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Gram Bangla: More than a replacement for Sabuj

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I randomly went into Gram Bangla (Village Bangla, Bangla Village, however you want to translate it) tonight. I can't remember if it was mentioned in the Time Out article or not, though I think that it was. Tonight was also my very first night back in London after an enormous Bengali weddng and a month in NYC.

Gram Bangla is very similar to Sabuj Bangla and the very Bengali places that line Bethnal Green Road. It's a long narrow restaurant which fills up as it gets later (I only know of its late night crowd) until you feel like you're in an East London imam's convention by 11:15pm. I walked into this meeting watching The Fifth Element quite attentatively before finding myself in front of a wonderful glass counter filled with just about every stereotypical Bengali specialty one needs for survival (and happiness, fish-ness, and uh... yeah....) My companion and I ordered keski mas, lamb with chana daal, and aloo bhorta as well as rice. The bill ended up coming to 14 quid which is reasonable enoguh as we were both full. Maybe a bit pricey and I suspect that prices (especially the 1.50 charge per rice) were magically invented for me. We'll see in the future. Ok I'm rambling.

The food was really excellent and world's better than what I've been having at Baburchi. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that Green St market makes me oddly happy and giddy or that I adore the Thrill of the Grill kebab place across from it then I wouldn't have to go back there (or move there at the end of this year.) The rice is well cooked and normal enough. No complaints, no burnt bits, and no hard bits. The rice portions were a bit skimpy though, especially for a Bengali place. The keski mas was delicious and also included the tiny dried baby shrimp that occasionally appear in Bengali dishes (nice borrowing from Chinese grocery stores.) Their keski mas contained more Thai chilis than usualy and had delicious kick. Overall it was a real winner and even after probably having sat for the whole day, it was not fishy. It was also WORLD'S less oily than Baburchi's btw. The aloo bhorta was delicious and VERY mustard oil and chili heavy. A great batch of aloo bhorta if a bit clumpy, though this is probably because it was sitting for a while. Finally, the last dish was the chana dal with lamb which was excellent. The lamb was incredibly tender, had very little fat, and was delicious. The sauce was yogurt based and you could easily notice whole cardamon pods and cloves. The portion was quite small for 4.50 though. Very small.

Overall I will definitely be back and I really like the whole atmosphere in there. Also, it's on Brick Lane which is convenient compared to places further east and it is a great option for this stretch of what is usually restaurant hell. I believe the owners are Sylheti and I suspect they may have some local specialties that I didn't notice. I usually judge Bengali places on fish and aloo bhorta so I had to get that out of the way first. Also, all meals come with optional paan at the end so you can chew your mildly stimulating and not so healthy beetlenut dumpling as you walk to the bus, tube, home. Oh yeah, you also have the added benefit of being stared at, commented on, and greeted by random people who want to know why you're eating with your hands, where you learned how to, and how the hell you know what paan is.

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  1. i love your posts. what a find, one of these days i'm going to have leave leafy kensington and come brave the wilds of east london with you.

    a tip for paan: tell him to avoid tambakoo (tum-bach-oo, say it with a soft t, bach as in the composer and oo as in oo-la-la) and give you plenty of gulkul (rose syrup jam - i think) , soft supari, sauf and coconut shavings.

    6 Replies
    1. re: howler

      Thanks. They bring out the standard platter of leaves, Sylheti tobacco, calcium nitrate, and such, though I didn't see coconut shavings or gulkul (and I never have before.) I'll look into it.

      I'm going to be in the area nightly and seeing as this place is open REALLY late (I left at around midnight and it was still booming despite the sign reading CLOSED on the outside) I'll be able to check it again this week. After a politics exam of death tomorrow at least. Their selection was really extensive compared to even Sabuj Bangla. They had keski mas, shutki, boal, rui, and ilish. That pretty much covers most Bengali fish desires anyone can have. I think they may have had even more and they also had something which the owner called a fish chutney. I've never had that before. They have at least two lambs, though one might be goat. There's one standard chicken curry which didn't look all that attractive. The veg options are surprisingly good for a Bengali place with a few types of daal, chana daal, cabbage, potato/cauliflower, etc. Overall a very good selection. I'm not sure if anything can be made to order though as no menu is displayed and it seems like the case is what they have. I'd suspect that if they do have tandoori items they would be cooked to order though, but I haven't seen any. Most people seemed to be ordering fish and the majority of the case is fish.

