different political conditions created a rich heritage with distinct differences between Bangladesh and its neighbors. Over the centuries, the culture of Bangladesh has evolved; it has assimilated influences of several religions, such as Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, as well as Christianity. Bangladeshi culture is as rich as its history, and its cuisine is unique due to its outstanding mix of influences of the other ones.

Modern Bangladesh arose as an independent nation only in 1971, after the Bangladesh Liberation War; however, its cultural and historical roots go much deeper as “the recorded history of Bangladesh spans for a millennium and a half” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 23). The history of the area is closely connected with the history of India and Bengal. The early history of the region features ruling of Indian empires and a conflict of dominance between Hinduism and Buddhism; however, this battle was stopped by active spread of Islam at the end of the 12th century (Ahmed, 2004). For the next centuries, the land has been threatened by expansion of India and by Portuguese pirates, and in 1757, it became a part of its closest neighbor. After the partition of British India, the territory of modern Bangladesh was named East Pakistan (Ahmed, 2004). Years later, the country finally won its right to independence, and its culture began to develop faster.

The culture of Bangladesh is different from the ones of its neighbors due to unique blending of Islamic and Hindu folk traditions. Andrew J Nathan (2013) writes, “linked to India by language and to Pakistan by religion, Bangladesh has struggled to define an identity different from its neighbors’ that embraces its own linguistic, religious, ethnic, and ideological diversity” (n. p.);  as a result, “a pluralistic, proud and self-aware culture has emerged” (n. p.). Bangladesh has its own traditions and customs that developed in both past and relatively recent years. The ancient customs center mainly on agricultural activities, such as the Festival of the New Harvest and the Bengali New Year. The culture of Bangladesh has been shaped by complicated political situations, poverty, and such natural disasters as flooding among other factors. The culture of Bangladesh is well-known for its outstanding cuisine and culinary tradition in general.

Bangladesh has a unique culinary tradition that includes “delicious food, snacks and savories” (Deb & Khondkar, 2011, p. 161). It has been influenced by many other cultures due to the great number of conquerors passing through the territory of Bangladesh over the centuries (White & Yong, 2010). The staple food of the country is predominantly made of boiled rice. Bangladeshi people serve it with different fried and curried vegetables, mutton, chicken, beef, as well as thick lentil soups (Deb & Khondkar, 2011). Unlike the country’s neighbor, West Bengal, it is not a taboo to serve dishes with beef in Bangladesh; however, Hindu Bangladeshis do not eat it according to their religion; Muslim Bangladeshis do not eat pork of the same reason (White & Yong, 2010). At the Pohela Boishakh festival, Bangladeshi people cook panta llish, “a traditional platter of Panta bhat with fried Hilsa slice, supplemented with dried fish (Shutki), pickles (Achar), dal, green chilies and onion” (Deb & Khondkar, 2011, p. 161).

The recipe of mixed vegetables, or Masala Subzi, presented in The World Cookbook for Students by Jeanne Jacob and Michael Ashkenazi, is a great example of simplicity and perfectionism of Bangladeshi cuisine. It includes such colorful ingredients as carrots, tomatoes, zucchinis, green beans and onion. As a result, the dish is well balanced in colors and textures as it is not overcrowded with conflicting ones. Masala Subzi has quite a pungent taste since it is a lightly spiced dish. It has a very appetite aroma that is produced with the help of turmeric powder, cloves, ginger and garlic. Masala Subzi perfectly serves with rice.

Food plays an important part at ceremonies and holidays in Bangladesh. At such special occasions as weddings, the rice meals are made of best types of rice. On other distinct occasions, for instance, at the Eid holidays, the Bangladeshis prepare meals with beef or goat’s meat, and some amount of them they give to their relatives and the poor (Harris & Lloyd, n. d.). In fact, food is an integral part of Bangladeshi culture.

The Bangladeshis use food in healing and healthcare. Majority of Muslim religious leaders in Bangladesh believe that herbal medicine is effective for people of all ages (52.6%) and both sexes (74.5%) (Rashid et al., 2011). For instance, the Bangladeshis use the leaves of Achyranthes asperain healing of boils and whole plant of Cardiospermum helicacabum for treatment of chicken pox (Rahman, 2010). Thus, supported by religious leaders, herbal medicine is vital in Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi diaspora in the United States and other Western countries is large; however, the culture of Bangladesh is poorly understood in the West (Nathan, 2013). It can be explained by the fact that about a half of all Bangladeshi immigrants arrived in America during or after 2000, which means that this is “relatively recently settled population” (Migration Policy Institute, 2014, p. 1). In general, Bangladeshi population has high income and is well-educated (Migration Policy Institute, 2014); the new immigrants from Bangladesh, however, may face the problem of overqualification (Seligson, 2011). Among other challenges that they may face are differences in values, goals and methodology, communicational failures, religious factors and differences regarding authority among others (Deb & Khondkar, 2011).

Bangladeshi culture, as well as its history, is extremely rich, and its cuisine can be regarded unique thanks to its blending of influences of other cultures. Bangladeshi cuisine is an essential part of a daily life of its people; it is also used at ceremonies, holidays and in healing. The Americans’ knowledge of Bangladesh and its culture is very narrow; however, it can be changed with the increase of participation of Bangladeshi population in political and social life of the United States.

References

Ahmed, S. (2004). Bangladesh: Past and present. New Delhi: S. B. Nangia.

Deb, S. K., & Khondkar, S. A. (2011, March-April). Nature and causes of conflict regarding the culture of Bangladesh and European Union (EU). Bangladesh Research Publications Journal, 5(2), 157-166.

Harris, M., & Lloyd, E. (n. d.). Bangladesh. Countries and Their Cultures.

Jacob, J., & Ashkenazi, M. (2007). The world cookbook for students. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Migration Policy Institute. (2014, July). RAD diaspora profile: The Bangladeshi diaspora in the United States.

Nathan, A. J. (2013, September-October). The Bangladesh reader: History, culture, politics. Foreign Affairs, 92(5), n. p.

Rahman, M. A. (2010, December). Indigenous knowledge of herbal medicines in Bangladesh. 3. Treatment of skin diseases by tribal communities of the Hill Tracts districts. Bangladesh Journal of Botany, 39(2): 168-177.

Seligson, S. (2011, June 30). Prohibiting the Bangladeshi diaspora: Kibria book finds immigrants face ignorance, misperceptions. Boston University Today.

White, M., & Yong, J. L. (2010). Bangladesh. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark.