Shutki maach er bhorta /Mashed Spicy Dry fish : Is dry fish still a symbol of social identity?

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Being Bengali  and being proud of that is not enough for us .When we crave for more  clear cut identities we call ourselves Ghoti or Bangal  and hence identify(along with many other things) our food and food-habits likewise.It is said-the bangals are all for hot and spicy food.They love Hilsha .Where as the Ghoti loves to add an extra spoon of sugar to his food and prefer the food more mellow.They love prawn.We will happily discriminate among food ,add tags to our food preferences ,cooking methods and be proud of  that.Of the many foods that discriminate a bangal from a ghoti and vice versa one that ranks in  the top list is probably Shutki Maach (Dry Fish).

And just when I was going to tag shutki as a bangal food/fish,I thought of myself-a born Ghoti married to a Bangal. Yes, I love being an exception to the rule(I am sure there are many more to join me).The sight and smell of cooked shutki maach makes me as happy as the sight of long awaited ordered food in a restaurant.Pardon my analogy ,but don’t  ignore  the sentiments behind.The world from my perspective is clearly divided into-those who loves shutki and those who do  not.There’s no middle path when it comes to shutki.If any let  me know.

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Shutki or dry fish when uncooked has a got a typical characteristic pungent smell,pungent enough to evoke nausea.It has got a stinky smell ,very similar to that of  dry shrimp powder Belachan used in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking.Drying fresh fish is a  method of preservation  by removing water from  the fish.Other than drying ,methods which act as catalyst to fish preservation  are smoking  and salting.The popular variety of dry fish consumed globally are bombay duck, shrimp,mackerel,anchovy,tuna,sardine,etc.Dry fish processing and selling in  markets is common worldwide.

Fellow blogger Ushnish Ghosh   tells me the difference between dry fish and fermented fish : ”dry fish is dried in sun or in oven to get rid off the moisture so that the bacteria cant survive , and salt also strilize it ..wet sutkis ( are not dried) ..like Shidol,puti mach is stuffed into bamboo, sealed from out side for air to get in,and the enzymes in the fish ferment the fish ..( just like in yogurt, bacteria ferment the milk) ..also nona Ilish …Ilish is put in lot of salt , sealed and kept out for months to get a typical aroma …but the famous Odisha Ilish sutki , is stuffed with salt and dried in sun” .Dry fish is much less smelly than the fermented fish ,because of the preservation method.

In Bangladesh about 7.3 million people live in coastal fishing villages and earn their livelihood by fishing.Most of them dry  fish by following the method of sun drying.Interestingly,a large share of Bangladesh’s economy can be contributed from the dry fish markets in Dhaka,Chittagong,Tangail etc who export a major portion of their produce worldwide.

Bangladesh which has a great number of water bodies,produce dry fish in the coastal areas,near the rivers and harbors.The processing takes place mainly under the sun during the month of October to April.The winter months remain the preferred time for the fishing activities as the rivers,water channels and depressions remain relatively calm  and quite.The necessity to cultivate dry fish is triggered  more by the fact often the fresh water fishes remain unsold  because of lack of customers or lack of  sufficient transport facility to send the fresh fish to the town or metropolis.

Dry fish collection: Photo courtesy-www.demotix.com/Zakir Hossain  Chowdhury

Dry fish collection: Photo courtesy-www.demotix.com/Zakir Hossain Chowdhury

Dry fish processing :Photo courtesy - www.demotix.com/Zakir Hossain  Chowdhury

Dry fish processing :Photo courtesy – http://www.demotix.com/Zakir Hossain Chowdhury

Hong Kong dry fish market  Photo courtesy :Purabi/www.zomppa.com

Hong Kong dry fish market
Photo courtesy :Purabi/www.zomppa.com

Where as in China, Hong Kong boasts of a Dried Seafood Street.Half a century back  the area had salted fish stores,where workers would dry their fish on the rooftops,sell them in the ground floor and live somewhere in between the two floors.It is said ,for ages Chinese have believed that food should not be wasted,fish when in excess,were preserved thereby using salt , other minerals  and sun dried.This was a common practice when there was no refrigerator to preserve  fresh fish.The Chinese belief is dried oysters and mussels when consumed on the Chinese New Year brings luck  and fortune.

Over time the Chinese practice of conservation of fresh fish by sun-drying has been  adapted by many cultures .It is now staple of Maldivian ,Srilankan and Burmese cuisine.In India Kerala,Orissa,West Bengal,Tamil Nadu,Andhra Pradesh,Assam,Tripura etc boasts of their collection of dry fish recipes.Dry fish grew in popularity also from the fact that some version of dry fish are cheap and are regarded as source of high protein for a poor man.

