Neerob, Bangladeshi Food in the Bronx
Doing things right at Neerob, a Bangladeshi eatery in Parkchester, requires committing to a method of eating usually discouraged at American dinner tables. Skip the plastic utensils the staff obligingly provide and, instead, stick to your hands. In place of a fork or spoon, scoop up chunks of the dishes and spread them over patches of steaming white rice, making sure not to mix the dishes. Then eat. (Just remember to stick to your right hand.)
Bengali cuisine is best described by two old sayings: "machhe bhate Bangalee"—fish and rice make a Bengali—and "every grain of rice left on the plate is 70 angel's wings." Seafood, whether it be shrimp or dried fish, is everywhere. And, in an impoverished nation with 3,000 people per square mile and annual flooding, nothing can be wasted. Hence, shutki: unsalted fish left in the sun until nearly rotten. A beloved delicacy in Bangladesh, it is often blended into a chutney.
At first, the flavors may seem subtle, but the heat (mostly generated by a pervasive combination of mustard oil and green chilies, kacha morich) certainly won't. The head chef, intrigued by my friend's passion for his culture's cuisine, brought out a vibrantly red specimen of the infamously hot ghost chili, naga jholokia—a sign they're doing things right. A lot of the better dishes aren't on the menu, so just go up front and talk to whoever is behind the counter. Everything that's available will be displayed behind the glass panel. The minimal staff is unusually welcoming and, while they may guide you at first toward the comfort of more familiar options, like biryani, any sign of interest will be embraced.
To start, order a bhorta ($3.00), which literally translates into "mash," an adequate descriptor. Served in mounds, they can be made of the more familiar-seeming vegetables, or of seafood. Boiled, fried or sautéed, they are cooked with onion, chili peppers, lots of garlic, coriander leaves, and mustard oil before it's all mashed together. Of those available, the best is kechu, crushed baby shrimp and beans. Just as tasty is the fish chutney ($3.00). Both have a strong earthy flavor and a potent dry burn from the heavy concentration of mustard oil. Transformed into sticky, pasty spreads, little about them resembles seafood. (It's possible to ask for smaller $1.00 portions and get a greater variety.) Neerob also carries shutki chutney ($3.00). Buyer beware: it tasted good, but its odor, which makes stinky tofu smell like apple pie, was a bit much for our unaccustomed noses to handle.
Less of a shock is the keski mas ($5.00), a plate of small fish, keski, cooked with crushed onions, coriander, and turmeric in a tomato and onion sauce. Though the heat is intense, it thankfully does not mask the deliciously salty flavor of the fish. Better yet is the rui mas ($6.00), translated onto the menu as "carp curry". It's soft and oily, the skin fishy and gelatinous. Paired with translucent gourd, a squishy-textured melon related to pumpkin, it is cooked in a thicker, earthier version of the tomato and onion sauce. Break up the slabs of carp into manageable pieces and the rice will simply stick to the meat. Just watch out for the bones.
Of the vegetable dishes, the best option is the cabbage and peas ($3.00). Fragrant, it's simple in the best way; the squishy peas pop in your mouth as the oily leaves of cabbage crunch. Nearly as good is the spinach ($3.00). Its dark leaves are coated in mustard oil, the most prominent flavor. Finally, an order of dal ($1.00) gets you lentils tempered by boiling oil and spruced up with coriander, tomatoes, and green chilies. Spread this over the rice for flavoring.
If you're able to stomach anything else, they have sweets, mishti, as well; most are milk or coconut based. Of the three I tried, the best was shandesh ($1.00/portion). Soft and moist, it's loaded with sugar and has a strong peanut taste. Some sweets are available for takeaway in the fridge near the front, as well.
Opened two years ago by Khokon Rahman, Neerob has quickly become known among locals for the unusually high quality of its food. After working in the industry since his emigration 20 years ago, Mr. Rahman decided it was time to open up his own restaurant. When he looked around his community, he saw his countrymen opening up Indian restaurants and learning to cook Indian food, a cuisine he believes they know little about. But he wanted to preserve his community's traditions and identity. Today, his presence extends beyond Neerob's walls; America-born Bangladeshi girls call him for recipes and advice on cooking, and he is starting work on a cookbook. For those unfamiliar with the world of Bengali cuisine, it's the best introduction I've found in New York.