A NEW COMMUNITY
Slouched over the table at my favorite Korean BBQ joint, neatly tucked away in the back corner of a strip mall along Western Avenue – I realized it had been nearly two and a half hours since I had arrived. I had just devoured pounds of pork belly, an impressive amount of soju and Hite along with several bowls of pickled vegetables. Nasal passages now clogged, I smelled of smoke and was covered in grease and fat that was stickier than the rice. I was ready to go home- and fast.
My heavy body slumped into the passenger seat as we drove north on Western. As I was in a rush to pass out – I suggested a shortcut down 3rd Street to Vermont Avenue. I leaned my forehead against the cold glass window and as we neared Vermont- I noticed a small blue sign that read “Little Bangladesh.”
My poisoned mind raced – “isn’t this Koreatown? It surely looks like Koreatown….. I never even heard of ‘Little Bangladesh?…. This has to be Koreatown.”
The following morning, rested and sober, I became anxious to know more about this new ethnic strip. I soon discovered though we had officially been within the limits of Koreatown, we had simultaneously driven through the hub of the newly established community of “Little Bangladesh.”
After some resistance from the much larger Korean neighborhood, the rising Bangladeshi community gained recognition and were allocated four blocks along 3rd Street from New Hampshire to Alexandria Avenue. Initially, the Bangladeshi community wished to designate a 56-square-block area from 3rd to Wilshire Boulevard and from Western Avenue to Vermont Avenue- a large chunk of Koreatown. Needles to say, that wish was shut down when in August of 2010, the Korean community gained official designation by the city- and without much dispute.
The Peoples Republic of Bangladesh (Country of Bengal) is located in South Asia and is boarded by India to the west and north, Burma to the east and The Bay of Bengal to the south, won its independence from Pakistan in 1974. It is about the size of Iowa and has a population of half the United States. Immigrants from Bangladesh have been moving to Los Angeles for the past few decades driven by poverty, famine, corruption and natural disasters. Koreatown was an attractive place to start due to its low rent, cultural familiarity and business opportunities.
Since the establishment of “Little Bangladesh” local Bangladeshi’s have been trying to open and relocate businesses to the area- both to show their presence and to provide the much needed services to the Bangladeshi families who live there. Yet their progress has been slow. After nearly a year and a half of holding the title, the strip is still lacking the look and feel of a “Little Bangladesh.” Besides Asian Mart, Deshi Restaurant and Groceries, Bengal Liquor (which has zero Bangladeshi products) – the stretch is aligned with other ethnic establishments such as Hawaiian barbeques, Italian Pizza sit-downs, Oaxacan restaurants, Korean Karaoke’s and Tae Kwon Do dojangs. In addition to the handful of other Bangladeshi markets/restaurants located beyond the official boundaries of the community, the neighborhood features only a few Bangladeshi shops and services.
Since Los Angeles finds beauty in its multiculturalism- it is important that we (Angelinos) take part and help this new community “grow into its name” (Los Angeles Times, 2010); and there is no better way to do that than by frequenting each ethnic neighborhood to indulge in their particular cuisine. I have therefore made it my priority to dine at variety Bangladeshi restaurants in and around “Little Bangladesh” to not only better understand their culture but to raise awareness of Bangladeshi Luchi, Paratha, Biryani, Hilsa, Somosa, and the ever addicting Jilapi. But first, I wanted to understand how the neighborhood became what it is today.
A few miles west of Downtown Los Angeles lays the eastern portion of the Mid-Wilshire District. Prior to the 20th century, the City’s boundaries were confined to the area in and around today’s downtown- while anything west of Hoover Avenue was primarily farmland and pasture. In the 1880s, Henry Gaylord Wilshire (Harvard dropout and goldmine owner) came to Los Angeles and started purchasing lots in what would later become Hancock Park, MacArthur Park and Lafayette Park. When Wilshire made these purchases for $52,000, the cities dump was transformed into Westlake Park- now known as MacArthur Park. Wilshire demanded that in order for a street to bisect his newly accumulated property- it had to be named after him and be 120 feet wide, which was pretty uncommon at that time. Later, Wilshire was given the right to develop land on the boulevard and side streets. He even dictated most of the terms, including a ban against rail tracks and large vehicles on the roadway. Unfortunately, this new path was the beginning to Los Angeles’ never ending sprawl.
