Shukto is treated as the first course of a meal. Photo: Rekha Karmakar
Bengali Shukto or bitter curry is no longer an unfamiliar word. Even those outside the community know about it, courtesy the spurt of several restaurants serving Bengali food all over India and abroad. Served as first course of a meal, it seems to be the hot favourite in recent times.
Shukto, cooked with bitter gourd as one of the ingredients, is a staple dish in most Bengali homes. Apart from being tasty, it is also recommended during an upset tummy as it is light, non-spicy and whets the appetite of the person.
The home-made version of Shukto is, however, a bit different from the one made at restaurants as it is lighter and more bitter. But once you develop a taste for it, you cannot do without it.
Very few Bengali dishes have so many controversies regarding its recipe as the Shukto, except perhaps Aloo Posto; question being whether to put turmeric powder or not. So, I thought of conducting a research before writing this post. I selected the nearby park, where I go for a walk everyday.
About 20 Bengali women assemble here every evening, and they are all supposed to be wizards in cooking. What better place for research than this?
So one fine evening, I broached the subject (how to cook Shukto), and everyone clamoured to give her own. There was virtually a war of words and no one was willing to budge an inch from her stand.
It is said that old habits die hard. So, I assumed the role of a mediator and requested them to speak one at a time. I concluded the session by saying that I was sure everyone's recipe was good in its own way.
Next day post-analysis, I realised that most of the controversy was around the phoron or tadka. While some said it should be paanch phoron, which is a mixture of five whole spices, others advocated the use of radhuni - a whole spice which somewhat resembles ajwain though different in taste and flavour. Whereas the others suggested the use of whole fenugreek and mustard seeds.
Another dispute was when to add the ginger paste, an essential ingredient of the dish. Some said to fry it in oil along with the tadka so that the smell of raw ginger is not strong. While a few said to add it at the end so to get its full flavour. But, one thing everyone was unanimous was that the final result should look pale.
By the way, I also love Shukto and have a recipe of my own. However, I am willing to budge half an inch if not full, and incorporate a few tips given by the women at the park.
It is a very simple everyday preparation with no frills attached. Though non-spicy, the aroma of the fenugreek seeds and bay leaves along with the smell of ginger, produces a flavour which is simply unparalleled.
Recipe for Shukto (serves 3-4)
1 medium sized bitter gourd
1 medium green banana
A quarter of a green papaya
1 medium brinjal
1 medium potato
4 tbsp oil
1/2 tsp whole fenugreek seeds
1/4 tsp whole mustard seeds
2 split and washed bay leaves
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 and 1/2 cup of water
1 tbsp fresh ginger paste
1/2 cup milk
3/4 tsp roasted and ground fenugreek powder
1. Cut the bitter gourd in small thin square pieces and set them aside.
2. Peel the green banana, potato, green papaya and cut them into small thin square pieces. Cut the brinjal in small pieces too. Peel the drumsticks and cut them into 2" pieces.
3. Smear the cut bitter gourd with turmeric powder and salt and keep them aside for 5 minutes.
4. Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a wok. Squeeze the bitter gourd pieces, fry them well and set them aside. ( If you squeeze them, they absorb less oil and become crunchy).
5. Next, put 2 tbsp of oil in the same wok. Put 2 bay leaves, 1/2 tsp whole fenugreek and 1/4 tsp mustard seeds in the oil. Crush the seeds a bit with the back of the ladle and keep stirring till a nice aroma fills the kitchen.
6. Put all the vegetables in the oil except the fried bitter gourd. Add a pinch of turmeric powder and salt to taste. Stir for sometime. Then cover the vegetables with a lid and wait for a while till the vegetables release water.
7. After stirring the vegetables again, pour 1 and 1/2 cup of water in the wok. Lower the heat and let the vegetables simmer till they are cooked. If the vegetables stand out individually, break them a bit so that they get amalgamated, taking care not to mash them completely.
8. Next, add the fried bitter gourd and cook for two minutes. Bitter gourd is added at the end so that the Shukto does not become too bitter.
9. Pour 1/2 cup of milk and stir for a minute. If you cook long, the milk will curdle.
10. Immediately put 1 tbsp of fresh ginger paste. Stir for half a minute. It is added at the end so that the flavour of the ginger is retained.
11. Sprinkle 3/4 tsp of roasted and ground fenugreek powder. Check salt, mix everything well, cover the wok and switch off the gas. Give it some standing time.
(I add the roasted powder at the end because much of the flavour of the fenugreek is lost during cooking. In order to replenish the aroma, I put the roasted and ground powder at the end).
12. Now serve the Shukto with nothing but plain rice as the first course of meal.
Note: The taste of the dish depends on the way you chop the vegetables. They are usually cut into small pieces so that they get cooked easily and you do not need a pressure cooker.
Rekha Karmakar is a proud mother of two sons, and having retired as a college professor, spends her time writing about her varied life experiences in her blog Tabulous Mom on her computer tablet. She started blogging in 2010 as a guest blogger on Finely Chopped. She writes mostly about her stay and travel in foreign countries and her teaching experiences.