This Blogger Wants to Make Bengali Food Instagram-Famous
Photos courtesy Jahied Ahmed. 
Bengali Food

This Blogger Wants to Make Bengali Food Instagram-Famous

Thahmina Haseen is quietly leading the UK’s Bengali food revolution.
02 May 2018, 9:00am

“Bengali has never been a ‘cool’ cuisine. If you want to get Instagram likes, you’re not going to take photos of Bengali food. I think that plays a big part in why it isn’t as popular as others.”

I’m in Barking, in the home kitchen of Thahmina Haseen, founder of The Golden Tiffin, a Bengali food blog. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and the day after Bengali New Year, a national holiday in Bangladesh. The unmistakable scent of cardamom permeates the room as we talk.

With five teabags brewing on the stove, Haseen looks like any other Londoner rustling up masala chai. In truth, she’s quietly leading the UK’s first Bengali food revolution, shining light on a cuisine that has long been overlooked.

Jhalmuri, dali bora, lentil fritters, crispy prawn pakoras, beetroot chops, far far, pomegranate salad, chutneys, and a jug of mango lassi, all made by Thahmina Haseen. All photos courtesy Jahied Ahmed.

“We’re often seen as the rejects of Partition India, the forgotten region,” Haseen explains as she stirs the chai. “People know about India and Pakistan but forget Bangladesh.”

She gestures for me to take a seat the table. Every inch of it is covered with bowls of jhalmuri, (spicy puffed rice with peanuts and tamarind), dali bora (lentil fritters), crispy prawn pakora, beetroot chop (meat-free cutlets with a natural purple colour), and a coconut, cardamom, and rosewater cake.

A jug of bright yellow mango lassi, pomegranate salad, and far far (multi-coloured poppadom-style snacks) inject vivid explosions of colours. The blog’s namesake—her grandma’s gold-tone stainless steel three-tiered tiffin box and a staple of Mumbai office workers—sits nearby.

Haseen holds her grandfather's golden tiffin, the inspiration behind her blog.

“It was used to serve my grandad lunch,” Haseen tells me. “It represents how food can transgress borders. It’s become a timeless symbol for the blog.”

All in all, Haseen's kitchen is a typically Desi scene: more food on offer than it is possible to consume in one sitting. The spread reminds me of a Christmas I spent in Jaipur, a city famed for its celebration of colour, and whose food follows suit.

The dishes jostling for space on the table are also reminiscent of what Bengalis brand as nashta, “light bites” that can be consumed over the course of the day. Nashta is usually designed for guests and extended families who might unexpectedly pop in at any moment. I settle for several crispy prawn pakoras and spoon some chutney onto each.

A bowl of far far, multi-coloured cracker snacks.

When we think of South Asian fare, chances are, it’s Pakistani or Indian. While British Bangladeshi chefs like Vivek Singh, founder of famed Westminster restaurant The Cinnamon Club, have brought Bengali cooking to a wider audience in recent years, most Brits would be hard pressed to name a Bengali dish.

This erasure is notable, given the invaluable contribution of first-generation Bengali immigrants to Britain’s Indian food scene. Bengali curry chefs were among those who “Anglicised” their dishes in the 1970s to appeal to Western palettes, helping birth Britain’s favourite food: curry. In 2001, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook adopted the chicken tikka masala as the country’s national dish, and a National Curry Week is held every year.

Back in Barking, the tea starts turning a deeper caramel shade. “I aim for my skin tone colour!” Haseen laughs, pouring a tin of evaporated milk onto the pan.

Haseen pours condensed milk into masala chai.

While Haseen hopes that The Golden Tiffin will bring much-needed recognition to Bengali cuisine, she never set out to write a food blog. “I was encouraged by people reading to share other parts of what I actually eat,” she explains. Indeed the blog includes travel and lifestyle posts alongside Haseen's favourite Bengali recipes.

