It is time to praise the Bangladeshi steam table, with its crammed bins, trays, casserole dishes and china bowls; its stacks of cilantro-flecked kebabs as long as hot dogs; its rolling mountains of rice in sepia and saffron, studded with whole peeled hard-boiled eggs and looking ready to tumble.
Such is the vision of food without end that greets you at Boishakhi in Astoria, Queens, which was among the first neighborhoods settled by Bangladeshi immigrants starting in the 1970s. For decades, the city’s Bangladeshi restaurants were nearly indistinguishable from more blurrily subcontinental ones, kitchens churning out chicken tikka masala and murky thatches of saag paneer. Here, a half-block from Masjid el-Ber, the local mosque, the flavors are distinct to the Bay of Bengal.
What I craved most was shutki vorta, a rough crush of little dried fish that start out as hard and skinny as licorice and are broken down just enough to grow soft and slightly fluffy. It’s a small, briny cloud, with swift jabs of chile and a leavening bite of cilantro, that tastes as much of the sun as of the depths.
There is fresh fish, too, above all hilsa, which lives in the sea but breeds in rivers and is said to taste best when caught in freshwater. Oily and rich like shad, it is the fish of weddings and meals for heads of state, and eaten at breakfast on Pohela Boishakh, Bengali New Year’s Day. (The restaurant’s name is a salute to the New Year’s spirit of celebration.)
On the steam table, hilsa is served alongside tilapia and rui, a member of the carp family, clean and delicate. They might come curried and strewn with creamy flat beans; or gently stewed with trunks of eggplant; or swarmed twice over with onions, one batch charred until swampily sweet and a second batch tossed in late so the flavor stays keen.
The chef, Shahara Khan, has roots in Narsingdi, just outside of Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. She spent years cooking at other restaurants in Queens while dreaming of her own, and opened Boishakhi two years ago with the help of her son, Tozammel Tanzil; her daughter, Shamsun Rimi; and Ms. Rimi’s husband, Abu Taher Atip.
The steam table is a vision of food without end. Rolling mountains of rice in sepia and saffron, studded with whole peeled hard-boiled eggs, look ready to tumble.CreditStephen Speranza for The New York Times
She keeps the steam table stocked with scarlet-tinged goat curry — the meat still clinging to nubs of bone, not yet reconciled to submitting to the teeth — and tabs of beef stomach that tug and slip. Goat hunks bob in a loose dal, and more are buried in kacchi biryani, which is offered only a few days a week because it takes five hours to make, the meat and rice layered raw and cooked under a lid sealed with dough, so no heat escapes.
For balance, there are unfussy heaps of gutted string beans, potato strips fried to shining but not stiffness, and carrots and cabbage halfway between collapse and crunch. And more vortas (mashes), including potato scooped like ice cream, with flares of red onion and stray chile seeds, and eggplant brought almost to a burn, for lingering smoke.
Chile brings an insistent thrust to every dish, sometimes a scorch and quick retreat, sometimes a steady radiance. Whole green chiles are available on request and arrive in small saucers to sear the palate clean.
Boishakhi is more cafeteria than restaurant. Diners point to what they want, then find spots on banquettes. The menu is spoken only; for those unfamiliar with the cuisine, the servers will patiently name each dish and occasionally attempt to deflect interest. (Regarding hilsa: “too many bones.”)
Diners find spots on banquettes along the unadorned walls to wait for their food, which is presented on a mix of china and paper plates. (Mine always came with a tiny iceberg lettuce salad on the side, shrouded in plastic wrap.) A larger room downstairs, lit by chandeliers that shift from purple to pink, is reserved for parties or offered to women who feel more comfortable dining unseen by men they do not know.
Desserts await unlabeled in the freezer case. One night, a young man shook his head at what I’d chosen and reached in for a bin of mishti doi, milk boiled and thickened, stained orange by caramelized sugar and left to ferment overnight. It was tangy and sweet, each flavor holding the other in check, and my spoon carved into it as if it were cheesecake.
By Ligaya Mishan