In this episode of Fearless Chef, Chef Kiran Jethwa rides precariously on top of a train in order to make it to go prawn fishing in the mangrove forests of Bangladesh.
“Train’s coming! Train’s coming!”
As the steel carriages come to a screeching halt, the station erupts in pandemonium. Everybody is shouting and as soon as it stops there is a mad dash for the only available space: the roof.
With a staggering $1 billion US dollars a year in seafood sales, one of Bangladesh’s greatest natural treasures is of course fish. For the latest episode of the Fearless Chef, I begin my journey in the Northern rural farmland of the Mymensingh district, 120kms from the country’s capital Dhaka. Here, every morning, hundreds gather at the train station carrying a backbreaking load: two twenty-kilogram pots filled with fingerlings. These baby fish have to be delivered still alive to the fish farms in Dhaka to sell.
At the train station, the horn signals the train’s departure and passengers desperately scramble to get their cargo on board. The drivers wait for nobody and with people still dangling off the sides as they struggle to board, the train starts moving. The journey to Dhaka takes three hours and involves many similar stops and starts along the way.
I have found a precarious position on top of the train roof and a kind fellow has taken me under his wing. “Watch out! sit down! stand up! you’re all right now!” Over the next ten minutes his well-timed commands are what I have to thank for not ending up decapitated or thrown to the ground. We are forced to contend with low-hanging wires and foliage that grows right up against the carriage. For the wires, the guard’s warning horn lets us know when to duck and as for the foliage, well, you have to be careful lest you get slapped in the face. Two hours on the move also bring some inevitable casualties: even though the lads have been aerating their fingerlings the whole way, they simply cannot keep them all alive.
Finally, we arrive at Dhaka where a dense population of 45,000 people per square mile is catered for with a huge market. This cavernous hive of activity is jam-packed with fresh ingredients, including an incredible fish section.
The next morning we are off again. Leaving Dhaka proves to be a mission and the gridlocked traffic heading out of the city lasts all day. Our destination is the Sundarbans mangrove forest, one of the largest in the world at an estimated 140,000 hectares. It’s the hunting ground for the Malo Jele fishermen, who for centuries have been practicing the art of fishing with otters. After a thirty two hour car, boat and ferry journey, we arrive at the forest to a chorus of squeaking otters. Ratan, the skipper of the boat and his crew, use them to drive the fish into their nets. Ratan explains that otters are endangered in the wild so breeding them for hunting means that the fishermen play an essential role in the survival of the species.
The fishing is relentless hard work, involving a team of four men and a family of three otters. The mother and father otter are tethered loosely to poles, while the baby is left free to follow. A long net is attached to a football post-like bamboo frame: the skippers push the net down and along the bottom of the mangrove swamp. As the net goes down, the two otters tethered to the poles get a tug that’s their signal to dive. Two men meanwhile control the boat, bringing it in slowly and remaining close to the shore.
As the afternoon passes, the weather closes in. Evening thunderstorms are on the horizon so we need to get fishing before we get drenched. It’s my turn to take one of the oars: we row the boat in tandem back towards the shore and I start off pretty well until a wave makes me lose my balance and I tumble overboard.
As I dry off on the beach we inspect our load: we have a mountain of prawns, which means I can now cook up something special for all the guys here.
I rustle up some delicious Sundarban 4 prawn pilau with steamed mango. We find a beautiful spot to have lunch, right in the middle of the forest with our little otter friends. I’m very happy- you don’t get fresher prawns than these.
Bangladesh is an amazing country to go on a food adventure and I am thankful I managed to experience it in this way. Whether roof hopping on trains, exploring the sights and smells of the huge Dhaka market or discovering the joys of fishing with otters, this country has much to offer a food and adventure enthusiast like me.