About 13km to the southwest of Dhaka, Keraniganj has been growing in popularity as an outing destination over the past couple of years, with its 'garden' cafes becoming the centre of attraction.
Away from Dhaka's over-crowded and frenetic environment, these garden cafes offer a pleasant time together for friends and family without having to travel a long distance.
Old Dhaka's Mohammad Rafin and his friends went to one of these restaurants to celebrate a birthday and to try out the famous khuder bhaga, a traditional meal made of fragmented grains of rice.
"We wanted to spend quality time together in an open space which is not monotonous and crowded," said Rafin, as he and his friends were sitting inside one of the huts at the colourfully decorated Shahana Hotel restaurant.
The trend of such outings around Keraniganj began gaining popularity thanks to promotion of the sites by Bangladesh's largest bicyclists group BD Cyclist.
"We started exploring Dhaka outskirts in 2011. Usually, we would go cycling early in the morning. During breaks, we preferred fresh food from the roadside shops. During one of our long rides, we found the local foods very tasty and some of our members posted food reviews on their social media pages. The posts went viral," said Fuad Ahsan Chowdhury, admin with the BD Cyclist group.
Built with outdoor seating arrangements with small bamboo huts or cottages to house the dining tables, the cafes often feature small lakes that add to its pleasant ambience. With an abundance of garden trees, picnic tables, swings and outside seating, these garden cafes offer the much sought after break from busy city-life to their visitors.
Insar Ali, the owner of Shahana Hotel, is credited as the pioneer who started the restaurant business there seven years ago, paving the way for its current success.
Initially, he opened a small restaurant in Goalkhali village to compete with the local restaurant that served breakfast items. He thought if he served khuder bhaga and mashed potatoes at the same price, it would give more energy to the customers. At the time, Insar used to prepare meals for only 30 people.
"One day, a cyclists' group appeared a few hours before lunchtime. They ordered 80 meals. Previously, the omelette was not on a regular food menu. But the group also ordered 80 slices of omelettes. Since then, I sell the package of khuder bhaga, omelette and seven types of bharta," said Insar.
Since then, many other restaurants have propped up in the region. For instance, Tutul and Washim, two former expatriates in Saudi Arabia, launched the New Sunrise Cafe at Goalkhali village in 2021, sensing the potential of Keraniganj as a tourist destination.
The New Sunrise, built on 35-decimal of marshy land, has a wooden pool, a small playground, seating arrangement in bamboo-made and semi-pucca huts and a kitchen shed on one corner.
Tutul said, "We were looking to start up some business just after we had returned from abroad during the pandemic. As we saw potential in the cafe business here, we decided to open the cafe."
If you cruise through the Shakta-Zinzira-Ramerkanda Road, several other garden cafes will appear on both sides. Of those, Ahmed Sagor Cafe has the biggest open space with a large square-cut pond and several semi-pucca cottages along its banks. Guests can enjoy boat rides also. The garden cafe has space to accommodate around 500 guests at a time.
The Ahmed Sagor Cafe, sitting on a 10-bigha space, is decorated with fruit trees along with some ornamental plants. In the evening, the entire place sparkles with colourful lights.
"Sometimes, guests visit this place for photography. We do not discourage them even though they don't order any food," said Dipu Hossain, general manager of Ahmed Sagor Cafe.
The cyclists also popularised Rajabari Bazar's Bhai Bhai Mistanna Bhandar, a Keraniganj-based sweetmeat brand.
Manager of Bhai Bhai Asif Mollah said, "During weekends, we sell around 120kg of sweets. We never have any left over. Guests from different localities in Dhaka purchase pure sweetmeats from us. Some of our regular customers are cyclists."
Asif's father Shahjahan Mollah founded the shop in 1989. The sweetmeat producer achieved a reputation for making quality dairy products with "pure" curd.
Top five items at Keraniganj garden cafes
Khuder Bhaga of Shahana Hotel
Sahana Hotel is famous for its iconic Khuder bhaga dish, a grainy khichuri of fragmented aromatic rice. Along with Khuder Bhaga, diners get different varieties of bharta including 'morich bhorta', 'shorisha bhorta', 'dhone pata bhorta', 'kalojeera bhorta', 'shutki bhorta' and more.
Also, there will be an omelette on top of the khichuri. On weekends, they add beef and chicken curries to the main dish. Lastly, don't miss their homemade yoghurt. It is slightly sour but the fresh yoghurt is great for your gut health.
This dish is equally perfect for breakfast and lunch.
Price: Tk60 per plate
Platters at Ahmed Sagor Café
A mid-day meal at the water-lily cottage (raised on the bank of a square-shaped pond) of Ahmed Sagor Café will taste divine.
The café sells soups, fried rice with different sides, chicken, chow mein, fast food and beverages. Among the bestselling items, the set menu consisting of fried rice, chilly chicken, Thai fried chicken, prawn masala and mixed vegetables ranked the best for us.
The aromatic fried rice was well-cooked and the chilly chicken was soft and creamy. The flavour of the hot prawn masala will remind you of the homemade prawn stew that coastal homes love. Since the Thai fried chicken is simply deep-fried, it was nothing extraordinary. To remove your thirst, their special seasonal and imported fruit juices can be a good choice.
Price: Set menu-Tk425, Juice-Tk180
Fried momos and falooda at the New Sunrise Cafe
For a perfect date snack, the fried chicken-vegetable momos of New Sunrise Cafe are a perfect fit. Take a crispy momo, dip it into the rich and spicy sauce and dive into its deliciousness. A plate contains six pieces of momos.
The special falooda complements it perfectly. It is prepared with two flavours of ice cream, jelly, fresh apples and pomegranates, which works as a great refreshing drink.
Price: Fried momo: Tk170, Falooda: Tk120
Pizza at Hungry Panda
Along with some hip fast foods, Hungry Panda sells five different kinds of pizza.
The most popular is the Spicy Chicken Exotic, which has a lot of cheese, tomato sauce, barbecue sauce, chicken balls, capsicum, tomatoes, onions, and black olives. The juicy pizza will instantly melt in your mouth.
Price: Pizza medium: Tk490
Rosogolla at Bhai Bhai Mistanna Bhandar
There is always a room for dessert even if you are full. Go to Rajabari Bazar where the Bhai Bhai Mistanna Bhandar is popular for its 'Rosogolla'.
Extract a spongy white ball from the warm syrup and swallow it. If you are a mishti lover, the sweetmeat made of "pure" curd, flour and sugar will make you salivate. You can also buy more rosogolla to take home (obviously)!
Price: Tk160 per kg