Indian cuisine all gets lumped together... but the sub-continent is as big as Europe; MASTERCHEF FINALIST SAIRA HAMILTON WANTS PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND THE UNIQUE NATURE OF BANGLADESHI FOOD. ELLA WALKER FINDS OUT MORE.
WHEN Saira Hamilton talks about Bangladesh, it makes no sense that it's not more of a travel destination, because if you're seeking beauty, culture and good food, apparently it's got all three.
"A lot of people go to [neighbouring] India," says Saira, "but Bangladesh looks different, it feels different. Visually, it's much more like Thailand, it's very lush and green and jungly."
Although she grew up in Britain, Saira and her family spent their summer holidays in her father's home village, Dampara, where the landscape floods every year, leaving behind fertile land for paddy fields.
"It's incredibly peaceful. You have these wonderful vistas of water and palm trees and very low-rise buildings, it's very beautiful," she says.
Her memories, mingle with Saira's love of cooking. Hence why she has steadily been bringing Bangladeshi food to a wider audience since becoming a MasterChef finalist in 2013, when she impressed judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace with recipes and spicing from her heritage.
"I grew up around really good food - my mum was a great cook, my dad was a great eater," says Saira, and her new cookbook, My Bangladesh Kitchen, reflects a desire to write "a comprehensive collection of what Bangladeshi food is".
"I wanted to show people what was different about it," she says. "Indian cuisine sometimes gets all lumped together, but the sub-continent is as big as the whole of Europe. It's like trying to talk about Norwegian cuisine as the same as Greek."
Although, she notes, particularly in the south and southeast of Britain, the majority of Indian restaurants are run by people from the Bangladeshi community - spotting shatkora (a cross between a lemon and grapefruit) on the menu is a good indication.
For those entirely new to Bangladeshi cuisine, seafood is a staple as well as lentils, rice and lots of vegetables. Saira calls it a "light and bright palette of flavours", where things are cooked speedily to keep their crunchiness and colour.
Store cupboard essentials include the likes of panch phoran, or Bengali five-spice, a "fragrant and aromatic" blend of whole fennel, cumin, mustard, nigella and fenugreek seeds.
Then there's heat: "You're probably going to get through a lot of chillies," says Saira with a laugh, recommending you stock up on little green hot ones.
In Bangladeshi cooking though, instead of being chopped, they tend to be chucked into curries whole. "It keeps it much fresher, it infuses the flavour as well as the heat," she explains.
In the book, she covers the gamut of Bangladeshi eating, from food suitable for a Wednesday-night family supper (vegetable, rice, dal), to celebration dishes you'd see at a Bangladeshi wedding (biryanis, lamb rezala, Bengali 'roast' chicken), and snacky street-foody bits too.
Aside from writing a food column in her local paper and running food demos and catering (smallaubergine.com), Saira is also a senior strategy advisor for Defra, and still, of course, watches MasterChef.
"I love it. I particularly like the amateur one because the opportunities that it gives you are just amazing. I would never have dreamed of doing the things I did. Working in professional kitchens, having input and classes from some of the best chefs in the country, and the world in fact, was just wonderful," she recalls.
As she did on MasterChef, and now with the cookbook, she says she feels "a great responsibility" for sharing Bangladeshi cooking: "I want people to 'get' it, and to love it."
| My Bangladesh Kitchen: Recipes and Food Memories From A Family Table by Saira Hamilton, photography by Ian Garlick, Lorenz Books, PS20.
carb festALOO BORTHA - SPICY MASHED POTATO INGREDIENTS (Serves 4-6 as a side dish) 450g new potatoes 1 1/2tsp salt 2tsp mustard-infused oil (see instructions below on making this) 2tsp wholegrain mustard 2tbsp finely diced shallot 1tbsp finely chopped fresh green chilli 2tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander To make the mustard-infused oil: Although widely used in Bangladeshi cuisine, mustard oil is banned for consumption in the EU due to concerns over its erucic acid content - but you can make your own mustard-infused oil instead. Simply heat some vegetable oil in a small pan then stir in freshly crushed mustard seeds, turn off the heat and allow the mustard to infuse the oil slowly. Once it is cool, strain and store the oil in a cool, dark place to use when needed. For 250ml of oil, use 2tbps or 30g of whole mustard seeds.
