Bread of the old city
On the small curving streets of Puran Dhaka, the Old City, some of the heavy summer sun is blocked by buildings. Each shopkeeper knows the hours of the day that his storefront will be cloaked in the hot light, while a few feet away the others watch from their hours of shade.
For the bakorkhani makers, found by the thousands on these winding alleys, the sun hits their puffed, flaky breads that sit stacked at the front of their shops. It makes their ghee shine and their clay ovens drip with heat. The customers slow during these times of direct light, as they retreat for their afternoon naps. The bakorkhani bakers become the only ones on the road, as they keep rolling out the dough, shaping the rounds, and gently slapping them to the sides of the sunken oven.
They stay at work because they know the people will return in the evening, once the sun is again behind the buildings.
Bakorkhani originated in the Mungal times of Bengal and is made with simple ingredients – local flour, water and oil. There is a legend that says the name originated from the tragic love story between Aga Bakar and Khani Begum; becoming a bread forever seeped with devotion. The bakers spend years learning how to perfect the small rounds and often dedicate decades after to making them. One shopkeeper, Mohammad Zakaria, said “I could explain how to make it all day but you still wouldn’t know how to do it yourself.”
Over time, bakorkhani has been adapted and different types have emerged as the craftsman add ghee, fill with cheese, and layer with sugar. During Korbani Eid people bring beef to the shops and the bakers fill the breads with savory meat. In different parts of Bangladesh bakorkhani has taken different shapes - in Dinajpur it is doughy and thick, but in Sylhet it is thin like paratha and soaked in syrup. The traditional, and legendary, version of Old Dhaka is flaky but dense, a thin rich biscuit.
The crucial element to Bakorkhani is the clay oven – called matir motka in Bangla. Set in cement, the motka is changed and seasoned for 20 hours every six months. Many of the shops say their oven is from Rayerbazaar, a market neighborhood of local artisans west of Puran Dhaka. Each motka is unique, and because of this the locals will say every bakorkhani shop produces its own flavors.
Bakorkhani is not so much a treat as a routine. Before the sun the bakorkhani shops open, the men walk the silent streets and push up the metal slides. Their storefronts have no doors or windows but are rooms that recess into buildings and spill out onto streets. They light the wood to heat their oven and begin measuring ingredients. Sacks of flour are stacked in corners and leave puffs of white behind those who carry them into the shops. The first batch of bakorkhani fills the narrow road with the smell of warm bread. The streets begin to fill with people and other smells – ruti frying and daal boiling. The bakorkhani’s begin stacking up behind glass and old men come for one or two with dood cha (milk tea). Bakorkhani with cha is an undeniable union, and many refuse one without the other. Shopkeepers fill paper bags that darken with oil spots, as people get dozens to save for later, to put on the kitchen table, to give to their kids before school.
As people go about their day the shops slow. A few motorcyclists hop off to collect bags of cheese bakorkhani and speed off again. A few kids pop up with taka coins and buy a single one.
In every bakorkhani shop of Puran Dhaka there is a pride in craftsmanship. The men understand bakorkhani making as an act of everyday necessity, and while they might not say it this way, it is really an act of everyday art. The process holds generations of tradition. It is part of a Dhaka that is truly Bengali, part of a community that has never forgotten their identity. But even more so, it represents an Old Dhaka that is unchanged - an Old Dhaka where people still meet without calling ahead, and aunties know the business of the entire neighborhood. It remains a constant in a neighborhood that is becoming harder to grasp.
It is the people in the oldest streets of Dhaka that are argued to the be the most hospitable, and often the most loyal. They go to the same shop day in and day out and will always put up a fight that their shop is the best. Bakorkhani helps tell the stories of the back streets, but it also helps to start and end the day on all those streets.
With the long shadows of the end of the day, the Bakorkhani shops pick up their production. The cha kettles start steaming and the street fills with people who linger a little longer. The bakorkhani shops won’t close for many more hours.