      1. re: JFores

        "The veg options are surprisingly good for a Bengali place"

        in fact, thats when you know you've hit pay dirt. the best way to judge an indian cooks cooks expertise is to see how he/she handles the veg.

        other than die hard indian muslims (ie, those who consider chicken a vegetable), every indian community eats mainly vegetarian.

        in the rare cases where theres non-veg on the table every single day as opposed to thrice a week say, it'd still be a smaller part of the meal.

        the key to the indian plate - in almost every community - is variety: you mix, match, dab this, peck at that. its closer to several tapas dishes at one time than it is the concept of a 'course'.

        1. re: howler

          I did a follow up review for lunch today and it was even better. We ordered and shared shutki (dried salt water fish) in what seemed like a red tomato based sauce which was mildy spiced and also contained potatos. The taste of the shutki itself was mildly fishy in a way that only dried fish can be. It was, however, very good if a bit boney. I like shutki, but I prefer it other ways (my friend's mother stews it with an entire head of garlic and lots of green chillis. I think that works better for it then a red sauce, but that's just me.)

          We also ordered loti (I don't know the name of it in English. The very long South Asian plants that looks like enormous string beans/French beans and have a firm texture when cooked) which was stewed in a similar but much lighter red tinted sauce which tasted of tomato and a lot of chili and garlic. It also had fishy overtones from the very generous amount of baby shrimp which were strewn throughout the dish. A winner, but a bit pricey at 4.50.

          Finally, my favorite part of today's meal was the fish chutney. The texture was comparable to laarb or a similar Thai salad in that it was all ground fish, chillis, and spices, but it was absolutely delicious. The smell was very strong and is comparable to Thai shrimp paste. My right hand still smells of it and it won't wash off, but it was REALLY REALLY good. It had a delicious shutki like taste, but more profound and with spicing that was more noticeable. It also mixed nicely with rice and had a very liberal amount of chillis in it. At 4.50 it isn't bad for the portion and I will have to order it every time I go back.

          Some of the sites of the day included a proud Bangladeshi showing off a new UK visa to his friends who came for lunch, the imam table in the back watching Western movies, and an hilarious (to me at least) comment by a hijab wearing Bengali teen on Brick Lane that "Like, me'z en muh mum went tu'z this store, like, and bought like so much mishti, yea" in the heaviest East London accent ever but the word mishti was still perfectly Bengali in its prounciation! Good fun. Back to death by politics.

          1. re: JFores

            loti? do you mean lauki/dudhi?

            1. re: howler

              Bengali's say loti like roti but with an l, though it sounds similar enough to probably be it.

          2. re: howler

            Not quite correct. India is a big country and food culture varies widely. It's a very narrow generalisation to say every indian community eats mainly vegetarian. E.g. Bengalis from Kolkata or the parts of West Bengal (which is in India) are by and large non-vegetarian population. the amount and variety of fish eaten can probably rival only Japan. Also bengali cuisine includes large varieties of freshwater fish, which is not a common fish source in UK. Similarly there are large swathes of north and north-western part of india where meat eating is quite common.

      2. Awesome! Will definitely check it out. Love your posts as well and always good to hear a perpsective from the outer bouroughs.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Will125

          Looking for somewhere to try tonight, so may give this place a spin. Would love to sample this place in more informed company. Chowhound field trip/chowdown anybody?

          1. re: loobcom

            Howdy, sorry to interrupt the chowtalk, but if you wish to organize a chowdown, please provide your email and conduct the logistics off the boards so that the boards can focus onthe chow talk.

            Here's a link detailing chowdown organization that you might find handy:
            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/36760...

            1. re: loobcom

              JFores2581@aol.com. The place is open crazy late so just drop a line as I'll study for politics until then (and on the tube for that matter.)

              And might I add... Holy Pedantic Batman! /\

              Also, does anyone know of any other Bengali places that serve fish chutney? This is the first time I've ever had it and I really really like it (despite the fact that the smell WILL NOT GO AWAY.) Also, does anyone know places that do shutki in different ways? I'm not that big a fan of the sauce that Gram does for their's, but that might be because it's different from what I've had.

          2. I just ate there for the third time in two days (excess b-day money disappearing rapidly) and it was excellent again. This time I had rice, rohu fish, and fish eggs (in sacks and in the gravy.) It came to 12 pounds with tea and paan.

            When I first entered a little meeting of some left wing East London political party was happening at one table; the first time I saw any non Bengalis in there besides myself. I asked the man behind the counter to tell me what the things I didn't know were. The menu as a whole from what I know and what he told me is (for today at least as I think it changes very often) fish chutney, black chana daal, tarka daal, mung daal, boal mas, rohu mas, keski mas, brain curry, lamb curry, chicken curry, shutki made with salt water fish, aloo bhorta, loti, fish egg sacks, whole catfish, cabbage, and I believe one or two other vegetables that I can't remember. Maybe another fish too. Oh yes, they had ilish and a mixed fish (I think it might've been a do macher curry Chittagong style) dish.

