So far my memory goes, ‘Phuchka’ and ‘Chatpati’ street foods were hardly seen in Dhaka before partition of 1947. These were seen plenty in Kolkata (Calcutta) streets along with items such as, ghugni, alu-kabli, alur-dam, chanachur, nakuldana, ice-cream and kulfi etc.
Phuchka/Fuchka and chatpati snacks are not local of Bengal, it traveled with the non-Bengali working and business community from the northern states of India settled in and around Kolkata in late 19th century.
The name ‘Phuchka' was given in Bengal perhaps from the sound “fooch” that the crispy fried ball makes when pressed by thumb to make cavity for filling potato-mix stuff and ‘chutney’ water. In western and northern India and Pakistan Phuchka is better known as ‘panipuri’ or ‘golgappa’. Although different regions have variations in the preparation of crispy ball and ‘masala’ (spices), the basic ingredients are more or less similar everywhere i.e, wheat flour and samolina dough deep fried in oil to make small, round, puffed balls. Stuffing ingredients are spicy mashed potatoes and tamarind/chutney water with optional addition of egg, peas and ‘chana’ (chick peas).
In 1947, Dhaka was a small town, merely 3 km wide strip of high northern bank of Buriganga River stretching east-west from Hajaribagh to Narinda-Sutrapur, about eight miles above the confluence of the Dhaleswari and nearby river town Narayanganj the port for Dhaka. In 1951, Dhaka had population of 273,000. Dhaka was a district town with a university and had hardly any industrial unit except some in Narinda and Shyampur area.
Dhaka experienced greatness and prosperity as capital of the delta lands in the seventeenth century in 1608 when it was made the seat of the viceroys and the provincial governments of the Great Moghuls. The first Europeans settled in Dhaka were Portuguese who founded a mission in 1612. Later came the Dutch, French, and in 1660 the British- all of whom established factories near the waterfront. They were followed in the eighteenth century by Armenians and Greeks who originally traded in salt, betel nuts, and cloth. The town flourished and expanded, the riverfront became a continuous succession of magnificent buildings. Decline of Dhaka as city began when in 1706 the seat of the Moghul viceroy was transferred to Murshidabad in West Bengal. The British established rule over Bengal defeating nawab Sirajuddowllah in the battle of Plassey and established their main base in some villages on the Hooghly river, present-day Kolkata, leaving Dhaka as a secondary post.
In 1947, Dhaka could at best be described as a quiet provincial town. Unlike most colonial major cities, Dhaka did not even boast of a cantonment. It had few commercial banks and industries within its urban limits. Its population did not possess cosmopolitan characteristics.
The Partition brought a huge transformation in Dhaka's demography. The city's population grew by 53.3% between 1947-51 and in the decade by a staggering 168.6%. With the responsibility of making arrangements for establishing the capital at Dhaka, the new rulers had little choice but to make use of the rudimentary physical infrastructure that existed in the city. Several educational institutions were taken over to house the civil secretariat, some of these buildings were expanded and various semi-permanent shelters constructed to house govt departments. For residential accommodation thatched barracks at Plassey, Azimpur and Nilkhet were built. In February 1948, a special committee headed by Coleman Hicks, a reputed architect, began to make detail plans. The first priority lay in securing the capital from the ravages of floods from which it suffered seasonally. Although the city's infrastructure was grossly inadequate, the provincial capital somehow functioned.
Layout of a modern but second-rate residential area was given in the suburb of Azimpur, west of the railroad and Motijheel swamp in 1948-49 for the residences of officers, professors, clerks and others. A new modern market was built in the northern fringe of Azimpur in 1952.
Dhaka"s dwellers were known to outsiders as 'Dhakaiya.' They were highly conservative and obeyed the dictum of muhalla sardars on social issues. Women barely seen outside in the market or public places without full body covering (parda/burqa). Rickshaw pullers wouldn't carry female passenger without Burqa or cloth covering the rickshaw. Horse carriage (tomtom/thika gari) with female passenger ran with shutters closed.
The heavy influx of people coming from India and other districts of Bengal made a huge cultural and culinary impact on Dhaka. Phuchka and chatpati made its entry.
Dhaka had very few standard restaurants or residential hotel, the noted ones were Ritz/Rex near Britainia cinema hall in Ramna, entry to Ritz hotel was reserved for the whites and elites, Nawabs and Zamindars only. Paramount and OK Restaurant were located near Mukul cinema opposite to Collectorate bldg. It served semi-european cuisine- soup, cutlet, chicken/mutton curry, pudding and liquors to the licensed. It had few cabins for VIPs. Al-hamra restaurant at Chawkbazar served ‘morog mossallam’ (chicken curry), ‘glassy’ (mutton kurma) and ‘lassi’. Nehari was a favourite breakfast dish of Dhaka mostly seen around Bangshal area. The ankle bones of mutton are cooked on a low fire all night. In the morning, the aromatic nehari coming out of large cooking pots was a gourmet’s delight.
For residential hotel, VIP's used to stay in Ramna Rest House north of Fulbaria Rly Stn, Dhaka Club and Green restaurant in Paribagh.
Victoria park (renamed Bahadur Shah park), Sadarghat and Wiseghat areas was then the 'city centre'' where most of the important offices, establishments and shops were located. Movie houses - Mukul (renamed Azad), Rupmahal and Maya (renamed Star) were around this area. Lion owned by Kader sardar was down further west in Islampur. Dhaka had 7-8 movie houses running in late '40s and they mostly ran Hindi and Bengali films.
