Saturday, December 20, 2014

House of Bengal

Opening a restaurant in Toronto that caters to Bangladeshi cuisine in a sophisticated setting is a tricky business. There's not enough Bangladeshis (there's a lot, but not enough) that can comprise a good market, and the general people of Toronto are more familiar with Indian and Pakistani cuisine than Bangladeshi food. Yet, I believe, with the right amount of marketing, location, and most importantly food, it can be done.

On Saturday night my brother and I had the pleasure of dining at the House of Bengal, which bills itself as "the only South Asian restaurant in the GTA specializing in Bangladeshi cuisine", on the Danforth. Now strictly speaking, this isn't true, of course. There's a bunch of restaurants on "Little Bangladesh" (the stretch of Danforth between Victoria Park and Woodbine) that serve Bangladeshi food. However, they are mostly cheap mom-and-pop establishments, usually for takeout, and hardly have an ambience that you can take a date too. House of Bengal has developed a "buzz" on social media, and billed itself as a more upscale take on Bangladeshi food; hence we were eager to try it out.

The only parking available is street parking. I was told there is parking at the back of the building as well, but I couldn't find it. We went at 7 pm on a Saturday evening, and we managed to get a parking spot very easily on the street directly opposite the restaurant (and pay parking is enforced till 6 pm there, so parking was free). The restaurant is more easily accessible via public transit, with Woodbine Station being the closest subway stop.

Décor and Ambience
The House of Bengal hasn't officially opened yet, but it's having what is known as a soft opening. They are still testing out operations, procedures and facilities, with many of their clientele coming via word of mouth or through targeted Facebook promotions.

My brother and I had the pleasure of dining with Yawar Amin, whose brother is one of the owners of the restaurant. Throughout our stay, the owner popped in quite a few times to talk to us, and ask about our meal, and we also met one of his co-owners, an Arab man (who was cooking Bengali food!), and who also decorated the interior of the restaurant. The customer service was excellent throughout. I value customer service very highly - you can often eat at home what you are eating out, what makes the difference is the customer service and ambience.

The restaurant is decorated very nicely, with a contemporary ambience to it, and yes - that's a Surface computer on a table if you have to wait during busy times. At 7 pm on a Saturday night, I would estimate the restaurant to be about 40% full, which wasn't bad for a place that just opened up literally a few days ago.

The restaurant was split into the general dining section, like any other restaurant, with tables and chairs, but also had a "lounge" section. A projector displayed Bollywood and Bengali song videos on a wall at the end of the lounge. I was told that this area is also planned for use for live performances in the future, if needed.

We dined in the regular section.

What drew us to House of Bengal was the promise of Bangladeshi food in a more upscale setting. We were curious to see what it would be. When we were seated, the owner told us the food was more of a fusion of Bangladeshi food and Arabic style of cooking, since some of the owners were also Arab.

I should add that shisha is also available at this time at the House of Bengal, but I didn't try it, and I didn't see anyone try it while we were there either. This might be an issue if you want to bring kids to the restaurant.

Any desi establishment has special drinks and House of Bengal was no different. Their beverages, such as the Lemon Mint Tea, or the Mango Lassi, come supersized (something that I approve - you often pay a lot for say a lassi at a regular desi establishment only to get a small glass of it).

We were given a menu, but we were also told since the restaurant was trying out various combinations in the soft opening, the menu wasn't exactly in sync with what was on offer, and also didn't match up to the website. I was looking to see if they had some Bangladeshi seafood dish on offer, but on the owner's recommendation we ordered a kebab platter, which comes with a beef skewer and pieces of chicken breast kebab, some chutney and raita, as well as a small plate of white rice.

The kebabs were flavourful without being spicy. I also liked the fact that they didn't seem too oily, and actually preferred the beef skewer over the chicken.

