mostly about food and cooking, but also the stories about the Bread and the Butterflies!

Shukto

In Bengali, Vegetables, Vegetarian on May 29, 2012 at 7:39 pm

calcutta

There is more shared between Kashmir and Bengal than a love for rice, fish, and mustard oil.  There is a shared history.  Eighth century Kashmiri emperor Lalitaditya’s empire is believed to have extended from Kabul right up to Bengal.  But, that was centuries ago.  Even in the last century there was a very strong connection between the two Indian states.  West Bengal seems to have been the first choice for a majority of Kashmiri youth in my parents generation seeking scholarship outside of this remote state in the north.  Nineteenth Century Calcutta was the bastion of contemporary western education. It was routine for teen Kashmiri boys to leave home for this faraway state to study medicine or engineering.  Many generations owe a debt to this state of bhadrlok for their education: in my family my Dad studied at IITKgp, one uncle studied medicine at Calcutta Medical College (established by the British in 1835, it is our oldest medical college), two others studied engineering at Jadhavpur University.  The Government Medical College, Srinagar, was established only in 1959, followed by the REC (Regional Engineering College) in 1960.

calcutta

For some reason none of them talked about the food they ate there.  I will take it up with my dad and the uncle who is also visiting currently.  In middle school, despite my best friend being a Bengali, my exposure to Bengali food seems to have stayed limited.  I do remember a sleep-over at her place when we ate doi-maach which I liked very much.  In Kashmiri cooking, combining dairy and fish is taboo and I seem to not have explored the cuisine any further.  Also in my defense is the fact that I was only 11 years old at the time.  Which is not much of a defense looking at the way these 8-12 years old cook in Junior Masterchef Australia – they are unlike any children I have ever seen!  I was expecting them to be cooking beginner-level food but this is like watching regular Masterchef, and my interest is waning fast.

Getting back to the topic of Bengali food.  So, you found me raving about Bengali food when I finally discovered it on a visit to Kolkata not so long ago.  I have made begun bhaja umpteen times before, and also remember making bhappa doi a long time ago, but these two dishes don’t really count as ‘cooking’ Bengali. I also recall an unsuccessful attempt at making roasted mung dal from Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of India, the only time that cookbook has let me down; I likely over-roasted the mung.

shukto3

The first dish I picked to try was the disarmingly simple shukto.  It a medley of vegetables in a light milky gravy that is complimented by the use of the ubiquitous shorshe and poppy seed pastes. The first attempt, while delicious, did not quite recreate what I had tasted in the restaurant thali in Kolkata; it was missing something. I checked recipes on the net, and they seemed similar enough. My colleague’s wife had shared a basic recipe-construct while going over the ingredients. The only thing I had omitted was radhuni, but I was told it was optional.  Since I couldn’t get the simple shukto off my mind I requested a friend, who stays in Delhi’s Bengali adda – Chitranjan Park, to procure some for me.  With that, my paanch phoron was complete.  Radhuni made all the difference.

radhuni

When I cooked this last week, I paired it with mung-masur dal infused with Bengal-inspired spices.  For a more authentic touch use only masur.  In recollection of my earlier meal I also served a nigella-flecked green mango relish, prepared fresh, on the side.  It was a comforting meal like only a dal-bhaat meal can be.  It got better because, through no planning though, I also had mishti doi from the previous day!

shukto

Sanjuktas’s Shukto
Bengali-style mixed vegetable curry

karela (bitter gourd) – 1, cut into 1″ long sections, cut sections into 4-6 pieces lengthways
kuccha kela (green banana) – 1, cubed
potato – 1 (or 2, if you like them as much as I do!), peel, halve, and cut into thick slices
a mix of vegetables such as mooli (radish), brinjal, ghia (bottle gourd), tori (courgette), parwal (wax gourd), drumsticks, all cut into longish pieces (according to my friend Sanjukta, pumpkin, beans, and carrots are a no-no) – this time I used (oh, no) beans!*
1t panch phoron (mix of methi, fennel, kalonji, zeera, and radhuni seeds)
1t salt (or to taste)
1/2 C milk
3 green chillies, slit along the length (optional)
2-3T mustard oil
pinch of hing

