The inspiring women of a YouTube village in Bangladesh

Rupali Khatun sticks her finger in the mixture of milk and vermicelli and checks that it is ready.

She’s cooking dinner and the air is filled with the smell of burnt garlic and fried peppers.

Across the yard, a member of his team dry-roasts chickpeas while another prepares a traditional brew.

Everyone participates in the preparation of the meal for 300 people. Young people lay mats made of dried hogla pata, an aquatic leaf, on the grassland of Shimulia, a remote village in Kushtia district, southwestern Bangladesh.

Rupali and his team have prepared hundreds of similar feasts for villagers, twice a week for over five years, for free. She works with 14 women, former housewives now known for their culinary prowess.

They prepare only traditional dishes, according to the tastes of the community.

Today, a film crew films the entire process, from food preparation to serving. Later, they will upload the footage to AroundMeBD, a YouTube channel focused on village cuisine in Bangladesh with some 4.2 million subscribers and 1.33 billion views.

“Initially, we cooked for 15 to 20 people. Now we sometimes cook up to 1,500 people at a time,” says Khatun. A mother of two, she had no other previous experience before joining the team.

Her new income now supplements the monthly income brought home by her husband, a day laborer.

“Hundreds of thousands of people watching my cooking videos make me feel good,” says fellow team member Sharmin Akhter.

She’s proud that people now call it “the ‘YouTube village’ thanks to the channel’s popularity,” she says.

Over 200 videos show the community creating meals from goat barbecue (14 goat legs); a 40-goat tripe curry; to a dish consisting of almost 300 kg of water buffalo meat.

The team also served a 200kg vanilla cake to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

A cameraman takes footage after the team from a Village Grandpa’s Cooking YouTube channel prepared the spicy mutton curry to serve more than 100 orphans at a religious school in Shimulia, Khoksha district, southwest of Bangladesh. Four septuagenarian cooks prepare the dishes and serve them to disabled, elderly, physically and mentally handicapped people. After the channel’s success with AroundMeBD, another cooking channel owned by a software engineer, the village is called YouTube village. Photo: Nazrul Islam/dpa

Viewers can watch the team prepare rasher payesh, a traditional sweet made from rich, milk and date juice. The video opens with the team members walking through a field, dressed in magenta, carrying clay pitchers. They boil the juice in a wide, flat pot outside and distribute the candy to local youngsters.

“We like to feed the villagers, have fun and show the tradition of village cooking through this channel,” says founder Liton Ali Khan, a software engineer who created AroundMeBD in 2016, just for fun.

It began by showing daily life in Dhaka, from bustling streets to brightly colored toys, markets and fishermen. His videos quickly earned his channel a significant number of subscribers.

Khan decided to monetize the channel and discussed his ideas with his uncle, schoolteacher Delwar Hossain, in his village, 200 km southwest of Dhaka.

They decided to focus on cooking and started a charity project with local volunteers cooking meals. Excited youngsters showed up to film the action on their smartphones.

“Now we use drones and modern cameras,” Khan said during an interview at his office in Dhaka’s Mirpur district, where he edits images sent in by villagers onto memory cards. He uploads at least four videos a month.

The success of the channel has helped many struggling people while strengthening community spirit, says Abdul Kuddus, chairman of Shimulia local council.

The meals give poorer people the chance to eat foods like swordfish or lobster that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, he says.

They have won praise from viewers around the world, from fans to food bloggers and economists such as Tyler Cowen, Holbert L. Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University in Virginia, USA.

“The channel behind this operation is called AroundMeBD, and its success has created a whole new economy in Shimulia, which has since been dubbed the YouTube village of Bangladesh,” Cowen wrote on his Marginal Revolution website.

The Shimulia phenomenon is part of a growing trend across South Asia as the Internet reaches rural communities. Villagers showcase their food crops to a global audience through platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.

This has particular appeal in Bangladesh, a country of 170 million people, with nearly 124 million internet users looking to make money online by showcasing their culture.

“We also want to showcase our rich culinary heritage through online platforms,” says Khan, who has around 50 people, including 17 women who mostly feature in the cooking videos.

Delwar Hossain, who oversees the channel’s activities on the ground, says the owners are spending almost a million taka (about RM48,500) to make the videos, including paying staff, transport and ingredients ranging from meat to fish and vegetables.

He did not disclose the channel’s monthly revenue, but part of the advertising revenue is invested in building houses for the poorest and other social investments.

Inspired by successes on AroundMeBD, Khan launched a new channel, Village Grandpas Cooking, in 2020. Four white-bearded septuagenarians, also from Shimulia, cook meals which they serve to disadvantaged people in different walks of life, including orphans, people with mental or physical disabilities and the poorest ethnic groups.

The channel has 1.13 million subscribers, while Khan is working on new projects ranging from The Great Foodie to Fortunate Guest and Creative Boys Craft. He wants to finance a tourist park and do more for the children of the neighborhood.

He doesn’t do it for gratitude, he says. “I thought it was my duty to the people who helped me grow.” – dpa

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