Chocolate Chakra Ceremony

With the annual Peruvian chocolate expo, Salon de Cacao y Chocolate, coming up July 11-14, I’m reminded of a “first” I had in the Peruvian gourmet chocolate store, El Cacaotal, last year. One day, while in the store, I got chatting with a Danish tourist. She was in El Cacaotal to buy chocolate for a “chocolate ceremony.” Apparently, in Denmark, there are people who get together to drink hot chocolate and open their “chocolate” chakra. It can be super dark in Denmark in the winter, so getting together to drink hot chocolate sounds like a good idea.

The Salon de Cacao can be overwhelming. One should be prepared that one can get “out-chocolated” — at some point, one just needs a break from sampling chocolate. I think I reached the limit at about 20 last year. Wonder what it will be this year…

The Gayest Town in the World?

The Cusco city flag.

Visiting Cusco, Peru, during Gay Pride month can be confusing and colorful for tourists. There are rainbow flags flying all over the city. This is because the city flag of Cusco, often mistakenly called the Inca flag, is a rainbow flag. The difference between the Cusco city flag from the LGBTI rainbow flag is an extra pale blue stripe. But, both flags are about freedom and pride. IMG_0786

I saw many tourists getting very happy when they discovered that the pride flag of the city of Cusco was a rainbow.

It Would Be Bizarre to Say No to Food

Two pieces of moose nose, one sans hair.
Two pieces of moose nose, one sans hair.

Once in a while, I find myself in a situation both familiar and exotic. I went to visit family up in Alaska, out in the bush, on the mighty Yukon, and found myself invited to a “potlatch” dinner. The village I visited is primarily inhabited by one tribe of native Americans and the food was truly Alaskan. I didn’t expect to ever be in a “Bizarre Foods” episode but I guess that’s what it was to my Facebook audience.

Fish ice cream.
Fish ice cream.

Sitting at the dinner, being served by the youths, it was a heartwarming study in respect. There was way more than enough food but only the elders got the choice pieces of seal blubber, moose nose, and jarred silvers (pickled “silver” salmon). Everyone got ham slices the size of lumber, pasta salads in infinite variety, fish chowder, moose stew, moose soup, spaghetti, jerky, pudding with marshmallows, slaw, goose, and more pasta salad. It was considered rude to refuse any food so every place setting was outfitted with ziplock bags so that everyone would have food for the taking.

I was raised to “try everything once” and to be polite… the moose nose was very sticky and chewy a bit like pig ear (if you know what that tastes like). The fish ice cream was interesting and I could see how that would be the best treat on a cold winter day as it provides fat, creamy tartness. I imagine that when cold, it’s even better. The three flavors I tried were cranberry, salmon berry (I guess from the pink color), and “black” berry which is a small pearl-like berry, smaller than a blueberry and not of much flavor. The cranberry was the best because of the tartness. The ice cream is only slightly sweet and I totally get why it’s called ice cream.

Now, don’t call me Andrew.

Gift from the Heart – Painted Stairs

Wedding season has ended in Bangladesh and it will soon begin in the U.S. so I’ve been thinking about wedding gifts.

Decoration courtesy of wedding guest.
Decoration courtesy of wedding guest.

One day in Bangladesh, I was invited to a friend’s house and saw these painted stairs. They were painted as a wedding present. This colorful daily reminder reminds them of their friend, and their wedding, every day.

This would probably not work in the U.S., but one could offer some other gift from the heart.

Tour Dhaka in One Day – Visit Bangladesh

Tourist in Dhaka? I get asked where to take friends and family when they visit Dhaka. Depending on how long the visit (hopefully it’s at least a week so that your guests can recover from jet lag), here is my run down of what to see and do, and frequently asked questions (FAQ):

When to visit? In the winter. The temperature will still get up to 70-90 F. You know that saying about “mad dogs and Englishmen”? Well, it’s true. If you go outside in April-October, you may become a mad dog from the heat. Not sure if you will become English…

The river in Dhaka.
The river in Dhaka.

Travel agencies and tour guides? Yes, use them if you want to. You can usually talk your way to about 2,000 taka per person for a group of six or more for half a day. Most tour companies include riding around in a minivan, called a “micro-bus” in Dhaka, bottled water, and long talks about the sites. That said, at almost every site, actually all the time, you will be surrounded by friendly Bangladeshis eager to talk to you, about the site or not. The official guides, or random fellow who opens the site for you, appreciate a tip (10, 20 taka for the random fellow) as almost anyone likes a tip (like the guy watching your car).

