Blog post – Feeding the thousands in memory of Dad

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8th September 2014

Regular readers may remember a previous blog about the Chowdhury village home of Dampara, which is a remote and rural place in Bangladesh. I was there again last week for a very special event; a memorial service in my late father’s memory. My father was very highly regarded in his village, and he in turn loved it and its people, so my sister and I were determined to make this an event Dampara would not forget!

The plan was simple enough: arrange a feast for as many relatives and village people as would turn up. Vegetarians look away now, but we decided we’d need 4 entire cows to cater for the crowds we expected; the fresher the better. The beef curry would be served along with a mountain of rice, lentils or tarka dhal, and freshly made yoghurt to finish. There were also 60 houseguests and 40 or so helpers to cater for, so we planned a special breakfast kedgeree made with cows’ liver for the morning of the event.

Preparation for the feast started hours in advance, with fresh spices being ground by hand by a small team of village women all of whom brought along their own spice-grinding equipment. As I was chatting to them I learned that each woman was given their spice stone and pestle when they got married and they keep them for life. They worked non-stop for 6 hours grinding whole spices such as cumin, turmeric, red chillies and ginger. I did have a go at helping them, but to be honest I wasn’t very good or fast enough, so they soon shooed me away.

The yoghurt-making also started early in the morning, with 350 kilograms of fresh milk being boiled and reduced in huge vats over wood stoves. The cows were brought over at lunchtime and the back garden was converted into a temporary abbatoir. The cows were slaughtered at about 11pm and the butchery went on through the night. I don’t think any of the butchers slept; I could still hear them chopping at 4 am. Watching the men with their incredibly sharp knives and cleavers working their way through the carcasses was truly amazing – the youngest of them was no more than 13 but he was whipping through the ribs with a filleting knife at an alarming rate. Whilst the men dealt with the meat, the onions, garlic and ginger were all peeled and chopped through the night by the women. Bengali onions are smaller than shallots, so you can imagine how long it took for us to peel 40 kgs of them.

I sneaked a few hours sleep in the early hours and woke to see the kedgeree had already been cooked and the first batch of beef bhuna was on the stoves. A field at the front of the house had temporary structures built for both the kitchen and dining area and was being decorated with traditional fabrics. The servers were fed first and were identifiable by the bright yellow ribbons worn as a bandanna. The guests started arriving without any obvious signal and people continued to arrive in a constant stream, seated in shifts over about 4 hours. By the time the dust had settled, the kitchens had been packed up and the dishes were washed, we estimated that we had served something like 3,500 people. The idea is that sharing good food with people will increase the blessings for the deceased, so I like to think my Dad did pretty well out of it.

It was a truly memorable day; Molly and I will never forget it and I know my Dad would have absolutely loved it if he had been there. And even with the 40 of us who organised the event, I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired as when the last people left on the boat. So if you ever hear me complaining about sore feet or aching muscles after one of my pop-ups, please feel free to remind me…