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Hamtramck's Global Vibe: Bangladesh Avenue

How exactly do you say "wow" in Bengali?

Well, we're not sure. Yet. In the ever-expanding hip Hamtramck melting pot, there is a global cultural experience around every corner: from Eastern European (Polish, Ukrainian), to the Balkans (Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian) to Middle Eastern (Yemeni and other Arab ethnic groups). But the largest community of newcomers come from Bangladesh, the South Asian nation that borders India. About a quarter of all Hamtramck Public School students say Bengali (also called Bangla) is the language they speak at home. 

Bangladesh Avenue is an honorary title bestowed recently to a stretch of Conant Avenue between Harold St. and Davison. Portions of the new business community on what has been called Hamtramck's secondary main street (with Caniff a close third) are actually in Detroit.

The moniker, to be officially dedicated Nov. 8, is well earned. According to Akikul H. Shamin, the president of the Bangladesh Association of Michigan, about 80 percent of the buildings and businesses along Bangladesh Avenue are owned or operated by Bangladeshis — including about eight grocery and convenience stores, about half a dozen sari shops and numerous eateries.

Shamin, who owns clothing store ATN Fashions on Joseph Campau, estimates there are about 15,000 to 20,000 Bangladeshis in Hamtramck and the nearby North Detroit neighborhood (known to some as NoHam). Shamin says there were just a few hundred in the same area about 20 years ago. Much of the increase is due to Bangladeshis moving here from New York — mostly from the Jackson Heights, Elmhurst-Corona and Astoria neighborhoods in Queens — for more affordable housing and better schools. Since 1991, the year Shamin moved here, he's seen Conant completely change. "It was dead," he says. "Now you see people walking at 3 a.m."

While the majority of the Bangladeshi population here is Muslim, with six mosques on the northeast side of Hamtramck and in Detroit, Shamim says there are also a fair number of Hindus, while a smaller number practice Buddhism and Christianity.

Urban spice

Many Bangladeshis say there are few differences between theirs, Indian and Pakistani cultures, whether you're talking food or frocks.

Conant Avenue itself is urban, gritty, mostly occupied by one- and two-story buildings with simple facades. You won't get a better feel for the South Asian culture than by venturing into one of the many Bangladeshi-run stores.

Inside Asian Mart, just south of Caniff, narrow aisles display typical grocery items like Pantene hair products and Lipton soup, along with imported foods and products from Bangladesh. One wall is lined with freezers while another three freezers occupy floor space. All are filled with frozen fish and vegetables. One owner, Debashish Das, who moved here in 1990, says the food is most similar to what you'll find in India, particularly in the state of West Bengal.

Among the 50 varieties of imported fish is hilsha, a kind of white fish that is frozen whole. The store gets a lot of students, like Munirul Islam, who lives in Detroit and is getting his Ph.D. in computer science at Wayne State University. Islam, who was shopping with his wife and 4-year-old son, says they come for the hilsha as well as ruhu, which he describes as "tasty, like salmon. We fry it with onions."

Islam pointed out some of the snack foods — mostly nuts and fried rice —are like Indian snacks but are often spiced differently. Then his wife, Hasina, offered a quick primer on fashions, explaining her colorful yet casual ensemble — a kameez (tunic) with salwar (pajama-like pants). Saris, large scarves wrapped around the body, "are hard to maintain," she says.

A bit further north, just north of the Bangladesh Association of Michigan offices, we head into Bengal Spices. This was the first Bangladeshi grocery store in Michigan, says owner Zak Ahmed, who was lifting giant slabs of raw beef from a red plastic shopping cart to put on display. The store sells live poultry, but it's mostly spices and dry goods here, says Ahmed, who moved to Hamtramck in 1980. The primary spices in Bangladeshi cooking are cumin, curry and coriander, visible through clear plastic bags in shelves beside dried fruits and rices. Ahmed produces one bag of Bengali rice called kalazeera. "It's a sticky brown rice," he says, likening it to basmati, and shows us lentils imported from Bangladesh.

Sumptuous and colorful

There are numerous clothing stores, including Nina, named for the owner's daughter as best we could tell from the woman behind the counter who didn't speak much English. While there, a young teenage girl shops with her mother. She's too shy to give us her name, but explains that besides the sari and the salwar kameez tunic ensemble, which she is wearing with jeans for her pants, another popular style is the langla, a scarf with a top and a skirt, something for more dressy occasions.

The fabrics throughout the small store hang on racks, on the wall and folded on shelves as they appear in all the stores we visit. The colors and textures are dazzling, even sumptuous. Bright turquoise, hot pink, all manner of beading and sequins. For non-Bangladeshi visitors -- more and more of whom are seeking these styles -- you feel like a kid in a costume store. Beyond wonderful.