In 1910, some of Los Angeles’ wealthiest residents such as Harrison Gray Otis (founder of the Los Angeles Times), Tobias Earl (inventor of the refrigerator and railroad car) and Ailene Hancock (real estate holder of Hancock Park) built homes next to Westlake Park. At this point in time the area was becoming an elitist neighborhood, where many notable buildings were built such as Wilshire Boulevards first church and the Bryson Apartment Hotel, the first highrise in the area at ten stories tall.
Pasadena’s renowned architect Myron Hunt’s design of the Ambassador Hotel came to life in the winter of 1921 along Wilshire Boulevard and was catalytic for other notable developments. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930, the neighborhood lived through its “Golden Era” with the establishment of the Brown Derby, the Bullocks Wilshire (One of the first Art Deco Buildings in the United States and today-Southwestern Law School), the Wiltern Theatre, the showcase of America’s first neon signs, scattered highrises and the Oscars at the Ambassador Hotel. While the economy was stagnant in most of the United States during the Depression – it stood tall in this extravagant neighborhood.
The Ambassador Hotel became the gathering place of the early Hollywood stars- and some say this was the beginning of Los Angeles’ showy “Hollywood Style”. One Los Angeles Times article stated “If Hollywood to the north was the dream & workshop of the motion picture industry, the Ambassador Hotel was the bedroom & living room of the industry”(1988). This attention continued to draw the wealthy and elite into the neighborhood to plant roots and call their home.
As commercial buildings and apartment houses stood along the major arterials along Wilshire Boulevard, Vermont and Western Avenue -the eclectic residential architecture filled the gaps of the smaller streets everywhere and in between. Additionally, around this time- the district was home to a variety of restaurants such as Eaton’s Chicken House that advertised interesting slogans such as (Superb Chicken- All you want..), El Cholo Spanish Café ( enchiladas, tamales and tacos in a Mexican Atmosphere), Lindy’s Restaurant (Dinner a la carte only. Popular with late diner’s-out. Steaks, chops and roast beef are specialties), Lucca Restaurant (Ample servings of everything from antipasto to spumoni in a florid setting with strolling singers), Mona Lisa (French-Italian restaurant favored by gourmets. Continental atmosphere. Vintage wines) and Perino’s Restaurant (specialties include scaloppini of veal, chicken curry, crepes Suzette and strawberry italienne).
In the early 1950’s the trend to migrate west swept across downtown’s financial and commercial businesses- many moved to Wilshire Boulevard between Vermont and Western Avenue and was catalytic for the expanding development along the Boulevard with uninviting highrises. Though this fashion did not last long- with the construction of the Freeways and later the confluence of the Watts Riots- many businesses and residences of the Mid-Wilshire district left the neighborhood to be closer to the Pacific and to the newly developed suburbs – drastically decentralizing Los Angles. Moreover, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968 was a tragic addition to the decline of the “Golden Era” and helped perpetuate the neighborhoods slow metamorphosis into a ghost town.
From 1965-1980, about 300,000 Koreans immigrated to United States-with 63% of them residing in Southern California. Meanwhile, with the number of Korean immigrants in need of affordable housing and business opportunities- they started to establish a community in the economically depressed area of Mid-Wilshire. Soon the residents of the “Old Koreatown” near the University of Southern California began to migrate towards Olympic Boulevard. Over the next couple decades- Koreans established themselves in the area and opened hundreds of small businesses.
Sadly, the neighborhood suffered drastically from the 1992 L.A. Riots. 144 hours of rioting and looting in the center of Koreatown led to the destruction of over 2,000 Korean owned businesses amounting to approximately $400 million in damages. Though the riots marked a turning point in the Korean American community-they emerged to become politically astute- all the while Asian investors saw opportunities to expand development in the neighborhood, developing multi-level condos, shopping centers, banks, restaurants and nightclubs.
