Chawk Bazar in old Dhaka is the largest wholesale market in Bangladesh. On a normal weekday it sees frenetic activity as trucks, pushcarts and people push, pull, pedal, and carry large quantities of merchandise ranging from shoes to candy to clothing to pots and pans against a backdrop of wheeling and dealing by the canny Dhakaiya businessmen.
During Ramzan, however, the commercial activity grinds to a halt each afternoon as Chawk hosts the largest Iftar market in Dhaka.
Having been here before, I know to get an early start. It is impossible to get all the way to Chawk by car (unless one wants to single-handedly cause a traffic jam) so I leave mine two kilometers away and walk. Passing the far corner of the Central Jail’s wall I turn right into Chawk square. The market is still a hundred feet away, but I can already smell the fusion of flavors – spicy, grilled, fried, pungent. I encounter the dates – a dozen sellers offering them in different states of congealment, from the deep-brown gooey Khejur oozing syrup to bone-dry Khormas and orange-yellow unripe dates. As I pass them, I feel something on the backside of my arm and discover a large bee making himself comfortable. The dates have attracted hundreds of bees who feast on the sticky syrup. This does not deter the shoppers, though, and one laughs when I manically shake my arm to dislodge the bee. I ask a seller where the bees come from. “They come from all over, the dates are like a gift of Allah to them,” he says.
Puzzling over where bees get their pollen in urban, almost treeless old Dhaka, I reach the police point of Chawk proper. The Iftar market stretches left from here, taking up the street’s breadth. The rows of tables on either side of the street holding the food run for three blocks.
The fresh fruits and vegetables come first as several types of melons, papayas, cucumbers, oranges, apples, and tomatoes all sell briskly. Next up are the meat items: there are whole roast chicken and quails, roast legs of lamb, giant cauldrons of Haleem, a beef stew made with seven types of lentils, and various kababs. Among the specialties of old Dhaka is the Shutli Kabab (Shutli means “in a thread.”) It is a large cylindrical patty of meat tied together by a thread running through its middle. It is cooked over coal, then sold in slices.
I overhear one Shutli vendor grumbling after an unfruitful haggling session with a customer. “Where do these cheap people come from? He wants to eat old Dhaka Shutli Kabab but pay only Tk 300 for a kg. Well, if he wants to eat my Shutli Kabab, it is going to cost him Tk 500. That’s because it is the best,” he snorts.
At 4pm Iftar is still two hours away but the crowd is thick. When not stopping to buy, people walk on their left, but there is no way to avoid the pushing and shoving, and every time I stop to take a picture I am acutely aware that a dozen people walking in file behind me have also stopped mid-stride. Crowd, heat, flavors, and humidity push me into sensory overload. Sweat drenches my shirt and my head feels light. Once in a while a harried looking woman comes by braving the crowds of mostly men. I spy a little girl, perhaps 7 or 8, who has come here wearing a Burkha. She waits patiently, eyeing the goodies, as her father buys some Peyajus.
A little further up are three or four tables selling a concoction called “Boro Baper Polai Khai.” (Roughly translated, “Older father’s son eats” and I suspect the strange name contributes to its popularity.) This is a mixture of several items including puffed rice (muri), chick peas (chhola), pieces of boneless chicken roast, boiled eggs, spices (particularly cumin), curried liver, chunks of Shutli kabab. The master mixer stands at the middle of the table as his assistants debone whole roast chickens and cut the other meats into bite size pieces. When everything is ready, the master makes the final mix into yet another batch that will satisfy the customers waiting eagerly in line. At least three different vendors offer this dish, each claiming to be the original inventor.
Large deep-fryers have been set up sporadically on the road and are frying Jilapis, Peyajus, Pakoras, while Sheek and Boti Kababs grill away at open barbecues, cooks patiently fanning the coals with a hand-fan. A Chawk specialty is the giant Jilapi weighing one whole kilogram. As I watch a cook squeeze the Jilapi dough into a fryer, I hear voices from below: under a nearby table three men with rolling pins are rolling out tiny round breads to be fried and eaten with Ghughni, a salad of chick peas. As I watch, one of them pops a chunk of fried bread into his mouth. I blink in disbelief. Is he secretly munching away during his fast? But he repeats, quite openly, and with it goes another of my stereotypes. In conservative old Dhaka, I thought, openly eating during Ramzan would be a big no-no.
I run into a man sitting next to an empty basket, watching the hustle and bustle. "Did you sell everything?" I ask. "Yes, sold all my Bangi's," he said, beaming contentedly, "started at noon today." A Bangi is a type of melon with a coarse sandy texture.
After some more wandering among the market and its devotees I decide I have had enough. The Chawk market is a memorable if intense experience, but like enjoying other good things in life, I decide moderation is key and leave with the million flavors tickling my nostrils.
[Note: The photos below -and the story - are from multiple visits to the Market.}
Old Dhaka Style Jilapi
Endless Row of Tables
Checking Out Them Papayas
Frying Some Goodies
Shutli Kabab Salesman (not the unhappy one)
Rolling the Small Breads
Mixing up Boro Baper Polai Khai
A Small Argument
A Shared Joke
Little Burkha Girl
View From Overhead
Delivering the Goods While Helper Boy Looks On
Happy Seller Who Sold All His Melons