After three months of shutdown and restrictions, street food stalls gradually returned. But are food lovers embracing them like before?
Regardless of age, street food is enjoyed by everyone. Phuchka - filled with a mouth-watering mixture of chickpeas and potatoes, complemented with onions, green chilies, and a sprinkle of coriander leaves as garnish; jhalmuri with extra onion or bhel puri with the sweet and sour tamarind water are enough to enhance the joy in an adda.
Until recently, life in Dhaka without the delicious assemblage of street foods was impossible to imagine for many, despite the hygiene concerns. However, four months ago, street food vendors all over Dhaka were forced to pack up their businesses due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
After three months of shutdown and restrictions, the street food stalls gradually returned. But are the food lovers embracing them like before? How are our phuchka and jhalmuri "mamas" doing now during a pandemic?
On March 26, Swapan did not know he had to wrap up his 22-year-old business within minutes and move back to his village home for sustenance when the government announced a nationwide shutdown to fight against the deadly virus.
After three months of idling away in his village, he reopened his street food stall - Mayer Doa Chatpati, a fortnight ago in Dhaka's Lalmatia.
"Before the Covid-19 restrictions, I used to earn Tk8,000 to Tk10,000 a day. Now, I hardly make Tk2,000," said a frustrated Swapan.
"There are almost no customers after sunset. Though, before the virus hit, it was the peak time. Also, we have to close the shop by 9pm now as per the government's directive."
Beside Swapan, there are three other phuchka stalls in the small Lalmatia park, equipped with socially distanced seating areas. Most phuchka lovers are ordering take-aways instead of enjoying a plate beside the road - the traditional way.
Sarah Zabin, one such phuchka lover, said, "It is difficult to control my temptation despite hygiene restrictions of Covid-19."
As a precaution against the virus, Swapan now serves his phuchka and chatpati on single-use plates and also offers hand sanitizer to his customers. To offset the extra cost, he raised the price by Tk10 per plate.
Street food vendors have also returned to the TSC premises - once a bustling area with thousands of students and academics, but now almost empty as educational institutions have remained closed.
Busy mixing a delectable concoction for his customers, Md Kabir, a phuchkawala, said that he restarted the shop just four days ago. His customers are mainly rickshaw pullers, day laborers, and people who work in the streets.
Kabir sounded upbeat while explaining how he survived the last three months without any earning. "I had some savings. But since everything has reopened now, I hope the situation will return to normalcy."
Other phuchkawalas in the area share the same fate. They are making Tk700 to Tk800 a day now, whereas they made Tk2,000 to Tk3,000 before the pandemic hit.
Manju, a day laborer, was enjoying his plate of phuchka sitting on a bench under the shade of a tree. Street food is a practical choice for him to satisfy his appetite. "I work on the streets, so I have no choice but to eat street food," he said.
"Also, it's cheap. It will not be returning home until past 5 o'clock and then I will have my lunch."
The pandemic has undoubtedly changed our lifestyle, making the donning of masks and gloves the new normal. Street food vendors are trying, in their own ways, to cope with the situation. They carry a set of health paraphernalia, although they only wear them occasionally. Many said they found it agonizing to wear the mask and gloves all day long in the scorching heat and humid conditions, but would put them once customers approach.
Zahid, a bhel puri seller at Farmgate, however, said something interesting, "If I wear a mask, people will think I'm sick and won't come to buy my food."
Although it is monsoon now, a sweltering heat has gripped the city. Every year this time around, green coconuts and the juice of lemon and sugarcane are the most sought after refreshing drinks for quenching thirst. This year, however, is an exception.
"During this season, I would sell 90 to 100 green coconuts a day," a young green coconut seller at Dhaka University said, adding, "But now, I can hardly sell 25 to 30."
"If the university doesn't open, sales won't increase. I don't know how I will send money to my family," he said, adding he is the sole breadwinner for his family of six.
Not all street food vendors are frustrated, though. A lemon juice vendor, with his mask strapped to his chin, said, "Though not like before, the sales are satisfactory for me considering the pandemic situation."
The situation at the once busy and nondescript food courts across the Holy Cross Girl's School and College is no different either. Vendors like Fazar Ali, Babul, Mohammad Monir, Jewel Khan, and Mohammad Sajib, who sell noodles, burgers, fried chicken and kebabs complained that they were barely scraping by.
The Covid-19 pandemic has unprecedentedly affected people's livelihood. Not only has their income plummeted, many are months behind rent. These are desperate times when you need to draw strength from your reserve to fight back against all odds. The street food purveyors and their patrons, although small in number, have gathered courage to resume their businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, in hopes of regaining a regular life.
Jewel Khan, a kebab vendor at Tejturi Bazar, and Pori Begum - one of Khan's patrons, voiced their frustration, "Yes, we are scared of the virus, but we can't sit idle at home for months. Besides, it's Allah who proffered this menace on us and He will save us from this as well."