After eating my way through part of the the Pakistani neighborhood on Coney Island Avenue in Midwood, Brooklyn, a couple weeks ago, I was curious to explore the nearby Bangladeshi part of Kensington.
Walking down Church Avenue from Ocean Parkway, there's a hodgepodge of Polish/Israeli/Russian and Bangla markets. One pharmacy's sign is in English, Russian and Bengali. When you come to the corner of Church and McDonald Avenues, you've found the epicenter of the Bangladeshi businesses in the area. And conveniently, it's right at the Church Street F stop.
A quick bit of background: In the 1947 partition of India, the region of Bengal was split into two: One became West Bengal, the Indian state that contains Calcutta, and the other became "East Pakistan"—part of Pakistan, but separated from it by one thousand miles of India. That was not a bright idea. (One in a long line of not-so-bright ideas implemented by the British during partition.) In 1971, East Pakistan was dissolved and became Bangladesh, an independent nation.
Although Bengal is now split between two countries, Indian West Bengal and Bangladesh still share a common language, Bengali. There were always regional cooking differences within Bengal, and especially between Hindus and Muslims, but since the partition (which attempted to place Hindu Bengalis on the Indian side and Muslim Bengalis on the other) those differences have apparently become more pronounced.
But generally, Bengali cooking, whether in India or Bangladesh, shows a fondness for mustard oil, mustard seeds and fish. Daal is usually eaten everyday.
The Calcutta Kitchen is a fantastic cookbook and resource. In the book, Udit Sarkhel writes that although all Bengalis tend to love fish and shrimp (usually freshwater), one difference is that the Bangladeshi Muslim diet is also heavy on the meat, including beef. He elaborates:
Ginger, cumin and chile are the other spice mainstays; garlic is more a flavoring of the cooking of East Bengal (Now Bangladesh), than of West Bengal and Calcutta. If not strictly speaking a spice, sugar is used a lot in savory cooking in West Bengal, and this again clearly distinguishes between the food of West and East.
Okay, but what good Bangladeshi things can we eat in Kensington? There are two main restaurants, plenty of halal butcher shops and several small markets.
Jhinuk Restaurant (478 McDonald Avenue 718-871-5355)
I had heard good things about this place, but because there's not really a menu (at least at lunchtime) you have to stick with what's been made that day for the steam table. Several of the items that I heard were good just hadn't been made today, so I tried a little bit of everything else. A bitter gourd stew turned out to be good, as was a fish curry and the lamb biryani.
Best of all, though, was the spiced mashed potato dish (which I think is called alu-bhate). A potato mash seasoned with mustard seeds, chiles, onion and cilantro and finished off with plenty of mustard oil, it tasted pleasantly sharp and pungent.
They also had pitha, a flat, fried bread, soaked in sweet syrup (pictured above). Definitely worth a try.
Sugandha Restaurant (483 McDonald Avenue)
This is a similarly bare-bones, steam table spot, right across the street from Jhinuk. And the same deal applied: most of the items I wanted to try hadn't been prepared today, so it was a game of steam table chance. Their lamb biryani is deluxe—featuring whole boiled eggs along with the nuggets of lamb and tiny, incendiary green chiles.
The best pick, though, is the beef bhuna, a dry-ish, spice-laden mix of stewed beef, cubed beef liver, onions and whole green chiles. Completely delicious, and pictured below.
There are a several markets in the area; none are particularly fabulous, but Bangla Nagar Grocery (87 Church Avenue) is large and well-stocked. It's fun to wander through, picking up some spices or lentils or bitter gourd or mustard oil. (Ignore the slapped-on label that says 'For external use.' That's just a crazy US customs thing; it's for cooking.)
Happy eating, and let me know if you have a favorite Kensington Bangladeshi place I've missed.