Further north we hit Rima Sari Center, owned by Rashid Miah, who carries mostly women's fashions but also caters to men and kids. At the back of the store is a platform covered in white fabric, which is used to show off large one-piece saris. There are earrings that look like mini chandeliers with brilliantly colored crystals. One man is buying a tunic, which they call a pungub. Asked if the Bangladeshis have a unique style, Miah, describing his clientele as 50-50 Indian and Bangladeshi, says, "It's all really one culture." Many customers buy fabric and sew their own outfits, or Miah can hook them up with a seamstress. Ready-to-wear outfits, some in shockingly bright colors -- orange, gold, blue -- carry price tags of more than $200.

Yet another spacious sari store further north, Maloncho, has more of the same. Owner Taher Miah, who moved here from Bangladesh eight years ago, says his customers include women and men. He shows off a sherwani, a men's knee-length formal coat without lapels that buttons up to the neck. Miah says these can be quite elaborate and are most often worn at weddings or for Eid, the grand celebration at the end of Ramadan. Meanwhile, Miah gets a fair number of American customers. "It's become quite fashionable," he says of the ethnic styles. Miah, who lives a few minutes away in Detroit, is enthusiastic about being here. "I love this area," he says. "There are so many Bangladeshis." Though the sign on his door says he closes at 9 most nights, unofficially he's open until 11 p.m. or midnight. "We love our customers," he says.

When it comes to entertainment, besides Bangladeshi books carried by many of the grocery stores, locals head to 2000 Audio and Video south of Caniff for the real deal. In stock are thousands of movies from India and Bangladesh and even more music CDs. Some films made in Bangladesh are similar to Bollywood-style movies produced in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), but they also have many dramas based on family, historical films, love stories and some that are just pure action.

Dish it out: prepared food starts at $1

The aroma of various curries is ever present on Bangladesh Avenue. Bengal Masala, Gandhi and Aladdin Sweets and Café are three of the most popular restaurants on the commercial strip. But it's Aladdin, a small café with about 30 seats at the corner of Conant and Commor St., that locals flock to for food at modest prices. Many dishes unbelievably start at $1. It's also the first Bangladeshi restaurant with sweets and Indian food in Hamtramck, says Delawar Hussain, a Hamtramck resident the past nine years who ran a similar eatery in New York before coming here. "It's our favorite restaurant," he says, picking out the café's most popular treat, "cream balls," from a glass cabinet. Made of cheese and nonfat dry milk and the size of a large meatball, they are moist and have the texture of moist bread. According to a young man behind the counter, a nephew in the family-run business, the treat is also common to both Pakistan and India but the Bengalis favor the white ones, which are a little firmer inside. Bengali customers also favor the curry dishes over kebabs and lamb chops more popular with Indian and Pakistani customers, he says. Aladdin will soon be expanding with about 100 more seats.

Further south, Gandhi is another hot spot. Dimly lit with red carpet, white tablecloths, napkins folded into fans and Indian music playing overhead, it has a formal look. The owner, Mohammed Ahad and his Bangladeshi chef cater to diverse customers, many of whom are Americans who come for the $6.99 lunch buffet. Among the most popular menu items are various biryanis and chicken tikka masala.

Tripti, a little café connected to Gandhi through a doorway at the back. is even more intriguing. Also run by Ahad, the café caters more to the Bengalis who come for the simple food and good prices. They do a lot of carryout business but have tables to dine in. Ahad says Bengalis eat more rice compared to Indians who tend to eat more bread. We tasted two appetizers courtesy of the boy working behind the counter, Gulam "Afser" Hussain, a high school senior from Hamtramck who moved here with his family from Bangladesh about two years ago. Try piajoo, pieces of fried lentils with onion, chilis and cilantro ($1 for four). They are delicious, crunchy but not too oily, and only outdone by the chana bhaji, chickpeas cooked with mild spices ($1). The latter could easily be eaten as a main dish with rice.

Bengal Masala, a bright cheery café just north of Holbrook is decorated with colorful tiles. Owner Abdul Ullah, who opened this restaurant about three years ago following similar restaurants in Royal Oak, Rochester Hills and Windsor, says his food is "a little different" from Indian. "We use a lot of curry and the spices are not as hot." Bengalis also eat a lot of biryani fried rice dishes, he says. Among the most popular menu items is balti, a mildly-spiced dish (vegetarian or meat) with a sauce made of freshly ground spices, onions, tomatoes and herbs. The vegetarian version over saffron rice is just spicy enough and packed with flavor. Ullah says most of his dine-in customers are Americans who know him from his other locations but the majority of his carry-out business comes from the local Bangladeshi community. "I like my common people and my American people," he says. "Everyone is very friendly."


Ellen Piligian is a regular contributor to Model D. Send feedback here.


Photos:

Traditional Bangladesh birthday party at Ghandi restaurant

Traditionally, during gatherings, Bengali women and men congregate separately.

Asian Mart's clientele come from all over the Midwest to shop for Far East groceries.

Bengal Spice is not only known for the wide variety of spices, but also live Halal poultry.

Shopping for Saris at Saymah Fashions & Adda 

Asian Mart's owner, Debashish Das.

A variety of Biryani served at Ghandi restaurant

Bengal Masala's owner, Abdul Ullah, insisted on having me try a bite of his signature Tandori Chicken. 

All photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.



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