We also ordered mutton biryani, which was served in a clay pot. It reminded me of a restaurant I had eaten at in Old Dhaka, near Laal Baagh. The biryani carried that Bangladeshi food / Arabic twist fusion concept; it wasn't spicy, but it was definitely flavorful and tasty, and definitely something different compared to the usual Indian/Pakistani biryani. It's not kacchi biryani though.

As for the food, if you go to the House of Bengal, you have to try their biryani. It's what I would call their signature dish, and it is pretty good. The biryani is a bit pricey, but if you order it, I would recommend ordering it with the garnishing (raisins and nuts) as well. It's just about big enough for two people to share (or one really hungry person!).

We also ordered a side of vegetables to go along with it (again, I missed it on the menu, but went on the owner's suggestion). And finally, it was time for dessert, and we ordered some rasmalai.

This was pretty much the best sweet / dessert dish I have eaten in a while - and as you can see their presentation was pretty awesome as well.

Our whole meal cost us about $15 per person. This isn't bad at all for a weekend dining. If you are bringing a date to the House of Bengal, I would recommend the biryani, and kebab rolls in paratha (not the platter), and mango lassi for the same cost, all to share.

The House of Bengal made a positive impression. It was clean, upscale, and the food was decent. I could definitely see it as becoming a "hip" or "trendy" place for young desi folks, especially Bangladeshi youth, to gather. The availability of shisha make its "cooler", and a more happening place.

If I have to suggest room for improvement before their "official" grand opening next year, it would be to have more Bangladeshi dishes, especially some type of seafood. There's a whole bunch of restaurants all over Toronto that have biryani and kebab, and often much cheaper too. If the House of Bengal has something unique going for it - it's the Bengaliness of it. So I would concentrate on kacchi biryani, ilish (Hilsha, boneless), bhuna chingri and other Bengali treats.

Would I go again? Yes, definitely, but I am older, and have a kid - so House of Bengal would be reserved for when it's just my wife and I, and we are in the mood for Bangladeshi fare. So do definitely go and try it out, and if you do, let me know what you think of it via the comments section.

House of Bengal
2183 Danforth Ave.,
Toronto, ON M4C 1K4
Tel: 416-546-6647

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Junaid Jamshed, Blasphemy and Misogyny

So Junaid Jamshed, the famous former-singer-turned-preacher from Pakistan is now in trouble. One short clip from one of his many lectures has now gone viral. Here, Jamshed recounts a story that happened to Aisha and her husband the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Aisha was the favourite of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and would always try to seek his attention. One day she decided to fake illness by wrapping a towel around her head.

“What happened, what happened?” inquired Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

“Ah, my head is bursting with pain!” she complained.

To which, he said, “Oh Aisha, if you were to pass away, the Prophet of God would personally offer your funeral prayers. How fortunate would you be!”

She stood up at once and raged, “This is what you ardently desire - that I die, so you could spend more time with your other wives!”

Jamshed goes on to say that the nature of women cannot be changed even by Prophet.
Now apparently this is a blasphemy as per Pakistani laws. A blasphemy against the character of Aisha, the Mother of the Faithful, may Allah be pleased with her.

First of all, I don't think the story is correct. I remember reading about this particular incident, and it happened during the last few days of the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He was sick, he was on his deathbed, and he entered the room of his beloved wife Aisha. She too had fallen sick, and she was complaining "My head! My head!". So then he told her, "Nay! It is I who has to cry my head! My head!"

And then Aisha complained, "Ah, my head is bursting with pain!”

To which, he replied with tenderness, “Oh Aisha, if you were to pass away, the Prophet of God would personally offer your funeral prayers. How fortunate would you be!”

And then she playfully gave the reply, "And that is what you want! After you bury me, you will return to the house and spend your time with another wife!"

The story completely changes here - rather than someone seeking attention and pretending to be sick, this is a story of a loving back-and-forth between a couple who are comfortable and romantic with each other. It's a beautiful story of love.