            The rohu mas came with sliced bitter gourd/kerala in it was was an interesting taste and texture contrast to the flavorful white meat fish. The sauce was strongly spiced, but not particularly spicy/hot. It was more liquidy than what the fish egg came in. The fish eggs (which comes in sacks but are also loose throughout the sauce) have a very mild fish-like taste with a firm, but brittle texture. Biting into one of the egg sacks will cause it to crumble as much as it will crush it and the taste is comparable to the most dullest least salty cod roe; it is not nearly as salty as one would generally expect fish eggs to be. The sauce it was in was thick, delicious, and filled with yet more fish eggs. Overall, very very good.

            Back to politics again.

            2 Replies
            1. re: JFores

              I went there for lunch again today because I now live there; I am convinced that the local regulars regard me as one of them as I now get free English language newspapers and am asked opinions on articles...

              So aside from seeing the debut of the Bangladeshi version of "The Office" today (I haven't seen that many Bengali males wearing suits since the wedding I was at; Lunch is prime for the local business guys, apparently) I had rice, tarka dal, black chana dal, keski mas, and tea. It came to 10 quid. Their tarka dal is actually very very good. It's a watery dal (most Bengali dals I've had are.) Heavy on the salt and very heavy on the garlic, but good. Also, the chana dal was extremely strongly flavored with cloves and cinnamon. It ended up being a nice contrast to the somewhat fishy yet lemony keski and the green bird's eye chillis that I broke up throughout my food. All of the veg items I've had here been been winners thus far. I'm going to try their mixed veg and kerala ASAP. Kerala should proceed other dishes in a Bengali meal and mixed veg is equally if not more important as a starter so I need to get to trying that. Maybe for dinner. I'm waiting till Saturday to grocery shop so I get to have a field day at this place until then.

              1. re: JFores

                It's interesting how you replicated the dialect of bangladeshi bangla here. I was born in Kolkata which is Indian part of bengal. My mom's family is from indian part of bengal originally and my dad's from what is now bangladesh. So had good exposure to both. The bengalis from west will call any fish 'maachh' with a strong 'chh' sound, many bangladeshi dialect will pronounce it as 'mas' (although the bengali spelling suggests a 'chh' sound). Intereting to hear 'loti' - this is same as roti as it's called in most of north india, however bengalis from west calls it 'rooti' with a strong 'roo' sound as kangaroo. I don't eat fish (with notable exception of prawn and crab which are not fish technically) or meat myself. But being born to hardcore bangali parents who likes fish I'm familiar with all the names you mentioned other than keski (never heard of that).

              2. To update on the post that no one else is reading...

                I had the kerala, mixed vegetables, prawns (menu changed more or less as of today btw. They have different dishes every few days.) The kerala was very bitter as only kerala can be, but it was good and it went well when mixed with dal which cut the bitterness a bit with garlic and saltiness. The mixed veg was very good and quite flavorful for veg. A good meal starter. Finally, the prawns were delicious. Eaten shell on, they were extremely flavorful and tasted very strongly of both prawns and spice at the same time. They were cooked very simply as Bengalis usually do prawns; it seemed that all that was added was onions, turmeric, cumin, coriander leaves, and mustard seeds.

                2 Replies
                1. re: JFores

                  I'm reading it. :-) I even counted up how much you've spent in this joint so far.

                  1. re: zuriga1

                    Yeah, I'm killing my finances. I didn't tell my father I was in New York so he simply deposited my usual budgeted amount of cash. While this is a really steep budget for London, I was in NY and I had to spend practically none of it. Extra month's worth of money + Justin = Happy. I need to save most of it for Thailand or I'm dead, though. Today's meal was 18 quid among 3 people. Actually, all of the above meals have been split among 2 except for today's with 3.

                    So far I'd say that an essential meal at this place consists of a vegetable starter (kerala is the most traditional Bengali starter as they like to put bitter first) with rice and dal. Then move on (and eat at the same time) another vegetable/dal like the chana dal or loti while eating a fish (the rohu, boal, and prawns are really good. The keski mas is the best I've had in a restaurant. The shutki is good. Etc.) Finally, if you want to be really Bengali meal about it follow that with a meat. Their lamb with chana dal is especially good.

