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Sitting proudly on the chest of their national cricket team, the Bengal tiger is Bangladesh’s most iconic animal. Yet with only a few thousand tigers in a forest that spans over 10,000 kilometers, it’s not an easy animal to spot. Photographer and keen wildlife enthusiast Nazmul Islam headed back to his homeland to spend a day with the Sundarbans Tiger Project and see if he could catch a glimpse of one of the world’s most majestic creatures.
“I was very young when I first arrived in England in the early 70s. I have returned on many occasions, but I’ve never felt I’d seen the real Bangladesh. All I knew was the sanitised and guarded evergreen view of my hometown of Moulvi Bazar. I wanted to explore the true country that I was born in. I wanted to see the true Bangladesh, and the Sundarbans was at the very top of my wish list.
The largest mangrove forest in the world, the Sundarbans covers an area of 10,000 square kilometers that spans both Bangladesh and India. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a shortlist to the New 7 Wonders Of The World, it’s home to one of the most impressive animals on our planet, the Royal Bengal Tiger, an animal I’d wanted to see in its natural habitat all my life. I started planning my visit and quickly discovered The Sundarbans Tiger Project.
DHAKA, HEADQUARTERS OF THE STP & THE WILDLIFE TRUST OF BANGLADESH
My first destination was The Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh where I met with Henry Churchill, the STP Campaigns Manager and his conservation team, Dr Adam Barlow and Christina Greenwood. Dr Barlow explained how the project works in tandem with The Bangladeshi Forest Department and is committed in becoming leaders in tiger conservation through research. They’re also dedicated to the reduction tiger and human conflict via their Tiger Response Team. Tigers are known to wander into villages and attack or kill humans: between 15 and 50 people killed on average every year in the region.
The team wants to help build relations with local people and avoid unnecessary suffering from tiger attacks. Or indeed retaliation attacks on tigers. Education plays an integral part in conservation and the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh and the STP have a new resource centre created to help inform the future generations on the issues of conservation. A tiny team and thousands of kilometres to cover; their work is never ending.
Situated in the south of the country towards the Bay of Bengal, the region is spilt by the mighty River Ganges. The Sundarbans is not an easy place to get to; the long and sweaty journey by road takes approximately eight hours from Dhaka! I finally arrived in Mongla where I met with Iqbal Hussain the Communication And Education Coordinator for the STP. He took me directly to the docks where the STP boat lay in wait, he explained that it was holiday season so the ports and rivers will be very busy. He wasn’t lying.
The port was full of small tourist boats, each one crammed with people heading into the forest. Iqbal informed me with some hesitation that they were all heading for a crocodile and deer park nearby. The sanctuary collect the crocodile eggs and nurture them before releasing them back into the wild. They also keep spotted deer and monkeys. I wasn’t interested in them, though, my heart was set on the tiger. We finally set off from the port and into the delta of the bay. It was just as I expected: the vastness of the river and dense forestry on either side of the banks, it was truly breathtaking.
We had little time before sunset and aimed to get as deep into the forest as possible. On the boat, team members explained about the climate of the area and how the forest is in the cyclone belt. Large areas are often flooded during the monsoon season; we saw the effects of this as we passed government built shelters for people who had lost their homes. It’s truly devastating.
After two hours we finally arrived at a village deep in the forest. The villagers seemed nervous of our presence but overall they were very friendly and a few inquisitive children started following me around asking questions about my camera equipment. More and more villagers gathered around to ask me about the camera, asking for photos. I was only too happy to oblige.
One thing that struck me about the village is its roots in tradition. They enjoy their way of life; the slow pace, the practicality and resourcefulness is obvious to see. The community has a reluctance to accept change, however, and this does not bode well for the tiger. The continual reduction of habitat and loss of prey through illegal deer poaching has had a dramatic effect on tiger reproduction. Iqbal’s team use education as a method to raise this awareness and to support an alternative livelihood development.