So Jamshed, in an attempt to portray the allegedly "frivolous and fragile nature of women that even the Prophet couldn't change", twisted this story around to make Aisha an attention seeking woman.

Second, even if we give Jamshed his version of the story (which is wrong), is it blasphemy? The people around the Prophet, such as members of his own family, were human after all. They all had human failings. Sauda, his second wife, once made a comment after the Battle of Badr that the Prophet corrected, as it was a comment of Jahiliyyah. There was an anti-Semitic comment directed once at his wife Safiyya bint Huyayy, who was of Jewish origin, by another wife - which he also corrected. It is not blasphemy to say the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sometimes made minor human mistakes for which they were forgiven by Allah, and which serve as examples for us.

And finally, are we so caught up on what Junaid Jamshed said about Aisha, that we completely ignore his sustained record of misogyny and disrespect towards women?

Now I first saw Junaid Jamshed when he came to Muslimfest in 2011.

He gave some speeches and talked about a few incidents from the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), sang some nasheeds and closed of with Dil Dil Pakistan, which the crowd loved. He repeated the act every time he was invited to Muslimfest subsequently. One could be forgiven for thinking he is a scholar of the seerah or someone who has studied extensively on religion.

Here is an interview where he is telling men not to teach their wives driving. He is praising himself for not teaching his wife (coincidentally also named Aisha) driving, and he tells men that one good thing they will do is not let their wives drive. The interviewer then asks what if a woman has no one to drive her (her husband has died and she has no relatives to help her out or they are busy), is she to remain helpless and not drive. To which Jamshed of course has no answer but then says this is just a hypothetical situation and he doesn't answer hypotheticals.

Jamshed of course has done a lot of good and called a lot of people to Islam. We can take the good from him and ignore the bad. But let's call out the bad - the misogyny and the shaming of women. In the offending video, for which he is now charged with blasphemy, he goes on about the nature of women.

He is of course a product of his culture and Pakistani culture isn't one where a woman is empowered. But that is of course not Islamic culture, and today we have forgotten that. The average Muslim has outsourced the religion to these pseudo-scholars and ignored learning of their own religion and history. it used to be that Islamic scholars were experts in both science and religion, and were the smartest of the class. Today, it's usually the low achievers and failures of the class that are hustled into the madrassahs and religious schools. So when these scholars say something bogus (such as woman cannot drive), then the average (and now) ignorant Muslim doesn't have the knowledge to fact check this. And when these scholars are given to positions of power (a sign of the Last Days), they make laws to that effect. So religion, rather than becoming a solution, is now the problem.

Our religion and culture is one that produced Umm Salamah, who set out on a camel to travel alone from Makkah to Madinah. It has Nusaibah, a woman who took the oath of Aqabah and fought in the Battle of Uhud with a sword, and fought in subsequent battles after. Our history includes Khawla bint Thalabah, whose complaint against her husband was heard by Allah and is mentioned in Surah Mujadilah, and whom the Caliph Umar used to listen to respectfully as she lectured him on Islam.

Let us not use the hullaballoo over a stupid blasphemy law in Pakistan (which is used mostly to settle scores with minorities and make their lives miserable - a sad fact of history in Pakistan) to excuse the bigger problem at play - the misogyny in the culture that holds back half the population and forces on them a false understanding of male privilege in the guise of religion.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Erdoğan and Women

I am reading up on what exactly the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that is so offensive to women, and have to admit much of it isn't (some, yes).

  • He bemoaned the fact that women in rural Anatolia do much of the manual labour while their husbands "play cards in the local coffee house".
  • He said Islam requires the men to provide for the family, not the women.
  • He said women are not the same as men (note: this is translated as "equal", but doesn't mean the same thing).
  • He advised women to have at least three children.
  • He said a true believer of Islam will never commit a violence against women.
  • He said Paradise lies under a mother's feet.

