Meena, my Bangladeshi mother – or how I came to love Bengali food

Meena, drying fish on the roof of our house

Meena, drying fish on the roof of our house

One of the things that got me most excited about starting this blog was writing about some of the people and places that have most influenced me when it comes to food. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know about my love of Turkish food, and my travails trying to get better at making it.

But another big influence for me is the food of beautiful Bangladesh. My love of Bangladeshi, or Bengali, food stems from the two years I spent there after university. I lived and worked in a lovely small town called Parbatipur, in the North West of Bangladesh, as a VSO volunteer. I could go on at length about the wonderful friends I made and the life-altering things I learned, but here is not the place (although you can check out my old blog if you’re interested).

But no. Tonight, I want to introduce you to Meena, my Bangladeshi ma (mother). Meena and her husband owned the house I lived in in Parbatipur. From day one in this strange and confusing country, Meena was there for me, worrying about me, feeding me and generally taking care of me, just as my mum would do. From our first fumbling conversation over rosogolla and lal cha, when I was so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open, to our last night, when Meena made my favourite elish mas and begun curry while we both cried, she always looked after me.

Meena-auntie, and the other women who lived in my building, were my constant companions. As practically the only bideshi (foreigner) in the town, I would have been very lonely if it hadn’t been for them. There was never a moment when one of my aunties wouldn’t be inviting me over for nasta, or insisting that she make dinner for me because I was growing too skinny, or tutting about what I was eating (every time they caught me eating a meal that didn’t contain rice, they’d throw up their hands and bring me round a plate.)

I want to share with you some of the things I learned from them, but that’s a job for another night. For now, here are a few of my favourite memories of Meena and my aunties:

  • The first night in my new flat, when Meena offered me nasta. I’d had a huge meal at my new office, but said yes, because I thought she was referring to breakfast (the Bengali word nasta means both ‘snack’ and ‘breakfast’). But no. She meant the other kind of nasta, and proceeded to lay out all kinds of sweets, fruits and nibbles that I then felt obliged to eat.
Meena and Tara, teaching me to make roti in my kitchen

Meena and Tara, teaching me to make roti in my kitchen

  • The day I came across Lily, my neighbour from over the alley way, making bhapa pitha, a special kind of steamed rice cake with molasses in the middle. She showed me how to make them, sitting on a tiny stool beside the wood burning stove in their courtyard, with both of us wrapped in scarves against the chilly evening.
  • The day I asked Meena how to make roti, and she gave me an impromptu lesson that drew all of my neighbours in for a giggle. They ended up arguing about the best way to do it.
  • The high summer evenings we spent sitting on the roof of our building because the power had gone off and the heat inside was unbearable. We used to lie on reed mats and eat mangoes and pineapples until the fans came back on and we could sleep.

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