I would venture to guess that a good percentage of my readers weren’t alive when Bangladesh (literally, “the republic of Bengal”) became an independent country. After a millennia of domination by various empires, and colonization by the British, and the massive genocide in 1971 by the Pakistani government (nearly 3 million Bengalis killed and almost 400,000 reported rapes by troops, with the blessings of the imams and muslim religious leaders of Pakistan – one of the few world events that gave the Vietnam War a run for coverage on the news), the country we now know as Bangladesh came into being while I was in high school. And despite being the world’s 8th most populous country, it’s one that probably few of us know anything about.
But, as usual, I’m looking for breads and soups, not politics, though I’m still convinced that many of the world’s political problems could be solved over a dinner table laden with the former. This one wasn’t even hard to narrow down. The two choices burbled to the top quickly on searches of the cuisine of the country, online and in print. Our bread, Mughlai Paratha with Egg and our soup, Paya-Nihari.
The paratha bread itself is pretty straightforward. It’s flour with a large pinch of salt, a splash of oil, and enough water to bring it together into a soft dough, then left to sit and relax for half an hour or so. The filling is the more interesting part of the dish – a couple of eggs, a shallot or small onion, a chili, and chaat masala, a classic spice mixture of the region – from left to right in the dish, cumin, pepper, sour mango powder (amchur), black salt, salt. Normally there’s also a pinch of asafoetida in it, and I know I have a small pouch of it somewhere in the kitchen, but couldn’t find it. The eggs are whisked together with the spices and finally chopped chili and onion.
I split the dough in four, and rolled each out thin. Then onto a lightly oiled griddle to start to brown.
Getting the egg mixture to not run all over is a bit tricky, in fact, with just four of these to practice on, I didn’t accomplish that. Perhaps it’s just a matter of the speed with which you fold it all up into a packet. First two sides into the center, then the ends folded in.
When the underside is nicely golden, flip them over and brown the other side.
And, in short order, you end up with some lovely (and really delicious and spicy) packets of egg filled flatbread!
Let’s move on to the soup….
Paya-Nihari is traditionally made from either goat or lamb trotters, the feet and forelegs, or sometimes beef (remember, Bangladesh is a muslim country, not hindu, so beef isn’t prohibited). In its most classic form it’s not much more than a spicy broth with the meat languidly bathing in it. There aren’t a lot of vegetables, nor starches. I couldn’t find trotters, but I did find lamb leg steaks, which was about as close as I was going to get. A couple of onions, a couple of garlic cloves (not pictured), 3-4 hot chilies, and a mix of spices…
…cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf, ginger, cumin, coriander, pepper, and salt.
Just for ease of eating, I cut the steaks up into smaller pieces, and then browned them with one of the onions and the chilies, sliced, and all the spices. Then I topped it up with water, brought it to a simmer, and cooked it for about 3 hours, to really develop the flavor, and tenderize the lamb.
Now, recall, I mentioned that, it’s mostly just a broth, as you can see if you think about the ingredients in it. Flavorful, but sounded sort of, well, brothy. So while the paya-nihari was bubbling away, I hopped back on the internet to see if there are versions of it that are more substantial, and included something a little… fresher. And, there were. Quite a few versions that involve split peas – albeit the yellow split peas, known sometimes as Bengali dal, which unfortunately I didn’t have in the house, nor did any of the shops nearby – for that I’d have to run out to Belgrano to Sabores de la India. Too late. So I went with green split peas, adding them in during the last hour of cooking.
And then the soup is finished with coarsely chopped mint and cilantro, and the juice of a couple of limes. One of our favorite soups so far, though it probably wouldn’t have been without the split peas.
Next time around, Barbados.