                2. Three of my friends and I had an absolute feast at Gram Bangla today. We ordered sooo much. Chicken curry (VERY GOOD. A South Asian in my group said it was similar to her mother's!), rohu mas, keski mas, mixed veg, aloo bhorta, fish chutney, etc. I think I'm leaving more out. It was sooooooo much food and all of it was excellent. The bill came to 32 quid and it was a great meal. Tea and pan were the only two things that kept my stomach settled enough to get to the tube after that enormous meal. I am now officially referred to as brother by the staff.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: JFores

                    Since you're now part of the family, maybe we can rent the place out on a Sunday afternoon.

                    1. re: zuriga1

                      Haha, do you have some sort of event in mind? It's always very amusing when I can notice the exact point that a Bengali goes from calling me whatever he was otherwise calling me to brother. It's happened quite a few times and I think asking for pan was responsible for this one.

                      BTW, yesterday's specials included two new fish that I've never seen. I believe one is a small salt water fish while the other is a very very long fish which I think may be some sort of Bengali eel. I didn't try either since I was with two less than adventurous eaters (who's lack of a heat tolerance caused me to have to put away an insane amount of food)

                      1. re: JFores

                        just to get pedantic on you - its 'paan'

                        1. re: JFores

                          Well, I wouldn't stage a bar mitzvah there, but we had a small gathering of Chowhounds while you were back on the other side. Limster, Krista and I had lunch at Ishbilia, and it was fun, as always, putting a face to the names. Think of how much we could order if there were 5 or 6 people!

                          1. re: zuriga1

                            That would be excellent. 6 people would be able to order just about the entire menu. What we ordered yesterday was far too much for 4 people though. I'd be up for any sort of gathering; I was just at two very large ones in NY in which we met up with Times reporter Nancy Durrant. Good fun and interesting convos. Gram isn't the type of place we'd have to rent. Similar sized groups of office workers, imams, etc come in all the time and just put two tables together themselves. It's a small very community oriented place (I'm starting to recognize most of the people that come in and all of those who work there.)

                            To Howler: Yeah, I always forget the second a when writing it phonetically.

                            1. re: JFores

                              Hi:

                              Chowhound gatherings are lots of fun, but we ask that you please follow the guidelines here:

                              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/36760...

                              As discussed there, we ask posters to make such arrangements off the boards (other than the announcement thread that we will sticky and lock), so that the regional boards don't get cluttered with the logistical arrangements, which are off-topic.

                              Thank you!

                    2. Just a little Gram update. Their fabda is pretty good (it's a sardine like fish) and it's in a light tomato based broth. Despite being tasty, the sheer amount of scales, finny bits, etc which are strewn throughout everything make it a bit of a hassle to eat.

                      In other news: the Kebabish/Thrill of the Grill on Green St is still fabulously good, but the one in Bow is a sad runner up to its big brother further east. I'd say stay on the 25 bus for another 15 mins, skip the Bow one, and go to the source of all meaty goodness.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: JFores

                        JF, I've been tuning in to, and enjoying, the Gram Bangla show, it's very much on my go-to list. I can't say I know anything much about Bengali cuisine but some of the dishes you describe remind me of the excellent [predominantly freshwater] fish curries and biryanis I ate in Kerala a few weeks ago. Below is the link to the website of a place I walked by a few days ago, could be interesting, on the other hand could be dumbed down and pretentious especially with the gallery connection and location near LoungeLover, Shoreditch House etc

                        http://www.chaatlondon.co.uk/food.htm

                        It's obvious to me that you really "get" Indian food. One of the favourite all time meals in my parents' Punjabi household is an informal mish mash of rice, roti/chapati, some dahi or boondi raita, perhaps one veg preparation and then as many [preferably home made] pickles as you can get your hands on. We used to bring back from India large jars of gobhi shalgam gajar (cauliflower, turnip, carrot) da achaar made by my grandmother and green chilli achaar made by my uncle - served on toast, with rice or roti, they practically became meals all on their own.

                        Another point of pedantry - bitter gourd should be "karela" rather than "kerala". Definitely an acquired taste and one that I never acquired although recently I have enjoyed a [shop bought] karela pickle when I've visited my folks.

                        1. re: oonth

                          Btw as advertised on the Chaat website with advisory warning, have you ever eaten a Bangladeshi nagar morich chilli? Sounds like it might be right up your street :-)

                          1. re: oonth

                            fyi oonth - keralan cuisine is nothing like bengali cuisine.

                            did you have a good time in kerala?