As we walked through the village, one of the team brings something to our attention; along the riverbanks he had noticed tiger tracks. The tracks were quite fresh; I was told that they were no more than a week old.
The thought of this magnificent animal having just been in this area was overwhelming. I was equally excited and scared. Never before had I felt such a strong combination of emotions all at once; each of my senses was heightened. Fear is an emotion that all the villagers can relate to as the number of human tiger conflicts continues. The saddest story is that of a member of the tiger team, his brother was a victim of a tiger attack and unfortunately it was fatal. To have the courage to carry on and continue with this noble cause is a commendable commitment. I don’t know what I would do had I had been in this situation. Would I be willing to continue protecting and conserving something that had taken the life of my sibling? It’s something I cannot imagine.
THE LONG JOURNEY HOME
Sadly the day came to an end for me and the team. A two hour trip back to Mongla, beckoned. I stood on the deck of the boat and looked into the distance staring at the amazing sunset ahead of me.
As the literal Bengali translation suggests, Sundarbans truly is a “beautiful forest”. But it’s more than that. It is home to many types of wildlife from exotic birds, spotted dear, macaques, crocodiles, snakes and the ever famous elusive Royal Bengal Tiger. It is also home to hundreds of species of plants including the sundari tree. However, the most amazing thing about the forest is the people who live and work there. The Sundarbans takes a constant battering from natural elements and the people who live in there have developed resilience and courage to endure what nature throws at them. I have heard so many stories of how nature gives an abundance in one hand, but takes with the other.
The Sundarbans Tiger Project is a revolution and is at the forefront of conservation and education in the area. Since their inception, the STP have successfully collared two tigers and are now developing a much deeper understanding of the animal’s movements and behavioral patterns. Meanwhile, the Tiger Response Team continue to patrol the forest waterways, providing emergency medical treatment and transport for victims. The team has also formulated the first Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan in conjunction with the Forest Department. Implementing all its aims and objectives is a mammoth task but it’s clear that progress is being made for the future of the Sundarbans, its people and its tigers.
I might not have seen a tiger, but my first journey to the Sundarbans was one that I will never forget. I would like to thank the STP for providing me with a wonderful insight into the area and the humbling work they do.
For more information on the STP visit www.sundarbanstigerproject.info
To see the images visit Nazmul’s gallery at www.sunstarphotography.com
There are two things I absolutely must do whenever I go travelling to a new place. Number one is to take cooking lessons from the locals. All the better if this takes place in gorgeous open-air surroundings by a Vietnamese river amidst gardens of fresh lemongrass and Thai basil and a swimming pool for when the exertion of cooking all gets too much, as I was once lucky enough to experience in Hoi An, but any form of cooking lesson is hugely exciting for me, even if it’s just a street food seller taking the time to demonstrate to me how they make their delicious wares. If they let me eat said wares along the way, even better.
Number two is to visit the markets. I have an obsession with local markets; they’re probably one of my favourite things about travelling. You can keep your art galleries and museums; I think the best way to experience culture, anywhere, is to take an hour to wander around the markets and to watch, taste, touch, smell, listen and talk. And, if you’re anything like me, to come back laden with obscure products bearing strange labels that will end up at the back of your cupboards (candied nutmeg, anyone?)
This is a recipe that relates to both of those activities. This summer I spent a week and a half travelling in Malaysia. Aside from waking to the sound of macaque monkeys splashing around in the swamp metres from my bed in the deep, dark heart of the Borneo jungle, the absolute highlight of my Malaysian experience was Penang. This was in no way a surprise. I’d been told by many people that I would love Penang, undisputedly one of the street food capitals of the world, famous for its hawker centres serving up hot, moreish, ridiculously tasty food for less than you’d pay for a cup of tea back in England.
As part of my stay, I took part in a cooking course that began with a trip to the local market to introduce us to some of the ingredients we’d be using later. Actually, I lie – it didn’t begin with this, it began with one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had in my life, which is roti canai: buttery, flaky Indian-style flatbreads cooked on a hot griddle and stuffed with various fillings. Mine was oozing with egg and onion, and I sat there with a cup of hot tea, tearing off gooey, buttery pieces of this ridiculously moreish creation and dipping them in a bowl of vibrant turmeric-rich dahl. It’s Penang’s answer to a croissant, only perhaps even better.
