by Farhana Shehabuddin
Even before tasting Rubaiya Ahmad’s food, I wanted to like her dishes because I liked her. Ahmad, the founder of Bangladesh’s first upscale vegan restaurant, The Bangu Vegan, describes herself as a “full-time animal welfare advocate”. She was instrumental in criminalizing the culling of stray dogs in Dhaka by helping to pass an injunction against it. Her short film “Halal”, which was screened at the Vegan Film Festival a few months ago, highlights the inhumane way animals are slaughtered. The eatery’s Facebook blog raises awareness of important animal welfare issues. There, for example, she advocates for the welfare of bees, condemns the human consumption of honey; and discusses how she witnessed a cow being tied to a pole so tightly that it could not reach its water bucket. She also cares about the environment. She runs a zero-waste kitchen, uses plastic-free packaging and promotes recycling in her flea bazaars or as she puts it “ re-loving the pre-loved”.
The Bangu Vegan is also a catering success. Bangladeshis love to entertain at home and Ahmad’s dishes are beautifully presented in traditional eco-friendly clay pots that can be placed directly on the dining table. Her causes, however, are more important to her than her profit margins. She says, “We wanted to be plastic-free. We wanted to use bio-degradable material to package our food because that goes hand in hand with our vegan movement. It would be funny if we serve vegan food in a [plastic] container that could end up in the ocean in a fish’s belly. So, yes, it [the clay pot] is more expensive but it doesn’t cause us a loss. We just make less profit. We are happy with that because this establishment is primarily to advocate for animal welfare and that is the main objective.”
So, why else would an entrepreneur open Bangladesh’s first vegan restaurant in a country of predominantly meat-eaters and a relative minority of vegetarians? The cuisine of Bengal is very much a reflection of its countryside covered with fish-yielding rivers and ponds; rice paddies, yellow mustard fields, coconut trees, date palms, sugar cane, banana plantations, gardens growing luscious lychees, the sweetest of mangoes and guavas; and of course, there is also the huge variety of seafood from the Bay of Bengal. Furthermore, meat such as beef, mutton, lamb and poultry are widely eaten and form an integral part of many celebratory meals. Ahmad explains her motivation behind the establishment of the eatery, “ my work with dogs was becoming emotionally taxing for me…I wanted to continue working in animal welfare but I also wanted to do something that would give me some kind of respite from having to deal with abuse and cruelty.”
She then explains her strategy, “We target the upper and upper-middle class. They consume 80% of the country’s meat. Also, food travels down. If vegan [food] becomes popular amongst the upper class, the aspiring middle class will accept that as “good food”. This is how eating meat was associated with being rich. We want to reverse that.”
So, in order to discover the secret of her culinary success, I ordered her most popular dishes: tehari with soya chunks, mushroom Halim, middle eastern mezze, and jackfruit burger.
Old Dhaka tehari with beef is a traditional rice dish cooked with mustard seed oil, fresh green chilis, beef and baby potatoes. This popular aromatic dish, which is best eaten steaming hot, is evocative of the hustle and bustle of old Dhaka, its historic past and its Mughal caravanserais. Diverse cultural encounters have, undoubtedly, occurred over the centuries, resulting in the city’s continually evolving and diverse cuisine. Ahmad’s vegan twist on this popular classic dish is indeed a bold move, especially for her Dhaka based clientele. And it doesn’t disappoint. She uses primarily locally sourced ingredients to make her tehari: kalijira rice, soy nuggets, green peas, baby potatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, green chillies, mustard oil, vegan yoghurt, cinnamon, cardamom, mace, kewra water and raisins.
Another bestseller is her mushroom halim. It is a spin on another classic: halim with lamb or beef. Traditionally, halim is made with wheat, barley, lentils and meat. Here, she substitutes locally grown oyster mushrooms for meat. Her mélange of spices with dried green mango powder works well together to create an exquisitely bold taste and flavour.
She also caters quite effectively to the cosmopolitan palate of her clientele. She offers a number of “foreign dishes”, adapted sometimes with indigenously sourced ingredients. Amongst her dishes inspired by the Middle East, there is hummus, pita bread, falafel, and roasted eggplants with sour cream, which she affectionately refers to as her “bejewelled eggplants”. She sometimes substitutes chickpeas with red lentils in her hummus and uses cilantro instead of parsley, which is not local, in her falafels. The pulled jackfruit burger is another one of her popular dishes. In a country where jackfruit is ubiquitous, one can be fairly certain that the jackfruit in the burger has not come out of a can.
Ahmad’s bold move in establishing The Bangu Vegan has certainly paid off. She says, “I don’t know about Bangladesh [as a whole], but in Dhaka people are definitely becoming more vegan-curious and eventually vegan friendly and that is the trend worldwide and it is a matter of time before we also catch up…It was really interesting to see people’s reaction to vegan food and we want to make more and more exciting vegan food to encourage people to eat a more plant-based diet. In the next few decades, we are going to see a huge paradigm shift and I am excited about it.”
Ahmad’s business acumen as well as her qualities as a chef, animal activist and eco-warrior are all responsible for its success. Its growing popularity, however, probably also lies in the nature of the local clientele who want to experience something new and unusual combined with familiar spices, locally sourced ingredients and indigenous cooking techniques. And more importantly, her food tastes great!
Farhana Shehabuddin currently lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she is writing her memoirs called Genies, Shrines and Footprints. She is passionate about art, architecture, food and travel.
This article is the work of Le Cordon Bleu Online Learning Writing for Publication course participant. Le Cordon Bleu is not responsible for the content and the opinion and view is that of the author.
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