Food, Farming and Fishing in Bangladesh


Like other river deltas, Bangladesh is a very fertile place. There are no rocks, stones, boulders or pebbles. It’s all silt and mud washed down from the Himalayan mountains over millions of years. Most people farm. Though I saw people farming every day, I never ever saw a tractor. Of course they can’t afford them, or even the fuel for them. Cows used as plow pulling devices, on the other hand, eat weeds and straw for fuel. Before wearing out, they make replacements. And they don’t require spare parts shipped in from some place. The yellow flowers are mustard, grown for their oil. During the rainy season, these fields will grow rice.

Being a river delta, you can’t walk very far in any direction without hitting water: a river, canal, rice paddy, pond or lake. This is especially true during the monsoon rainy season, when it rains almost every day. All houses have a pond near them where dirt has been scooped out to raise the base of the house several feet to be above flooding. Likewise, every road has a canal dug out next to it for the same reason.

The water is teaming with fish, which (along with lentils) provides most of the protein for people. I rarely saw people using a hook and bait and a line except on the big rivers. Instead, they have about 6 other ways to catch fish.

Weighted throw nets are one of the most common fishing tools. The weights are sewn in around the edges. As soon as they hit the water, they sink fast, trapping fish below between the muddy bottom and the net. Then they carefully pull the net closed with a drawstring. I have been told –though I don’t know how to confirm it--that it was such throw nets that the fishermen were using two thousand years ago in Jesus’ time. There is an account at the end of the Gospel of John of a stranger advising the fishermen to throw the net on the right side of the boat. They do, and the net is so full they can’t get it back into the boat. Didn’t I say that living in Bangladesh is like traveling back in time?

There is another kind of net that is normally left on the bottom of a canal. When they think fish are swimming over it, they raise it suddenly, scooping up the fish.

The kid who is spear fishing has to use some science to hit his underwater mark. Just as the giant water prism bends light, so does the water in the pond. It’s called refraction. If the kid aims right for a fish, the spear will pass over its head. He actually has to aim below the image of the fish, taking into account the angle of his line of sight, how deep the fish is, and so on.

A clever way of catching fish is with traps. Kids make them out of bamboo with one way trap doors. The kids get together to splash the water and force the fish to try to escape into another rice paddy. The fish try to squeeze past the obstruction—which is of course the trap with the trap doors.

I also learned how to catch fish with my bare hands. There was a pond right outside my house in Bangladesh. Friends would come over and swim in it. One guy splashed the water in front of him, then dove in. A few seconds later he came up with a small fish in his hand. My mind refused to believe what my eyes had just witnessed! Sure that he had a bag of fish somewhere down there, I demanded that he repeat the feat in another part of the pond, a part of my choosing. Once again he splashed the water in front of him, dove under, and this time he came up with a small fish in both hands! He insisted that his hands were as fast as lightning.

I pestered him day after day. I wore him out. How had he had done it? Finally he told me. When he splashed water in front of him, the fish took evasive action because they thought the splash was a net descending to trap them. Remember that the ponds have been heavily fished with throw nets for a couple of thousand years and only the clever fish survived. One small kind of fish evades capture by diving straight down into the muddy bottom. With only a bit of its tail sticking out, there is a good chance the edge of the net will pass over without scooping him up. My friend would dive under and feel the bottom. When he touched a fish, it would betray its presence by wiggling and trying to bury itself even more. Being embedded in the mud, it was easy to grab with one hand. Mystery solved! By the way, that kind of fish never exceeded 3” and it was bony and not worth eating. However, our ducks (yes, there are ducks in Bangladesh) loved them, so we threw the small fish to them on shore. We were rewarded with lots of delicious duck eggs.

The word “bazaar” comes from South Asia. In Bengali it means “marketplace.” When I took this picture in a market place of this graceful chicken cage, woven out of bamboo strips. Because electricity (and therefore refrigeration) is rare and unreliable in this hot country, you always buy chicken live and clucking.

I was intrigued at how easily people in Bangladesh could climb trees when there were no branches or other toeholds for the first thirty feet of trunk. You might think it’s easy to just shimmy up, but actually it’s very hard. They climb palm trees to tap the sweet sap of date palms that is boiled down to sugar, and they knock down still-green coconuts out of coconut palms. Green coconuts —called “dab”—have a liquid inside that is a perfect formulation for oral re-hydration solution for someone for someone whose stomach is in bad shape. Furthermore, I have been told by medical people that it is sterile and can be used as an intravenous (IV) drip.

So how do they climb up so easily? They loop rope around their ankles. It allows them to get the traction they need with their feet. Back in the U.S. as a teacher, I had a student who had grown up in South America. He said they use the same trick there.

Cooking in Bangladesh is done with an adobe earth stove, called a “chula.” The smoke comes right out into the room, no chimney. They say it keeps mosquitoes at bay and helps preserve the thatch roof that most houses have for several years. The woman here is cooking a “parota,” which is sort of a cross between a pancake and a flour tortilla.

I get a little embarrassed when I reminisce about the food in Bangladesh. I didn’t know much about the country before going. I was going to sacrifice 3 Spartan years of my life to helping the starving masses. When I got there, I enjoyed the sensual pleasure of eating “Bangla kabar” (Bengali cooking) every day. My passion lead me to learn food and cooking vocabulary first, and those are the words I’ll never forget even though I don’t speak much Bengali anymore.

Fish, chicken and beef can all be made into a rich “torkare” (curry). To say that curry is a sort of stew does not do justice to it. It’s the harmony of the freshly ground spices that makes it so delicious. Turmeric, hot pepper, garlic, onions, coriander, cardamom…also spices like ginger and cinnamon that we associate with sweet baking all combine to stroke your taste buds. Even ordinary potatoes become a feast when curried, as does spicy lentil “dal” and stir fried vegetable “baji.” The price of spices is a current event you read about in Bangladeshi newspapers. A person would be considered to be virtually starving if they could not afford spice for their food. You eat lots of rice with the meal.

The word “chutney” comes from South Asia. In Bangladesh, it takes the form of spicy mango pickle. You might be able to find some in well-stocked grocery store.

There are lots of tropical fruits in Bangladesh, too, like mango, guava and jackfruit. The bananas were small and had one or two hard seeds a little smaller than a cherry pit. But they had a better flavor and were sweeter than ones I buy in the grocery store now. I won’t even go into all the “mishti” (sweets). I don’t usually eat deserts, but I was helpless to resist Bengali sweets.

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