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My Scholarship entry - Understanding a Culture through Food

WORLDWIDE | Tuesday, 6 March 2012 | Views [199] | Scholarship Entry

Sticky sweet syrup drips down my chin and drops to the dirty street as I bite into a jalapi. The traditional Bangladeshi sweet is little more than deep fried sugar – essentially everything bad for you in one delicious snack. I ordered it from the bemused street vendor in his make-shift stall, in broken Bengali, which brings a smile to his face – “ek-ta jalapi”.
I am new to Bangladesh and desperate to absorb everything the country has to offer. This starts with the food. Walking through the streets of Old Dhaka, hawkers offer parcels of deep fried goodness. Strong smells of cumin and chilli carry down the road past fried eggplant slices in chickpea flour, rice flour cakes and puffed pastry filled with dhal. I know these foods will most likely result in a close intimate relationship with my bathroom, but it’s worth the risk. The melody of spices with vegetables I never knew existed, keep me coming back for more.
To sample these treats is to feel part of the buzz of the city. My skin, shape and voice make me unavoidably Western, but when I eat these foods people stop starring and start smiling. They call me a “real Bangladeshi woman”. I eat with my right hand mimicking the locals and after a couple of weeks my fingers are stained yellow.
On every street corner is a cha stall. In this alcohol-free country, men meet to drink tea, buy tobacco and sometimes watch sport. The tea is sweet enough to induce a diabetic coma in most Westerners. Spoonfuls of sugar mixed with condensed milk and a little tulsi tea creates a pale brown elixir that fuels hardworking rickshaw pullers.
Life is tough in Bangladesh, with constant threat of floods or cyclones and crippling poverty. Children sort through rubbish on the sides of streets hoping to find enough recyclables to pay for a meal. These street snacks and teas are a luxury even they can afford. It offers a chance to sit back, block out the beeping of horns, the stench of the open sewerage system and imagine being somewhere else.

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2012

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