A huge part of the holy month of Ramadan is obviously food. Muslims abstain from eating food and drink from sunrise to sunset. But at the end of the fast, we break it with delicious meals and snacks. I was born and raised in Britain and my parents emigrated from Bangladesh to Britain during the early 1980s.
Food was the most prominent aspect of Bengali culture that I was exposed to. In Bengali Muslim culture, girls are taught to cook from an early age. Unfortunately for me, this never happened. My mother was quite controlling about allowing anyone to stay in her kitchen so I never really got to learn how to cook.
As I got older, I used to sneak into the kitchen and scribble notes down to replicate her recipes but was soon ushered out of the door. At the time, it didn’t bother me very much because I was still getting to enjoy all of my mother’s tasty home-cooked Bengali food.
But when I got married and left the family home, I had a rude awakening. Sure, I could cook basic dishes to keep hunger at bay but I couldn’t cook a single delicious Bengali meal. I pretty much lived on pasta, pizza and takeaway when I lived temporarily at University student halls.
My in-laws were a little shocked and taken aback that a professional and smart Bengali Muslim woman in her late 20s couldn’t cook to the standard they could. My sister-in-law happily taught me the basics of making a good thorkari (Bengali curry), which could be modified easily for a plethora of tasty curry dishes. And I slowly learnt how to cook those dishes that I had become accustomed to, but honestly, I didn’t get much joy out of it. Bengali cooking is always done by eye rather than exact measurements. I either added in too much turmeric, too much chili powder or didn’t add jeera spice at the right time to make my lamb soft and succulent.
But when I became a mother, I started to think more about Bengali food. And when my daughter started to wean onto solid foods, that’s when my enthusiasm really came to the surface. I started experimenting more, my confidence grew and I connected to my Bengali heritage through food.
After years of tweaking recipes, I’ve even managed to cook like my mother. I want my daughter to sample all of those culinary delights that I was privileged enough to taste. And at three years old, she now joins me in the kitchen and inquisitively asks what spices I am putting in and sniffs all those aromas accompanying with it a squeal of delight. It makes me really happy when she tries snacks like Nunor Bora (Bengali savoury rice flour snack) and Shingara Samosas, then proceeds to smack her lips and gives a thumbs up. As cheesy as it might sound, my food tastes better now because the missing ingredients of joy and love are now in my dishes.
I don’t want my daughter to see cooking as purely a chore. It can also be a great time for families to bond, which is definitely something that I missed out on. My husband, daughter and I recently made a Bengali tandoori chicken-inspired pizza and it was probably one of the nicest cooking days that I experienced during the lockdown.
As my confidence for cooking freshly home-cooked Bengali food grew, I wanted to minimize waste, so over the past two years I have been meal planning. It is something so simple but highly effective. I like to buy all of my groceries in advance so I don’t have to worry about missing last-minute ingredients. And during Ramadan when I want to preserve my energy and time, I will be carrying on with the same practices.
I have always felt judged by other Bengali Muslim women at social gatherings when they realized I was less competent in cooking. I even joined social media groups like Muslim Mama Foodies, which is an online community of mothers who share recipes and pictures of their meals. We help and praise one another rather than ridicule and discourage. It’s also a great way to be inspired by other Muslim women who create food from different cultures during Ramadan.
There is the cultural misconception in Bengali culture that Muslim women are solely responsible for cooking. But now times are slowly changing, with young boys eagerly cooking with their parents too. It’s important to note that in Islam, whoever cooks for their family will receive many rewards and blessings, as it’s seen as a form of Sadaqa, voluntary charity.
Cooking is definitely much more than just a life skill. For me, it’s about building a kinship with my child and also building communities, even if it is via social media. Although I have mastered some dishes, I still have a long way to go on my cooking journey. But every time I taste a Bengali dish that I have created, I feel one step closer to my heritage.
Recipe: Murgi aloo thorkari
One of my favorite dishes to cook for iftar (evening meal to break one’s fast), is a Bengali Murgi aloo thorkari (chicken and potato curry, also known as Murgir Johl). Here is the recipe.
17 oz. of chicken leg pieces
3 large onions
2 cloves of garlic
12 cups of boiling hot water
6 tbsp of vegetable oil
¾ tsp of salt
1 tsp of turmeric powder
2 tsp of curry powder
1 tsp of coriander powder
1 tsp of chili powder
1 pinch of panch poran Bengali five spice mix (consisting of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and nigella seeds)
2 bay leaves
4 bold green cardamoms
3 large white potatoes
1 tbsp of fresh coriander
1. Make sure your chicken leg pieces are cut into two pieces with the skin off and wash them thoroughly with cold water. Let them soak in a bowl of cold water.
2. Peel and chop 3 large onions.
3. Peel and chop 2 cloves of garlic.
4. Add 6 tbsp of vegetable oil to a pre-heated large pan.
5. Add the onions and garlic to the oil.
6. Sauté them on high heat until the onions and garlic are soft, mixing often to avoid sticking to the pan.
7. Add 1 tsp of salt and mix.
8. Mash the mixture in the pan with a masher; this will squeeze out all of the juices from the onion and create ghee-like texture.
9. Add 1 liter of boiling hot water and let it simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
10. Add all of the spices: 1 tsp of turmeric powder, 2 tsp of curry powder, 1 tsp of coriander powder, 1 tsp of chili powder and 1 pinch of panch poran to the pan.
11. Add 2 bay leaves and 4 bold green cardamoms to the pan.
12. Let the sauce cook for 10 minutes on a medium heat.
13. Add the chicken legs to the pan, mix and ensure you coat the sauce over all of the chicken.
14. Add the remaining 0.5 liters of boiling hot water and turn the heat down so that the chicken slow cooks.
15. Let it simmer for 30 minutes, ensuring you stir at least every 10 minutes to prevent the chicken from burning.
16. Chop each large potato into 6 pieces and add to the pan.
17. Let it all simmer for 1 hour, occasionally stirring. I like my sauce to be very thick, but if you prefer you can add more boiling hot water to make it thinner.
18. Once it has finished cooking, garnish with fresh coriander.
19. Enjoy your delicious curry with white basmati rice!