I learned a lot from my market visit that day. One thing I love about south east Asian markets is there’s always some new weird and wonderful ingredient to discover. Introduced to my culinary repertoire on this occasion were ginger flowers – which look like firm, very pale pink tulips and have a peppery taste – and candle nuts. I’d never heard of candle nuts before, but they’re a common ingredient in Malaysian curry pastes, where they add a delicious nutty richness to the mix along with their their fragrant oils. They look rather like large macadamia nuts, with a similar creamy texture.
Later during my cooking class we learned how to make laksa, which is without a doubt the best noodle soup you will ever eat, but unfortunately takes a small army to prepare (there were about twelve of us on the cooking course, and it required all hands on deck to get it ready for lunch time). The resulting sweet-sour-spicy broth, rich in fish and tamarind and herbs, bathing a nest of slippery noodles, is worth it a hundred times over, though. We didn’t use the candle nuts, but I bought a small bag to bring home and experiment with.
This chicken curry recipe is from the lovely Nazlina, who ran our cooking course in Penang. The first time I made it back home, I had a bit of a eureka moment when I licked the spoon to check the seasoning. It was spot on, exactly everything that I want a south east Asian curry to be: rich and creamy with brown sugar and coconut, mouth-tinglingly spicy from fiery chillies, deeply zesty from lemongrass and lime leaves. I’ve made a lot of such Asian curries in the past, but this was by far the best. I think the secret is to marinate the chicken in turmeric and shrimp paste before cooking – it lends an incredible addictive salty/savoury flavour to the finished curry. Combine this with fresh, zesty galangal, ginger, lime leaves, creamy coconut and candle nuts, and you have everything that is wonderful about Malaysian food.
I’ve tweaked it a little from the original recipe: I use chicken thighs (with the bone in – much more flavour and more tender meat that way) rather than a whole jointed chicken, as it’s much easier to eat with fewer fiddly bones to crunch on by accident. I use macadamia nuts now that my candle nut stash has run out (although if anyone knows where I can get them in the UK, get in touch). I also add chopped pineapple to the curry at the last minute. This is definitely unconventional, but I think it really takes the dish to another level. It’s so rich, with the dark chicken meat and the heady combination of spices and aromatics, that you really need something fresh and zingy to brighten everything up. Pineapple is just perfect, softening and soaking up that delicious sauce, adding zingy little bursts of fruitiness that partner perfectly with the tender meat and vibrant sauce.
Serve with lots of fresh lime to squeeze over, chopped coriander, and mountains of steamed rice to soak up the fabulous sauce. This is a very easy dish to prepare, once you get your hands on the ingredients (try an Asian grocer or supermarket, or even a large branch of Morrisons, who do excellent Asian produce), but it’s incredibly rewarding, a real riot of wonderful addictive flavours that blend beautifully. If you’ve never tried Malaysian food before, this is a wonderful introduction.
Malaysian-style chicken curry with pineapple (serves 4):
8 skinless chicken thighs, bone in
2 heaped tsp shrimp paste
2 inches fresh turmeric, peeled, or 2 tsp powdered turmeric
2 hot red chillies
1 inch piece fresh galangal, peeled
3 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tbsp rapeseed or groundnut oil
2 lemongrass stalks
2 tbsp tamarind puree
200ml coconut milk
6 fresh/frozen kaffir lime leaves
4 shallots, finely sliced
2 tsp dark muscovado sugar
Half a large pineapple, finely diced
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1 lime
Finely chopped coriander, to serve
In a mini chopper or blender, blitz together the shrimp paste and fresh turmeric (if using powdered turmeric just mix the two together in a small bowl). Put the chicken in a large dish and add the shrimp paste and turmeric. Mix together well with your hands then leave to marinate for an hour or so in the fridge.