Self-guided? It can be done… if you want to attempt it in one day, here is how I would do it (but, I would try do this over two days leaving the Liberation War Museum and New Market for a different day):

“Bangabandhu” – site of assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of the current prime minister of Bangladesh. It’s located at Road 32, Dhanmondi. Opens at 10 in the morning. There is a nominal fee and you cannot take anything (no purses, no phones, nothing), into the museum. Leave it all with a driver in the car. Agree on a time when the driver will come get you.

Parliament: It’s an award winning building. If you want a tour of the inside, you will have to work your contacts.

Lalbagh (there is a bath house and weaponry if you get someone to unlock the door for you): It is the site used when the TV show, the Amazing Race, came to town the first time. But, it’s so much more.

Pink Palace (Ahsan Manzil): It’s a pink mansion turned museum. It has large steps which allows for a sweeping view of the riverfront.

Eat at Nirob — Lunch (if the traffic is flowing, you could be here by 1:30 p.m.)

Old Dhaka/Hindu Street:¬†Buy shell bracelets (called “shakha”). These are usually worn by married Hindu women as a symbol of their wedded state.

Bracelets made from conch shell.
Bracelets made from conch shell.

Liberation War Museum: This is not for the faint of stomach. Gruesome photos and explanations about the war in 1971.

Dhaka University – Curzon Hall is a notable building.

New Market: buy whatever you can find, from lace, sarees, curtains, carpets, etc.

BBQ Tonite: enjoy the smoky courtyard atmosphere and grilled meat on a stick… if you have the energy.

On another day:

Boat trip on the river (can include visits to jamdani weaving workshop, jute factory, etc.). These day boat trips are relaxing once you get on the boat. They usually include lunch on board. Book through a tour company. They will pick you up and drop you off at home. One of the companies even has a boat shaped like a peacock. There are many companies but I liked this one: Tourist Channel Bangladesh… 02-8189273. Or 9130260. CEO is Iqubal Hossain. It was 50,000 taka ($633 and the boat can hold 25-35 adults and 10 children, or something such combination) for the whole boat for the day including the bus to and fro, and lunch and tea. They were efficient without being overly “talkative.”

Rickshaw factory tour: Arrange through a tour company. If your guests can visit Dhaka when the Rickshaw Relay happens, even better. (The Rickshaw Relay is a fundraiser which is popular with expats.) There are half a million rickshaws in Dhaka, so you will see many of them, and I’m sure that any one of the rickshaw drivers would be happy to let you drive them around if you want to give it a try.

Go to the spa. Get mehendi(henna) tattoos. It wears off after a few weeks.

Shop in Gulshan: Shops include Aranya, Jatra, Aarong, Folk International, and Artisan (where “reject” Western clothes are sold, like TJ Maxx or Ross).

Fly to Cox’s Bazar, the world’s longest beach, or Sylhet tea country, or take a multi-day cruise in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. Look for the Royal Bengal tiger. I know people who have actually seen one in the wild.

Attend a wedding: If you ask your Bangladeshi friends, they are usually very happy to include your guests. Then your guests will have the fun of getting dressed in the traditional Bangladeshi clothing.

Explore! Or try some of the restaurants and find more than the 100 I tried.

Keep in mind that the traffic may change how much you can see in one day, or on any day. Take water, mosquito repellent, light cotton clothing, a good camera, nuts or other snacks, and sun protection (hat, umbrella, scarf). I have been on these tours in June and I sweated so much that I began to hallucinate that I was a fish. But, I got lots of photos!

My New Favorite Tailor in Dhaka – Tailors Johnny

After many hundreds of hours spent thinking about tailoring, I’ve got a new favorite tailor — he is on time, makes clothes that fit, and he is not creepy (according to one of my friends). Getting tailor made clothes is a normal pastime in Dhaka. It’s part of every day life for the Bangladeshis (although there are also retail shops where you can buy ready made clothes), and as an expat, this will most likely become a part of one’s daily routine as well. Previously, Juhl/Jewel, Juhl DIT 1, was my favorite but after he got too busy last summer, I ceased going to him. Now, the tailor comes to my house — Tailor Johnny! He is the nephew of Al Babar tailor also located in DIT 1 and he is the tailor known for his halloween and glitterball costumes.