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Much social stigma has been attached to shutki(dry fish).It has generally been  culturally perceived as the food of the lower income  group,because  the economically cheap version of dry fish is the  main source of protein for many economically lower income group people,who cannot afford rather expensive fresh fish.Is it not time enough to de-stigmatize some food?We would consider sea food like mussels as highly coveted and exotic but still underplay the essence of fish preservation?Will it be ever elevated to the status of restaurant food in the socio- cultural  city  hubs  ?

 It is amazing to note how different culture and region eat dry fish  in their unique manner and how versatile dry fish are to adapt to the local cuisines. Some region prefer to have steamed dry fish with rice,while some others make a curry out of their choice of dry fish,whereas some enjoy cooking dry fish along with vegetables.

The version that I enjoy eating and cooking most uses very few ingredients.It  is a  rather  spicy mishmash of dry fish, rich in taste and is marked  by profusion of onion, garlic and  dry red chilies,all used to cut down the pungent odor of the dry fish.This is generally known as  Shutki bhorta /bata /bhuna(mishmash) in Bangladeshi cuisine,and as Shutki Chutney(dry fish pickle) in Assamese cuisine.

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Recipe

Dry version of – Bombay duck/loitya/bombil ( or your choice of dry fish) : 300 gm

Onion :100 gm,finely chopped

Garlic: 2-3 whole pod ,finely chopped

Dry red  chili powder:  4-5 heaped tbsp(adjust according to taste)

Turmeric: 1 tsp

Mustard oil for cooking

Salt to taste

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Method

  • Since the fish will be extremely dry ,cutting and chopping the fish will be bit difficult.Hence boil some water in a pot , take it off the stove,  dunk the fish into the warm water and cover with a lid.
  • Let the fish seat in the warm water for 20 minutes to half an hour.While soaking,you can change the warm water few times,this will  reduce  the pungent smell of the fish and help in getting rid of the sand particles gathered while drying the fish on the sea shore.
  • After the fish has softened enough to cut and chop ,take it off the water and discard the water.
  • Pat dry the fish.
  • Remove the head , tail  and central bone of the fish and cut it in 1” piece.The remaining small bones ,will disintegrate into tiny pieces while cooking.
  • Put the fish pieces in the mixer grinder or pestle and mortar and mash it nicely, retaining the coarse texture.Do not add any water during this process.
  • Heat  the mustard oil (2 tbsp  to start with)  in the wok.
  • Once the oil is  hot enough,add the chopped garlic and let them splutter,and turn light brown.Avoid burning them.
  • Add the chopped onions ,once the garlic turns light golden brown.Reduce  heat  and keep frying the onions till translucent.
  • Add the dry spices (turmeric and red chili powder) at this stage and stir for a minute or two.
  • Add the mashed dry fish,coat the spice mix well with the fish.
  • Reduce the flame  and stir continuously  to avoid burning.
  • Add little more oil  at this stage,if the mix tends to dry up.Dry fish soaks a lot of oil  because of it’s texture and preservation method.
  • Keep mixing thoroughly  the fish and the spices .
  • Add little salt,be careful while adding salt( 1 tsp or depending on the taste). Dry fish are preserved with salt  ,so they are already high in salt content.
  • While cooking,do not add water,as the fish will release some water, and get cooked it’s own moisture.
  • Keep stirring,till the fish mixture takes the   form of a coarse paste,and releases oil  or when most of the water dries out.
  • Once done ,serve it with hot steaming rice and let the compliments flow in .

 

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Bori diye maach er jhol/fish curry with lentil dumplings and paradoxes of blogger life

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Looking back it was just another cold wintry morning in December when I decided to start blogging..but why blogging?I have been following a few blogs since last few years and always thought it’s a great platform to share once’s thought,ideas and creativity.Indeed it is !

But managing a blog and keeping it updated,with a continuous flow of content  is not that easy.Or  does it appear so because I am still in the bottom of the learning curve?

Lessons learnt in the  last few months :It is never enough to just think  and conceive an idea and to jot it down,or just click some random pictures of the food you made.However,sumptuous and palatable the food is ,it has to look equally good and convey the message through pictures.It has to tell a story.What story?

May be the food is a part  of your heirloom kitchen or maybe it is a creation pressed out of you rattling in the everyday kitchen.Whatever it may be ,it has to be conveyed through photographs..but  how?

Through props(properties) may be.But what are props?