METHOD 1. Put the potatoes in a large pan with enough cold water over them to cover. Add one teaspoon of the salt to the water and bring to the boil over a high heat. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer and allow the potatoes to cook for around 25 minutes. 2. Drain and allow them to steam-dry for 10 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, use a table knife to peel off the papery skins and discard them. Put in a bowl and while still warm, add in the mustard-infused oil, wholegrain mustard and remaining half teaspoon of salt, and mash it all together. 3. Add the chopped shallot, chilli and fresh coriander and mix before serving immediately. If the bortha is not warm enough, you can cover the bowl with foil and reheat in a oven (1800C/3500F/ Gas mark 4) for 20 minutes before serving. 4. It can be served with rice or a Bangladeshi flatbread such as roti or paratha.
fragrant & filling FUNSPICY BEEF & RICE BIRYANI INGREDIENTS (SERVES 4-6) 750g lean braising or rump steak, cut into 1cm cubes, 325g Basmati rice, 2tbsp vegetable oil, 2tbsp ghee, 3 onions, 2 finely sliced and 1 cut into 1cm dice, 4 x 5cm pieces of cassia bark, or 1 cinnamon stick, 4 green cardamom pods, 4 cloves, 6 hot fresh green chillies, cut in half lengthwise, 2 bay leaves, 2tsp chilli powder, 2tsp ground cumin, 1tsp ground coriander, 1tsp garam masala, 1tsp paprika, 1tsp salt, 1tbsp garlic paste, 1tbsp ginger paste, 250ml + 500ml water METHOD 1. Remove fat and gristle from the beef until you have only lean meat remaining. Then cut this into small 1cm cubes. 2. Place the rice in a large bowl and wash it before pouring away the cloudy water. Repeat this process three times. Cover the rice with more fresh water and let it soak for 20 minutes. 3. Take a large saucepan or casserole dish and place over a medium-high heat. Add in one tablespoon of the oil and one tablespoon of the ghee and then add in the sliced onions. Keeping the heat quite high, but stir frequently, fry the onions until they are a dark golden-brown colour and quite crispy. This should take around 15 minutes. Once done, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. 4. Without washing the pan, add in the remaining oil and ghee and then add the third, diced onion. Cook the onion for seven to eight minutes until golden-brown and fully softened. Then add the cassia, cardamoms, cloves, green chillies and bay leaves. Stir for 30 seconds or so.
5. Add in all the ground spices and salt, the garlic and ginger pastes, and the 250ml of water, and stir everything. Keep the heat high and stir for another three to four minutes until the spice mix thickens with a sheen of oil on the top of the pan.
6. Add the beef and stir it well in the spice paste. Once bubbling, reduce heat to a low simmer and then cover. Cook the beef for 10 minutes with the lid on. Then remove the lid and increase the heat to boil off some of the excess liquid from the pan. Cook for another five minutes. 7. Drain the rice, add to pan. Stir well then add in 500ml of water. Stir and boil, reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 25 minutes. 8. Stir through the onions you prepared earlier, re-cover the pan and allow to sit and steam for another 10 minutes.
spicy dinner KING PRAWN CURRY WITH TOMATO AND CHILLI and fresh chillies. 3. Stir really well and allow to come up to a gentle simmer. Cover the pan and simmer for around 10 minutes.
4. Add the prawns, which should be cleaned and ready to cook. (If you are using frozen prawns, make sure they are thoroughly defrosted.) The sauce should have thickened slightly. Add the prawns to the pan and stir well to coat them in the spiced tomato sauce. Cover the pan again and let them cook for around five minutes. If the pan is not simmering well, you may need to increase the heat slightly.
5. After five minutes, uncover the pan and turn the prawns.
6. Add in half the chopped fresh coriander and stir well and then cook, uncovered, for a further two to three minutes, or as long as it takes until the prawns are completely cooked, firm to the touch and opaque all the way through. The sauce should be quite thick and cling to the prawns. 7. Finally, garnish with the remaining fresh coriander and some extra green chillies if wanted. This curry is delicious with plain steamed rice or with freshly made luchi (puffy, deep fried Bengali bread).