Now, Haseen hopes those readers outside the Bengali community will be able to experiment with the cuisine, ensuring the recipes are as accessible as possible.

“A lot of the people who ask me questions about Bengali food aren’t Bengali,” she says, adding that she is often asked, “‘How can I recreate this at home?’ or ‘How can I make sure my family enjoy it too?’”

She continues: “I’m trying to make The Golden Tiffin as universal as I can, while trying to represent what I remember as Bengali food.”

In an aesthetically driven Instagram age, Haseen’s cautious that Bengali food might not be as Instagram-friendly as other cuisines, crediting this for why the cuisine might have been absent from our feeds. She tells me that her food photography separates her from other Bengali food blogs out there: “I’ve adapted it to look a bit more inviting, a bit friendlier.”

Switching off the flame on the stove, Haseen heads for the sink. She tips the tea from the pan to one teacup and then another—not unlike the chai wallas found across the Indian subcontinent. “I’m not as good as them though!” she laughs.

As she hands me a cup, a film forming a bronze layer on the surface, I take a sip. The frothiness conjures memories of my aunt labouring over a huge pan to brew tea in her village during one of my holidays to Pakistan. “It’s taken me a year to perfect it,” she beams, as I down the last of my cup.

Pouring the chai masala into teacups.

While Haseen, who grew up in Whitechapel, is deeply connected to her Bengali heritage today, she confesses that this wasn’t always the case.

“I grew up in an English-speaking household, everyone was born and raised here. I didn’t have any relatives in Bangladesh to visit,” she tells me as she kneads the dough for cardamom and pistachio nankhatai (eggless cookies). “So I felt a bit disconnected, a bit disengaged.”

“I spent a lot of my growing up looking at a lot of the stereotypes of what South Asian, Bengali working-class people were like,” she adds, separating the dough into more than a dozen mini balls on the baking tray. “As a way for me to challenge it, I tried to distance myself from those stereotypes. Unfortunately, that meant distancing myself from Bengali culture.”

It wasn’t until university that Haseen started researching Bengali food: “I first started baking cupcakes and soon realised that couldn’t sustain me!”

The Golden Tiffin has been integral to reconnecting with her heritage, as well as paying tribute to her now 90-year-old grandmother, who taught her how to cook.

“If you said, ‘I’m just going to pop by,’ she’ll have a table spread with everything imaginable,” Haseen smiles as she gently prods a hole to sprinkle ground cardamom and pistachio onto each ball.

In some respects, the blog is a reflection of her long struggle to embrace her heritage.

“I wanted the blog to be like a story,” she says. However she acknowledges that she isn’t the poster girl for traditional Bengali fare—she's not afraid to take culinary shortcuts and many of her dishes are inspired by the street food of Whitechapel, rather than strictly traditional Bengali fare. “I wouldn’t say I’m the spokesperson.”

Haseen makes cardamom and pistachio nankhatai.

What I find particularly poignant is Haseen's commitment to making Bengali food “cool” to a young British South Asian diaspora community. It's a group that has only recently started to embrace its dual identity—as evidenced in Burnt Roti, a new zine celebrating the intricacies of British-Asian identity and Riz Ahmed’s exploration of South Asian and immigrant identity post-9/11 with his Swet Shop Boys project.

As the biscuits come out of the oven and I catch a hint of the pistachio aroma, Haseen tells me she’s proud to be putting Bengali food on the map for second- and third-generation immigrant kids. The Golden Tiffin acts as a tool for those rediscovering their identity—like she once did—through Bengali food.

Ultimately, Haseen hopes to branch out, publishing a Bengali cookbook and opening her own Bengali restaurant, paying homage to the often overlooked Bangladeshi female cooks who helped shape Britain’s contemporary curry culture.

“That’s what’s missing now, the respect given to them,” she says.

As I head back to Barking Station, lugging a Tupperware box bursting with biscuits and beetroot chop, I can’t help but agree with Haseen: Bengali food deserves a place in the contemporary British culinary scene.