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Jul 22, 2006 07:47 AM

Cafe Dhaka in Santa Clara?

Last night I stumbled upon Cafe Dhaka in Santa Clara and was trying to decide between ordering shorshay elish (hilsha fish cooked with mustard onions and cilantro) or muri ghonto (grass carp head cooked with moong dal, fresh ginger, garlic and onions). However, an incoming phone call changed my plans for the evening and I ended up somewhere else.

What should I have ordered at this Bangladeshi specialist?

David Boyk's hunt for Bengali -

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  1. >What should I have ordered at this Bangladeshi specialist?
    Well the "shorsay ilish" and rosogollas are the two signature
    Bengali items (neither of which I like and take a lot of flack
    for from (other) Bengalis).

    I think it is worth trying any of the "maacher jhol" [maach =
    fish, jhol = sort of a sauce/gravy] simply because it is so
    different from the sauce in the standard indian restaurant
    fare [the really thick stuff in the vindaloos, chiken tikka
    masala etc]. I'd be really surprised if people here liked the
    muri ghonto [sort of a stew made from fish heads and rice]
    but again, it may be something to try.

    I also wonder if anybody will expect to eat some these really
    boney fish dishes without using their fingers.

    For the typical American palate, I think something like some
    luchis [an indian puffed bread I like much more than the
    unbiqutous "nann"] with the alooer dum should be a good option.

    I think my mum wasn't super thrilled with Cafe Dhaka,
    but she might have had unreasonable expectations when it comes
    to stuff she can make ... she must not have hated it since
    she offered to let me take her there next time I was visiting.

    Somewhat interestingly, the Bengali text on the web site
    is pretty different from the english [no mention of the Thai
    specials]. The teaser dishes they mention there are the Luchis
    [not really a dinner food], the Biriyani, the shorsay ilish, the
    pabda fish in jhol, the muri ghonto and some kind of fried item
    [it says something like "fried silver dollars" but i am not sure
    what exactly is being fried ... potato? bitter mellon?]. Oh they
    also mention the mughlai parata [a fancy naan] and the phutcka
    [better known in these parts as "pani puri"].

    I think they probably could do a lot of simple comfort foods
    well that bengalis would be used to as a part of a complete
    meal that are not a real option at other restaurants ...
    like a vegetable starter called a "shukto" or jhinga with
    shorsa tel [ridge gourd with mustard oil ... analogous to asking
    for the "greens du jour" at a chinese place] and you
    could get the traditional side of "bhaja" [deep fried vegetable
    generally] along with the easy to find daal [like the begun
    baja on the menu ... sort of an eggplant tempura.]

    I think at some point they may have to decide whether to
    focus on dishes that will be popular here or go for the
    niche approach, in which case they might have to be willing
    to whip up simple dishes Bengalis would be looking for.

    Oh here is an interesting observation about their menu:
    they dont seem to have any "fruit chutneys" that would be
    the closest things to a dessert course of a bengali meal
    [this is different of the chutney-as-a-condiment you see
    commonly] ... instead they just list the originally bengali
    but now fairly ubiquitous milk-based sweets, which are more
    snack fare than dessert items, except special occasions.

    For the true authentic experience, you have to go with ~8
    people and see if they give you 1-2 menus for the table :-)

    7 Replies
    1. re: psb

      Wow. Thanks so much for your answer. I'd be willing to organize a chowdown here if you would consider attending and guiding a group of Chowhounds throught the meal.

      My email address is on my 'MyChow" page just after my top five restaurants. Let me know off-line since I don't want to put you on the spot on the board and Chowdowns are handled off-line anyway by one person organizing the event. Hope you will consider attending and helping us understand more about this type of food.

      At anyrate, thanks again for the post. If I have to get there myself I may ask them for the menu in Bengali just to see what happens. Your informative post gives me some ideas on how to work with the restaurant if dining alone there.

      1. re: psb

        Thats a great description of the menu PSB, I'd just like to clarify that I think 'Rupchanda' is another name for Pomfret - and so thats what the 'Fried Silver Dollar" refers to.

