One of the most common questions people ask when you go to a new country is “How’s the food?”, or “what do you eat there?”. Since I’m so picky, I rarely eat real Bengali food. I have my own kitchen at home, so I normally eat food I have prepared from the grocery store, or I order delivery (mostly pizza). However, one meal each day is served “Bengali style” and that would be lunch.
During lunch, colleagues from a few businesses in our building get together on the top floor for lunch. We all sit on the floor around the communal bowls to eat. The TV is also always on, usually watching the news or sports (which I don’t understand because it’s in Bangla). Sometimes there’s only 5 or 6 people, other days there are about 20 people. These pictures look quite somber, but some days there’s a lot of conversation, argument, or jokes (though sometimes I can’t tell which, because Bengali people get very excited when they speak, and I don’t understand enough Bangla to follow the conversation!)
Everyday at work we have lunch together (except for some people who bring their own lunch and eat in the office). Since we’re in a building with a few other organizations, we have lunch with them too. Overall there’s probably about 20 people who eat lunch together, although they come and go at different times. We pay for lunch at the beginning of each month, but it’s super affordable, about 30 taka per meal (which is like 50 cents), so about 600 taka ($10 CAD) per month. They advised me to eat at home since rice and egg is so cheap and easy to make, but I wanted to continue eating at the office to be more social (and also it’s easier).
In Bangladesh, the typical way to eat is sitting on the floor. Generally, the meal is all served “family style”, with large bowls of food in the middle that can be shared. The diet in this part of the world consists of a great deal of rice, often served for all 3 meals each day. Vegetables and dhal (lentils) are also part of standard diet, with meat and fish for those who can afford it. Almost all the food is spicy, and most meats and vegetables are served coated in a spicy sauce. Muslims do not eat pork, and Hindus do not eat beef, so the type of meats being served varies based on the religion. Certain holidays also involve eating (or not eating) certain foods, such as Hindus who don’t eat meat for the 10 days of puja (and are therefore served eggs or other protein as a substitute).
So here’s my average day for lunch:
Step 1 – In the morning the cook comes around to the office to say hello and see who’s around. He also comes and asks me if I’m having lunch (at least I think he does, because it’s in Bangla and I’m learning very slowly). I usually just nod (unless I’m going to Bangla class that day).
Step 2 – At around 12:45 a few of the Muslim men from the office kick me off my desk so they can pray in the area behind it.
Left: Walking down the street to lunch. Right: Saying hello to the security guard (some times he teaches me a few Bangla words).
Step 3 – Time for lunch!
- If I’m in the office where the kitchen is, a bell rings through the whole building when lunch has been prepared, and we head upstairs.
- If I’m in the main office where the accountants and other administrative staff work (I’ve recently moved here because there’s Wi-Fi and my computer doesn’t have a port for a broadband cable) then I head to the other building (just down the street) at around 1pm.
Left: Saying hello to some colleagues in the office before heading up the stairs (Susan pictures – pronounced “shoo-shawn” here). Middle: Up the stairs, which are completely different heights, so you have to pay attention or you might trip. Right: Take off your shoes before entering the lunch room.
Step 5 – Climb the 5 flights of stairs to the top floor – you have to work for your food here!
The kitchen and lunch room are located on the top floor of the building. After the last set of stairs, you turn left. However, when guests from other countries are visiting, you turn right. To the right is the rooftop, and guests will have lunch on a table with chairs (instead of the floor), and a lovely view. They also get less spicy versions of a Bengali menu!
Step 6 – Take off your shoes before entering the room
Step 7 – Go to the sink to wash a plate and your hands
Left: The rice, lentils, limes, and chilies and served communally in the middle of the room. However, each person also picks up one of these small bowls from the kitchen counter. The contents change every day but it usually contains fish (sometimes chicken instead), with some vegetables that look like potatoes (but aren’t) in a spicy sauce. Right: My lunch is pretty boring… white rice, boiled egg, some type of potato. Everyone here thinks I’m going to starve to death!
Step 8 – Take food from the counter (usually a small bowl with meat/fish and vegetables, and sometimes different types of potatoes). However, because I’m so picky I always get a small plate with a hard-boiled egg and “aloo chop” – which is basically fried mashed potato balls. I also get a spoon (because I’m awful at eating with my hands).
Step 9 – Sit on the floor in a long-ish circle around the food placed there. There are large bowls of plain white rice, lentil soup (dhal), and a plate of chilies and limes.
Various photos of lunch, featuring rice, dhal (the bowl of yellow stuff), and chilies.
Step 10 – Serve yourself and eat food. Most people mix the dhal into the rice, but in various amounts. Some people prefer almost a soup while others want rice with just a bit of sauce. Either way, it is mixed together and formed into balls in your hand before eating. The culture dictates you must eat with your right hand, so the left hand is used to hold the plate in the air (at around chest level – for ease of eating – and I presume so spilling is less common).
Left: Washing hands and plate at the sink in the corner of the room. Right: Heading back down the stairs.
Step 11 – Wash hands and plate.
Step 12 – Put on shoes and return to the office.
Left: Walking back down the street to the office. I get a lot of stares, and children either want to talk or run away. Right: Back at my cubicle!
Fun fact: When I tell people in Bangladesh “pi-aj nah” (which means no onions), they assume that I’m a vegetarian, since all meats are commonly served with onions and spices.