Give Tailors Johnny a call.
Give Tailors Johnny a call.

Tailor Johnny speaks enough English to understand basic tailoring requests (plus he text messages in English which is useful) but works best from a photo or a sample. But, he can actually measure you and make clothes from those measurements. He is the ONLY tailor in I have found who does not make the clothes too tight. Plus, he can also make mock-ups of your suits etc. and then use pins to adjust it to fit perfectly (this may sound like no big deal — they do this in Thailand and elsewhere at tailor shops — but in Dhaka, this does not happen so it’s rare to find someone who actually can “tailor”). Tailor Johnny is also punctual. This also sounds like no big deal but it is. His prices are not cheap (for Bangladesh) as pants/trousers, fabric and make cost runs about 1,000 Taka ($13) and adjustments to existing clothing runs about 700 Taka.

Tailors Johnny is punctual.
Tailors Johnny is punctual.

One of the few drawbacks about finding and publicizing about a good tailor is that he may get too busy. The tailors get busier during Ramadan so it can take longer to get one’s clothes back. Most tailors take a few days to a week to finish a project. But, during Ramadan, it can be weeks to months. The other busy time of the year for tailors is December-January which is wedding season in Bangladesh. Unlike in Hoi An, Vietnam, most tailors in Dhaka cannot mail you clothes.

I hope that Tailor Johnny can handle the publicity that his reputation is getting him.

Jewelry of Bangladesh

A necklace with pearls is typical of Bangladesh.
A necklace with pearls is typical of Bangladesh.

Men and women wear jewelry here although the most is worn by a woman on her wedding day. Or when she is a guest at a wedding.

A gorgeous earring.
A gorgeous earring.

The ladies of Bangladesh make sure that they look good when they step out. They are into shoes, bags, jewelry, makeup, and clothes with zing and color.

The necklace is in the same color scheme as the saree.
The necklace is in the same color scheme as the saree.

The expats tend to wear jewelry that is a little more muted or “matches” the outfit.

A hand made necklace of glass.
A hand made necklace of glass.

‘Twas the Day After Eid – Empty Streets in Dhaka

One shop was open the day after Eid-ul-Adha.
One shop in Gulshan Two was open the day after Eid-ul-Adha.

Empty streets in Dhaka? This year, Durga Puja and Eid-ul-Adha happened within days of each other so the government was closed for several days. The week also included a harvest festival, Wangala, and a full moon. Whatever the religion, many Dhaka-ites went home to their villages to spend holiday time with their families. The result was quiet in Dhaka much like in Europe the day after Christmas. Some businesses were closed for Durga Puja and almost all were closed for Eid-ul-Adha and the day after. By Thursday, a few places opened up again. 7-11 has not arrived in Bangladesh yet (there is probably a 7-11 but it is not the official franchise) but they too would have been busy if they were here.

This is "Rickshaw Road" with no traffic. We went fast enough to blur the photo.
This is “Rickshaw Road” with no traffic. We went fast enough to blur the photo.

This is the most shuttered I’ve seen Dhaka. The result was that the streets were empty. So you could get nowhere fast. Which we did when we went exploring.

Cow Market, Dhaka Gabtoli Cattle Fair

On the road to the Gabtoli cattle market
On the road to the Gabtoli cattle market

As Eid-ul-Adha (a celebration commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son) approaches, many Muslims will buy a “cow” to sacrifice. Although folks say “cow,” the cattle for sale are actually bulls. The largest “cow market” in Dhaka is the Gabtoli cattle fair, located on the road to Savar, next to the Gabtoli bus terminal. I was told to take “gum boots” because of the cow “mud” on the ground. One person even told me to take a rain jacket as protection against the “mud” on the cows which might rub against me. It had not rained recently, so when I got to the cattle market, I chose not to wear my rubber boots (and I did not take a rain jacket anyway). It was extremely dusty and crowded.

A bull with painted horns.
A bull with painted horns.

I did not find the cattle market smelly. The smell of the open sewers in my neighborhood is much worse. The bulls were extremely clean and well cared for. I saw them being washed using hay as a sponge. The bulls were docile and they were not castrated. There was indeed some manure on the ground but I walked around it, and I do not think that I would have walked in it even if I had been wearing my gum boots.

