Bangladeshi food is worth getting to know, says former MasterChef finalist Saira Hamilton

When Saira Hamilton talks about Bangladesh, it makes no sense that it’s not more of a travel destination, because if you’re seeking beauty, culture and good food, apparently it’s a-buzz with all three.

“A lot of people go to [neighbouring] India,” says Hamilton, “but Bangladesh looks different, it feels different. Visually, it’s much more like Thailand, it’s very lush and green and jungly.”

And while mega-city capital Dhaka is a rush of colour, throbbing with people and the crush of traffic (“I go mad for shopping when I get there, lots of saris and lovely textiles”), if you venture out into the countryside, the city hum subsides, and it’s like “nothing’s changed, ever since I was a kid”, says Hamilton.

Although she grew up in Britain, Hamilton and her family spent their summer holidays in her father’s home village, Dampara, where the landscape floods every year, leaving behind fertile land for paddy fields. “It’s incredibly peaceful. You have these wonderful vistas of water and palm trees and very low-rise buildings, it’s very beautiful,” she says. “I feel really privileged that I got to spend so much time there.”

Her memories, and the gratitude threaded through them, mingle with Hamilton’s love of cooking. Hence why she has steadily been bringing Bangladeshi food to a wider audience since becoming a MasterChef finalist in 2013, when she impressed judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace with recipes and spicing from her heritage.

“I grew up around really good food – my mum was a great cook, my dad was a great eater,” says Hamilton, and her new cookbook, My Bangladesh Kitchen, reflects a desire to write “a comprehensive collection of what Bangladeshi food is”.

“I wanted to show people what was different about it,” she says. “Indian cuisine sometimes gets all lumped together, but the sub-continent is as big as the whole of Europe. It’s like trying to talk about Norwegian cuisine as the same as Greek.”

Although, funnily enough, she notes, particularly in the south and southeast of Britain, the majority of Indian restaurants are run by people from the Bangladeshi community – spotting shatkora (a cross between a lemon and grapefruit) on the menu is a good indication.

For those entirely new to Bangladeshi cuisine, seafood is a staple – Bangladesh has a huge coastline – particularly prawns, as well as lentils, rice and lots of vegetables. Hamilton calls it a “light and bright palette of flavours”, where things are cooked speedily to keep their crunchiness and colour. “It’s not really rich and heavy and covered in sauce.”

Store cupboard essentials include the likes of panch phoran, or Bengali five spice, a “fragrant and aromatic” blend of whole fennel, cumin, mustard, nigella and fenugreek seeds.

Then there’s heat: “You’re probably going to get through a lot of chillies,” says Hamilton with a laugh, recommending you stock up on little green hot ones.

In Bangladeshi cooking though, instead of being chopped, they tend to be chucked into curries whole. “It keeps it much fresher, it infuses the flavour as well as the heat,” she explains. “[You get a] gentle flavour, rather than really, really hot chilli – unless you mistakenly eat one.”

There’s a way of cooking, but there’s also a way of eating, that is central to Bangladesh’s “culture of hospitality”. Hamilton recalls there being a “lot of parties” while she was growing up.

The house would be full of ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ and music. “Bangladeshi people are very proud of their culture, arts and literature,” says Hamilton – and there would always be food, swathes of it, with every guest bringing a little something to add to the table.

“[You have] lots of different things on your plate at the same time, you don’t have masses of anything,” she says of Bangladeshi buffet etiquette. “You’d have a bit of fried fish, a bit of the curry, always some kind of chutney, salad, and always little slices of lime or shallots on the side, to zhuzh things up.”

In the book, she covers the gamut of Bangladeshi eating, from food suitable for a Wednesday-night family supper (vegetable, rice, dal), to celebration dishes you’d see at a Bangladeshi wedding (biryanis, lamb rezala, Bengali ‘roast’ chicken), and snacky street-foody bits too. “There’s a lot of outdoor eating,” says Hamilton, describing grabbing a samosa and eating puris (“Like a savoury doughnut”) from newspaper parcels stapled in the corners. “That’s super-duper Bengali.”

Aside from writing a food column in her local paper and running food demos and catering (smallaubergine.com), Hamilton is also a senior strategy advisor for Defra, and still, of course, watches MasterChef (“Thank goodness for iPlayer!”).

“I love it. I particularly like the amateur one because the opportunities that it gives you are just amazing. I would never have dreamed of doing the things I did. Working in professional kitchens, having input and classes from some of the best chefs in the country, and the world in fact, was just wonderful,” she recalls. “I didn’t realise I could smile that much.”

As she did on MasterChef, and now with the cookbook, she says she feels “a great responsibility” for sharing Bangladeshi cooking: “I want people to ‘get’ it, and to love it.” With Hamilton, we’re in safe hands.

My Bangladesh Kitchen: Recipes And food memories From A Family Table by Saira Hamilton, photography by Ian Garlick, is published by Lorenz Books, priced £20. Available now.

- Press Association

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