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Bengali’s triangles of delight

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Ustad Allah Ditta, or ‘Bengali’ to his customers, keeps a vigilant eye on goings-on at his stall. — Photos by Faran Rafi
Ustad Allah Ditta, or ‘Bengali’ to his customers, keeps a vigilant eye on goings-on at his stall. — Photos by Faran Rafi

ISLAMABAD: The sizzle of pakoras frying in a vat, the intricate patterns of freshly-made jalebis and the din of clamouring customers, all vying to get their fill before Iftar. These are sights and sounds that greet you as you make your way down Street 34 in this upscale part of the capital.

You’ve probably heard of Bengali’s samosas. But if you’re not from around here, chances are you’d miss this Islamabad institution even if you passed right by it.

Tucked away in a small market in sector F-6/1, this bastion of culinary lore is as unassuming as a dhaba; because that’s literally what it is, a small outpost of deep-fryers and tables upon tables of delectable Iftar-time treats.

The man himself, Ustad Allah Ditta aka Bengali, scuttles around his stall, tipping loads of samosas fresh from the vats into containers. A wiry old man, Bengali’s arms can still manage to lift the weight of 250 of his triangular creations, no mean feat for a man who’s made this part of the capital his home ever since the province of Bengal became an independent country in 1971.

In the evening, as the scorching sun lets up a little, a mini traffic jam on this narrow street alerts you to the presence of something special. Kabir Ustad, who fries Bengali’s signature beef mince samosas, says they sell anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 samosas every day. That’s a lot of cholesterol!

Women, children, young men on motorbikes and the more well-to-do on their Mercedes; all descend upon Bengali’s for a pre-Iftar pickup. The ustad’s son, Mohammad Bilal, tells us that although their stall is best known for their beef samosas, they make pakoras, jalebis and kachooris to meet the rising demand in Ramazan.

In a city obsessed with fine dining and hygiene, street food is not commonly held up as a delicacy. But Bengali’s case is special, because he brings a sense of history to his meaty triangles of delight.

The advent of Ramazan brings more demand, so jalebis are added to the traditional menu.
The advent of Ramazan brings more demand, so jalebis are added to the traditional menu.

It is late in the evening and by now, a large crowd has gathered in front of the stall. In the crowd stands Nadeem, a shop owner from the Supermarket. He says he is here to buy the famous beef mince samosas. As Muhammad Bilal hands him his bag of goodies, Nadeem tells us, “I pass by this shop almost every day on my way home, but today I decided to stop get some samosas for my family. My kids will love them.”

The youth with him revs his motorcycle engine, before saying, “I’m not a regular here because I don’t like eating out. But I do make it a point every now and then to grab something for my family on my way back from work. Today, this seemed like the perfect tid-bit.”

Nida, an Islamabad-based lawyer, pulls up to the shop with her mother. They both sit on the back seat and exchange jovial glances when asked about their first experience of Bengali’s samosas. “It has almost been ten, maybe fifteen, years since we first had these. We have been fans ever since,” she claims as she rummages through her wallet to find change to give pay for her purchases two dozen mince samosas.

 Workers here can fry up to 250 samosas at a time, all of which sell like hotcakes.
Workers here can fry up to 250 samosas at a time, all of which sell like hotcakes.

Saad, who works for a private company in Blue Area, says, “I do not think hygiene is ever a huge issue for anyone who comes here. Biologically speaking, our stomachs are already strong enough to bear this kind of oily food. Moreover, our immune systems are used to a lot more grease than this.”

A few paces from the legendary Bengali is another stall with the words ‘Dhaka Bengali’ emblazoned on the front. As we approach the stall, we notice that the crowd here isn’t as dense as it was at the original outlet. We try to speak to the man in charge, but he’s too busy to answer questions. “This is work-time. Come back later and we’ll chat,” he says, trying to wave us off. When asked why he’s using the name of the stall next door to sell his own wares, the man replies, “ I worked with the ustad for about five years, but then I decided to open up my own stall. ‘The Bengali’ is the name of the samosa, not the man. It is the name that sells.”

Back at the real Bengali, it is almost time for Iftar. As we say our good byes, we ask Mohammad Bilal for four dozen samosas. He smiles and, giving us a discount, asks when his picture will appear in the paper.

But it’s not like he needs the publicity. Bengali’s samosas are the stuff of legend in these parts and not even the threat of early-onset cardiac arrest can keep the real foodies from this place.

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2014