* the total quantity of vegetables, after frying, was enough to fill a 1.5l capacity pan

for the spice paste
1T sarson (mustard seeds)
1T khus khus (white poppy seeds)
1″ piece of ginger
1t fennel seeds
1/4t radhuni (sometimes referred to as wild celery; they do look like celery seeds but the aroma is very different)
(soak mustard and poppy seeds in water for an hour, grind into a paste with the rest of the ingredients above)

shukto

Heat oil in a kadahi (or pan) and lightly stir fry the vegetables, each separately. Fry brinjal and green bananas towards the end as they suck up all the oil. Remove the vegetables into a bowl and keep ready. Heat a little oil in the karahi (a teaspoon or so). Add panch phoron and hing. Once the whole spices have spluttered add the vegetables to the karahi along with a cup of water. Add salt, cover, and simmer for 10 min or till the vegetables are half cooked. Add the spice paste and the green chillies. Continue to cook till the vegetables are cooked through, stirring occasionally to make sure there is some liquid and the vegetables do not dry out. Add more water if needed, so that you have a little gravy.  Add milk and heat thru.

Serve over steamed white rice with a sweet and sour relish or pickle on the side.

shukto on rice with mumg-masur dal, and green mango relish

mishti

Manisha’s mishti and bhapa doi of uncertain origins!
Bong Mom’s shukto.

  1. Every dish on your table looks splendid, Anita! The theory of the Empire of Lolitaditya explaining some of the commonalities amongst the northern swath of cuisines is an interesting one that deserves further delving: history can be buried by language, but unearthed in food, I firmly believe. And, as I’ve recently procured another 2k of our beloved oil at a good price, I may very-well follow your lead.

    I’ve tried that recipe of M.Jaffrey’s. Yes, the first time I made it, I, too, over-roasted the moong… which imbued the final result with an unpleasant note, but a careful, light roast imparted a beautiful nuttiness, and I’ve found that this simple dish was a hit at pot-lucks!

    One day I hope to meet Radhuni; until then, enjoy her company, the wafting scent of her itr’d skin, and say ‘hello’ for me!😉

    Do some investigative cooking and let us hear about your findings.

    With a better reintroduction to Bengali food, I think it is time to try that dal again. Gently does it and now that I have all that experience of roasting badi elaichi…🙂

    A big bag of radhuni is on the list for whenever I am in that neighbourhood.

  2. loved it! Would like to read more on aloo dum and macher kalia-which are cooked in a bengali kichen must be having some historical connection to kashmiri kitchen! Also would like to read about your parents and uncle’s experiences on Bong food scenes of kolkata-then and now!

    Both the dishes, though with similar names, are very different in their preparation and presentation. Which is the morphed version and which is the original, who knows.

  3. You had me at karela and radhuni! I do want to sit at that beautiful table again.

    Panch phoran is mind-blowingly fragrant with radhuni, than without. But to get 1/4t of radhuni, I would have to pick it out of the panch phoron mix! So you know what to send me next time ;-D

    I’m always worried about using milk in sauces like this. It separates almost instantly. I think I may have mentioned this before. Do you do anything special or different? One of my friends used to make chicken in milk – her sauce was always fabulous, mine was always curdled.

    And, you made mishti doi, too! Good on you! ;-D

    It’s been almost two years,I hope you are planning your next visit!
    My panch phoron was missing radhuni till now. But for shukto I had to procure it. I know what to send, yes; you really ‘need’ radhuni!

    I have never had problem with the milk splitting, not even when I add it to tchaman kaliya, which has panir which is itself made by splitting milk! I used to use whole milk earlier and now I use Mother Dairy’s toned, 3% fat, milk. The only thing I am particular about it having the milk at room temperature. Have you been using your milk straight from the fridge?

    I made mishti doi, but I should have caramelized the sugar like you!

    • Gaay ka duh hai to ekdum sahi rahega..almond milk to nahi pata
      🙂

      • BM, my probashi friend, are you trying to veganize me or something? ;D
        P.S. our lactose-intolerant intestines can handle 1/2cup milk with that many veggies and other stuff. Or maybe the milk curdles so that…

    • Liar! Room temperature milk, indeed!

      And we already figured that it is I who is the problem, not the milk. I was doing my best to watch you make nenya kaliya but you made sure I couldn’t watch the milk-adding step. Now I will never know how to make it. Btw, I still dream of that nenya kaliya. And then when I think back to that day, I miss Raji😦

      What, I tell the truth! No other ‘tricks!’ Cross my heart!

      I should write about the nenya kalia too . . .
      It was Raji’s birthday two days ago.

  4. Hmmm… I am in Calcutta in a month’s time. Miss the Bhadralok of course, but the food very much, especially the Chinese food on Park Street. I am going to try this dish now.

    But, then, you were introduced to mustard oil early in your Tambram life!