        1. re: psb

          Splendid, splendid, thanks so much! I was trying to find Side Dish Corner, which is in the same strip mall. It's a great stretch on El Camino. And around the corner on the side street next to the gun shop, a chaat place will be opening soon in the Indian grocer.

          Fish cooked on the bone is right up my alley. I've had one Bengali fish curry before elsewhere at a chow dinner, though my Bengali friend said it wasn't quite sharp enough. I loved it so am very much looking forward to trying other versions that are closer to home style.

          Dhaka has a refrigerator case by the entrance full of sweets.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Have you tried the moglai porota? that's really great! Also, try chital kofta (made from bangladehsi fish chital and it's boneless); that's good too

            1. re: mlm

              Question - the menu on the website states that all dishes are prepared as mild unless notes;ask for medium spicy or hot - how "hot" is hot here? Are there particular dishes that should be ordered hotter?

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                A reply emailed to me by a shy 'hound -

                "Yes, there are certainly some dishes that are traditioally hot ...
                I personally think hotness
                feels different in different foods ... like there is dry red chilli
                hot, which I have a very high tolerance for [like the chinese hot oil
                stuff], but there is also a whole green chilli one [like a dal or veg
                curry cooked with green chillis] that feels quite different and i dont
                like as much ... it feels a little more nasal than just on your
                tongue. Also there are very rich "jhols" [like the fish sauce] which
                are more rich than hot [ground spices, oil, pureed giner, onion etc]...
                those can be pretty intense. Finally, Bengalis do a lot of cooking with
                mustard oil as well as a more coarse form of mustard called "kashundi"
                [more like a stone ground mustard paste] ... I guess that's another form
                of hotness. English uses one word, hot, for picante and caliente, while
                the "chilli cultures" seem to always have two different words ... english
                also seems to lack a word for the mustard/wasabi "sinus kick" ... in bengali,
                that sense is called "jhanj" ... so that's yet another dimension where
                you have to control "intensity". "

              2. re: mlm

                Here's a link to the chowdown report -

                We ordered two of the things you recommended, thank you!
                Moglai porota -
                Chital kofta -

          2. It's cool to see people enthused about "my people's" food.

            Er, timing not so good for me to be your "culinary sherpa" ...
            I'm also not actually that knowledgeable about Bengali cooking.
            Last time I was clearing customs at SFO, this inspector started
            yelling "jeera! jeera! you have any jeera?" from about 20 feet
            away ... it took me a couple of seconds to realize she was
            talking to me and was using the "indian" word for cumin seeds.
            I was so surprised, I almost blurted out "nah, you'ld have to
            catch my mother for that stuff"

            Maybe Ms. Pomfret will step up to the challenge?
            [BTW, I see what you mean about the silver fish bhaja ...
            I got caught up thhinking about silver dollar pancakes
            and was envisioning small, disk-shaped things]

            BTW, the wikipedia entry on the "canonical progression"
            of a Bengali meal is pretty good:

            There is a scene in a famous Bengali detective movie where
            the detective figures out somebody is lying about being Bengali
            because he eats certain dishes in the wrong order.

            Some of the fish dishes we talked about are "worth trying"
            but I dont think would be big hits here. I do think some dishes
            like Alur Dum [potato curry], Deemer Dalna [Egg curry], the
            various tempuraish fritters [many variations of fried potatos,
            battered eggplant, pumpkin slices battered and fried, squash
            blossoms also given similar treatment] would be quite popular
            and would do a volume business. These are also easy to do,
            and I wish *somebody* would add them to their menu.

            Some other unique tastes which are quite different from the
            usual indian restaurant offereings would be:
            --a posto [poppyseed] curry ... say with potato or better yet,
            jhinga [ridge gourd ... the loofa vegetable


            -one of the lau curries [lau = bottle gourd. This is really
            good ... there is even a folk song about this vegetable!
            Although the usual samples here arent as sweet as in India.
            one standard curry prep is with shrimp.]

