Day 68: Bangladesh
“You’re taking pictures?” asks the Bangladeshi man standing behind me. “I’m caught,” I think for a moment, standing in the back grocery area of Aladin Sweets & Market in the heart of Los Angeles. The last thing I want to do is talk to this guy about what I’m doing, have it lead to me giving him the name of the website, then sitting down to a an awful meal and feeling really bad about writing an honest opinion about the food.
“Oh, I’m just waiting for a friend,” I say.
“Uh-huh…” he responds and I realize that what I’ve said does not count as a sufficient response.
“I’m really interested in foods from different countries. I’m actually eating food from a different country every day in a row.”
“How’s your stomach holding up?”
“Pretty good so far.”
“So…pictures?” he asks.
“I like to catalogue my experiences. I also write about them.”
“Who do you write for?”
“Myself. Just myself. My own website.”
He’s a very nice man and like anyone else would be, was wondering what someone was doing taking pictures of their produce. But now I’ve shown interest in his culture, which is apparently a little bit of a rarity here. “Most of our clientele is from Bangladesh,” he says. “My family came to this country in 1991, then opened a catering company. A couple of years later, we opened this small market with a take out counter. Then we expanded into building next door and opened the restaurant.” Now they actually import supplies directly from Bangladesh, including, amazingly, the fish. “We don’t eat salt water fish in Bangladesh. Our technology was not up to snuff for a long time, so we always just ate fish from rivers. All of our fish here is brought in directly from Bangladesh. We try to offer a taste of home to people here in Los Angeles.” It’s an admirable achievement and they have been successful with their business for over a decade, all while keeping prices down.
A few minutes later, “Danielle” arrives and we head over to the counter to order our food. The food is mostly pre-made and being kept warm behind a glass case. That’s usually not a great sign for how the food is going to turn out, but it does seem to be a pretty effective way to lower the cost of food and be able keep longer business hours. I tell him that we eat everything and ask for his recommendations. He says he’ll give us a variety, then points us to our table. We sit down and immediately notice signs posted throughout the dining area saying “Please DO NOT WASTE FOOD. We will be re-filling all food items.” Then above and below it, there are Muslim prayers written out. “I hope he didn’t make us too much food,” I say as we are brought a pair of salt lassi in what look to be 64 ounce bright plastic milkshake cups and a trio of fried appetizers. Two of them are fairly typical samosas with veggies inside, but the third is a fried ball with soft, stewed beef. All three are perfectly fine, but lack the great satisfaction that comes from eating something right out of the fryer. These, unfortunately, are hours from that point. But it’s not like we didn’t see it coming. The one saving grace? The kashundi— a bright yellow sauce of mustard, mango and chilis which attacks your senses from multiple angles, taking any food you pair it with along for the ride as well. I’ll tell you one thing— this stuff would be amazing on a hot dog.
Goat biryani (a rice and stewed goat dish), palau (another rice dish), fish curry, chicken curry, okra, spinach and a final dish, of which the owner says “You try this and then tell me what it is.” The mystery dish is a thick, murky and translucent brownish liquid topped with fresh onions and herbs. I spoon some of it over my rice, along with a small nugget which looks almost like a macadamia nut, but is extremely hard. Is it a raw nut? Is it a bone? What the hell is going on here? I try to bite it gently, but quickly realize that this thing is not meant to be eaten. I drop it on a plate and makes a loud clinking sound. The mystery liquid over the rice has a meaty, but oddly creamy flavor. “So what do you think it is?” we’re asked. We respond with confusion, then he smiles and says “cow foot”. Ah. You again. I wasn’t that crazy about you the first time either. That means that the “macadamia nut” was really some kind of cow toe or something. By the time my fork touches the cow foot liquid again, it has formed a thick, rubbery film which now stretches if you try to lift it from the bowl.
“Danielle” and I start to work our way through the rest of the meal, moving from dish to dish like a kid trying to jog through a beat up sidewalk without stepping on any lines or cracks. “You know,” I say, “if we’d just been offered a bite of each thing, we’d be talking about how it was kind of neat. But the longer we sit here, the more tired I’m getting of the food.” I feel bad, because we both really did want to like it here. What they’re doing here is pretty noble, but would I come back here for a meal? Sadly, probably not. The food is not “bad”, just not particularly exciting. And I like to be excited about my food.
Our man returns, now with desserts and a house made, light brown yogurt which is so thick you can actually turn the Styrofoam bowl upside down and the stuff won’t move. He even shows us the more traditional version, served in a clay pot. It’s thick, creamy, tart, very rich, and also probably our favorite edible part of the day other than the kashundi. The other desserts, meanwhile, are an assortment of moist, juicy round-ish objects. Like with a lot of East Asian sweets, there is a very high sugar content. Two of these squishy balls are made of cheese and sugar, and are much too sweet for our taste. The third, an orange ball made from flour and sugar is much more muted and satisfying.
We are checked on once again, but still have a lot of food left on the table. I point to the frightening “DO NOT WASTE FOOD” sign and tell him we’re doing our best, and he laughs, telling us that it’s just a sign that’s still up from after the Ramadan feast. That makes us a little more comfortable as he steps away to bring us some to-go boxes. We wrap up our food, pay the absurdly cheap eighteen dollar bill, then walk to our cars. I’m partly disappointed by the meal itself, but mostly just worried about how to write about this place. The people are extremely nice, their hearts are in the right place and they really do genuinely help their community— but in the end, like I always say, it has to be about the food. Food is a passion for me, and if the food doesn’t make you passionate, you have to move on. I guess I’m like David Carradine in Kung Fu— just wandering the earth, looking for something special. And tomorrow, based on my research, will in fact be another day.
Aladin Sweets & Market
139 S Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90004
Food Breakdown: 2 non-alcoholic beverages, an assortment of small dishes
Distance From My House: 9.1 miles