English | Dutch
Forget all good table manners
Dhaka (Bangladesh), March 10th 2008

For the food during our journey, we are depending mostly on the food that is on offer in the restaurants. The food in Bangladeshi restaurants isn’t very diverse and after a few weeks all the food starts to taste as more of the same. Still it is nice to visit the restaurants, as there always happens something that will catch your attention. A Bangladeshi restaurant is the right place to forget everything that your parents have taught you regarding table manners. Table manners are different, the waiters are behaving in differently and there is a different notion about hygiene. In this article we take you to a Bangladeshi restaurant to have breakfast, lunch and diner.

Bangladeshis love food and therefore, there are always guests in the many restaurants that open their doors early to close them late. From around 6:00 a.m. onwards we can take our breakfast in one of these restaurants. When we use the word “restaurant”, you should not think about an atmospheric dim lighted room with soft background music and strikingly clean tablecloths. The restaurants that the common Bangladeshi uses, looks more like the changing room of a swimming pool with harsh TL-light and that is full with tables. The entrance isn’t inviting as everything looks greasy because of the deep-frying activities that normally take place at the entrance. The greasy thick smoke leaves its marks on the windows and the walls which aren’t cleaned often. On each table stands a water pitcher with four glasses. As soon as you take your seat at one of the tables, there stands one of the waiters next to you to take your order. A typical Bangladeshi breakfast consists of Roti (flat bread), Paratha (kind of thick pancake) with Sabji (mix of overcooked vegetables that is often cold) and Dahl (lentil sauce that also is often cold). A breakfast for two persons sets you back around 30 eurocents. While we are eating, a beggar steps into the restaurant. Apparently, he is thirsty as he walks to an empty table to fill a glass with water. In one draught he empties the glass and afterwards he leaves the eatery. The used glass remains at the table, waiting for new guests to come. While we continue our breakfast, a growing number of waiters gather around our table. Sometimes they ask a question, but most of the time they are just watching while we are eating. Within a second after finishing one of our eating bowls, there is a waiter who clears away the bowl. They are also remarkable quick to present the bill. While we are still chewing our food, the bill is already on our table. In The Netherlands you would interpret this as a signal that you are supposed to leave the restaurant as soon as possible. In Bangladesh, this is an example of good and fast service. After finishing our meal, the tables are “cleaned” with an old, filthy piece of cloth. Everything that lies on the table is wiped on the floor that gets dirtier with the hour. The remainder of the dirtiness is rubbed out on the table to make it less visible for the next customer.

Ivonne is enjoying her breakfast while the waiters are ready to "serve"

Around 01:00 p.m. it is again rush hour in the restaurants. The typical lunch menu consists of rice, dahl, sabji and a curry with mutton, chicken or fish. The waiter puts wet plates on the table with the water jug and the four glasses. For some reason, wet plates are considered to be cleaner than dry plates. Some customers are still not convinced of the cleanliness of the plates and they pour some water from the pitcher on their plate to wash it together with some table salt. A table companion ensures us that this kills all possible bacteria’s. After cleaning the plate, the washing water is poured in a deep plate which is on the table for this purpose. This plate is also used for washing the right hand that plays a vital role at a Bangladeshi meal. The left hand is considered unclean as it is used for cleaning oneself after going to the toilet. Therefore, the right hand is the one to use when eating. Bangladeshis normally eat with their hands and in the small local restaurants you can’t expect that there is cutlery to eat with. The dahl, sabji and curry are served in separate bowls and you have to take some of it (with your right hand) out of the bowl to add it to the rice. Then there is nothing better to do, then to roll up your right sleeve and mix the dahl, sabji and curry through the rice with your fingers. Some people say that food tastes better when you have felt its substance with your fingers, but we are still not convinced. Rice with sauce in between your fingers and under your fingernails is a strange feeling when you are not used to it.

Because the food is tasty, we finish our first plate quickly. A waiter passes by with a big rice pan to put an extra portion of rice on our plates with his hand. We are surrounded with people who audible enjoy their food and after this second plate of food we are more familiar with people slurping and smacking while eating. After finishing two plates of food, we have enough. We tell the waiter that he can take the rest of the sabji, dahl and curry. He takes these bowls and heads straight to the big pots where he scooped out the food half an hour ago. Our rests are put back in those pots to be served to a new customer. After eating, our right hand is still covered with food. Luckily, we can wash this hand again above a deep plate. A piece of soap is sometimes there, but more often not. The remainder of the afternoon, the smell of your right hand reminds you of the nice lunch you had. The ever friendly waiter brings us two paper napkins on a plate with mouth refresher. It doesn’t matter where you eat, but mouth refresher is always present in every restaurant. Edwin thinks that mouth refresher takes like soapsuds, but don’t let this scare you from tasting it. Mouth refresher is a mix of different spices and sweetener that often includes aniseed and candy. As there is normally no spoon to take the refresher of the plate, don’t forget to use your right hand!

And yes, again roti, dahl and sabji
Around eight, we have a rumble in our tummy again. We can head back to the restaurant where we took lunch for two persons for less than 80 eurocents, but if you like to try something else we will take you to a chic restaurant. With two persons it will costs at least ten times as much, but once in a while we don’t mind to spend eight euros for a nice dinner. Sometimes we just like to have something else. To find those chic eateries you normally have to be in a bigger city or a top-end hotel. After finding such a place, you will be rewarded with a more extensive menu and even more waiters around your table. The table is set nicely and there is even cutlery. Bangladeshis often let the cutlery untouched, but we fully use this luxury. The waiters are just as friendly as their counterparts in the normal restaurants. They are also just as curious, so every bite we take is observed with at least eight pair of eyes. When a waiter has some sweat on his forehead, he walks to a pile of clean linen napkins. He takes one from the top of the pile to wipe his forehead and lays this napkin back on top of the pile. In The Netherlands, we would think that a waiter cannot do this but in Bangladesh this is not a problem. Thirty minutes later, the waiter is feeling warm again. He did it again!

As travellers in Bangladesh, we don’t have to starve from hunger. We should just not attach to much importance to the manners that we have learned from our parents. Hygienic standards are different, as well as the way that waiters are behaving. As for hygiene we are often shocked, while the service often surprises us. In Europe, you normally get the service that you can expect in a certain type of restaurant while the service in Bangladesh is often higher than you might expect. During our boat trip from Khulna to Dhaka, we had a second class cabin implying that we couldn’t use the first class restaurant. This isn’t a problem as there is also food served in the second class. When we sat down to dinner we were witness of a transformation of the seaman that normally cleans the cabins. He transformed into a dedicated waiter who really wanted to make this dinner something special for us. He laid the table neatly with so much cutlery that we couldn’t even use it all for the simple meal we ordered. Every time we used one of the two paper napkins, he replaced it and after every sip of water he poured more water in the glass. The most memorable was the proud look in his eyes, showing that he really enjoyed helping us. Eating out in Bangladesh is always a different experience.

Go back to home pageGo to Articles sectionGo to Columns sectionGo to Photos sectionGo to countries sectionGo to weblog sectionGo to about us