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Memories of Shutki - The Dried-Salted Fish

20 March, 2021 17:03:01
Memories of Shutki - The Dried-Salted Fish

Ranjini Guha is an Associate Professor in History with research interests in Food History. She is author of the upcoming book, Foodscapes, Lockdown and Dinner Diaries

Though I had an ancestry from what is now Bangladesh, quite similar to my husband's house, yet we were quite apart in the food we had. My grandfather on my father's side had long settled in Ranchi. My father was a probashi. My paternal aunts or pishis loved making a Bihari fish curry and perfected the art of Thekua making. My father himself had cosmopolitan tastes and loved his Chopsueys and Meat Loaf more than a typical shukto. My mother hailed from that area of Bangladesh which had tastes similar to those of West Bengal. They loved their Doi Maach with some sugar added into it. Years spent in Bombay made my parents more open to tastes and they loved their Vada Pao and Shrikhand more than the Mishti Doi. We did have fish but mostly Bhetki, Rohu, Katla, Koi, Prawns, Parshe and Papda. Kochu Saag was seldom cooked with Hilsa head, it was mostly done with Prawns and Hilsa was never done in a runny gravy with green bananas and pumpkin, it was mostly steamed in mustard and coconut paste.

Shutki Hilsa

But nothing was as charming as the Shutki. The first shutki I had was cooked by my husband and the taste still lingers on after years. I learned to steam fresh Aar fish in a mustard paste with raw mustard oil smeared on it and cook Boyal fish in a light gravy with fresh coriander leaves. My learning seemed fun now as I began taking a liking for all things bangal. My father encouraged me and infact he loved the bowl of shutki my husband took for him.  Trips to Digha were always special as I could source an array of shutki ...freshly salted and dried from the shores. In fact, I began loving the smell of shutki. A turnaround it was and definitely an epic one.

I love cooking dried shrimp and ripe pumpkin cooked together with a lot of garlic — the perfect balance of sweet and hot. My love for more fiery creations met its climax in the Shidol chutney which I was served with. Both Shidol and Shutki in Sylhet families are cooked with seasonal vegetables such as brinjal — either as a dry pickle or a spicy saucy dish. It could also be had on its own, just roasted with onions, garlic and chilli and mashed. Whenever I salivate at the thought of Shutki, my first encounter with Shedol Shutki cannot go undocumented. It was a trip to Shillong and we had a lunch invitation at the house of a relative from my in laws ancestral village in Syhlet. We were welcomed by smiles no doubt but the aroma wafting in the house was more endearing. Settled in Shillong for years they still spoke in the dialect of Syhlet and I hoped they still had preserved the cooking heritage of the region. As my aunt called us over to the dining table I eyed the reddish oily stuff lying gracefully at the side. With the rice what a beautiful melange of soft and hot colors. It was indeed Shidol which I always wanted to taste.

I realized I was making rather uncivilized sounds and my eyes were watering yet I wanted more of it. Had to have sips of water in between but I wanted more. The smile on my aunt’s face was very suggestive. I had heard of Shidol Bora and I kept praying that I might be able to taste it. It would be my only chance. The Shidoler Bora (fritters) did come. As I was biting into the crispy exteriors to navigate to the fish my aunt in her dialect went about describing the way she made the Sidoler Bora. 

Shidol is a traditional fermented fish, still popular in North Eastern India and was once a big hit among Bangaals. Shutki or dried and salted fish can be made out of different varieties of fish...most common in India are Loitta or Bombay Duck, Prawns, Hilsa and Punti fish.

Favourite Shutki recipes

My favourite way of doing Shutki is rather simple. I use Loitta or Bombay Duck Shutki but one can substitute with dried shrimps as well. I clean the fish well and keep it soaked in hot water for 15 min. In mustard oil I fry the Shutki till soft over low heat. In another pan I add a whole lot of crushed garlic, red chilli paste and chopped onions. Once soft, I add diced pumpkins, potatoes, turmeric, coriander powder and fry them covered till soft. Do not add salt at this point. Once the veggies are soft I add the fish and give it a good stir. I cover it and let the veggies soak in the flavour of the Shutki over time. The oil separates, the fish remains soft but whole. Add salt if needed. Take care not to mash the fish or the veggies, the crunch remains important. Also be liberal with mustard oil. Well, you do not need any other dish for your lunch. You prepare for a siesta.

From Bangladesh with love

The next recipe is an heirloom one from my in laws. It’s a Loitta Shutki with coconut. After soaking the fish in hot water for a while I fry the fish in mustard oil. After draining the fish, in that same oil I fry the garlic, sliced onion, chopped green chilies and grated coconut. I fry it till well browned. I add red chilli powder, turmeric and salt. After adding the fried fish and a good stir, I let it simmer covered for ten minutes. No water is added to the dish.

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