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Yellow

Eating Bangladeshi food while solving a culinary mystery

In December the mustard fields of Bangladesh explode with color, carpeting the landscape in eye-searing yellow flowers. Not surprisingly, this hue finds its way into the food. The first thing you'll spy on the steam table at Little Bangladesh is a stew of yellow split peas swimming in mustard oil—yellow on yellow. Known as sarson tel, the oil imparts a sweet and pungent flavor. Poking around, you'll find lamb rib too, adding its own meaty and mellow valences to this irresistible concoction.

Little Bangladesh is a boxy and well-lit café in which I've never seen a woman, unless I brought her there. Tables of men, some in white skullcaps and traditional flowing robes, others in Western attire, sip tea and snack on tandoori-cooked chicken kufta and deep-fried pastry batons called chicken rolls ($1.50 each). The restaurant feels like a big, happy clubhouse, and our teenage attendant was quick to make recommendations, proudly pointing to the steam table as he did so. He readily steered us toward okra ($3) cooked to near dryness with tomatoes and onions, leaving it only marginally slimy while retaining an appealing green color. Another veggie dear to the hearts of Bangladeshis is the long white radish, cut into slices like full moons and cooked with bits of salty dried fish. Delish!

While mustard oil imparts color and flavor to the menu, it also serves as a frying medium. But these are not mustard's only appearances. One dish employs two kinds of chickpeas—the regular yellow type and black chickpeas—glued together with a fresh mustard paste so sweet, moist, and gritty it could be health-store toothpaste. As if mustard oil weren't yellow enough, some dishes, like the coconut-sauced fish curry ($5), employ turmeric too, creating a shade of yellow so intense it almost radiates heat.

Dishing it out
photo: Shiho Fukada
Dishing it out

Playing second fiddle to chicken, lamb is also a prominent feature of the steam table. On successive visits, we enjoyed it curried ($5) with a very rich gravy and in a dense beige biryani festively garnished with frizzled onions and an entire boiled egg. One day I spotted a pile of fried flatbreads, which turned out to have ground-up yellow split peas between their blistered and flaky layers. They reminded me of a similar but smoother bread called roti skin, or sometimes dal poori, that's used to wrap rotis in Trinidad. For years I had sought the roti skin's antecedent in every type of Indian restaurant I could find, but without luck. Suddenly, what might be the missing link was before me. I asked our host what the bread was called. He smiled and replied "dal poori."

As we left, a young Bangladeshi hip-hop act was setting up its PA in the rear of the café. Finding out what the reaction of the graybeards would be when the beats began to blast we saved for another visit, because a warm evening beckoned. Out on the sidewalk, the paan sellers with their decorated wooden carts had begun to appear, smearing unguents on leaves that the customers tuck inside their cheeks like snuff. In the dim yellow light of sunset, stars began to appear as knots of Bangladeshi men gathered, gesturing as they spoke. As I looked up at the sky, the words of Coldplay's "Yellow" stuck in my head: "Look at the stars/Look how they shine for you/And everything you do/Yeah they were all yellow."

 
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