Meanwhile, make the curry paste. In a mini chopper, blitz together the chillies, galangal, ginger, garlic and nuts until finely chopped. Bruise the lemongrass stalks by bashing them with a rolling pin or squashing with the flat of a knife. In a large lidded pan, heat the oil and sauté the curry paste and lemongrass stalks over a medium heat for a few minutes until fragrant. Add the tamarind, coconut milk and water and bring to the boil. Add the chicken, cover with a lid and cook for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
When the chicken is cooked, finely shred the lime leaves and add to the pan with the sugar and shallots. Remove the lid and simmer for around 15 minutes to thicken the sauce. Taste and check the seasoning – it will probably be salty enough from the shrimp paste. Add the lime juice, black pepper and pineapple and cook for another couple of minutes, then serve with steamed or sticky rice and fresh coriander.
Get the ingredients for the recipe from www.justingredients.co.uk .
With nearly 30 years in the public eye, seafood loving Rick Stein has seen it all. Born in Churchill, Oxfordshire to as he puts it, bonkers parents who loved to travel, in a way Rick was always predisposed to wander the globe. At the age of 19, a little disillusioned with private education and still saddened by the suicide of his father one year earlier, Rick packed his bags and set sail for the Southern Hemisphere.
INTERVIEW BY ALEXANDER TAN
Is it great to be back in England and leaving all that hot weather behind you?
No, it’s not that nice today!
It’s amazing that you travelled India. How did that come about?
For a long time I have loved curries, ever since I was very little. I started going to Goa in the early eighties and since then I have looked at Indian seafood, Indian curries and putting them on my menu down at Padstow. I’ve developed a fascination with how curries have been put together and the different types in the different regions of India. I haven’t just been specialising in fish, I’ve been doing a lot of food and travel. I’ve done Spain, France, The Far East, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. So therefore India was the obvious next place given that Indian food is so popular in the UK.
Your deep passion lies with fish; can you tell Chaat! readers which British fish are the best suited with spicy food?
Well monkfish is good as it has a neutral flavour and a lovely texture and codfish works really well with saucer curry dishes. Oily fishes also work really well with curries too. For example, salmon is the closest fish we have to the southern Indian King fish, plus mackerel works equally well.
You start off your new book with street food, why do you think street food is getting so popular here in the UK?
Indian street food is very good. Calcutta and Bombay are just so competitive. Each cook is so skilled and intelligent that they are constantly trying to outdo each other. There is no end to the variety of street food in India.
If there were Indian street food restaurants in Britain would they be popular?
Street food is a little like tapas. If you are in India you stop to try this and try that, especially in Calcutta. This equates to how people like to eat now, not really sitting for a big meal, but rather snack here and there. Grazing is very popular.
Which of your recipes shows street food at its best?
I would say the tay bhajee from Bombay, because it’s the sort of dish that everybody loves to eat. Almost like an Indian version of a burger. That’s not to say that they are the same but both have that yummy quality that immediately gets you going. The other one would be the lilo chevda, a sweet tangy potato shred dish from Gujarat. It’s similar to Bombay mix and finished off with lime juice.
You have a large section of vegetarian dishes near the beginning of the book. Most cookbooks put vegetarian dishes near the end of the book.
That’s because they eat so much vegetarian food in India that if you didn’t give vegetarian food a big presence then you’d be missing the point. Since nearly fifty percent of the population are vegetarian in India being a vegetarian is almost the norm rather than the exception.
Did you find that vegetarian food is little more versatile to work with?
Definitely, there is some much variety with vegetables with their fresh markets. I constantly need to ask questions about the varieties. Here in the UK we just don’t have so many varieties, which is a shame.
In the book is an image with about 7 different varieties of rice, in a market stall in India. In the UK we usually use white or basmati rice. If you were to recommend a new rice for our readers to try which would you suggest?
There is a red rice that is preferred in the Kerala which is much plumper than basmati. It’s not as polished as the others but it’s fantastic. That is a rice worth trying.
