To most Angelenos, 3rd Street around Vermont Avenue is part of Koreatown. If you've spent any time there, you know there are also Salvadoran, Indonesian and Guatemalan businesses in the neighborhood. What few realize, however, is that this small section of Los Angeles happens to be the epicenter of Bangladeshi L.A. Call it Little Dhaka.
Stop by in the morning at the 3rd Street market-cafe called Deshi, for instance, and you can get a true Bangladeshi breakfast on the run: a big, flaky, slightly sweet flat bread called paratha served with delicately curried vegetables and a fried egg.
Deshi is one of three market-cafes that have sprung up in the neighborhood, drawn by the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont, just south of Third. Jafran Royal Kitchen of Bengal and Aladin Sweets & Market are the other two.
Most Bangladeshis are Muslims. After worshiping at the Islamic Center, which includes a mosque, three schools and a religious bookshop, they can drop by the shops to pick up familiar ingredients and get a taste of the spicy dishes from back home.
About 10,000 Bangladeshis live in Southern California, according to Mohammad-al-Haroon, the consul general of Bangladesh in Los Angeles. Nick Chowdhury, Deshi's owner, estimates that from 3,000 to 4,000 of them have settled in the area bounded by Olympic Boulevard, Fairfax Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard and Rampart Boulevard.
Bangladeshi cuisine has not yet established a strong identity here. The Bangladeshi-owned restaurants serve much the same tandoori and Mogul dishes as most North Indian restaurants. After all, that is the kind of food people eat in Bangladesh, which borders the Indian state of West Bengal and was politically part of India and then Pakistan before becoming independent in 1971.
But there are dishes that are distinctly Bangladeshi, and some of these--hilsa fish in mustard sauce, for instance, and sandesh, a thick milk-based confection--can be found in the market-cafes around the Islamic Center.
Most afternoons, the three market-cafes set out steam tables of hearty meat and seafood curries, biryanis and lentil dishes for lunch and dinner. These can be eaten on the premises--each shop has a few tables--or packed to go.
Bangladesh exports rice, shrimp, frozen and dried fish, frozen vegetables, pickles, spices and bulk tea to the United States, and the market-cafes stock many of these ingredients. Look for sacks of Kalijeera rice, a short-grained rice used for Bangladeshi pullaos (pilafs).
For Muslim consumption, all meat must be halal, that is, slaughtered according to Muslim precepts. (The name of God must be invoked at the time of slaughter, and the blood must be drained from the animal. An animal that has died naturally or by accident is not halal.)
The markets here sell beef, which Hindus do not eat, but not pork, which is forbidden to Muslims. In addition to halal meats, the shops carry several varieties of fish exported frozen from Bangladesh. They also stock Bangladeshi spices, including panch phoron, a blend of whole-grain fenugreek, anise, kalonji (nigella), mustard and cumin that is used both in Bangladesh and on the Indian side of the border in West Bengal.
Because the cuisines are so similar, the markets sell ingredients from India and Pakistan as well as from Bangladesh. They also deal in videos, CDs and audio cassettes, and they serve as gathering spots where Bangladeshis can meet friends and catch up on news from home.
Our Bangladeshi Cook's Walk starts at Jafran, which is 3 1/2 blocks east of Western Avenue. Deshi is tucked into a tiny mall five blocks east at Alexandria Avenue, and Aladin Sweets and Market is around the corner heading north on Vermont.
For further exploration, we've included two Bangladeshi markets in the San Fernando Valley. And note that Deshi also has a location in Anaheim.
*Jafran Royal Kitchen of Bengal displays its Bangladeshi roots with paintings of Bangladeshi women husking rice and a collage dealing with the destruction of war, both by the Bangladeshi artist Habib. There's a halal butcher shop on the premises, a case of frozen imported goods and a few shelves of spices and other goods, but Jafran is really more cafeteria than market. One evening's assortment of steam-table dishes included chicken, beef and goat curries; "chicken roast" (not an oven-roasted bird but chicken cooked with yogurt, onion, garlic, turmeric and other spices); catfish in a sauce of onion, garlic, turmeric and cilantro; tiny fish combined with potato and onion shreds in curry sauce; hilsa, which is a particularly bony freshwater Bengali fish, in onion-tomato sauce; and mixed vegetables and rice cooked with yellow lentils.
The cooks also prepare tandoori meats and biryani (rice with chicken or meat), which can be ordered from a menu.
