Famine Food

Spring of 1974, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, a newly independent nation just emerged with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the head of state, a man also known as the Father of the Nation to the beloved people. The buoyancy of euphoria and optimism that was so rampant at the onset of independence movement in late 1971, was now a distant memory in the minds of people as they had a rude awakening with shortage of basic necessities. Nepotism & corruption took over in the day to day governance. And the last nail in the coffin was the famine.

A newly minted teenager at that time, all I could see and read in the minds of people was fear, despair and disappointment, a kind of buyer’s remorse. Daily pain and humiliation of shortage of all basic goods, the most painful of which was the shortage of food, so obvious to me that even I was dreading everyday that someday my siblings and I wouldn’t have food on the table. As the number of homeless emaciated people escaping the countryside swelled in our town, the number of beggars increased drastically. The whole day a constant stream of beggars, sometimes the whole family of beggars, parents and children included were knocking every door in our neighborhood for food, money, clothes or anything a human could use. My parents were teachers, still had their jobs, but with 7 children by now struggling to meet the basic needs of a large family.

I could perceive the angst in them, in the neighborhood and in the whole nation as a whole. Famine, a phenomenon, Bengal is very familiar with, and is alive in the psyche of every Bengali and Bangladesh citizens. Bengal history is intertwined with the history of famine visiting and revisiting this part of the world from ancient times. Talking about famine is not an abstract idea a Bengali had to imagine, in every generation they have seen it and suffered from it. They live with the scar of psychological and physical devastation it has caused, they are familiar with the historical change it catalyzes. The last Bengal famine was in 1943, during the British rule, and up to 3 million people died of this famine, millions more lived with the malnutrition and after affect of this.

Interestingly the Bengali language word for famine is “Dur-vicko” literally translated as “difficult begging”, speaking of times that even alms are hard to come by. Every day, I saw a gathering of species near the trash dump, hungry sapiens competing with canines and corvidae for the little morsel of food. Even the dogs and urban crows were growing thinner everyday with humans. Soon, I started seeing the emaciated, sometimes swollen dead bodies near the drains or by the side of the road or by the alleyways. One day while coming back from school, I saw a dead body of a young man under the shade of a roadside tree, one arm still extended and the other arm and hand with pencil thin wasted fingers still in firm grip of the begging bowl, he was the one whom we fed just few weeks ago! That was probably his last meal.

Young men like him were particularly vulnerable in the famine. People had soft heart for the elderly, disabled, women and children, but they despised the young men. Common wisdom was: young men do not need to beg, they need to find a job unless they are lazy. But jobs were nowhere to be found. Unable to get alms, unable to find jobs, unable to eat or get any sympathy, they were often the first ones to be doomed in the cruelty of the time.

I saw people eating leaves, roots and bark of trees. During this time to keep their growing children fed, my mother had to be very creative and ingenious. Unlike many people we were lucky, my parents had arable landed properties to produce enough rice, staple of Bangladesh. And overnight rice became the most expensive commodity in the then Bangladesh famine time. So we started bartering with rice, we bought fuel woods, vegetable, meat, eggs and even shoes in exchange of rice. I remember we would go to the market place with a bag of rice and bargain down the commodities we needed and determined how much rice would be given from the bag in exchange.

Another strategy we took was foraging. To a modern American obsessed with reducing weight foraging seems a fun way of reducing weight, but not to us at that time, we were trying to gain weight not lose, for us it was a struggle to live. We started looking first in our backyard and then in neighborhood and then in the adjoining hills and fields, we looked for taro roots, Kochu Pata or elephant ear leaves and other various species of wild plants and roots that could be eaten. In doing so as we diversified our food sources, unfortunately, we found ourselves in competition with other extreme poor destitute people at the same time who had nothing else to eat, whereas, we at least had the rice to eat. But life was cruel, it is literally Darwinian “survival of the fittest”, a real life drama of life and death.

Yet, the most important change that took place in our household was in the kitchen, engineered by my mother and it was what I now call “Famine Food” processing. And yes, it is literally what it sounds like. Through a series of changes of her cooking style, my mother made things look more than it really was and thus made it more satisfying and pleasing in our eyes and mind. My mother found that when making egg omelette or example, if she covered the beaten egg materials in the pan completely with a cover slightly smaller than the pan’s surface, and poured small amount of water around the cover on the pan, and thus trapping the air and the vapor inside the watertight compartment which is thus created, the omelet swelled up making it temporarily bigger than what it really was. And just from a single egg omelette she could slice up 8 slices like a pizza for her children, each of them thinking he/she got a good sized piece.

The other famine food was tomato with eggs, a sort of hybrid curry and omelet. She would cut up several tomatoes and spice them up with traditional spices. After simmering on the woven with touch of water when the parts disintegrate, she would crack one or perhaps two eggs and mix it up with the disintegrated tomatoes. Mixed with rice, it could easily feed her household with a satisfying meal. Another modification she made was to dilute the curry, and especially adding more water and therefore making more soup while cooking fish and meat. When distributed in the plate of rice, we used to get a lot of curry or soup with small pieces of fish or meat. We gobbled up the first portion of rice with the curry only and then the last portion with the fish or meat with great satisfaction. Food is not only a physical experience, but is also a psychological and social experience. Food intake is literally controlled by a brain center called the “Satiety center” in the back portion of our brain. This cooking and feeding technique of my mother is the perfect example of how to take advantage of this ancient human evolutionary phenomenon that still resides in our brain.

Now in America, I am in the midst of plenty. Surplus is the problem, not shortage. Here we never have to worry about what food to put on the table. But the memory of famine and famine food have never faded away from my memory or taste buds. Paradoxical and contradictory enough, the famine food is one of the most favorite foods I enjoy, it also brings back the memories of my mother, a sort of memory food you could say. It has become my comfort food. So when I feel down, or when I am off of work, I cook up few tomatoes with spices and mix them with eggs. Yummy! It tastes so good and I remember my mother and my childhood. I thank my mother, father and I thank America for giving me plenty. I tell these stories to my children, who don’t seem to be too interested in listening to this……. Thus is the world. So for all of you, happy eating, bon appetite !

Cut the tomatoes into smaller slices, add few cloves of garlic cut in thin pieces, 1/4 of red onion cut into thin slices, 1/2 inch piece of ginger, one pinch of cumin, one pinch of coriander powder and two green hot peppers cut into pieces. Keep the eggs handy, in this cases I used two farm fresh eggs

added two eggs after simmering of the tomatoes
Final product- a mushy food your palate will taste exotic spices of India, tomatoes of Texas or Mexico, and mixed with boiled Jasmine rice from Thailand, it is a tropical heaven!
How we survived famine, how my mother made some practical changes in the kitchen so all her children could eat a satisfying meal
And lastly, but most importantly, my heavenly mother, to whom I owe everything, my childhood, adulthood, my cooking, my education, my values and my love for humans.

5 thoughts on “Famine Food”

  1. Fantastic blog! Do you have any hints for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally confused .. Any tips? Kudos!

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