The history of kala-bhuna is a long one. Since the ancient times, from the Arakanese to the Portuguese, kala-bhuna has been served to all the guests visiting Chittagong during mezban by the native people throughout history. It has been a dish very close to the hearts of the people of this delta for centuries. It is a way to celebrate or mourn any occasion that matters with families or friends and anyone who pays a visit. The incredible journey of kala-bhuna is intertwined with the culture of mezban. This article takes a closer look at the history of this delicacy and the secret recipe.
Keywords: kala bhuna, tradition, chittagong, food history.
Kala-Bhuna—The Signature of Chittagong
Cape Breton University
Feb 20, 2020
Humans have been using food as a linguistic tool for centuries and it has become a way to express our cultural identity. Unique food habits help to distinguish between cultural groups and gives the people an intimate sense of belonging to a community (Anderson, Benbow, & Manzin, 2016). Food is often used as a medium to unite people as a family or community; generally, within a common culture. Kala-Bhuna is a Chittagonian signature dish that has been prepared and consumed around the area for centuries and the love for this delicious dish expanded beyond just the port-city. The dish is an integral part of the famous Chittagonian tradition of mezban. The dish and the tradition are a vital part of the culture and unity of the people of the delta. Nowadays there is at least one food place in most of the geographically significant locations serving this deep fried, spicy, and tender dark meat. Even though the origin of the dish is unknown, the historical journey of it can be heard from any of the 13-16 million Chittagonians around the world (The Ethnologue 200, 2019).
Before we start talking about the food, we need to know about the people and the culture associated with this particular food. Chittagong is a small-port city by the Bay of Bengal. It is known as the commercial capital of Bangladesh and known for one of the most hospitable cultural group in the world. It is the second largest city by population in Bangladesh; a south-east Asian country sharing borders with Myanmar (Burma) and India. It hosts around 7.6 million people most of the population being ethnically Chittagonian. Even though the District of Chittagong hosts 7.6 million people; the Chittagonian population is spread all around the world with 13-16 million population including those living outside borders (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 2008). The people of Chittagong are famous for their unique language, food and hospitable culture (Kānunago, 1988). The Chittagonians can be compared to the Texans for their mutual love of beef. Every feast must have beef and they have some of the most unique ways of cooking it. Kala-Bhuna is one of the most famous and culturally significant food in Chittagong.
Kala-Bhuna is a famous dark and tender dish prepared with shoulder pieces of beef and traditional spices; usually served during a Chittagonian feast called Mezban (Siddiqua, 2013). It was originally served during the early 17th century but the origin of the dish is unknown. However, the word Bhuna is a Chittagonian word for deep-frying derived from the Urdu word Bhunna meaning to be fried and the word Kala means dark or black in Chittagonian (BBC, 2020). The ancient people of Chittagong used to cover their fried dark and tendered beef dish using banana leaves and packed it for long tours on foot, nowadays aluminium foil is used instead of the traditional banana leaf (Kānunago, 1988). The first major innovation that led to what we now call kala-bhuna was the use of special spices and the long frying technique. It was common for the people of the area around Chittagong to fry their beef curry for a long time in order to preserve it for a longer period, and so the dish began.
Mezban; a traditional Chittagonian feast where every person around the neighborhoods are invited to enjoy kala-bhuna, mezbani beef; a traditional Chittagonian recipe served alongside plain rice and thick lentil soup (Siddiqua, 2013). Mezban is hosted for occasions such as birthdays, death anniversaries, launch of something new, success in business or academics etc. The feast is meant to offer a prayer for the specific occasion by sharing meals with relatives, friends and people from all walks of life. In order to be admitted to a feast of mezban a person need to do nothing but to show up to event. Information about the feast gets posted around the areas with the time and location so that people know about the occasion. A mezban feast can host at least a thousand of people (Siddiqua, 2013). People share joy, success, empathy and prayers for the loved ones through the mezban. The way different occasions unique to the Chittagonian culture are celebrated; the habit, the values and ethics connected to food shape our identity by giving it a touch of individuality (Yasir, 2020).