You have put great thought into the introduction of your book. You even apologise to Indian readers for any disagreements or discrepancies with their methods that you may encounter. Was India different to your expectations?
Very much so, for a start I didn’t know that so many people were going to be vegetarian. Plus, I didn’t realise that so many dishes have such a religious significance and I have referred to this in the book. It’s not just about cooking but cooking the right dishes at the right time. Like the dishes for Diwali, it is not necessarily just seasonal. I could stay for ten years and still learn something new!
I think British culture is less focused on food, just the 9-5 life, eating what is quick and easy.
Yes, this is something I have touched on. We have something we have to relearn and the more we celebrate the food around us the better. In India the people love food and still spend time preparing it daily.
Do you think your Indian style bread and butter pudding is going to take over granny’s bread and butter putting here in the UK?
No I don’t think so they are totally different, though the Indian one has probably had some British Raj influence.
You have 6 episodes of your show coming up. If people are really busy and only have the chance of catching one which one should it be?
The first one, which is the showcase, is the one to watch. The bits I particularly like are the fish curry I sampled at Namila Pur in Tamil Nadu and the temple visit at Madurai. Also, the trip down the Keralan black water shouldn’t be missed. The first program is mostly about the street food in Calcutta. Of course in other episodes there are great bits too. The fish market in Bombay is terrific for example, very visual. Also, judging a cookery contest in Punjab was tremendously fun. We met an 80 year old woman who ran a truck drivers stop. She kept a rifle under her counter and I’m pretty sure she would have used it as well! That’s not something I’d recommend to British restaurant owners…
Closer to home your son is a chef now, do you have any arguments over technique or is he better than you?
I don’t work in a restaurant all the time now, I’m slowing down. He works all the time and is really fast, but we both seem to have the same accord. Maybe we should argue and debate like father and sons do. He calls me dad usually, but when he gets one over on me he calls me Rick.
What is the most special moment of your career?
My main love is the restaurant. Although a proud moment for me was winning the national prize for my first cookbook, very overwhelming.
Finally, which Indian spice do you feel that you can’t live without?
Cardamom. It’s now so popular, especially the black variety. Cardamom can be used not just in savoury but also in sweet dishes. Plus, it can also be used in Chai.
Getting to know your local spice house a little too well? A curry inspired city break could just be the ticket. This month we savour the flavour of Cardiff.
Cardiff: home of the British Curry Club. The youngest capital in the UK, Cardiff was one of the very first British cities to have a recognised multicultural community. Naturally, a rich catalogue of spice houses is on offer with every neighbourhood in the city starring a must-visit eatery. But where to start? We know what it’s like when you first land in a strange city; too many choices and that belly-rumbling paranoia of making the wrong decision. You’ve only got a few nights here and you’ll be darned if you blow any opportunity to indulge in your favourite dish. Come to Cardiff and let Chaat! take you on a guided tour of the best spice houses in the city.
Get on the sport! Burn of the curry calories:
Cardiff lives and breathes sport. It’s got its very own sports village; that’s how much the city loves the stuff. Wet and wild adventures abound at the Olympic pool, the International White Water course and Cardiff Bay Water centre where you can find a wide range of splashful antics such as white water rapids, windsurfing, water skiing, speed boats and kayaks. Looking to keep your curry powder dry? Head north for the mountains or south west along the coastline; both missions will reward with their instant cobweb blowing abilities. And those who would rather sit back and spectate can find just as much entertainment thanks to one of the city’s most impressive young structures… The iconic Millennium Stadium is one of the UK’s only stadia that’s located in the city centre, and any match day atmosphere is an exhilarating experience as a result. Not least in the spice houses post-game! It’s not just rugby and football fans that are catered for: The Swalec national cricket stadium is home to an impressive amount of international fixtures. Remember: whether your team wins or loses, curry is the ultimate post-game event. See over for Cardiff’s finest British Curry Club Restaurants.
Image courtesy of Cardiff & Co