A specialty here is handmade country sweets, including the stuffed crepe called pati shapta pitha; paban pitha, a cake made of ground rice, sugar, flour and eggs; and pooli pitha, a small rice cake soaked in cream or thickened milk. These are not always on hand, but you can generally get rasogulla, a classic Bengali sweet of milk curds formed into balls and soaked in syrup. For malaicurry, the curd is shaped into a log with a tiny dab of sweet filling--despite its name, no curry seasonings are involved.
Spice mixes from Bangladesh include sacks that combine the makings of the spice blend garam masala, including thick pieces of cinnamon bark, green cardamom pods, large black cardamom pods, nutmeg, mace, peppercorns and cloves. You can grind the spices or tie them with cheesecloth and add them to a pot of biryani.
4153 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (213) 386-7799. Open 9 a.m. to midnight daily.
*Deshi ships its parathas frozen as far as Washington, D.C., and Seattle. The shop also makes luscious sweetened yogurt, colored deep yellow and rich and thick as creme caramel.
Sandesh, cut into pale squares like fudge, is very good here too. Other sweets include rasogullas and confections with names like chum chum, rasmalai, gulab jamun and laddu.
Shoppers can buy halal meats, dried pomfret and shrimp from Bangladesh, plus a variety of frozen fish, including rahu, koi, catfish and pabda. The shop also carries frozen Bangladeshi vegetables, including ridge gourd. The jackfruit seeds you see in the frozen food case are used in curry.
Sacks of Kalijeera rice from Chittagong are stacked in one aisle. Spices include a mix for haleem, the dish of meat, wheat and legumes that is very much like cream of wheat as a main course. Deshi's cooks make their own version of this dish, using goat, but it's not available every day. One afternoon, the steam table included two fish curries; beef, chicken and mutton curries; chicken roast; a beef liver and gizzard curry; and dal cooked with beef bones.
Tables are hidden at the east end of the market, behind a counter. The food is inexpensive. Rice with one curry is $3, with two curries, $5; a serving of biryani is $4. The breakfast combination of egg, curried vegetables and paratha is $1.99.
3723 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (213) 389-9644. Open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Also at 1077 N. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim; (714) 991-1255. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
*Aladin Sweets & Market makes a specialty of biryani, chicken or goat stew served with basmati rice. One weekday afternoon, other hot dishes included hilsa in mustard sauce, rui fish (a carp) in curry sauce, haleem, goat and beef curries, cow's leg, mixed vegetables, moong dal and potatoes with dal. Special celebration dishes are made on holidays.
Along with frozen fish, Aladin stocks big pieces of dried ribbon fish and dried shrimp. Interesting here are the Bangladeshi utensils. Silpata is a large flat grinding stone tinted light red and decoratively carved. Pronged coconut graters are also on hand.
The shop carries the usual assortment of curry spices, mustard oil for cooking and other necessities. Sweets include sandesh, rasogulla, chum chum and rasmalai. Notice also the golden pasta strands, as fine as hair. These are combined with sweetened boiled milk for a porridge-like dessert.
139 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 382-9592. Open 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily.
Bangladeshi-owned markets in the San Fernando Valley:
*Samir Gift & Grocery doesn't serve hot foods but stocks samosas and sweets such as jalebis, laddus and sandesh.
Spices and spice mixes range from South Indian sambar powder to Bengali panch phoron. Kokum (a sour fruit used for seasoning), black cumin, curry powder from Pakistan, chapati flour, basmati and jasmine rices plus many other products needed for South Asian cooking are on the shelves. Big jars of ginger paste and garlic paste help out cooks too busy to prepare their own versions of these frequently used ingredients.
Packaged spicy snacks come from such far points as Haldiram's in India and Kashmir Crown Bakeries in England.
A tiny section of utensils includes chapati rolling pins and boards, wok-like Indian karahis, a yellow plastic samosa cutter from Canada and a charming inlaid wooden rolling pin from India.
21254 Saticoy St., Canoga Park; (818) 998-2462. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays.
*Bangla Bazaar's has Indian spices and basmati and kalijeera rices sharing space on the shelves with Mexican products and everyday housewares. Big freezer chests hold frozen Bangladeshi fish. Along with videos, the shop carries books from Bangladesh--none in English, and no cookbooks.
15244 Saticoy St., Van Nuys; (818) 908-9720. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.