In busy Patuatuli and Nawabpur road there were couple of good sweetmeat shops. 'Kalachand Gandhabanik' and 'Sitaram Bhandar' near Babupura police outpost were popular for quality sweets particularly ‘chanar ameetri’, ‘nikhudi’ and ‘praanhara’. 'Maranchand' shop in Rathkhola Nawabpur was noted for its milk based items- yogurt/curd (misti doi).
Water-works road of old Dhaka had plenty of manufacturing units for making soda water, lemonade and lozenges. Concentrated ‘vimto’ (dark chocolate colour) syrup bottles were available in Sadarghat market. In early '50s Baby Ice cream established factory in Azimpur for soft drinks and cup ice cream.
Bakery and confectionery items in Dhaka before '50s were of poor quality, pastries rarely seen in shops. New bakery units came up in mid '50s. The Zamindars and Nawabs had there own bakery set-up in house with chefs. For big occasions and functions special food items were flown in from Kolkata or West Pakistan.
Local bread (brown), bakharkhani, kulcha, nankhatai, and tandoori were popular among the locals. Tea stalls sold milk-tea topping with heavy cream (sor/malai bhasa chaa) and sugar. Street shops had Singara, doi-bundia, jilapi, Mattha (whey) and Paat-khir/kheersa. In restaurants of Islampur and nawabpur morog polao was popular, Dhakaiyas didn't like Kachchi-biriani in functions,
In the field of recreation in Dhaka kite flying, kabadi, football and horse racing were popular. Kite flying competition were held under the patronage of Dhakaiya Sardars and Nawab family in the Ramna race course and Armanitola field. Dhaka lacked variety in design and colour of kites. The bobbin of 'latai' for winding thread were large with one end slopped towards the shaft. Rules of Kabadi game was different. Players on one side would chase opponent's player over a large stretch of field like rugby game using flying kicks from behind. Rugby was also played on few occasion by the Whites stationed at Dhaka. Soccer/Football was the most popular game played in DSA field west of the present stadium area. Noted football teams were Gymkhana, Wonderers, Wari and Victoria, Fire service etc.
Motijheel C/A, Gulistan, Jinnah Avenue (renamed Bangabandhu) and Stadium area were developed between 1948-1956 in phases. Large Chevrolet cars began to appear in the streets. Dhaka's master plan was drawn during this period. Posh restaurants/hotels were built in Jinnah Ave (now BB Ave) and Gulistan area, they introduced western and chinese culinary. Rex specialized in tana-paratha and shik-kabab at fantastic low price of less than one taka (10-12 annas to be precise) only. Pasta, steak, chicken roast, mutton and lamb crumb chops were available in Cosba, La-sani and Gulsitan. Chow Chin Chow (Indo-Chinese cuisine) on Gulistan bldg first floor and Sakura (Japanese cuisine) at Shahbagh-Paribagh added new variety and colour. Chicken tikka, kababs and large (Shahi/Bombai) ‘jilabi’ were introduced by imported cooks from Lahore/Karachi in 'Darul Kabab' near Banglamotor and 'Kampala' in Elephant road opposite to aeroplane masjid by late '50's. Phuchka-chatpati stalls grew up number in Gulistan, Stadium and New market areas.
In those days month long National trade fairs and exhibitions were held regularly every year in Ramna park area (Ramna park was a barren land with few trees and lake) where Peshwari stalls prepared giant size 'parathas' (sold by weight), 'chapli kabab' and varieties of 'halwas'. The fair was a place of great attraction and entertainment for the city dwellers. Apart from its colourful stalls and commodities, cruise in the lake on army amphibian truck at 4 anna/person was a special attraction. Spectacular shows 'death of well' and fire jump in water from high tower were of great attraction. Famous Kamala circus from south India held spectacular shows in Purana Paltan maidan for a month. Noted Indian magician PC Sarkar Sr. also exhibited sorcery display in Ramna park that enthrall the crowd.
Shahbag became the focal point of important landmarks with Hotel Intercontinental, the Dhaka Club established in 1911, the National Tennis Complex, Shishu Park, Sakura market and green hotel with bar. The Shahbag neighbourhood covers а large area, extending оn the east frоm Ramna Park tо the Supreme Court оf Bangladesh; оn the west аs far аs Sonargaon Road; оn the south аs far аs Fuller Road аnd frоm the University оf Dhaka tо the Suhrawardy Udyan (formerly, Ramna Racecourse); аnd оn the north аs far аs Minto Road, Hotel Sheraton, the Diabetic Hospital, BSMMU, National Museum, Pulic library and Instt of Fine Arts. The Shahbag Intersection is one of the major public transportation hubs in Dhaka, along with Farmgate, Gulistan, Mohakhali, and Maghbazar. Dhaka roads now are clustered with hotels, restaurants and fast food outlets of all types.
Phuchka and chatpati are now coexisting with present trend of burgers, pizza, noodles. Phuchka pushcarts are being replaced by road side stalls, cafes in malls and 'kiosks' in lakes. But, such a sanitized experience will never measure up to the fun of standing next to a Phuchka-Chatpati cart serving half-a-dozen customers around him with his fast moving hands.