The Hindu Business Line
I’ve got some fish to dry
Why the acquired taste for — Bengali for dried fish — is one of the delineators of culture among some communities
Dried fish pops up in cuisines across the globe and I’ve tried and enjoyed quite a few: wafers of Icelandic skyr eaten with large quantities of butter (delicious!); katsuobushi — dried fish flakes that are crucial to so many Japanese dishes are a precious part of my store cupboard staples; balachong, the Burmese dried prawn relish, (transforms the blandest food). Yet somehow, I’d never explored a rich tradition that was right in my backyard: Shutki.
Shutki — a Bengali word that connotes driedup or anorexic — stands for dried fish or shrimp, and it is inextricably associated with the overpowering smell that emanates when being cooked. Growing up in Kolkata, I rarely encountered the dish in the homes of family and friends, and if I thought about shutki at all it was a vague idea of a smelly dish that was extremely spicy, and eaten by people with roots in East Bengal. True, I had read about the passion for shutki amongst legendary Bengali connoisseurs like Dinendranath Tagore — Rabindranath’s nephew — but I had never paid heed. And when recently a friend with Chittagong roots grumbled that her mother was accusing her of not bringing up her children properly because she hadn’t succeeded in getting them to like shutki maach, a family favourite, I agreed with her that the older lady was being unreasonable.
However, all this changed when, on a trip to Kalimpong, I chose to visit the covered market I had always skipped.
Amongst the stalls of produce was one manned by a plump cheerful Nepali man sitting in the middle of what looked like piles of shiny metal. The light from the naked bulbs bounced off these polished surfaces, and for a moment I had a surreal impression that he was weighing out piles of silver chips. As we drew closer we realised those silver shards were dried fish. There were at least 10 kinds of fish, separated into neat piles.
The affable fish seller explained that all these were sukati, dried fish, a delicacy among Nepalis. He then proceeded to list a number of preparations with each different kind – pounded as a hot spicy paste to be had with steaming rice, combined with vegetables, made into pickle. Pointing to a pretty inch-long silvery-black one with tiny scales he explained that was sithral, excellent for dogs to ensure a healthy coat.
As I listened to him, my terrible, embarrassing ignorance about shutki began to dawn on me, starting with the fact that I had never considered that shutki covered a variety of fish. As if on cue, the man stopped mid-sentence to ask curiously, “But you’re from Kalkatta and you must find so many more varieties in your bazaars. These fish are brought up from there, and it’s only a small sample of what’s available. And of course, Bengalis have so many delicious ways to cook shutki haven’t seen these before?”
O… You really
nce I started researching shutki in Kolkata, I realised it was a fascinating world of taste and techniques. And of memories: every shutki tale was not just a recipe but a layered recollection of another time and place.
Our friend M, a versatile cook, grew up in Shillong where her father’s family had been living for generations after relocating from their native Sylhet. In their large joint family home, where huge meals were prepared on coal fires in the cavernous kitchen, shutki maach — usually using fish like kechki, loitta and hidol — was a much awaited treat. The favourite preparation was a family recipe — a culinary heirloom passed down over time.
For this, mid-size fish like hidol or loitta was used. M recounts how the fish, bought from the Khasi dry fish seller in the bazaar, were placed on the dying embers of the coal stove so that the tough skin would, very gradually, soften and split. The heat would be so gentle that the fish would retain its oil but the flesh would absorb the smokiness of the coal. Carefully, the skin would be peeled away and the middle bone extracted. Then the fish would be pounded till fluffy and mixed with generous amounts of