So what exactly is offensive? He didn't try to outlaw abortion again (he tried it once and failed), he never tried to outlaw women's employment, he never tried to outlaw women's education (in fact his party repealed the law that banned headscarves in universities which empowered more women to seek education, and similarly they repealed the ban on headscarves in Parliament so now more conservative women are now MPs).

Yes, some words of what he said ("women are more suited for home because of their delicate bodies") smacks of patriarchy and is offensive. But actions speak louder and Turkey has grown in leaps and bounds (men and women) under his leadership. When the "secular" army banned observant Muslim women from campuses, Parliament and other government institutions I did not hear of any feminist being offended, so stop being hypocritical now.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Visit to Ripley's Aquarium of Toronto

Ripley's Aquarium of Canada is a large exhibit located in downtown Toronto, just south of the CN Tower.

I had taken a day's vacation, and we decided to pay the aquarium a visit. We had heard a lot about the aquarium, mostly from friends who had been, and seen their fun pictures on Facebook. Everyone had always commented on how busy it was - so when I had an off day during the middle of the week, we decided to go.

It was a Tuesday, and we were lucky it wasn't busy at all. We could afford to go through the exhibits at our own pace, and take pictures. With a toddler in tow, this was vital.

The aquarium has over 5.7 million litres of marine and freshwater habitats from across the world, and holds over 13,000 animals, from more than 450 species.

This large tank reminded me of an aquarium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but the Toronto tank was much, much bigger. What was interesting was that there was some sort of waves inside the tank, and even the tall plants swayed to and fro.

There were lots of exotic creatures on display, many of them not even fishes. We saw lobsters, crabs, sea horses and so on. Even these sea anemones had their own exhibit.

One of my favourite exhibits was the Rainbow Reef, featuring animals from the Indo-Pacific region. This was the most colourful gallery in the exhibit, and pictures don't do the vibrancy of the colours justice.

I seriously could spend hours photographing each species in this tank - this was so colourful! Here's a photography tip: if you want to photograph aquariums, dress in black. There's no reflection and you can photograph with the lens pressed against the glass. I learned this from one of my photography classes.
The largest tank in the aquarium is the Dangerous Lagoon, which featured an underwater tunnel with a moving side walk.

A favourite of every visitor, this exhibit featured sharks, and lots of them. There were even stingrays to whet your appetite.

Of course nowadays no aquarium is complete without featuring fish from Finding Nemo.

Truly it is amazing, and humbling, to think of the vast variety of life that is found in just the waters of Earth. And it is a shame that we have folks who don't even care about pollution, or the effects of their lifestyle on the ocean. I was reminded of this verse in the Quran:

Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea  [as an outcome of] what the hands of people have  wrought;  so He may let them taste part of [the evil of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness]. - 30:41

Indeed nowadays the results of our actions and our pollutions have started to affect the sea and fisheries - it is indeed alarming.

One of the cool things about Ripley's that I haven't seen elsewhere are numerous tunnels that allow you "into" the tank, so as to speak, and come face to face with a creature.

While not the biggest, the Planet Jellies exhibit has colour changing displays with five different species of jellyfish. It was just fun to sit around and try to capture these animals on the camera with a different light shining on them.

Overall, while I enjoyed my visit to the aquarium (and definitely my 2 year old son had more fun than me, walking and running all over and saying 'hi' to the 'fisheeees'), I have also visited aquariums all over the world. Particularly the Shedd aquarium in Chicago comes to mind. While the Toronto aquarium has more species and more tanks, the Chicago aquarium felt more .. grand. For $30+ with taxes, the Ripley's aquarium feels small in comparison. It took us about 2.5 hours to go through the aquarium at a leisurely pace.

I would put the Ripley's Aquarium as a must visit for any tourist to Toronto, but only if you haven't been to aquariums in Chicago or Atlanta. If you have been to one aquarium, they are all the same. It's a nice 3 hours to spend with your children though.

PS. Why was there no seafood restaurant inside the aquarium? I thought that would have been .. fitting.