The Hill Tracts cuisine in Bangladesh is full of fresh and healthy dishes that also taste delicious. Items such as hebaang which is steamed fish or meat wrapped in leaves, oyster or bamboo shoot, and pajon with binni rice are quite popular among the hill residents.
Pajon is made with lots of fresh vegetables whereas hebaang refers to the use of leafy greens in cooking.
Nappi or sidol (fermented dried fish paste) is a mandatory ingredient in many of the Hill Tracts dishes. Other ingredients such as white chili, ginger, and turmeric – are all grown through jhum cultivation on the hillsides.
The Hill Tracts residents prefer using fresh ingredients, something that is rare in the urban kitchens of Dhaka. Moreover, they think that the real taste of pahari cuisine lies in preparing them with ingredients directly sourced from the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Happy Chakma, an insurance company executive working in Dhaka, tried to bring in the ingredients directly from her hometown Khagrachhari. However, as product deliveries were irregular, she had no choice but to buy the stale ones from Dhaka.
Like Happy, many others dwelling in Dhaka face the same problem.
Realising the demand for food grown in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in 2008, Amit Chakma pioneered a retail shop named 'Ranyea Jhum Ghar' in Kazipara, Mirpur.
Happy and many other customers now regularly purchase their necessary products from this shop.
The shop displays bamboo shoots, maize, moo potatoes, koyeng potatoes, mushrooms, eddoes, pointed gourds, bottle gourds, elephant apples, beans, seeds of Indian spinach, sesame, cucumbers, ginger, turmeric, chili, roselle and pumpkins in separate plastic buckets.
Along with seasonal fruits like pineapple and pomelo, Amit also keeps fish, pork, chicken, frog and snail at his shop.
In his decade-old business, he has developed good communication with jhum farmers and other kitchen ingredient traders across the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
"My business has a well performing supply chain, if you ask me. Every night, my agent in Khagrachhari delivers the required products through Dhaka-bound buses. Another agent collects the consignment from Kalabagan and then delivers them to me," Amit told The Business Standard.
Amit studied diploma engineering in Khagrachhari, but he willingly chose this business of selling fresh produce. Following his example, two more enterprises started operating in Kazipara.
Partha Pratim Chakma from Khagrachhari is another entrepreneur who launched his shop 'Hill Bazaar' 8 years ago.
Besides fresh vegetables, Partha collects shaplapata (stingray), hangor (shark), narkeli (razorbelly minnow), kuchia (eel) and crabs for sale.
If customers make prior orders for pork or pahari bon morog (red jungle fowl), they can get them with the help of an agent at Dighinala upazila of Khagrachhari.
The retailers claimed that their products on display are chemical-free, which is why they have a short shelf life.
"In spite of being careful, 30 percent of the products rot every day on average. Providing fresh kitchen ingredients to the customers is a big challenge," said Partha.
To lessen wastage, the retailers keep their stocks limited while maintaining a day to day sourcing. This increases the transportation cost, which in turn raises the product prices slightly.
Maysing Marma shops at Ranyea or Hill Bazaar twice a week. An English Literature student at Jahangirnagar University, she thinks that the availability of chemical-free produce is important.
"Compared to other markets, per kilogram price of products is Tk10 to Tk20 higher in these shops, but it does not matter to me. What matters is that I get fresh ingredients and that too, near my house," she added.
Ten years ago, Ranyea owner Amit used to make sales amounting to more than Tk10,000 per day. These days however, daily sales has dropped because a number of retailers in Dhaka are doing the same business.
"Consumers from far used to visit my shop but now that similar ones have sprung up in areas such as Mohammadpur, Shewrapara, Banaphul and Basabo, many are now shopping there," he said.