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Kitchen Table | Bangladeshi L.A. : BOOSTER SHOTS |
COOK'S WALK

A Stroll through Little Dhaka

March 11, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To most Angelenos, 3rd Street around Vermont Avenue is part of Koreatown. If you've spent any time there, you know there are also Salvadoran, Indonesian and Guatemalan businesses in the neighborhood. What few realize, however, is that this small section of Los Angeles happens to be the epicenter of Bangladeshi L.A. Call it Little Dhaka.

Stop by in the morning at the 3rd Street market-cafe called Deshi, for instance, and you can get a true Bangladeshi breakfast on the run: a big, flaky, slightly sweet flat bread called paratha served with delicately curried vegetables and a fried egg.

Deshi is one of three market-cafes that have sprung up in the neighborhood, drawn by the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont, just south of Third. Jafran Royal Kitchen of Bengal and Aladin Sweets & Market are the other two.

Most Bangladeshis are Muslims. After worshiping at the Islamic Center, which includes a mosque, three schools and a religious bookshop, they can drop by the shops to pick up familiar ingredients and get a taste of the spicy dishes from back home.

About 10,000 Bangladeshis live in Southern California, according to Mohammad-al-Haroon, the consul general of Bangladesh in Los Angeles. Nick Chowdhury, Deshi's owner, estimates that from 3,000 to 4,000 of them have settled in the area bounded by Olympic Boulevard, Fairfax Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard and Rampart Boulevard.

Bangladeshi cuisine has not yet established a strong identity here. The Bangladeshi-owned restaurants serve much the same tandoori and Mogul dishes as most North Indian restaurants. After all, that is the kind of food people eat in Bangladesh, which borders the Indian state of West Bengal and was politically part of India and then Pakistan before becoming independent in 1971.

But there are dishes that are distinctly Bangladeshi, and some of these--hilsa fish in mustard sauce, for instance, and sandesh, a thick milk-based confection--can be found in the market-cafes around the Islamic Center.

Most afternoons, the three market-cafes set out steam tables of hearty meat and seafood curries, biryanis and lentil dishes for lunch and dinner. These can be eaten on the premises--each shop has a few tables--or packed to go.

Bangladesh exports rice, shrimp, frozen and dried fish, frozen vegetables, pickles, spices and bulk tea to the United States, and the market-cafes stock many of these ingredients. Look for sacks of Kalijeera rice, a short-grained rice used for Bangladeshi pullaos (pilafs).

For Muslim consumption, all meat must be halal, that is, slaughtered according to Muslim precepts. (The name of God must be invoked at the time of slaughter, and the blood must be drained from the animal. An animal that has died naturally or by accident is not halal.)

The markets here sell beef, which Hindus do not eat, but not pork, which is forbidden to Muslims. In addition to halal meats, the shops carry several varieties of fish exported frozen from Bangladesh. They also stock Bangladeshi spices, including panch phoron, a blend of whole-grain fenugreek, anise, kalonji (nigella), mustard and cumin that is used both in Bangladesh and on the Indian side of the border in West Bengal.

Because the cuisines are so similar, the markets sell ingredients from India and Pakistan as well as from Bangladesh. They also deal in videos, CDs and audio cassettes, and they serve as gathering spots where Bangladeshis can meet friends and catch up on news from home.

*

Our Bangladeshi Cook's Walk starts at Jafran, which is 3 1/2 blocks east of Western Avenue. Deshi is tucked into a tiny mall five blocks east at Alexandria Avenue, and Aladin Sweets and Market is around the corner heading north on Vermont.

For further exploration, we've included two Bangladeshi markets in the San Fernando Valley. And note that Deshi also has a location in Anaheim.

*Jafran Royal Kitchen of Bengal displays its Bangladeshi roots with paintings of Bangladeshi women husking rice and a collage dealing with the destruction of war, both by the Bangladeshi artist Habib. There's a halal butcher shop on the premises, a case of frozen imported goods and a few shelves of spices and other goods, but Jafran is really more cafeteria than market. One evening's assortment of steam-table dishes included chicken, beef and goat curries; "chicken roast" (not an oven-roasted bird but chicken cooked with yogurt, onion, garlic, turmeric and other spices); catfish in a sauce of onion, garlic, turmeric and cilantro; tiny fish combined with potato and onion shreds in curry sauce; hilsa, which is a particularly bony freshwater Bengali fish, in onion-tomato sauce; and mixed vegetables and rice cooked with yellow lentils.

The cooks also prepare tandoori meats and biryani (rice with chicken or meat), which can be ordered from a menu.

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