Overtime, Koreatown has become a popular area for after-hour bars, nightlife and incredible cuisine. Today, this diverse and exciting community is home to a population that is 53% Latino (Central American), 32.2% Asian (namely Korean), 7.4% White, 4.8% Black and 2% Other. And today, Koreatowns population density is said to be second only to Manhattan and is unfortunately known as one of the least green areas in the United States.
Author Katherine Yungmee Kim describes the neighborhood the best “the area remains a paradox, while the neighborhood beholds ostentation and affluence, its reality is that more than 70 percent of its residents are part of the working-poor, and more than 70 percent are immigrants”. Though with its diverse makeup, Koreatown is reestablishing itself as a multicultural, socioeconomically and intergenerational community, one that I came to learn has exciting Bangladeshi cuisine!
Bangladeshi cuisine is similar to other South Asian food. In fact, I found many sources claiming that most Indian restaurants in the United States are Bangladeshi. The difference between Bangladeshi food and Bengali food is that Bengal is an eastern Indian state that boarders Bangladesh. The food from the state of Bengal and the country of Bangladesh are pretty much the same- though like all countries and states-they have regional differences. While the differences might seem subtle- the food tastes quite different. The absence of yogurt, the primary use of red meat, the different variety of spices and heat, the emphasis on fish and the different variety of flat breads used for dipping sets Bangladeshi food apart from its neighbors in India.
According to Syeda Farnaz Hossain, author of Cuisine of Bangladesh- rice, atta (a special type of whole wheat flour), and a variety of legumes (chana, toor, urad and mung) are the staple foods of the country. The typical spices you will find in this cuisine are garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, turmeric and chili- where, cardamom and cinnamon are most common with the sweets.
ALADIN SWEETS and MARKET
Your first Bangladeshi stop is located outside the official boundaries of the neighborhood, but as you will come to learn, you would never know the difference. Aladin Sweets and Market is located on the west side of Vermont Avenue just south of 1st Street and has been serving this community for approximately 20 years. The space is divided into three different sections: the sit down restaurant area, the dried and canned food section and the refrigerated food/sweet area.
When perusing the menu- it became evident that the food is extremely affordable- so I tried a little bit of everything- which I highly recommend. Feel free to ask them to split your portions in half- as you will likely be overwhelmed from their huge servings.
After placing my order, they immediately brought out a luchi accompanied with fresh mint chutney, tomato and onion slices and a vegetable somosa. The first and last time I ever had a luchi was at a family friend’s house as a child and I was eager to try one again. Luchi is deep fried flat bread- that is made out of flour and ghee (clarified butter) and is usually 4-5 inches in diameter. The Luchi’s oily texture helps the mint chutney shine through. I’d also advise dipping your onion and tomato into the chutney. It will wet your appetite for the other treats to come. The flakey, delicate somosa that is perfect in size were synonymous with those found at the distinguished Flavor of India in Montrose.
Next your waiter/cashier/stock guy/everything will bring you delightful samples of curry. I recommend getting the beef, goat and vegetarian. The meats are cooked for many hours at low temperatures, creating a soft and stringy texture. The curry is spicy and hearty- I found myself wiping the bowl clean with the warm paratha (unleavened whole wheat flat bread).
It was a cold and gloomy out the day I walked into Aladin- I therefore made sure to order the beef feet soup (paya) and it turned out to be the best decision I made that day. The thick and gelatinous soup should be eaten immediately, and it won’t be until you swallow your first mouthful that you realize that it is loaded with heat. This unique and memorable dish is composed of onion, tomato, garlic, beef feet and a variety of curry spices. Dipping your paratha into the soup will only enhance the experience and may cause rapid involuntary body movements of joy.
Biriyani- a staple in Bangladesh- is tenderly cooked basmati fried rice with lightly spiced chicken, mutton or beef. This dish, popular throughout the Middle East and South Asia is prepared differently depending on the region. I suggest ordering the mutton. The mutton is extremely tender and juicy as it easily slides off the bone. While I am sure you will enjoy the Biriyani- the flavors will be all too familiar. Make sure to just give it a try.
