Shukto: A plethora of vegetables

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Shukto: A plethora of vegetables

Shukto is cooked in a very unique style, without the use of chillies

Shukto: A plethora of vegetables

Shukto is a famous Bengali curry. It is a plethora of vegetables, cooked in the most unique spices with creamy milky gravy with the slightest hint of sweetness and a core taste of bitterness, even describing the dish is such a pleasure. Shukto is served with steamed rice at the beginning of a traditional Bengali meal. 

Shukto is cooked in a very unique style, without the use of chillies.

“ছি ছি ছি রানী রাঁধতে শেখেনি... শুক্তনিতে ঝাল দিয়েছে অম্বলেতে ঘি!” This phrase from a famous Bengali song translates to “Rani does not know how to cook; She has added chilli to shuktoni/shukto and ghee to ambal/chutney! This song is like proof that shukto is cooked without chillies. 

Believe it or not, the cooking strength is judged by a person’s skill to prepare shukto properly in Bengal. My Baba (father) is a fan of this dish and he can savour his entire plate of rice only with shukto. Bongs treat shukto as a special dish and it’s mandatorily cooked on traditional occasions like marriages, birthdays and different religious festivals, as part of lunch. 

It's a purely vegetarian Bengali dish that comprises several veggies like bitter gourd, eggplant, green banana, potato, sweet potato, drumsticks, white radish, and hyacinth beans. ‘Randhuni’ (a superior cousin of celery seeds) is one exclusive spice that Bongs prefer to use while preparing shukto. Most of the dishes from the Bengali cuisine have radhuni in it.

What is a Bengali cook if shukto is missing from the repertoire? It’s true that shukto or shuktoni is considered to be a true blue Bengali dish, a talisman of the plethora of vegetarian recipes abound in the Gangetic plains. Bengali cuisine is often dubbed as a collection of endless fish recipes followed by delectable sweets. A hefty lot of these have been introduced by the ancient settlers in the Vedic period that weren’t keen on consuming any animals or even high protein foods like masoor dal as it was believed to increase libido. Usage of onions and garlic, when it first appeared in these regions, were prohibited for the same reason.

A great variety of shukto is available throughout the region. Shukto is prepared using vegetables and leaves. The one thing that is characteristic of a Bengali shukto recipe is the use of bitter elements. Since Ayurveda was the choice of medicine during that period, it also governed the eating habits. Bitter was prescribed to be eaten at the start of a meal. In the hot and humid climates of Anga-Banga-Kalinga (erstwhile undivided Bengal), the bitters provided a sort of relief to the stomach. It was also considered to be a palate opener, foods that get your saliva going.

Shukto finds its mention in ‘Mangalkavya’. A number of female characters in these epic poems are asked to cook a meal, including Behula in ‘Manasamangal’. All of these characters prepare elaborate meals, and all of them invariably start off with some form of shukto. Nonetheless, any form of shukto with a side of rice is a complete meal in itself.

The most common type of Bengali shukto recipe now prevalent in these parts involves the use of vegetables like drumsticks, aubergines and green plantains. They have also brought the Portuguese potato into the mix. And the bitter gourd provides the quintessential bitterness. Bengali shukto recipe is a light stew with just the flavourings of radhuni and milk. The latter is thought of as a Portuguese influence. Another important ingredient is bori, these little lentil dumplings dried in the sun. It is shallow fried in oil and added to the curry.

Shukto, which people from opar bangla or Bangladesh call shuktoni, is actually the result of Portuguese influence from colonisation in the pre-British era when the use of milk in a savory vegetable dish was tried. The fried lentil dumplings or bori is another delightful part of shukto which adds a nice bite to the dish. As a child I always asked for extra bori or vadi to make my shukto experience more delightful. 

Although most kids generally tend to stack aside and avoid eating the slices of uchchhey or bitter gourd in shukto, I felt these bitter karela slices actually constitute the heart of this delicious mixed vegetable dish. You simply cannot cook shukto without the bitter gourd as one of the veggies. The other unique vegetables which add their signature taste to shukto are plantain or unripe green banana, drumsticks or danta and sweet potato.

Shukto recipe:

Ingredients:

1.  Potatoes cut in 1 inch pcs (2 cups)

2.  Red potato cut in 1 inch pcs (2 cups)

3.  Bitter Gourd or uchchhey sliced (1 cup)

4.  Plantain or kanchkola cut in 1 inch pcs (1 cup)

5.  Brinjal or eggplant cut in 1 inch pcs (2 cups)

6.  Green beans & drumsticks cut in 2 inch pcs (2 cups)

7.  Bori or Vadi or lentil dumplings (1 cup)

8.  Ginger Paste (1 tbsp)

9.  Milk (5 tbsp)

10. Maida or all purpose flour (1 tbsp)

11. Radhuni or caraway seeds (1 tsp)

12. Bay Leaf or tejpata (2 pcs)

13. Whole Dry Red Chili (2 pcs)

14. Bengali Five Spice or panch foron (1 tsp)

15. Mustard Seeds (1/2 tsp)

16. Ghee (1/2 tsp)

17. Oil

18. Sugar (1 and 1/2 tsp)

19. Salt (to taste)

Method: 

STEP 1: Peel the potato, sweet potato (ranga alu), plantain (kanch kola ). Cut all vegetables in 1 to 3 inch pieces. You can also add sheem or snap peas.

STEP 2: Fry the bori till browned and set aside. I generally use double or triple the amount of bori but then that is just my love for boris. Prepare the shukto masala by heating 1 tsp of panch foron and 1/2 tsp mustard seeds in a pan and then powder this and set aside.

STEP 3: Heat some oil and add the ginger paste along with sugar, salt, whole dry red chilies, radhuni or caraway seeds and bay leaves. Some people use Mustard oil for this Bengali recipe but I like using white oil. Saute for a minute.

STEP 4: Add all vegetables and saute in the above mixture. Then cover and shallow fry the vegetables for at least 7 mins by turning them from time to time. Add a cup of water then cover and cook for another 10 minutes on medium heat.

STEP 5: Then mix white flour with milk and make a lump free mixture. Add this and mix well and let the curry simmer for 2 mins. Now add fried boris or vadis.

STEP 6: Cook it covered for 3-4 minutes more. Finally turn off the heat, add ghee and the shukto masala. 

STEP 7: Enjoy your bowl of shukto with some rice as an appetizer to any Bengali meal. I generally don't add turmeric powder but if you want you can add just a tiny pinch for a pale yellow colour.

Shukto is a light-summer dish that's cooked with summer veggies. I strongly recommend this particular recipe of shukto as this is an authentic recipe which I had been lucky to learn from a Bangali thhakur (professional cook). The important thing is to understand what kind of taste we are aiming for in the gravy. The gravy needs to be slightly creamy, slightly sweet but mostly savory and absolutely not jhal (chilli flavour). It is essential to retain the shape of the vegetable chunks to avoid overcooking.