Snack vendor at Gabtoli cattle market.
Snack vendor at Gabtoli cattle market.

The cattle pens were row upon row of bamboo stakes and fabric sun awnings. Like a county fair, there were vendors selling snacks and some selling feed for the cattle. The cattle were fed grain mixed with water. I cannot remember how much a bull cost per kilo but I think that when we asked about a certain bull, the price was around 70 lakh taka (a lakh is 100 thousand) so around $900. For those who can’t afford a bull, a goat will suffice, but I didn’t see any for sale at this market. I was also told that camels and water buffalo might be for sale at the Gabtoli market. I didn’t see any but instead saw many different breeds of cattle including miniature breeds, Rajastani (with hump), Hereford, Jersey mix — and all in a variety of colors from all white, dun, to all black.

The bulls get decorated for Eid-ul-Adha.
The bulls get decorated for Eid-ul-Adha.
Bull for sale.
Bull on the road to the cattle market.

All in all, it was interesting to see the cattle market after all stories I was told. It was much like a cattle fair in the U.S. except that here we expats drew a crowd. More on that in another blog posting.

Map of 99 Expat Places

Finding places can be tricky in Dhaka. As much as I’d like to show you all where things are… I thought I’d make a map of the 99 expat places instead! These places are current as of September 9, 2013. I put an extra huge marker on Goong, the Castle, because that is the number one place people ask for directions to — Road 50, House 12B — and I made it number 12 on the map! Look for the large wooden gate. Go in and enjoy.

99 Expat Places Map of Gulshan
99 Expat Places Map of Gulshan

In Dhaka, businesses rise and fall like eddies on the delta, and they often change location. So, most importantly, on my map(s), I have put the ACTUAL location, not what the address indicates. Because floor numbering varies in different parts of the world, I have only listed it if the place is not on the first/ground floor. Otherwise, I’ve called it “level” using the ground floor as the first level. As the Westin’s sign is like a lighthouse beacon in the night, I started with the Westin Hotel as number one as it is often used as the North Star. Then I divided Gulshan into four sections divided by Gulshan 2 circle. For those counting, there are not 99 numbers on the maps because many of the locations are in the same building or on the same block. Also, I have not included all 100 restaurants at which I’ve eaten. Only places people ask about.

99 Expat Places in Dhaka
99 Expat Places in Dhaka

I have tried to make sure that the addresses are correct, though not always written the way that the locals would write it, and I cannot vouch for the phone numbers except for those who do house calls, like Tailor Johny, because I did not call all the numbers! Bangladesh’s country code is 88 and for some numbers you will need to drop the zero/zed and/or the two or add them or something… it’s confusing. But that’s a whole different topic. If you cannot find the location, check back on my blog as I may have posted a photo of the actual location. Again, the official address may be different; the location is for real. Happy hunting!

99 Expat Places Map Guide, page 1.
99 Expat Places Map Guide, page 1.
99 Expat Places Guide, page 2.
99 Expat Places Guide, page 2.

Iftar – Breaking the Fast

Phul Pitha, a Bangladeshi flower shaped cookie.
Phul Pitha, a Bangladeshi flower shaped biscuit.

For those who fast during the month of Ramadan (called Ramzan here in Bangladesh), breaking the fast at sunset, called iftar, is a celebration. Iftar on Fridays, the holy day of the week for Muslims, is often the day when the whole family can get together. As a foreigner living in Dhaka, I was invited to many iftars. Some are restaurants which serve an iftar buffet. And some at home. I was recently at a friend’s house for iftar and served the beautiful bicuit in the photo above. This biscuit, a phul pita, was crunchy, nutty, and slightly sweet. Plus, it was made by my friend’s grandmother. A masterpiece only surpassed by the host’s hospitality.

There are traditions to iftar. Most people try to get to their iftar location at least 45 minutes before sunset (which changes the rush hour pattern during Ramadan). As the sunset approaches, everyone sits at their place. At the minute of sunset (announced by the mosque announcements and followed on TV), breaking the fast starts. Usually, iftar is started by eating a date and drinking some lemonade. The iftar plates are individual plates with a variety of bites ready for eating as soon as the sun sets. After breaking the fast, Muslims will go and pray before returning for more food. Jalallaby (fried swirls of dough soaked in sugar water), haleem (a meat lentil stew/soup), and pakora (fried vegetable chickpea dumplings) are some of the most common items served for iftar. There can be ten or more dishes served, more when there are guests. I really enjoyed the split pea salad with ginger (in center of photo below) as this was the first time I tried this dish. The yellow peas were crunchy and the salad tasted fresh and spicy.

