Sunday, September 02, 2007

shukto-the quintessential bengali dish

it is the traditional bengali dish. though i lived for nearly fourteen years during my childhood in kolkata and have been visiting this great city atleast six to seven times a year on work, i had never tasted shukto till very recently.we have a fantastic bengali cook,nirmal,in our nonveg colleagues go ga over his cooking,particularly when it comes to hilsa and chingdi.i had heard a lot about shukto and that a bengali meal normally starts with shukto and hot rice.i decided to have it for breakfast and asked nirmal to prepare it. he was taken aback as all these days i had never asked him to prepare this typical bengali dish.

i think he did a fantastic job. i loved every bit of the shukto. it reminded me of our avial. though the tastes are entirely different. it contains uchche(bitter gourd), jhinge(ridge gourd), drumsticks, bagun(brinjal), mooli(radish), aalu(potato), kachkola(green banana), string beans, fried neem leaves and peas. tomato, zucchini and khas khas are also added. the other ingredients are ginger paste, panch foran(mustard,aniseed,fenugreek,cumin and onion seeds). sugar,coriander,milk, mustard paste and plain flour are also added.eaten alongwith rice the potpourri of the vegetables and spices in shukto exuberated an unique flavour.

the bitterness of shukto helps in purifying the blood,cleansing the palate and letting the digestive juices flow.all the tastes described in ayurveda are encapsulated in the shukto.bitter gourd balances the kapha and stimulates the liver.with so many virtues going for it, i wonder why it hasn't become popular among other communities.

when i was young,i hated bitter gourd. i actually started eating bitter gourd after my mother passed away. in our sraddha food,bittergourd sambhar is the first item after serving of tur dal with rice. since then i have been eating fried bitter gourd with onions which our cook prepares very well. i must get the recipe from nirmal and pass it on to our cook gb. a bengali cook is, they say, judged by his shukto preparation. nirmal came out in flying colours. will gb also learn to prepare as well? i have developed so much of a liking for shukto that i might even one of these days step into the kitchen and become a 'ek din ka bawarchi!'.

chitrita banerji in her book "life and food in bengal"(courtesy my friend rums from delhi) mentions about mukundaram chakrabarti's 'chandimangalkabya'. it contains a passage in which on a winter morning lord shiva asks his wife parvati to cook him an elaborate vegetarian meal. the first item in the menu he wishes to have is a bitter shukto made with aubergines,shim(a buttery textured bean) and margosa leaves .the bengalis have been following lord shiva's love for shukto to this day .though only for lunch and never for dinner.


Lotus Reads said...

What a great post, gs, I don't even know where to start!!!

First off, Shukto looks and sounds FABULOUS! All those good veggies in that fabulously tasty gravy, you have me drooling over my keyboard!

And how funny you should mention "Chitrita Banerji", only today the New York Times has published an article by her called "Poor Calcutta', I can send you the link if you want.

I have heard of her book "Life and Food in Bengal", she is also promoting a more recent one called "Eating India: An Odyssey Into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices."

Finally, I am envious of your travels all over India and the fact that you get to taste the local food prepared by those that know it best...the locals! However, I am grateful that you share all these wonderful experiences with us, thank you!

p.s. Do let us know if you ever get around to preparing Shukto yourself! :)

gs said...

hi lr
thanks for your comments.i am a fan of chitrita and i love her writing on bengali food because it is just not the culinary aspect that gets covered but a whole range of feelings and emotions in a bengali family.her style of writing has also vastly improved and makes reading her book as enjoyable as her tips on cooking.
i keep a very busy schedule and crash out when i return home.but, i do want to prepare shukto with my own hands! hopefully one of these days.

gs said...

hi lr
in continuation.the name of cb's book is 'the hour of the goddess'.it is only 144 pages and published by penguin.there is a full chapter on shukto titled 'a dose of bitters'. do get hold of the book. you will not regret it.

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you, gs!

I am putting "The Hour of the Goddess" on my wish list, it sounds wonderful!

dfh said...