I’ve got some fish to dry

Arundhati Ray | Updated on January 16, 2018
Going strong: Dried fish, across cultures, is associated with the overpowering smell that emanates when being cooked. Photo: K K Mustafah

Going strong: Dried fish, across cultures, is associated with the overpowering smell that emanates when being cooked. Photo: K K Mustafah   -  The Hindu

Bagging rights: Shutki is not ubiquitous in the cuisine of ‘o paar Bangla’ (the Bengal on the other side of the border). It is, in fact, regional food, limited to the people of certain areas like Sylhet and Chittagong.

Bagging rights: Shutki is not ubiquitous in the cuisine of ‘o paar Bangla’ (the Bengal on the other side of the border). It is, in fact, regional food, limited to the people of certain areas like Sylhet and Chittagong.   -  Reuters

Why the acquired taste for shutki — 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 dried-up 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 beganto 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 … You really haven’t seen these before?”

Once 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 chopped onion, green chillies and mustard oil, before being wrapped in squash leaves. The parcels would be dipped in rice or chickpea flour batter, deep-fried and served hot.

One bite and there is an explosion of flavours and textures: the crispiness of the fragile batter, the tenderness of the leaf, the pungency of the fish tempered by charcoal smokiness, the heat of the chillies and spices, and of course the golden aroma of mustard oil. Steaming parboiled rice with a dollop of ghee is the only accompaniment needed.

Because of the amount of chillies used, children were usually not allowed to eat shutki till they were about 10. M recalls, however, that because of the buzz that shutki generated in the household, kids would be impatient for their first sampling. And while it is an acquired taste, children took to it quickly because, she explains, it was one of those things that made you feel you were participating in an age-old tradition; it was a sign that you belonged.

It’s this memory she draws on when preparing loitta shutki in the spacious kitchen of her Kolkata apartment. The gas stove doesn’t provide the smokiness of coal embers and lau (bottle gourd) leaves replace squash leaves subtly altering the dish. But M manages to imbue the preparation with those intangible qualities mined from precious, deep-rooted memories.

In another friend, Ayesha Mallik’s, home, shutki evokes the humid, tropical lushness of Myanmar and a sprawling bungalow in Insein, a northern suburb of Yangon, where her maternal great-grandfather had settled when he took up the post of prison doctor. The family recipe of shutki chingri (shrimp) shows the Burmese influence. One recipe combines the dried fish with vegetables like eggplant, potatoes, pumpkin and okra (all sliced in large pieces as you would for a Bengali charchori) and then gives it a distinctive twist by adding the berries and leaves of the chukor plant — a shrub that grows in abundance in Myanmar. This introduces a refreshing tart note to the heat of the spices (garlic predominates) and the stridency of the shutki. In her Kolkata kitchen, Mallik’s mother substitutes chukor with tamarind. However, because the Insein house remains in the family, it allows the woman to stock up on balachong.

Conversations with Sujata Saha, a professor and chartered accountant, provides insights into the strong seam of landscape memory that runs through these retellings and recipes. Saha hails from Sylhet and although the family moved to Kolkata decades ago, it retains strong links with their native region. Describing how even the prized hilsa is turned into shutki in Sylhet, she explains, that contrary to what many believe, shutki is not ubiquitous in the cuisine of “ o paar Bangla (the Bangla on the other side of the border)”. It is, in fact, regional food, limited to the people of certain areas including Sylhet and Chittagong. The love of shutki is something that unites people of those communities. She points out that her husband, who is from Dhaka, doesn’t eat shutki.

Belonging to a community that can appreciate this delicacy has had some unexpected benefits. On one of her visits to the Singapore home of her son and his Chinese wife, Saha remembers how she was astonished when the smells emanating from the kitchen convinced her that the cook was preparing shutki. Her investigations revealed that it was actually a Chinese recipe that combines dried prawns, bokchoi, and bamboo shoot, seasoned with soya sauce and sesame oil.

Food writer and journalist Michael Pollan has an essay where he talks about visiting South Korea and being flummoxed at the fact that the country had six museums dedicated to kimchi (two in Seoul alone). Moreover, regular school trips to these museums are a must for even kindergarten students. The reason, it was explained, was that since children are not born liking kimchi; they have to be taught to acquire the taste.

This education is crucial, because the ability to savour the highly fermented pickled cabbage is one of the delineators of Korean culture. Difficult tastes can define a culture in a way that simple tastes — sweet, for instance — can’t. Being able to take pleasure in a special food that is not easy-access, but requires training and initiation into the taste experience is one of the things that knit cultures together.

Like kimchi, shutki too is a bonding factor amongst those hailing from areas like Chittagong and Sylhet. This is why my friend’s mother reacted sharply to her grandchildren’s turning away from the family culinary tradition. Her sorrow wasn’t her food going unappreciated; but the fear of a little piece of living heritage and cultural identity being erased forever.

M’s shutki paturi

(Serves 4)

4 loitta shutki (or any mid-size shutki fish)

4 pumpkin leaves

1 large onion chopped

1-2 green chillies chopped (more if you

want more heat)

1-2 cups thin, smooth rice flour batter

Oil for deep frying

Salt to taste


1 Place fish on a sheet of heavy-duty foil, crimp edges to create a raised border (to catch the oil that comes out of the fish) and place on hot (but not red-hot) coals of a barbecue. If using a stove, place a grill on the stove and put the foil containing the fish on this. Heat should be very low. Once the tough skin of the fish starts splitting and the flesh softens, gently peel away the skin and remove the central bone from each.

2 Pound the flesh till fluffy them combine with the chopped onions, green chillies and mustard oil.

3 Lay out the leaves. Divide the filling on the centre of each of these leaving enough margin to wrap into parcels. Don’t overstuff. If necessary moisten the edges of the leaves to make them seal better.

4 Heat oil in a small wok. Working with one parcel at a time, dip into rice flour batter and gently release into hot oil. Take out when the coating turns golden crisp and put on greaseproof paper.

5 Serve immediately with steamed rice and warm ghee on the side.

Arundhati Ray is a Kolkata-based food writer

Published on December 16, 2016

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