These are the non  food items required for the photo shoot.Anything starting from plates,cutlery,fabrics,kitchen utensils,books,background,fabrics  and what not  can count as prop.You can never have enough of these .You have to work your mind through  scavenging your props and decide which ones will look good and in harmony with each other  in respect to a particular dish .

They call this food styling and I thought I loved this  until I realized you might have the tastiest dish in front of  you,use one of the best cameras available,use great lighting;but all that won’t make any sense if you go wrong while choosing your props.If you consider these  challenges ,as a  tiny fraction  of my otherwise happy blogger-life,then probably I have to enlighten you further on my blogger life technical  challenges.Fixing a widget,link or managing tools are far from  cakewalk for me.I am learning my way through it ,and enjoying the rewards my effort  is bringing with it.It’s a package deal as they say.

 There are  perks of food blogging too..more stories to tell on that..but some other day!

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Alright,so now that the rant part is over, lets move  on to  the real food -talking,shall we? If you ever peep into a Bengali kitchen leave apart the pan-Indian scenario,you will find apart from  the traditional and well known recipes of fish ,every household and almost every family has got a special fish recipe to share  and a story evolving round it to tell.So,for me the store bought ready to make curry paste  sucks big time.A curry made out of it will never(or hardly) tell  a  story.I really can’t relate to it.Can you ever  imagine  doing a Bhog er Khichuri or for that matter of fact your favorite Murighonto with a curry paste?For me food is an emotion as well.

We don’t  buy Bengali fish varieties  (specially sweet water  ones with bone)very often since we get the frozen ones  here,but whenever we do,I make sure  to do at least one  simple curry , that we used to eat  at home.You can call  this  my immigrant syndrome.I will happily agree…after all we  always try to  find our root in our attempt at replication of the past.

 While I deal with the everyday challenges of blogging, I am glad not everything about blogging is that complex.Cooking the everyday fish curry is perhaps one of them.Simple,unpretentious and promising.It tastes as good as it looks.This  is a mundane fish curry  which is light and not extraordinarily spicy.It gets it’s unique punch from  the Bengali version of  dry lentil dumplings.They add texture and bite to the otherwise mellow but flavorful light   fish  broth.You can add your choice of vegetables (eggplant,green beans,carrot,courgette,pointed gourd/potol,ridge gourd/jhinge,cauliflower etc)to it  if you fancy.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

  • Rohu/telapia steaks/or any other sweet water fish of your choice : 8-10 pieces
  • Whole cumin seeds(dry roasted): 3 tsp(1 tsp for tempering and 2 tsp  for cumin paste)
  • Whole  coriander seeds(dry roasted): 2 tbsp
  • Turmeric:  1-1/2 tsp
  • Whole dried red chili :   2-3(adjust according to your choice)
  • Green chili : 2( slit)
  • Potato : 3-4 (small to medium size)
  • Ginger paste : 1-2 inch
  • Salt to taste
  • Mustard oil to cook
  • Lentil dumplings/Bori : a  handful
  • Coriander leaves /cilantro(optional)

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Method :

  • Remove the scales(if any) of the fish and clean it properly.Dry marinate the fish pieces with salt and turmeric and keep aside for 15-20 minutes.
  • Make  a spice paste of ginger,red chilies,coriander and cumin seeds  by adding very little water to the mix.
  • Fry the lentil dumplings/bori carefully till golden brown,avoiding to break them,as they are generally tender  and brittle.Remove the lentil dumplings from the frying pan.
  • Cut the potatoes in wedge like shape and fry them,by sprinkling little turmeric and salt till almost half done.Take the potato wedges out of the pan and keep them aside.
  • In the same wok add some more mustard oil and shallow fry the fish pieces.
  • Again in the same  wok heat the remaining mustard oil , add 1 tsp whole cumin seeds and let them splutter  for a while and add the spice paste  and add 1/2 tsp turmeric .
  • Cook the spice paste at low to medium flame until  oil leaves the side of the pan.
  • Add boiling water  and adjust salt once the  gravy settles down little bit.Bring to  a gentle boil.
  • Add the fried potato wedges at this stage ,allowing it  to cook in the gravy.
  • When the potatoes are almost done,add the fried fish pieces,cover the pan and let it simmer gently.
  • Uncover ,add the cilantro (if  using)and  put off the  flame.Give it a standing time of 2-3 minutes and then transfer to the serving bowl.
  • Add the fried bori/lentil  dumplings  to  the curry at this stage.The lentil dumplings will eventually  soak in some of  the gravy.
  • Garnish with 2 halved green chilies and serve  the fish curry with steamed white rice and  lime wedges.

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