NAME: Dina Begum
PROFESSION: Cookbook author and food writer, specialising in Bangladeshi food
SOUTH ASIAN HERITAGE: British-Bangladeshi
- Published Brick Lane Cookbook (2018)
- Member of the Guild of Food Writers
- Has written a features and recipes for Great British Chefs, Independent, Metro, Delicious Magazine and Waitrose
- Hosted popular Bangladeshi pop ups at Darjeeling Express as part of their #WomenInFood series
- Took part in a programme at The Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD)
How did your Bangladeshi heritage inform your younger years – can you describe your early home and school life?
My parents instilled in us a strong sense of our Bangladeshi heritage from a young age. We spoke Bengali at home, attended Bengali after school classes. While I was born in Bangladesh, I came here (London) when I was very young, and all my schooling has been in the UK. We were encouraged to embrace British culture, while remaining close to our Bangladeshi roots.
Your father used to take you to London’s Brick Lane on Sundays, home to the biggest Bangladeshi community in the UK. What did you most enjoy about these trips?
These trips to Brick Lane provided a gateway to experiencing different cultures and often, food. I loved exploring the bric a brac stalls and lunch at Sweet n Spicy – which has sadly closed.
What was your favourite Bangladeshi dish growing up?
I don’t have one particular favourite dish, but I loved – and still love handesh, or teler pitha – a rice flour and molasses fried cake, as well as my mother’s chicken roast – a dish of pan fried chicken in caramelised onion gravy.
When did you first become interested in cooking and what early dishes did you create yourself – where did you source the recipes?
I’ve always been fascinated by the process of cooking and can’t recall exactly when I became interested in it. Let’s just say my earliest memories involve food! I’ve grown up watching my mother and maternal grandmother cooking and eventually got involved. One of the first dishes I learned to make was Shujir Halwa – a semolina pudding made with ghee, nuts and raisins. It’s a perfect tea-time treat.
What particular ingredients and flavours are common in Bangladeshi cooking – how do these vary from region to region?
Mustard oil, coconut, date molasses, rice and rice flour, as well as fish. Fish and rice are key components of Bangladeshi cooking. These are popular across Bangladesh but there are regional specialist ingredients such as shatkora – a bitter cooking citrus from the Sylhet region where I’m from.
Are there any specific Bangladeshi traditions when it comes to how food is prepared and cooked?
Yes, absolutely. Food is eaten in courses and usually dishes are served with rice. To begin there’s often vegetable bhajis (sautes), bhortas, (mashes), followed by fish and then chicken or meat, ending with something sweet.
How did you become involved with the #WomenInFood series and did you enjoy hosting the pop ups?
Asma Khan is a dear friend and kindly offered me the use of her restaurant when I mentioned that I was interested in hosting a supperclub. It was a lovely opportunity to showcase Bangladeshi food in central London.
Why did you decide to write the Brick Lane Cookbook and how did you go about putting together the recipes?
The idea for the book came about through conversations with my publisher, Kitchen Press. Emily and I discussed a market cookbook but I was also keen to include my Bangladeshi recipes and we both decided Brick Lane Cookbook would provide the perfect space to showcase Bangladeshi food as well as celebrate the diversity of the area. The book is split between Bangladeshi recipes as well as contributions from local vendors who I collaborated with.
Have you had the opportunity to visit Bangladesh recently and, if so, what were your impressions of the country?
I haven’t visited in a long time but I am hoping to visit again very soon and am excited for the trip. I’ve always been connected to Bangladesh via family, and my interest in Bangladeshi food and heritage so I want to be able to explore and hopefully share more of this in future work.
Can you share a favourite recipe with us?
Yes. Below is my chicken korma recipe from my book.
Dina Begum’s Recipe for Chicken Korma
Chicken korma cooked at home is unlike any restaurant version (which I would never eat).
Originating from Mughlai cuisine, a real korma is rich, decadent and very special.
It’s usually made with a mixture of whole spices, yoghurt and ghee, and cooked slowly to create a depth of flavour you really can’t get in a hurry. There are none of the colourings or sugar you get when you order the curry house version. Sometimes a little nut paste is added which makes the dish even more opulent and perfect for feasting.
There are many variations of korma across the Indian subcontinent and I’ve based mine on the ones I’ve grown up eating. I use Greek yoghurt for a mellow, creamy flavour, less tangy than natural yoghurt. Whole green chillies are used for fragrance instead of heat so don’t be tempted to cut them as korma is meant to be mild. I find that a mixture of thigh and breast meat gives the best result, but you can use one or the other if you prefer.
Ingredients (serves 6)
6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
5cm piece ginger, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons ghee
1 teaspoon panch phoron
3 medium onions, finely sliced
1½ teaspoons salt
3 dried red chillies
2 bay leaves
8 cardamom pods
6 black peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks
1 star anise
1 1/3 tablespoons ground cumin
1 1/3 tablespoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
800g skinless chicken breast and thigh meat, chopped into bite-size pieces
300g Greek yoghurt
6 whole green chillies
Crush the garlic and ginger together in a mortar and pestle. Heat the oil and ghee in a large pan on medium-high heat and add the garlic, ginger and panch phoron. After a minute add the onions, salt, dried red chillies, bay leaves, cardamom, cloves, black peppercorns, cinnamon sticks and star anise and sauté until golden – around 10 minutes. Add 200ml water, cover and simmer on low heat for 20 to 25 minutes, until the onions have broken up and the oil has separated.
Keep checking regularly and if the mixture gets too dry or catches at the bottom of the pan add a dash of water and continue cooking.
At this point stir in the cumin, coriander, chilli powder and turmeric and turn up the heat to medium. Cook for two to three minutes until the spices are fragrant and have separated from the oil. If the mixture gets too dry, add a dash of water so the spices don’t burn then cover and cook for a few minutes.
Now take the chicken pieces and add them to the pan. Stir this around for a couple of minutes to seal the meat, then cover and cook for ten minutes, checking now and then to make sure nothing’s burning. Towards the end of the ten minutes you’ll notice the chicken releasing moisture – which indicates that it’s almost fully cooked.
Take the pan off the heat, wait for a minute and then gradually add the yoghurt, a little at a time so it doesn’t curdle. Finally, toss in the green chillies, return the pan to a very low heat and simmer for another eight to ten minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender and the gravy is thick and silky. Serve with pilau rice.
Cook’s tip – to ensure the very best korma it is absolutely essential that you take your time over the onions. They should slowly soften, until they almost caramelise and disintegrate. Add a dash of water now and then if they brown too quickly and be patient!