Shutki or Dried Fish: An Age-old Technique of Preservation

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Dried fish in Arakan Myanmar
Dried fish in Arakan Myanmar

Born a Bengali, I come from a family that migrated from East Bengal[3] (now Bangladesh) to Burma (now Myanmar), where my grandparents settled down to grow roots for three generations. Growing up in a predominantly Buddhist country, with Mohammedans and Anglo Indians, Anglo Burmese, Tamilians, Sindhis, Nepalis, Marwaris as our close neighbours was a blessing. We, the Roy children grew up on a cosmopolitan diet along with Burmese Cuisine. Over the years as the family members increased one kitchen expanded into two. With the passing away of my grandfather the household kitchen became separated into  vegetarian[1] (for my widowed grandmother) and non-vegetarian fare for the rest of the family. This was a great boon for us, my grandmother’s kitchen sent us all the traditional dishes, tidbits that Bengali widows cooked for survival from wasted parts of vegetables, Makhaas and bhortas (boiled, mashed and mixed vegetables), all dishes cooked sans onions and garlic. 

I still recall when as children we came home from school ‘Ma-go’ as we fondly called our grandma, would be waiting in her section of the kitchen with her classic ole-bhate makha[2] with aam tel (mango pickle masala oil)– boiled and mashed yam mixed with chopped green chilies and mustard oil from mango pickle jar. Or pumpkin boiled and mashed with fried red chilies and mustard oil with a dash of salt and sugar; sometimes charcoal roasted aubergine (Begoon pora), mashed with chopped coriander leaves, tomatoes chopped green chilies drizzled with mustard oil), the heavenly smoky taste still lingers in my mouth. That aside, her dhokar dalna, (lentil cakes curry), kumro chokka (sweet pumpkin lightly fried with seasonings), kochur shak (Colocasia stems) with chhola / Ilish matha (Bengal gram or Hilsa head), lau bori tarkari, (bottle gourd curry with dried lentil dumplings) niramish shukto (bitter vegetables) were great gastronomic delights! 

Ol bhaate or boiled yam mishmash
Ol bhaate or boiled yam mishmash

Wish I had learned all these from her directly but I was too young then to even know the basics of cooking. We just thought she would live on and on, ready to feed us, and we took her for granted! Likewise, from the other section of the kitchen, my mom’s domain came the ‘korma kalias’, chicken and mutton in various sauces, Chinese cuisine, Burmese curries, continental roasts and soups, every day and every meal was a super gourmet affair. Duly assisted by her ‘Bura Da’ a retired Baruah chef from a British club kitchen. She would produce the best of whatever she cooked at the drop of a hat making every item worthy of a five-star hotel meal. My mom was a super cook and we took her for granted too! These two are the biggest regrets of my life! 

What I miss most is the pantry where mom always kept her stock of ‘dried fish’. There were wooden boxes, glass jars and aluminium containers all filled with a variety of dried fishes, from Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, South India…You name a country and the labelled containers stared at you. The smell was awful yet when they were cooked it tasted magical. The cupboard was a treasure trove. Anybody passing by that place would stop and sniff in appreciation of the cooked relishes. That was the power of ‘shutki’ or dried fish. My love affair started with this epic dish. It’s such an item that either you love it, die for it or hate it like hell. 

Also read: A Taste of Myanmar from my Childhood

Shutki Maach’ as we call the ‘dried fish’ is an acquired taste. You’d only have to look at the love people have for dried, smoked or fermented fish. Of course, many stories tell us that from the times of the Roman empire and even in Icelandic cultures, people were smart enough to figure out that fresh fish doesn’t last forever. The water inside freshly caught fish would turn into breeding grounds for bacteria, turning the produce inedible in a matter of days or even hours depending on the weather. The way to counter that was to remove the water from the fish entirely. Getting rid of the moisture is one such idea. So different regions of the world reacted to the problem with their own unique solutions. Some turned to salt-drying methods while others chose to sun dry it; many were looking to ferment the fish or smoke the fish in order to preserve its longevity. 

Drying fish in Gorai Beach in Mumbai
Drying fish in Gorai Beach in Mumbai

Salted fish had its origins in Asia as a “poor man’s food”. People living by the sea with a plentiful supply of fish would salt and dry the leftover fishes in the sun to preserve them. The coastal regions to the mountainous terrains, wherever there is water, there will be fish. And if there’s fish, there has to be dried fish to go along with it. It is ironic that an ingredient that rose out of hardship, celebrated for its versatility is now an undoubted delicacy or specialty, worth seeking out. The taste of shutki has stuck to me: lock, stock and barrel! The Umami flavour passed down in my genes is so strong that perhaps subconsciously I have become dependent on it. Till date my meals remain incomplete without shutki in some form or the other. 

