Shutki – the story of Dried and Salted Fish

Shutki and memories

Getting married is undoubtedly a sudden exposure to new things ….food, culture,lifestyle.This is universal across gender, communities and regions. It also means a lot of efforts to get acquainted and in course of time to start loving the host of new things in life.It is not that one does all of it spontaneously, not even that you are forced into it…with time you get used to it, some you learn to brush away with a smile and some you adapt that too with a smile.To get to love the new food, new tastes is always an uphill task. It might be a dish that you never ever had in life is a favourite one in your in law’s house.Either your mom in law cooks it with a pride or tries to teach you with precision. That is how heirloom recipes are preserved and passed on. Humans are by nature flexible and adaptable and often we begin recreating such dishes which were once new to our taste buds with minor changes to suit tastes.

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My story like so many others followed on similar lines. 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 ( one who lived away from motherland) in that sense. 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.

My husband had lost his mom long before we got married.So I thought that with my father in law around, things would be a cakewalk at least in the kitchen. But within a couple of days I was in for a surprise. My father in law – Baba was a foodie and had such interesting anecdotes about food during his childhood in Dacca and then in Sylhet where his father worked for years. Baba was a true blue Bangal in food tastes. It was from him I came to know of a Shukto with fish head called Bhangachora Shukto. He wanted his Pui Saag perfect with the head of an Hilsa. Bhorta was a very common dish which was cooked during my mom in law’s time.The only bhorta I knew was Begun Bharta or Begun Pora. Aar and Boyal were delicacies in fish. Baba at one sitting could name a hundred species of fish…so many extinct now. Mustard was a favourite flavoring agent and so was mustard oil a near compulsory in cooking.

The love blossoms

With time my taste buds started changing. Shutki became my favourite though I still did not know how to cook it.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 loved the bowl of shutki my husband took for him.He remembered the Bombay Duck or Bombill fry which was his favourite in his days in Bombay. Over the years I learnt to choose the best Shutki. Trips to Digha were always special as I could source an array of shutki …freshly salted and dried from the shores. Infact I began loving the smell of shutki. A turnaround it was and definitely an epic one.

The story of the Shidol

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 it’s 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 chutney…one 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 aunts 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 .The Shidol was pounded and cooked with plenty of garlic, onion and chillies. The paste was placed in a pumpkin leaf, wrapped,folded and dipped in a batter of gram flour and deep-fried. It was an experience of a lifetime.The texture, the heat, the garlic all fused in to create a bliss which I cannot put into words.

The saga of the Shidol

Shidol is a traditional fermented fish, popular in North Eastern India which uses freshwater Punti fish, the scientific name for which is Puntius sophore. Shidol is prepared by stuffing earthen pots with the sundried fish. The earthen pots are then sealed airtight for fermentation and stored at room temperature for 3-4 months. Shidol is also popular among the communities of Khasis, Tripuris, Kacharis and Manipuris. Ngari is a popular fermented fish product of Manipur which is prepared by using sundried salt-free punti fish locally known as phoubu usually from Brahmaputra valley and Bangladesh. Hentaak is an indigenous fermented fish paste product (small ball shaped) prepared from fermented fish Punti along with vegetables like colocasia. In Tripura Shidol is known as Berma and is often added to flavor curries. It is also used in a vegetable mash dish known as Gudok. Dried fish is also popular in Kashmir during the harsh winters. Hoggard a local fish is wrapped in muslin cloth and dried in the terrace to be consumed during the winters.It is fried in mustard oil with some Kashmiri red chilies and served with rice.

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.Dried and salted fish are used in Konkani, Malvani, Goan, Oriya, Keralian and even in Kashmiri cuisines.The saga of salted fish however did not begin in India.

The history of dried fish worldwide

Salt cod, also known as Bacalao, can be traced all the way back to the 15th century. During the 17th century, salting became economically feasible when cheap salt from southern Europe became available to the maritime nations of northern Europe. It was an essential part of international commerce between the New World and the Old and eventually became a popular ingredient in Northern European cuisine, as well as Mediterranean, West African, Caribbean and Brazilian cuisines.

