The rich smell of freshly cooked bir yani and golda chingri — Bangladeshi shrimp — wafts onto Vermont avenue as Aladdin Sweets and Market prepares for their dinner rush.
Aladdin, a restaurant in the heart of Little Bangladesh specializes in traditional Bangladeshi food, caters to local events, and offers locals imported products such as freshly caught fish and curated spice.
“Coming here, they feel the culture and they see a little part of Bangladesh,” said 38-year-old Mokibul Islam, whose father handed down the business to him.
Aladdin, however, was established long before the four blocks around 3rd Street and Alexandria Avenue in central Los Angeles were officially known as Little Bangladesh in 2010.
First opened by newly immigrated parents of Islam in 1993, Aladdin strives to create a community and a homely environment for the Bangladeshi community of Los Angeles.
“[My father] thought that if he opened up a community business like this, then he would be able to import products from Bangladesh and eventually have a wholesale going on as well,” Islam said.
With overflowing stalked with Bangladesh’s national fish Hilsa and authentically cooked sweets, Aladdin has done just that.
A restaurant like Aladdin is so important to not only Bangladeshi immigrants but also to second generation Bangladeshi-Americans who relish cultural experiences and struggle with identity during their adolescence.
“Aladdin is the closest to an authentic experience of Bengali cuisine,” said 16 year old Zaafir Haider. “Since food is so important and unique to our culture, it creates a link to the Bangladeshi people which reminds them of home.”
Aladdin is extremely well known among Bangladeshis for their food and their recognition as the first solely Bengali restaurant in L.A. Since their opening, Aladdin has attracted customers from not only the greater Los Angeles area but from other parts of California or even other states.
Now Little Bangladesh is home to about eight Bangladeshi-owned restaurants and grocery stores.
What sets Aladdin apart from the rest of the Bangladeshi restaurants is that it labels itself as specifically Bangladeshi rather than widely South Asian. Many times, Bangladeshi stores overgeneralize their stores as South Asian cuisine because people are simply not familiar with Bangladesh or the specific cuisine the country offers.
“We’re not trying to be someone else, or something else that we’re not,” Islam said.
The cultures of the South Asian subcontinent, with eight countries, as of 2007, can often be confused due to their relativity and shared history.
There are already so many different languages and similar dialects which can be difficult to differentiate between. To Preanna Ahmed, an 18-year-old Bangladeshi, language holds a deeply embedded importance to her.
“Speaking Bangla and being able to communicate to others in Bengali is a way to reclaim that generalization because language is one of the things that sets us apart from other South Asians,” Ahmed said.
Cuisine-wise, Bangladeshi food specializes in fish and distinct spices. The way the food is prepared, the way it is displayed, and the way it tastes are all things that differentiate Bengali food from regional South Asian foods.
For example, when making traditional sweets many cultures use milk while Bangladeshis commonly use goat cheese which provides a richer flavor and texture, according to Islam.
Due to its size and relative newness (only independent in 1971), many are unaware of Bangladesh or confuse it with neighboring countries.
“Our customer base is mainly Bangladeshi people,” Islam said.
Though Little Bangladesh may only be a mere four blocks amidst K-Town, the community has provided Bangladeshis with a sense of home and belonging that they long for in the greater Los Angeles area.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 10 blocks or one block, as long as we are recognized within the community, I think that’s more than enough,” Islam said.