The last main dish I had at Aladin was the Hilsa Curry. Hilsa is an oily tropical fish that is high in omega 3 fatty acids. When I ordered this fish- the “shop multi-tasker” repetitively asked me “are you sure you want this” thinking I was going to have an issue with all the tiny bones in the fish- I assured him I wouldn’t. The Hilsa came submerged in brown curry topped with a little bit of cilantro. My first bite produced an explosion of dozens of tiny bones. As needle like points jabbed into my gums and cheeks, I realized my earlier assumption of being able to break up the skeleton with my teeth was false. I had no choice. I blatantly spit them out. If this happens to you, it’s okay- I urge you to continue. Once you get a meaty bite of this oily flesh you will understand why Bengalis have over fifty different recipes for this single variety of fish.
At this point- it is likely you won’t be in the mood for any dessert. But at Aladins this is something you cannot pass up. Almost everyone who walked in the establishment within the 90 minutes I was there bought some concoction of sugary goodness. First, I recommend trying the Phapa Pitha- a rice flour based Sweet stuffed with sugar and dates. These things are addicting- but try not to have too many- for there are many other luxuries to try.
Next order a couple different varieties of Rosogullas- cheese based, syrupy sweet balls, usually made from Indian cottage cheese. The varieties are endless and the ones sprinkled with almonds are almost impossible to set down.
Jilapi is the one Sweet you cannot leave Aladin without. This is not only a Bangladeshi favorite- but popular throughout South Asia. Jilapi is made by deep-frying batter, sometimes in a pretzel or circular shapes and are then soaked in syrup. At Aladin, they are served at room temperature and have a chewy texture with a crystallized sugary exterior coating with a hint of citric acid that is added to the syrup…
My bill came out to be a whopping $20.05 and I came home with leftovers that was more than enough for several meals.
After eating at Aladin’s I ate at three other Bangladeshi markets/restaurants- only one of which was located inside the official boundaries of the neighborhood. All the other eateries were set up similar to Aladin, as a market also serving hot Bangladeshi food, minus the sweets. The food I had at Deshi, Swadesh and Meghna were pretty similar to my experience at Aladin with few exceptions- I will leave it up to you on deciding which ethnic hub to check out.
After speaking with the owner of the Bangladeshi Asian Mart, one of the men responsible for the neighborhoods designation – I got the impression that most of the Bengali’s in the neighborhood do not actually eat the cooked food at these markets- but frequent these places to buy their produce, their halal meats, their spices and cook at home.
At no point walking down 3rd Street did I notice any Bangladeshi’s. For that you have to look harder. You have to venture inside the ethnic eateries and markets where you will find dozens of South Asian women buying foods that are closest to their hearts, where Bengali men congregate around tables for discussions at all hours of the day. You have to look beyond the stucco facades of the invisible mosques to find the Muslim Bengali community on the carpet in prayer. This type of searching is difficult and can cause eye fatigue. And if frequenting these ethnic hole in the walls sound as appealing as being stuck in traffic on the 405, then I recommend nothing other than checking out The Bangladesh Day Parade 2012 this coming weekend 3/31-4/1. Until there is a full fledge Bangladeshi restaurant in the neighborhood- this type of support is surely the only way to help the community “grow” into its name.
HILSA CURRY RECIPE
1 medium Hilsa Fish
1 tsp Turmeric powder
4 Red Chilies
1 inch piece Ginger
1 small bunch of sliced Coriander leaves
1 tsp Black Jeera
4 Green Chilies, sliced
½ cup of Mustard Oil
Salt to taste
Making your Hilsa Curry:
1. Clean and cut the fish into neat slices about 1 inch thick.
2. Grind ginger and red chilies to a paste using a shredder.
3. Mix ginger with turmeric and salt and apply on the fish.
4. Set aside for half an hour.
5. Heat oil and put in black jeera, then put in fish and fry nicely.
6. Cover with hot water and put in the remaining ingredients.
7. Simmer over a slow fire for 10 minutes.
8. Serve and enjoy!
Aladin Sweets and Market
139 S. Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90004
3732 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 9004
Deshi Food and Groceries
3723 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90020
Meghna Restaurant and Groceries
4205 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90004
4153 W. 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90020