The sea has sustained Norwegians for thousands of years. With one of thelargest cod stocks in the world, the fish played a significant role in Norway’s culture and economy. Before modern food preservation, Norwegians used air and salt to preserve the wild cod stocks. Since the early Middle Ages, Norwegians have relied on stockfish, salt cod and clipfish for nourishment during long winters and ocean voyages. Stockfish is a dried cod, provided Vikings with sustenance during their sea voyages. Even Leiv Eiriksson was said to have had supplies of the dried fish with him when he discovered America. With temperatures of around 0°C, Northern Norway’s cold winter climate provides the perfect conditions for creating dried fish. Stockfish is Norway’s longest-sustained export commodity and one of the nation’s most famous dishes.Norway has become the world’s largest supplier of stockfish, salt cod and clipfish. However, the salted and dried cod has become popular throughout the world and is most widely consumed in Portugal, Spain and Italy. Preserved cod is incredibly versatile with a unique taste and texture.

Salt fish has been a part of Caribbean cuisine dating back to the days of colonial rule. Salt fish was first introduced to the Caribbean in the 16th century. Vessels from North America—mainly Canada—would come bringing lumber and pickled and salted cod. They would then return to their homeland with Caribbean molasses, rum, sugar, and salt.The most popular way of preparing salt fish in the Caribbean is by sauteing it with thyme, lots of onions, tomatoes and hot pepper. Salted fish is also popular in southern China and in Southeast Asian countries, where it is often used as an accompaniment to other dishes or rice. Although the amount consumed at any one time is small, the dish is a must at every meal. Salted fish mixed with rice has also been used as a traditional food for infants.

From the large repertoire of salted and dried fish recipes across the world my pick is limited to our country though spread across regions.I include some from the neighbouring country of Bangladesh too as my forefathers hail from that area.

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My favorite recipes

My favorite way of doing Shutki is simple. I use Loitta or Bombay Duck Shutki but one can substitute dried shrimps as well. I clean the fish well and keep it soaked in hot water for a out 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.

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From Bangladesh with love

The next recipe is a 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.

From the Konkan coast

This one is from the Konkan. One can use any dried fish except prawns for this. I make a paste of tomato,oil, tomato puree, red chilies,coriander powder,garlic and salt.I add water to it and make a slurry out if it. Over hot oil I add this slurry, the fish, raw mangoes, spring onion, whole green chilies and coriander leaves.I cover it over low flame and when all is fused together I add a little sugar.To be served with rice.

From the land of sea and sand-Orissa

One from Orissa too known as Sukha Macher Besara. For this I make a paste of mustard, fennel seeds, garlic, red chilli and coriander leaves. I keep the dried fish fried in mustard oil. in oil I add a tempering of mustard seeds,the mustard paste, chopped tomatoes, salt and turmeric. Once the masala is done I add bamboo shoots and cover.The fried fish is added too,mixed well and some water is added. It has a near dry consistency.

Some Prawns from Malvani cuisine

One of my favorites from Malvani cuisine. Called Sukha Jawela, this is a dried prawn preparation. I dry roast the prawns and then wash them well. In oil I add chopped garlic,chopped onion and brown it well. Then goes in chopped tomatoes and a kokum. Some Malwani masala,turmeric and salt. When the oil separates I put in the prawns, cover and cook over low heat. Once done I add some scrapped coconut.

Pick your pack of Shutki and you need a bit of courage …. Cook it up in any of the above style….make it on a Sunday for you will eat more and sleep tight that afternoon.

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Author: ranjinipinky

Always happy when it comes to food and travel.Love looking beyond the cuisine and beyond the known landscape.Food describes a person,a culture ,a nation and a psyche.Both foodscape and landscape of a place joins together to weave the history of the place.My endeavor is to travel through that history,enrich myself and evolve continuously.Be my co- traveler through this enriching experience.

3 thoughts on “Shutki – the story of Dried and Salted Fish”

  1. I enjoyed this post. I am a sylheti bong and shukti lover. Will try your recipe.thanks..we also make shukti doro in sylheti house. It is a soup with shidol, chosen vegetables and lots of green chillies without oil.plesde try this with steam rice


  2. I enjoyed this post. I am a sylheti bong and shukti lover. Will try your recipe.thanks..we also make shukti doro in our sylheti house. It is a soup with shidol, chosen vegetables and lots of green chillies cooked without oil. please try this with steamed rice.


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