We did an overnight stopover at Khulna, Bangladesh’s 4th-largest city and the nearest major urban centre to the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove swamps (listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site) - 3,900 square miles and home to the Bengal tiger, besides crocodiles, snakes, dolphins and dozens of other species of birds & reptiles. The neighbouring town of Bagerhat is also worth a visit, to see its ancient mosques today (including the 500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage-listed 60-Dome Mosque).
Dinner was at Abbas, one of the best-known eateries in Khulna. It offers only one dish - mutton bhuna, a spicy mutton stew which gets its heat from the “choi jhal” (“jhal” means ‘hot’ in Bengali), the wooden parts of a horseradish plant.
Choi (চৈ) is a traditional spice that is popular in Khulna (খুলনা), perhaps the last bastion of this rare spice, although it’s sometimes found in neighbouring Jessore, Bagerhat and Satkhira regions. Some dubbed this climbing vine-plant the “forgotten fire of Indian cuisine”:
The use of “choi jhal” to add heat to Bengali cuisine pre-dates the introduction of chilis/peppers by the Portuguese in the 15th-century.
The roots, and the stem part just above the roots are preferred as the heat is strongest in these parts of the tree. The twigs and branches yielded some chili-like heat as well, but are more subtle. “Choi jhal” on sale in fhe local market as we saw the next morning:
Bangladeshis, like the Indians and the Spanish, have their evening meal pretty late: peak dinner-time starts between 10pm-11pm. Abbas is usually filled to the brim at the time. Which is pretty providential for us as we arrived at a pretty empty restaurant at 8pm - since I can’t imagine queuing for a table outside a jam-packed eatery at the end of a long day on the road.
Abbas serves only one dish: mutton bhuna - a spicy, utterly delicious, blow-your-tongue slow-cooked meat stew, served atop steamed white rice. Besides the sweetness from the onions, the pungency of whole garlic cloves, and the obligatory “family secret blend of spices”, the chili-heat here is derived from the “choi jhal” plant, instead of chili peppers. The “choi jhal” is cut into matchstick-length strips of wood, and imparts a fiery-hot flavour which can rival the Scotch bonnet.
The way the mutton bhuna is served is quite interesting: diners are all given a huge plate of steamed white rice, and a server will come round with a large metal basin filled with the “mutton bhuna”. You tell the server (if you don’t speak Bangla, make sure you bring along a Bangla-speaking companion) which part you’d prefer: a mutton chop, a rib, a meaty belly cut, some liver or heart or kidney, a clove of garlic, and the waiter will spoon your order on top of your rice.
Bangladeshi/Bengali cooking utilises the pungent mustard oil, so as you eat with your hands (no fork or knife here), you notice the yellow tinge on the rice and on your hands. Everything was scrumptious.
I noticed the local diners chewing on the “choi jhal” like sugarcane for a more fiery sensation - I couldn’t: I tried and it felt like biting on a broken piece of a window-sill.
Overall, a really good dining experience. I always preferred to eat “the way locals eat” instead of hotel cafes or restaurants targeted at foreigners. Eating local is, after all, part of the experience of visiting the place.