Sunday, May 3, 2009

Looking for the best cook in town

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(looking into a cooking pot in Rishi Para)

Dense smoke, lively conversation and a smell of freshly cooked meals meet me in Jimkhana. It’s lunch time. A dozen women and girls squat around eight firesides and busily prepare food. About 25 families from different parts of the community share this cooking place. They organize themselves spontaneously every day, using the stoves in rotation; first come, first served. Nevertheless every cook has to be quick and effective asthe cooks who came later eagerly await their turn. But during the wait they may just be able to learn some new recipes - especially the girls who can pick up a knack or two by watching the older women.

(Lotifa from Jimkhana preparing the lunch at the shared cooking place)

The art of cooking here means to make something from nothing, and as with humans everywhere, people in Jimkhana find plenty of ways to be creative. To my question “who is the best cook in town?” I receive cackling laughter and a diplomatic answer. “You have to try each one of the meals, then you can judge”, people tell me. I speak to Lotifa, an older woman with glasses which seem a bit too big for her face. Maybe she is the one I am looking for. She is a mother and grandmother and prepares the meals for two families with eight members in total. With only 100 to 150 Taka a day for the whole family, she really has to be an artist. Lotifa is busy with cooking shutki, dry fish (see photo on the left) . First it is ‘smashed’ or ground, then fried together with some chili and onions. One handfull of these tiny fish is one portion of a family’s meal. From a field right behind the cooking place she gets the ingredients for kachushak, an important source of vitamins and minerals made from the steamed and boiled leaves of the taro plant (see photo on the right). Most of the meals during the week consist of rice with spices, such as green chili and salt, and a bit of aubergine and zucchini. Fresh fish is served once a month and meat only once a year during Eid (festivals). On this occasion sweet shemai, made from thin vermicelli, milk and butter is also served. “If you bring some vegetables, then I can cook for you next time”, Lotifa says. With this invitation I take my leave and go to look in the cooking pot of some other families in the area.

In a small tin hut in Rishi Para I meet Masu Begum with one of her daughters (see photo on the left). Today she feels sick but usually she works twelve hours a day in a nearby garment factory along with two of her three kids. In the morning she prepares rice with dry fish, chili and lady fingers for lunch so she can eat together with her children during the one hour lunch break without being hurried. Although three of the household are working they spend nearly all they earn on food. Her husband has abandoned her and is living with another wife, although he is fair enough to come every day and bring them some money.Masu does not really like the place she is living in but has come to terms with the situation. “I am an old woman and have no alternatives.” Her neighbors are nice, she tells me, she sees them as relatives. Good relations with the neighbors are maintained through sharing fresh fish curry with them about two times a week. Her youngest daughter Harmin is thirteen years old and goes to school. She often prepares the rice for diner and looks after the fire, which is feed by bushi, sawdust. Her biggest wish is to be independent, maybe by running her own small business. “But before she should learn how to cook well”, Masu interrupts.

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