            --the vegetable called "kochu" ... taro? Also makes good
            curries.[there are a few different kinds of kotchu and i
            dont know what they are all called in english.]

            --There are some good dishes also made from plantains, but
            again the plantains here seem to be starchier than sweet.

            --Kitchori [kedgree?] ... Bengali rainy day comfort food.

            --Okra+Mustard curry

            --Begun Pora [burnt eggplant ... roast eggplant in a fire ...
            or stove top if you have to ... take the stwed meat off the
            eggplan and combine with onion bits, mustard oil, green chilli
            ... yum!]

            --fried fish roe [pretty strong, slightly bitter flavor]

            --alu+paij koli curry ... i think piaj koli would be "onion

            --dal with dried sour mango strips

            There are lots of other interesting vegetables not commonly
            used in "western" cooking which might be interesting to try
            but I dont think would be consistently popular ... potol
            [pointed_gourd], unripe jackfruit, mocha [banana blossom],
            thor ["heart of banana stem"].

            Anyway, there are some ideas if you want to negotiate about
            "real" bong dishes. N.B. that's not really a complete menu
            in the sense that a lot of those dont belong in the same meal.

            And remember, if you want to see the menu, ask for the
            "me-noo card" rather than the "men-you".

            3 Replies
            1. re: psb

              Thanks so much. This REALLY helps as a meal guide. It was so thoughtful of you to take the time. Looking forward to stopping by sometime.

              Maybe I'll ask for some of those dishes not on the menu and see if they will make them ... at the very least it might make them think I know something about Bengali food.

              Mmmm ... poppyseed curry. "My people", Polish, are really into poppyseeds.

              Looking at the menu it seems they have doi.

              That's funny, something I never knew existed I see twice in one week. Hot posts was showing the Toronto Star article about Jim Leff's tour of that city, and the reporter focused on doi.

              Don't know why, but I was reading it quickly and associated in my mind with another culture. Here's the article if anyone's interested. I just went back to check to see if that was the same thing I read about earlier and the canada link doesn't work. If this one doesn't work, googling "leff and Toronto" will get you to the Toronto Star.

              More about doi.

              So, like when is doi usually eaten in the meal? If what Jim says is true and it clues the restaurant that you might be really interested in that cuisine, if it is an end of meal thing, that ain't going to help. I guess if it is at the end, I could just inquire up front ... "I'm thinking of getting the doi later, do you have it today?" ...

              The wiki article mentions doi, but only as a fish dish with that name Doi machh. So do you eat this by itself or as part of some other dish? BTW, that seems like a useful link. Thanks.

              You know, even on Chowhound sometimes I feel like a food geek. Last year seemed all the food I was interested in began with the letter "P" ... Portuguese, Peruvian, Polish ... 2006 seems to be foods with the letter "B" Brazilian, Bangladeshi ...

              1. re: rworange

                Mishti Doi (Sweet yoghurt literally) is eaten at the end of the meal (after the chutney and along with the sweets like sondesh and roshogolla or pantua etc). The Doi Machh is a way of cooking fish with yoghurt (the plain regular kind).

                One thing you might want to be aware of is that there is a subtle / not-so-subtle difference between Bangladeshi food and food from West Bengal. Especially the typical veggie dishes - Bangladeshi food would be more Muslim influenced and uses onion/garlic while the West Bengal cuisine is more Hindu influenced and would traditionally not use onion / garlic in vegetarian food for sure as onion/garlic are considered to be non-vegetarian. All of this has obviously evolved over time and you cannot really make absolute statements about a cuisine that is still almost entirely home-cooking oriented. It is only recently that Bengali restaurants have opened up in Calcutta (Kolkata) and become popular so there is no platonic ideal of what Bengali food ought to be like except from our memories of Mom's/Grandmom's cooking.

