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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Bangladesh

Historic Diet

Bangladeshi Food - Biryani
Biryani

Despite its small size, Bangladesh has a huge selection of native foods much of the country is the delta for the Ganges River, making the soil fertile and the animal life quite large and varied. It is these fruits, vegetables, starches, and animals that made up the historic diet and many of these foods are still important elements of the diet today.

Among the many locally available foods in Bangladesh are numerous fruits, vegetables, and spices. These foods were either native or arrived with the early settlers as pomegranate, apricot, figs, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, beans, and spices have existed for thousands of years. Animals have also be present, most significantly the sea life. Due to the long coastline and numerous waterways in the country fish and shellfish are easily accessible to nearly everyone as most people are close to a river or the ocean. Despite this availability, the historic diet was based on plant life and fish and other animals only acted as a supplement.

Culinary Influences

Bangladesh has made few changes on the culinary front over the years as the people remain on vegetarian-based diet of the locally available fruits, vegetables, and grains.

In early history numerous foods were introduced by the neighboring or migrating people, which changed the diet slowly. Among the people that migrated, the one common theme was religion. The rulers shifted between Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. As both Hinduism and Islam have dietary restrictions on their adherents, this limited what could be eaten. The primary restrictions are no beef for the Hindus and no pork or alcohol for the Muslims. What happened though, was that all of these foods were almost entirely removed from the diet, not matter a person's religion. Although today you can find pork or beef in Bangladesh, neither is common and the diet remains vegetarian-based.

As European powers began to establish trading routes to the Far East power and influence shifted in Bangladesh. The Ottoman Turks and other Turkic Muslims from Central Asia arrived in the region as new foods became popular, including yogurt, stuffed grape leaves (dolma), kebabs, and coffee. Also, with the Europeans new influences arrived, especially in the form of new spices from other parts of Asia.

United as one country, the Britain took control over Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh in the 1800s and left their mark on the cuisine. This influence didn't make as strong an impact as previous influences, but it did open the food up to the world. Today pre-packaged foods are more popular as the food industry is vastly changing how food is prepared and sold. This hasn't altered the culinary base, although numerous "ethnic" restaurants have opened in Dhaka.

Staple Foods

Curry: any "wet dish" cooked in oil, can contain any combination of spices
Naan: thin round-shaped bread served with many meals
Pulse/legumes: any bean, chickpea, or lentil dish, each of which act as a staple in various parts of India; dal and masoor are both forms of pulses
Rice: served as a base in many dishes and is prepared in numerous ways

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Biryani: a spicy rice dish often made with vegetables and sometimes meat
Kebab: spiced meats usually made from lamb or chicken and served on naan with vegetables
Khichuri: rice cooked with lentils
Pitha: flour, molasses, and milk ball-shaped sweets
Southern Bangladesh: fish and coconut are much more common than elsewhere in Bangladesh

Dining Etiquette

When eating in Bangladesh, remember that you are in a Muslim country and with that comes a couple etiquette rules you must know and follow. First, dress on the conservatively side (see our Bangladesh Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes and even some restaurants, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. While this is very uncommon today, to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local's situation and follow their lead.

If you get by those first two rules, try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first, but men should not touch the hand of a woman unless she initiates this contact, although you should greet and acknowledge everyone. Prior to sitting down you may be led to a faucet to wash your hands; follow the lead of others to know when and where to wash your hands, but you must do so prior to eating. Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive; you may be asked to sit on the floor or on low chairs and the table may also be low or simply consist of a sheet on the floor.

Once the food begins to arrive, your host may direct you to certain dishes you should eat; accept all of your host's suggestions as turning down food can be rude (but not taking food that your host doesn't recommend is not offensive). Although you must take all of their suggestions, try to limit the amount you take so you can later accept additional food, which is a great compliment. You, as a guest will likely be served first, but don't begin eating until after the oldest person present begins eating.

Eat as the locals eat; in nearly all settings this means eating directly with your right hand (and your right hand only), but in rare settings you may be offered dining utensils (cutlery), in which case eat in the continental style (knife or spoon in the right hand, fork in the left). If a knife is not present, most locals will hold the spoon in their right hand and eat primarily from the spoon. No matter which utensil you hold in which hand, be sure to only bring food to your mouth with the utensil in your right hand. As you finish your food, and your second helping of food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough. After everyone gets up from the table, you should again follow the lead of others and wash your hands once more, which may come from a water basin passed around the table or you may be asked to use a faucet.

Dining in a restaurant in Bangladesh is limited as there are few restaurants and most of those that do exist are catered to foreigners. More likely, if meeting a local out, you'll do so for tea at a teahouse. If at a restaurant, a service charge is usually include, which will replace the tip, however at many local teahouses and some restaurants no service charge is included; tip about 5% to the server.

Celebrations & Events

In Bangladesh, Eid al Fitr is sometimes known as Choti Eid, which is a celebration that occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. Choti Eid is celebrated with the heavy use of both meat and oil, two items which symbolize wealth and are rich and filling enough to satisfy anyone who has fasted for a full month. However, these foods are followed with desserts so one must leave room for more food. The desserts are again traditional Bengali foods, including rice pudding among others.

The second major religious food celebration in Bangladesh is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of traditional local dishes such as biryani, meat dishes, and desserts; the foods served are not unlike those served during Eid al Fitr.

Drinks

If you want the cultural experience while in Bangladesh seek out borhani, which is yogurt with various spices that dates back to Muslim rule over the region. Due to the local availability and the British, tea is also very popular as is coffee. Juices, soft drinks, and nearly any other popular international beverage can easily be found in the country as well.

As a primarily Muslim country, Bangladesh has very little alcohol available, although it can be purchased and consumed in most areas. Most hotels catered to foreigners have alcohol available for purchase in their restaurants or bars.

The tap water in Bangladesh should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: April, 2013