Can Bangladesh’s food landscape become more vegan while still maintaining the essence of its traditional delicacies? The Bangu Vegan’s Rubaiya Ahmad explains it all.
Before the British Raj, Bangladesh served a key role during the Mughal rule in South Asia. The hustling and bustling capital city of Dhaka was established as a fort city and commercial metropolis under the Mughal Empire. Foreign traders from all across Europe were easily able to access the territory as it sits directly above the Bay of Bengal, thus becoming the heart of a flourishing economy and opening its doors to various cultures.
This once thriving region had its resources completely plundered and was deindustrialised throughout the colonial period under British rule. The Partition of India in 1947 marked the end of colonisation, during which the Bengal state got divided into West Bengal and East Bengal.
Due to its Muslim majority population, East Bengal became a part of Pakistan and after much protest, violence and war, it finally gained its independence during the early ‘70s, becoming the sovereign country now known as Bangladesh.
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The regionally ingrained saying “bhaateh maache Bangali” (Fish and rice makes a Bengali) can be attributed to the vast assortment of fish incorporated in its cuisine. Bangladesh’s vigorous fish farming culture borne of its river-line geography makes seafood an important aspect of the Bangali diet.
The country’s ample access to water bodies and vastly diverse history has translated into its culinary landscape. Particularly the Mughal and Pakistani influences has created a great love for meat-based dishes such as kebabs, biryanis, nihari and more. But that’s merely one aspect of this extremely complex cuisine.
Rubaiya Ahmad, an animal rights activist and the founder of Bangladesh’s first fully vegan eatery and catering service, The Bangu Vegan, gives her take on how she merged Bangladeshi food with veganism.
“A lot of authentic Bengali food is innately plant-based,” says Ahmad. “Look at our different kinds of dal, bhortas (mashed vegetables with spices and mustard oil), posto (poppy seed) and shorshe (mustard seed) curries.” She adds: “There’s a huge variety of recipes that don’t call for any meat. The dairy and meat-based korma curries, kebabs and biryanis were influenced by the Mughals. It’s not what our ancestors ate until they conquered the region.”
However, the way veganism is marketed tends to alienate Bangladeshis from committing to the lifestyle. Eating vegan is associated with foreign foods like tofu, tempeh and quinoa. “Consuming just imported food without paying attention to your carbon footprint goes against vegan values. To me, veganism is eating responsibly and locally, which is why The Bangu Vegan’s menu is mostly Bengali food made with local produce,” says Ahmad” .We also want it to feel familiar and welcoming, to show people that you don’t have to spend a lot of money and buy imported foods to eat plant-based.”
She adds: “We have tishi seeds, which are similar to chia and flax seeds, full of omega-3, protein, antioxidants and fibre. We also have jackfruits, which are now popular in the West as a meat substitute.” Bangladesh’s warm and tropical climate allows for a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and seeds to be grown and farmed that give the cuisine scope for nutritional plant-based meals without having to buy food imported from other countries.
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The Bangu Vegan’s menu includes plantain tikiya kebab, raw jackfruit bhuna curry, mushroom biryani, vegan tehari and much more. The restaurant is aiming to show that going plant-based does not necessarily mean cutting out all the delicious dishes that are often centred around meat.
“Bangladeshi cuisine is all about spices,” says Ahmad. The flavour of the dishes don’t rely on the meat, but rather the spices it is cooked in. Thus, the meat is merely the vessel to carry the flavour, making it easily replaceable with a plant-based substitute.
As for the once flourishing fishing industry of the country, many scientists warn that overfishing has led to almost all species of seafood available in the region to be on the brink of extinction. This has led to the creation of multiple “fishless” zones in the world’s largest marine ecosystems. Fish constitutes a significant part of the national diet, accounting for around 60% of animal source food. With fish stocks declining extremely rapidly, going vegan may be the solution to Bangladesh’s problem.
Concerns over climate change, fears of food insecurity and the need for the country’s marine ecosystem to heal — these all provide reasons to join the movement. With an abundance of fruits and vegetables and institutions like The Bangu Vegan paving the way, preserving Bangladeshi cuisine’s authenticity and eating vegan might prove to be easier than you may think.