Kala-Bhuna can be the star of any meat-lover show; if cooked properly of course. A properly cooked plate of kala-bhuna is the key player in a Chittagonian mezban. Sure, you can fry any chunk of beef or other meat for a long time and make it look like the traditional kala-bhuna but a traditional Chittagonian kala-bhuna needs a little more than just a BBQ sauce stewed beef fried for a long time. Spoiler alert! It cannot be prepared in a conventional oven. Kala-Bhuna can be prepared at home but it is no fun making it only for the sake of having it for dinner. The secret ingredient for making the best kala-bhuna is to invite all the loved ones, maybe the neighbors living in your block. Yes, it could be expensive. Throwing a traditional mezban can cost as much as a wedding feast less the décor. A small mezban arrangement within family could cost at least a $1000 depending on the location (Siddiqua, 2013). Yes, a lot of food and a lot of smiling faces. While the kala-bhuna with all the loved ones is like nothing else, it is possible to make individual pellets for just a regular dinner. To start the individual preparation, there are a few things to keep in mind. Beef is the ideal meat for the kala bhuna. However, any sort of red meat is usable as a substitute. Using a deep bottom thick cast-iron wok is the traditional and the best way to prepare kala-bhuna but any deep bottom pot can be a substitute; if it distributes the heat evenly. It takes 8 hours to prepare and cook one batch of kala-bhuna… yes, it is a long time. Now that we know all about it, we can get started with the basics. According to Debjani Chatterjee; a cook show host, we need the following ingredients: Beef (with bone): “1kg (medium pieces) Onion: 4 (finely chopped) Green Chili: (5 Chopped) Ginger paste: 1.5 Tbsp. Garlic Paste: 2 Tbsp. Cumin Powder: 1.5 Tsp. Roasted Cumin Powder: 1.5 Tbsp. Radhuni: 1 Tsp. (Powdered) Bay Leaf: 3 Cinnamon Stick: 2" (broken) Green Cardamom: 5-6 Black Cardamom: 1 Clove: 5-6 Mace: ¼ tsp. ( powdered) Star Anise: 1 Dry Red Chili: 2 Salt: 1 Tsp Onion: 5 Plain Curd: 200g (optional) Dry Red Chili: 3-4 Chili Powder: 1 Tsp. Salt: to taste Mustard Oil: 250ml” (Debjani, 2019). The meat needs to washed and pat dried before handling. The meat then needs to be mixed along with chopped onions, green chilies, Ginger paste, Garlic Paste, Cumin Powder, salt and 3 Tbsp. of Mustard oil. All the mentioned whole spices need to be mixed together and broken using sanitized hands. The mixture of the spices and meat need to chill in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours. 1.5 tablespoon of dry roasted cumin powder needs to be added to the meat after taking it out of the fridge. The bowl of meat needs to be covered again and chilled in the fridge for 2 more hours before getting into the wok. Before taking the meat out of the fridge chopped onions and dry red chillies need to be fried in cooking oil until they get brown and crisp. The onion and chilies need to be strained from the oil and kept those aside. Keeping the flame low the marinated meat along with the liquid needs to the added in the same oil used for frying the onions. It needs to be cooked for around 45 minutes with frequent stirring on low heat. Then the meat needs to be taken out and well-beaten plain curd/yoghurt needs to be added to the beef and the beef needs to be fried for 15 more minutes. Once the meat starts blackening, the fried onions need to be added to the meat and needs a thorough mix. It should be fried till the meat softens yet have the texture and shape for another 30 minutes and done! Now all we need to do is call some friends and family to enjoy it together for dinner (Debjani, 2019).
Kala-Bhuna is similar to the famous Texan Brisket. Unknown origins with cross-cultural wonder. Even though kala-bhuna’s origin is unknown but the Texan brisket had the luck to have enough research done on it. If we compare these two sister-dishes we get delicious chunks of meat of course, but we also get the bonding the families create these pieces of meats. Texans love their brisket; same goes for Chittagonians with the kala-bhuna (Pierson, 2011). The kala-bhuna served at a Mezban brings people from all walks of life together in Chittagong. As an old city hosting one of the busiest and oldest port in the world dating back to the 13th century, the people have a long tradition of welcoming international visitors to the city and being hospitable with their food and tradition (Khan, 1990). Kala-bhuna makes a path towards connecting people from communities combined with the amazing tradition of mezban just like the brisket connecting people all over southern states.
Kala-Bhuna has its place in a cultural soft spot just like many other well-known delicacies around the world which are culturally significant to a certain community. However, as the world gets more and more connected everyday and the food getting diversified rapidly; I think kala-bhuna might find itself a sweet spot connecting cultures worldwide and bringing together friends and families for a common cause… a feast for everyone to enjoy!
Anderson, L., Benbow, H. M., & Manzin, G. (2016). Europe on a Plate: Food, Identity and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary Europe. Australia and New Zealand Journal of European Studies, 8(1), 1-15.
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. (2008). Bangladesh population census-2001. National series = Bāṃlādeśa ādamaśumārī-2001. Dhaka: Planning Division, Ministry of Planning, Govt. of the People's Republic of Bangladesh.
BBC. (2020). From balti to bhuna: the ultimate guide to curry. BBC Radio 4. London. Retrieved 02 20, 2020, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3jPY8xvk41DrT93Lw4XPk1w/from-balti-to-bhuna-the-ultimate-guide-to-curry
Debjani, C. (2019, May 14). Beef Kala Bhuna Recipe. Retrieved from Kitchen of Debjani: https://kitchenofdebjani.com/2019/05/beef-kala-bhuna-kalo-bhuna-recipe/
Kānunago, S. B. (1988). A History of Chittagong. Chittagong: Dipankar Qanungo.
Khan, M. (1990). History of the port of Chittagong. Dhaka, Bangladesh: Dana Publishers.
Pierson, S. (2011). The brisket book : a love story with recipes. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Pub.
Siddiqua, F. Z. (2013, 10 13). MAJESTIC MEZBAN. The Daily Star. Retrieved 1 30, 2020, from https://www.thedailystar.net/news/majestic-mezban
The Ethnologue 200. (2019, Aug 20). What are the top 200 most spoken languages? Retrieved Feb 20, 2020, from Ethnologue: https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/ethnologue200
Yasir, M. (2020, Jan 30). Mezban—Culturally Significant Communicative Act of Chittagong. Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada.