Master the bounty of the Bangladeshi Kitchen
Saira Hamilton feels “a great responsibility” for sharing Bangladeshi cooking. “I want people to ‘get’ it – and to love it.”
Although she grew up in Britain, the chef and food writer spent family summer holidays in her father’s home village, Dampara.
“It’s incredibly peaceful. You’ve these wonderful vistas of water, palm trees and very low-rise buildings,” she says. “I feel really privileged I was able to spend so much time there.”
Those memories and gratitude mingle with her love of cooking. She has been promoting Bangladeshi food, becoming a MasterChef finalist in 2013, when she impressed judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace with recipes and spicing from her heritage.
Her new cookbook, My Bangladesh Kitchen: recipes and food memories from a family table, covers the gamut of Bangladeshi eating, from food suitable for a Wednesday-night family supper to celebration dishes you’d find at a Bangladeshi wedding and snacky street-food too.
“I wanted to show people what was different about it,” she says. “Indian cuisine sometimes gets all lumped together, but the sub-continent is as big as the whole of Europe. It’s like trying to talk about Norwegian cuisine as the same as Greek.”
For those entirely new to Bangladeshi cuisine, seafood is a staple, particularly prawns (see the recipe above), as well as lentils, rice and lots of vegetables. Hamilton calls it a “light and bright palette of flavours”, where things are cooked speedily to keep their crunchiness and colour. “It’s not really rich and heavy and covered in sauce.”
Store cupboard essentials include panch phoran, or Bengali five spice, a “fragrant and aromatic blend of whole fennel, cumin, mustard, nigella and fenugreek seeds.”
Then there’s heat. “You’re probably going to get through a lot of chillies,” says Hamilton. “You’ll need to stock up on little green hot ones.
In Bangladeshi cooking though, instead of being chopped, they tend to be chucked into curries whole. “It keeps it much fresher, it infuses the flavour as well as the heat,” she explains. “You get a gentle flavour, rather than really, really hot chilli – unless you mistakenly eat one.”
As well as a way of cooking, there’s a way of eating that’s central to Bangladesh’s culture of hospitality. Hamilton recalls lots of parties while growing up.
“The house would be full of aunties and uncles and music. Bangladeshi people are proud of their culture, arts and literature. And there would always be food, swathes of it.
“You have lots of different things on your plate at the same time – a bit of fried fish, a bit of the curry, always some kind of chutney, salad, and always little slices of lime or shallots on the side to zhuzh things up.”