                            1. re: howler

                              Yep Kerala was a great time thanks. Chow-wise we did pretty well although there's always this nagging feeling that you're not getting the best stuff as you're not eating in people's houses (and we steered clear of toddy bars). The one time that we did have the chance of home prepared food (in the gubernatorial residence in Trivandrum no less) we were served bland North Indian food much to my consternation but circumstances beyond my control. I expected to find a diversity of foods and influences but was amazed by the breadth of that diversity, I felt as though we just touched the tip of the eating iceberg in our few days there. I liked the veggie offerings but the standouts for me were the various fish curries and biryanis, I liked both the saucing and the fish used whether local snapper, kingfish or the more esoteric boney-as-hell karimeen ("pearlspot" in English apparently). Big fan of the various payasams too. And the bananas obviously.

                              Anyway to stay relevant, where if anywhere to find good Keralan fodder in London? Quilon you've tipped already but only for lunchtime thali. Rasa, we don't rate. There's a place called Kerala just off Oxford Circus, any knowledge? Malabar Junction, I went once with friends, wasn't impressed I don't think, any thoughts? I've seen a few places in North West London (Kingsbury and Harrow) claiming to have Keralan menus but I get the feeling they are more Tamil or Sri Lankan specialists, I may check a couple of them out all the same.

                            2. re: oonth

                              Thanks. I've only had store bought pickles of late because the only time I can get home made ones is in New York (and mostly chili and mango pickles when I can get them. I'll check out the restaurant link in a minute. By the way, it's very convenient that you bumped this up for me as I had a FABULOUS meal at Gram today. Today is a month after Bengali New Year which is practically as large a day as Bengali New Year for Bengalis. A friend of mine and I headed over to Brick Lane anticipating possible events and we were NOT disappointed. The street was in full party swing or as full party swing as a stretch of Bengali businesses can be; complete with outdoor chat and jelebi arrangements. Gram had THREE TIMES the usual number of dishes it has! It had virtually every dish I have EVER seen there! Two types of fish egg curry, shoal mas with pumpkin (DELICIOUS), kerala, shutko, two types of shutki, two types of loti, bhegun borta, aloo bhorta, biriyani, keski mas, rohu mas, boal mas, fish and potato, quail (probably the single best dish I have had at a restaurant in London. REALLY incredible.), a whole chicken, whole fried catfish, whole fried ilish, brain masala, fish chutney, prawns in saag, lamb with chana dal, tarka dal, mung dal, chicken, beef, goat, egg curry, and probably even more. It was amazing. We had the loti with shutki and baby shrimp, the shoal mas with pumpkin, and the quail. The loti was delicious and packed more heat than usual. It would please virtually any Bangladeshi just as much as it would turn off virtually any West Bengali with the Eastern NEED to add fish to a vegetable dish. It was excellent and fulfilling in a fishy and vegy sort of way. The shoal and pumpkin was also delicious with a great sweet-fishy balance. Tasty and very heavy on the sauce which mixed well with rice. Finally, the quail was amazing. Amazing. The sauce was brown, thick, and incredible with whole cloves and wonderful taste of caramelized onions that were stirred until they dissolved. Also, it was an entire quail. It was 5 pounds for this quail and it was worth every meaty little morsel on the tiny bird. It was absolutely delicious and probably the single most delicious thing I have eaten in a London restaurant. I've never had poultry stewed whole for so long and to the extent that everything was perfectly cooked and would easily tear to shreds with just a bit of finger rubbing. That bird disappeared into a pile of bones FAST.

                              1. re: JFores

                                You seem to love your boney creatures. I fear for the quail population I really do :-) Just as I fear for the scallop population on my own account, the raw scallop at Tomoe is the single best item I have eaten in London in a while, I had 4 pieces in one sitting last week.

                                I'm also a big fan of quail (the quail app at Haozhan is notable btw), I'll definitely give that dish a shot along with some of the other dishes you've mentioned.

                          2. My partner and I are visiting from San Francisco and we went to Gram Bangla tonight on your recommendation. It was still wonderful. They didn't have aloo bhorta, but we had delicious lamb, a fish dish with peppers, and some channa. The imams were there, grouped around a table up front, and as it was early in the evening a lot of people were just dropping in for some chai and paan.

                            Thanks so much for a great recommendation, and for steering us away from the homogenous Brick Lane fare.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: GhidorahNotWeak

                              Glad you liked it and I'm glad to see CHers actively going to this place. I love it, but Bangladeshi food has gotten rather mixed reviews from a lot of posters (plus the environment in Gram can be awkward for certain groups or single women.)