  5. Anita you have got me at the radhuni. Since my Mom was a probashi bengali–having grown up outside WB and so was I — we never had easy access to radhuni and had learned to live without it. My Ma-in-law of course insists on it. Now you and Manisha, the two non-Bongs have inspired me enough to use it. I recently got a batch from Kolkata and am going to exploit it🙂

    This was the first time for me to use radhuni. Till now I would substitute it with mustard seeds in the panch phoron; how it is not a substitute! Go ahead, use it and see your shukto in a new light!

    • You might find a certain Wisconsin denizen at your door. Hide it, I say!

    • I thought you were from Colorado?

    • Since the flavor profile of radhuni is so similar to celery seeds, I have oft wondered why celery seeds are not advocated as a substitute instead of mustard seeds. But celery seeds are not readily available (or are they? I never know these days with everyone suddenly preferring “international” over desi food. I continue to be amazed at how desi bloggers churn out recipes for difficult-to-pronounce Italian dishes without mentioning sources, like they grew up with their grandmothers making the stuff from scratch at home. OK, rant over!) or are they (the celery seeds, that is!)?

      No, celery seeds are not available as a spice. You can get them and sow and then harvest, as I did last year and had quite a bit from just a few plants. Radhuni has a very different fragrance though, much subtler. Every exotic ingredient can now be found in the markets here but it is not inexpensive, which is alright for occasional forays.

      You already know how I feel about recipes and acknowledging their source. It is not just with non-Indian recipes, even regional Indian recipes are so distinct that someone from the North cannot just prepare dishes from the South (or the other way around!) without some help from friends, or cookbooks, or food blogs!

    • I heard somewhere… that using mustard seeds is not ‘inauthentic’- that the two are simply variations found within Bengali cuisine- one used more in one area than the other. Any truth to that?

      • Yes, I agree. Mustard seed in Paanch Phoron is fine and is the norm in many families. Radhuni is not an absolute necessity though it definitely enhances the taste.. There are variations even with the recipe of Shukto. The framework remains same but the phoron(tadka), and the spice powder added at the end has delta difference from home to home. I have had several shuktos and none is so different that you wouldn’t recognize it but within the layers there lies a subtle difference unique to the cook’s family. Many families will not use paanch phoron for tempering but will just go with radhuni, hing, methi and tej patta. the same happens with many other Bengali recipes. There is nothing written in stone like the chicken tikka masala😉

        😀 @ inflexible standards for chicken tikka masala! I am yet to cook England’s national dish; I worry if I will have all the spices especially curry powder!

        The first recipe I used for shukto (colleague’s wife who was accompanying us for that lovely dinner we had at 6 Ballygunj Road) did not use panch phoron at all. Radhini seems to be the critical spice for a dish to be shukto though!

  6. Being a Bengali, I love shukto. Every household has it’s own shukto recipe, so does my mother. I add radhuni as phoron (tadka), and sweet potato and bori (is a must for me), which are lentil dumplings, lightly fried before adding to the shukto. At the end I add roasted pnach phoron powder, ghee and poppy-mustard paste (optional).

    I didn’t have bori at hand so omitted it. Should correct the recipe so that it is clear these are not really optional. My friend did say that poppy paste and even milk were optional for her. But added that if I like the smell of radhuni, I should add a pinch to the ground spice paste as well!

    • I love radhuni….and if you like it, you can add it to masur daal as well. Add radhuni and whole dried red chili as tadka, add chopped onion, saute and then add boiled masur daal. Add slit green chili at the end. It’s very subtle and refreshing (to me at least).

      I can imagine the dal already! Will definitely try that with masur the next time – sounds simple enough.

  7. Having studied with Bongs pretty much all my adult life (DU/DSE), I was treated to the many delicacies of Bengali cuisine. Shukto has always been my personal favourite, though I have come to discover that it is made differently by every family! Just the other day I made some Pujo Kichuri and Labra. Wish I had blogged it before we inhaled it;)

    Shukto is really that everyday comfort food. With so many ingredients, it is only natural that every cook does it in their own unique way.
    Celebrating the food is important; the blog can wait another time!

  8. That looks so light and inviting..loved reading about Kashmiri Bengali connection – new info!🙂

    Further investigations are underway to find out who, KPs or BBs, were the emigres!

  9. […] it is better to make a larger batch; this recipe makes barely 6-8 servings.  I served it with shukto and it was gone within the day!  I like it hot and loved the amount of heat in this.  If you use […]

  10. Dear Anita,
    Somewhere in your recipe above you have quietly tucked in a mention of “mung-masur dal infused with Bengal-inspired spices”. Now that looks very interesting. Like to share? I ama dal person, so….
    Thanks!

    It will appear soon, I promise! 🙂

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