My iftar plate. From the top: pakora, dates, lentil salad, jalallopy, deep fried eggplant, and in the center, split pea salad.
My iftar plate. From the top: pakora, dates, lentil salad, jalallopy, deep fried eggplant, and in the center, split pea salad.

For most Bangladeshis, who normally eat dinner at 9-10 in the evening, iftar is just the appetizer course. Enjoy!

Eid Mubarak!

FAQ: Where’s the Best…. in Dhaka?

As I mentioned in previous post about the 100 restaurants I’ve eaten at in Dhaka, I will now answer some of the most frequently asked questions I receive. Most of these places are on my map of 99 expat places.

Where is the best sushi in Dhaka? At Izumi. This is probably the leading Japanese restaurant in Dhaka. On road 119 or nearby.

Where is the best sashimi in Dhaka? If you want sashimi (raw fish), then go to Goong, the Castle (a Korean restaurant that does many seafood dishes, raw and cooked).

Where is the best Thai food in Dhaka? Pan Thao on road 12 in Banani. Thai Kitchen in Gulshan is okay too. There is a new Thai place in Banani (two parallel streets behind Banani Supermarket) called Luam that makes a few dishes that are passable as well… Thai food is one of those ubiquitous cuisines you find advertised everywhere in Dhaka (along with Chinese and Italian).

Best steak? Goong. Even though it’s a Korean restaurant, they have imported beef there including Kobe beef (also called Wagyu — the famous Japanese breed of cows that get fed beer and get massages). The Steakhouse also has good steak. As does Diner 360 which has a bargain price as well.

Kobe or Wagyu beef at Goong restaurant.
Kobe or Wagyu beef at Goong restaurant.

Best Korean? Goong, the Castle.

Where is the most romantic restaurant in Dhaka? Mermaid Cafe has a few booth cabanas. Spaghetti Jazz has candles (well most do) and is dark. Panini in Banani has seating arrangements that allow for canoodling. See question below.

Where should I take my wife for our anniversary dinner? Le Souffle (it’s fancy and French), Spitfire, Saltz, Soi 71, Panini, Goong, Steakhouse. The restaurants in the Westin are expensive but they are romantic.

Which restaurant is best for taking children? Soi 71, Diner 360, Goong all have play areas or rooms for children. Istanbul has a castle for children.

Where is the best pizza in Dhaka? For American style, La Forchetta and Pizza Hut. For Italian thin style, Spaghetti Jazz and Bella Italia.

Where is the best burger in Dhaka? Have not found one I could eat all of but some like American Burger and the one at Panini was not as bad as I thought it would be.

What is the best ice cream in Dhaka? Movenpick.

Best cafe to hang out in? Northend Coffee Roasters, Cafe Italiano, Roll Express, Gloria Jeans

Where can I get the best dessert in Dhaka? Movenpick (eat in the cafe), Mr. Baker, King’s Confectionery.

Best bakery? King’s Confectionery, Mr. Baker, Do Mi Ok, Northend Coffee Roasters, and Bellagio.

Where are there nachos in Dhaka? Panini.

Where is the best fruit juice in Dhaka? Panini (ask for no added sugar, watch them make it in the sound muffling room), Roll Express, Saltz, and most places.

Best Turkish? Istanbul on road 118.

Where is the best fuchka (many spellings) in Dhaka? That guy in Lalmatia that I blogged about. If not him, Malaka (go up the escalator) in the mall next to the Agora shop on Gulshan.

Where is the best biryani in town? I can’t say. The Dhansiri restaurants do good local food.

Where is the best dhosa in town? Best in town is Roll Express, Time Out, or Dhaba.

Best Bangladeshi? Someone’s home but otherwise, it depends on what you want. Go to BBQ Tonight, Dhaba, or Nirob.

I will try to update this if I get asked other questions. These are my personal opinions since I have not been to the thousands of other restaurants in Dhaka.

***Is there an Ethiopian restaurant in town? Nope.***