Pravasan Pillay samples the deep-fried snacks from a food stall in Chatsworth’s Bangladesh Market
Rashid moves quickly and efficiently inside his small stall as he prepares and packs my large order. His is one of 10 food stalls in the aromatic and cramped food row of the sprawling Bangladesh Market in Chatsworth, Durban.
Rashid has a Spartan set-up. Off to the side are deep, well-worn woks heated by gas burners, the oil inside the woks permanently spluttering. The front table of the stall displays the products of Rashid’s labour on paper plates: piping-hot traditional Indian savoury snacks such as samoosas, patha pastry rolls, fishcakes; and for dessert, sugary, coconut-filled polis. I’ve ordered samples of everything.
The always-bustling Bangladesh Market lies near the flats of Westcliff or Unit 3, one of the poorer neighbourhoods in the township of Chatsworth. The market, which has been around in one form or the other since 1984, is known for its cheap, fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs; live chickens; seafood; spices and pickles; and street food. Clothing, pirated DVDs, cosmetics, traditional medicine and plants are some of the other popular items on sale. The market operates only on Fridays and Saturdays, and is the main source of income for many informal traders. Rashid is one of them.
“Normally on weekdays I don’t work. I’m unemployed. I’m 55, but nobody would say because I keep myself fit. This is my living. This is my daily bread,” he informs me, gesturing at his stall.
Rashid is slim, with a neatly trimmed moustache and an alert face. He lives in nearby Unit 10 and has operated his stall for 13 years, although it has not always been where he is now. These days he has a prime location at the entrance of the food row.
“It’s hard work. I make my own strips,” he says, referring to the thin pastry used to wrap the samoosas, pathas and polis. “I make everything. It’s not easy but God says put in your effort and I will provide. I will give you the strength. And there he is giving me the strength, and I’m carrying on,” says Rashid, all the while handing me small packets filled with my various orders. I don’t waste any time getting stuck in.
The samoosas from Rashid’s stall are uniformly delicious. His homemade pastry is thin and crispy, providing the ideal shell for the fillings on offer, which include sweetcorn and cheese, tinned fish, potato, mince, and chicken. I found the tinned fish and sweetcorn and cheese samoosas particularly good.
I ate the fishcakes I bought later at home. They were generous in size, dense, herby, and certainly fiery – definitely one for chilli lovers. I imagine they would go down well with a cold beer.
Next up was Rashid’s patha pastry rolls. Patha is a complicated, even mysterious dish to explain, and it’s very labour intensive. The Indian Delights site describes patha as “a combination of layered yam leaves (madumbi) and a spicy chilli pasted [sic] mixture. These leaves are wrapped into a roll (like a Swiss roll) and steamed for 1-2 hours until cooked. The rolls are cut into finger-thick slices and fried till crispy. The patha slices are traditional [sic] served with puri, a white-floured Indian flatbread.”
I’m a patha purist and always eat it, as mentioned above, served between two soft puris with a dash of lemon juice and hot sauce. I kind of treat it like a veggie hamburger or taco. Rashid’s version, on the contrary, does away with the puris and is basically a patha spring roll. I was skeptical at first, but I have to admit it was delicious, arguably my favourite. It was a great combination of the astringency and umami of the tamarind and amadumbe leaves, and the heat from the chilli paste, all tempered with the crunch from the pastry. I would definitely buy it again.
As I leave and make my way down the food row, I hear Rashid shout out his customary “Samoosas, three for R10,” to a passing auntie. The auntie holds up three fingers, and Rashid nods and swivels to his bubbling woks.
Main Photograph: Bangladeshi Market by Day – Pravasan Pillay