                To keep it more relevant to the Bay area board - the Cafe Dhaka menu appears to have the more typically Bengali food under the Fish courses and the Vegetarian courses. I'd definitely try the Dalpuri, Shorshe ilish, Mocha, Chana Dal (ask for jhuri alubhaja to go with it if they have it - literally string fried potatoes) and the Doi to finish up with.

                Here is a review of Cafe Dhaka on the Another Subcontinent Forums - the reviewer seems unimpressed:

                1. re: jhinky

                  Thanks so much for the info about doi.

                  Although the person was unenthusiastic about the place they also said they didn't know anything about Bangladeshi food ... and it seems they ordered just the straight Indian dishes.

                  That might or might not be a good indicator of how good the place is. I'm still interested since I've never tried that cuisine and it will start to build up a benchmark if I try the food elsewhere ... I'll bet I start stumbling across every Bangladeshi food source, if there are others, in the Bay area now.

                  This is one of those times I wish I did work at an office. Those software engineers from India were good sources of food tips.

            2. Thanks for finding this! I'll have to go there before I leave for India in a month (I'll be living in Lucknow, but taking periodic trips to West Bengal).

              1. Recommend to try the Mutton rejala. My wife ordered some fish curry and she liked it. The second day I ordered Kacchi Biryani. It was pretty good. I think they only serve the kacchi biryani from Thursday through Sunady since this is a special kind. They also serve other biryanis as well. Please check their menu at for other items.

                1 Reply
                1. re: mkhan

                  mutton rejala is ok. Which fish curry did you like? I went Thursday and couldn't get the kacchi byriani but tried tehari which was good. They said Kacchi is only available Firday & Saturday. I'll try next.

                2. re:
                  >I'll bet I start stumbling across every Bangladeshi food source,
                  >if there are others, in the Bay area now.

                  Of Migrations and Menus ...

                  You know it's sort of interesting how migration patterns put a
                  stamp on menus and perceptions. I'm not super-knowledgeable
                  about this but consider, for example, how in the Yeah Area
                  "canontese culture" looms disproportionately larger than it
                  does in back in the Hanland.

                  Indian-influenced menus have definitely evolved differently in
                  say Singapore, London and California. Part of this is clearly
                  local adaptation ... to local taste [chiken tikka malasa], avail
                  ingredients [celary as a filler] etc. But I think the divergenge
                  is also seeded in what you might call a "founder effect".

                  In East Londonistan, we have:

                  In Brick Lane, Bengali staples such as jack fruit, betel nut and paan
                  leaves and frozen fish caught in Sylhet's Surma river are for sale.

                  Sylhet is now one of the richest towns in the country with the area's
                  economy largely built on British curry ...

                  More than eight out of 10 Indian restaurants in the UK are owned by
                  Bangladeshis, the vast majority of whom - 95% - come from Sylhet. In
                  1946, there were 20 restaurants or small cafes owned by Bengalis; in
                  1960 there were 300; and by 1980, more than 3,000. Now, according to
                  the Curry Club of Great Britain, there are 8,500 Indian restaurants,
                  of which roughly 7,200 are Bengali. An awful lot of chicken tikka
                  masala, apparently now Britain's national dish, has its origins here.

                  ][Sylhet is a northern part of Bangladesh, just "under" Assam]

                  But for Bay Area Bengalis, you can almost say: First came the
                  Civil Engineers, then the Mech Engineers, then the EEs, and
                  now we're up to the software crew ... none experts in the
                  Art of the Rosogolla.

                  Of course this doesnt explain why there are dosa places all over the
                  East Bay and the South Bay but not in SF [Dosa is the Mission is a
                  different kind of enterprise; I think it is better characterized as
                  a "higher end" place than a dosa joint. And Kennedy's is simply an

                  in re:
                  >there is a subtle / not-so-subtle difference between Bangladeshi
                  >food and food from West Bengal

                  I guess if you have two Bengalis in a discussion, the Bangal/Ghoti
                  (East/West) thing coming up is inevetiable :-)

                  Ok nuff pontificating.