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Across South Asia, arguments over which biryani is the best are not uncommon. For those from outside the region, differences in biryani are often reduced to “good versus bad,” but for those from South Asia, those differences can separate a tasty rice dish from the true taste of home. “To the world, it’s South Asian food,” says Nasruzzaman Naeem of Istanbul’s Asia Lounge Café, “but, to us, there are differences.”

At the Asia Lounge Café, Restaurant and Cultural Center in the Ali Kuşçu neighborhood, two out of every three customers have a plate of biryani in front of them. To the initiated, this is kacchi biryani, kaccha meaning “raw.” In many biryanis, the rice and meat are cooked separately and then combined, but in this style, the meat is marinated and then cooked together with the rice and seasonings, infusing the meat (traditionally mutton) with deep flavor. That is what you will get here at the Asia Lounge and Cultural Center, where customers are welcomed to taste the food of Bangladesh.

Asia Lounge opened in early 2020 by a group of young Bangladeshis who had come to Turkey as part of the Turkish government’s scholarship scheme. “We all came here as students at the beginning,” says Naeem, one of the group behind the restaurant, who stayed in the country to earn a PhD in business. “Then we observed, and thought ‘We need a place of our own.’” At first, Asia Lounge was just a café with coffees and juices, inspired by the café culture in Turkey which the group grew to love. But they saw a demand for South Asian food, both from their community and their fellow students. “We wanted to be able to take them out to taste our food, our culture,” says Naeem.

Many “Indian” restaurants in Istanbul are run by people from Pakistan, and many have cooks from Bangladesh. When Asia Lounge recruited their chef away from one such restaurant, he was thrilled to be cooking his native food for those who were desiring it. He makes his spice mixes from scratch and the flavors are bright and sometimes unexpected when a taste of clove or cinnamon or celery seed pops through. This is the case in their signature dish, mutton kacchi biryani.

The dish comes out as a steaming dome of rice stained orange and yellow from saffron. Nestled in the rice are small bites of vegetables and big hunks of mutton so tender you can cut with a spoon. The flavors are deep, warmly spiced with a hint of chili. (You have the option of requesting it spicy.) The kacchi biryani comes with a side of bright cilantro chutney which helps cut through the richness of the meat. “At other restaurants, the biryani is not the biryani we want,” says Naeem. This biryani represents the taste he and his compatriots are looking for.

To the world, it’s South Asian food, but to us, there are differences.

Aside from this popular dish, there is a very wide menu, and everything we tried was delicious. The veggie pakora are super crisp on the outside and vegetable heavy, with chickpea flour batter just holding the shredded carrots, onions and zucchini together. Aside from the classic channa dal (split chickpeas or yellow lentils), Asia Lounge also serves several other varieties, including the less ubiquitous dal mash. Made from split urad dal, it has an al dente texture and is served up more like a stew with a flavorful thick sauce. Chicken bhuna masala and cauliflower have a similar tomato-based sauce with hints of ginger and chili and cumin. The palak paneer (spinach) packs a punch, and the paneer (cheese) is made in-house using special milk from a dairy farm near the Istanbul airport. This milk also is used for various slow-cooked sweet milk desserts. Their tandoori oven churns out hot, fluffy naan and paratha in many varieties, as well as various kebabs.

The team has thoughtfully designed the interior of the restaurant as an ode to their country’s nature and culture. One wall is painted green, and the other is covered in plastic ivy with a circle of red flowers to imitate the national flag. Wood pillars cross the ceiling and wooden bookcases hold Bangladeshi books for anyone to pick up and read.

“For people who do not know Bangladesh at all, we want them to understand – where is it? What is it like? How are the foods?” explains Naeem. “For our regular customers, we want them to feel at home.”

In the middle of the restaurant stands a large fish tank, reflective of the country’s rivers and sea. Fish is one of the staple foods of Bangladesh, and as such is also featured on the menu here. Salmon steaks are bathed in a spicy curry sauce – a fusion of traditional recipes with ingredients available in Turkey. Whole fish are coated with masala spices and roasted, and shrimp are served with several different curry preparations.

Sometimes Asia Lounge features specials of distinct Bengali dishes, like the kala vuna or beef tehari. The latter is a traditional Dhaka rice dish with mustard oil at its heart. Mustard oil is an essential ingredient in Bangladeshi food, giving it a distinct flavor from other South Asian cuisines. But it is hard to find in Istanbul or to import it, so they offer beef tehari only when they can.

After only two years, this has become a gathering place, and not just for food. The Bangladeshi student association meets here – an organization of Bangladeshi students from all over Turkey – who are proud to finally have a “place of our own” to host their meetings. People have had their wedding parties here, and not just from the Bangladeshi diaspora. The lounge hosts two language clubs – one Turkish and one English. And when the national team of Bangladesh plays their matches? The back of the restaurant essentially turns into a sports club. “What Turkish restaurant is going to put cricket on the TV for you?” Naeem asks.

The lounge serves as a hub for their extended community. While Naeem talks, a man walks in with a pushcart of suitcases, updates Naeem in Turkish and unloads a pile of luggage in the corner. They belong to a Bangladeshi team of journalists who attended a conference and are leaving them at the restaurant between checkout and the airport so they can explore the city.

Naeem says they want anyone to feel at home, no matter where they’re from. They welcome people just to come and hang out, although it would be nearly impossible to sit in the space smelling the food go by and not want to order something.

Karen CirilloKaren Cirillo

Published on September 08, 2022

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