Shutki — a Bengali word that stands for dried fish or shrimp, is inextricably associated with the overpowering smell that emanates when being cooked. After we migrated to Kolkata, I rarely encountered the dish in the homes of friends, and learnt to my dismay that shutki was just a smelly dish that was extremely spicy, and eaten by people with roots in East Bengal. The Baangals as the people hailing from East Bengal were called contemptuously by the Ghotis – people of West Bengal[4]! Then I learnt more about these continuous mock fights between the Ghotis and Bangaals[6]. Holy cow! I was vastly surprised and amused. Then I got old enough to get married and to my family’s dismay I chose a young man belonging to a true blooded Ghoti[5] family. My aunts and uncles laughed and made a joke about how my life after marriage would change from shutki to posto (poppy seeds)! I joined in the laughter with them little suspecting how their prophecy would come true. 

Shutki or dried fish shop in Cox's Bazar Bangladesh
Dried fish shop at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Within two weeks of my wedding I learnt how vastly different was the taste of food I have been eating in my family and where I walked into. The family joke came true. It was about posto[9] and posto all the way. And some mundane macher jhal with Shorshe Bata[10] (fish curry with mustard seed paste), or jhol with begoon[7] and aloo[8] (runny curry with aubergine and diced potatoes); there was the usual chicken curry, mutton kosha (spicy curry). I was pining for the familiar taste of home, the Umami flavour eluded me and that’s when I decided to revolt silently and introduced shutki, a hitherto unknown flavour, totally alien to my new family, in the kitchen. My husband was good enough to support me and my mother-in-law very sweetly gave me the green signal. I recall very vividly the first day I cooked shutki at home, I had to close all the doors and windows lest the obnoxious pungent smell escaped and spread around everywhere. My father-in-law, an advocate practising from home rushed in leaving his client in utter confusion and very gently told me if I could do something to lessen the smell. It was embarrassing for me, there was nothing I could do to remove the tell-tale smell but to wait patiently till the dish was done and ready. Over lunch I waited for my family’s verdict. Main course over, I served them the dish I cooked so lovingly for them, everybody tasted the concoction and indulgently made all the expected appropriate cooing sounds of appreciation but what delighted me the most was my mother-in-law’s reaction. She had a bad cold and too many antibiotics made her go off food, no taste in the mouth, but a small morsel of rice with a touch of shutki caused a miracle! She had a second helping. I was elated to say the least. Thereafter my tryst with shutki continues in this household. 

Korean Kimchi
Korean Kimchi

I have travelled to many continents and wherever I went I looked forward to their kind of dried fish be it bombay duck or anchovy or mackerel preserved in brine and herbs. Bangladesh introduced me to her famous shutki bhortas, Burma gave me the unique Balachaung, Thailand taught me the versatile use of Fish Sauce and endless variations of dried fish. The ability to savour the highly fermented pickled cabbage is one closer to shutki. Difficult tastes can define a culture. Germans love their sauerkraut (fermented cabbage pickle which has a pungent smell and taste) To be able to take pleasure in a special food that is not easy-access requires initiation. South East Asian countries also taught me the taste of Kimchi, a melange of vegetables like mustard greens, carrots, cabbage, leek roots, made into fermented spicy pickles. Like our very own substitute of shutki, kimchi too is a bonding factor amongst those hailing from the coastal areas. This, I prefer to call the living heritage and cultural identity of the fish loving countries of the world. The true bonding element where food unites. Life makes a full circle. I ended up opening a small restaurant for Burmese cuisine. My childhood’s smelly cupboard opened up to embrace the whole world… the smell turning magically into aromas.

Burmese Balachaung

The Burmese Balachaung is an accompaniment to rice made with fried onions, shrimp, garlic, ginger & red chillies and is fairly dry and crisp. 

Ingredients

Onions (red/shallots), finely sliced- 10
Garlic cloves, sliced thin- 2 -3
Ginger thinly sliced (optional)- about one inch
Dried long red chillies- a handful
Dried shrimp- 1 cup 
Turmeric powder- 1 tsp
Red chilli powder- 1 tsp
Salt to taste
Oil for deep frying 

Method

1. Rinse the dried shrimps several times to wash off any sand. Drain till dry to the touch.

2. Heat oil in a pan for deep-frying. Fry the dried long red chillies until it starts to darken. Drain on paper towels and let cool completely. Pulse in a blender until completely powdered. Set aside.

3. In the same blender, pulse the dried shrimp, turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt until shredded. Set aside.

4. In the same oil, deep fry the onions until crisp. Set aside.

5. In the same oil, deep fry the ginger until crisp. Set aside.

6. In the same oil, deep fry the garlic until crisp. Set aside.

7. In the same oil, fry the shredded shrimp (in several batches, if needed) until it no longer smells raw. Drain and set aside.

8. Transfer all the oil to a bowl, leaving about 2-3 tsp in the pan. Combine all the ingredients together in the pan (fried onion, fried ginger, fried garlic, fried shrimp and as much fried red chilli flakes as you can handle). Adjust salt to taste. Either use a little sugar or MSG if you prefer.

9. I always add a teaspoon of dry roasted Ngapi (fermented fish paste) to get the authentic taste while frying the shredded shrimp. If it is not available to you, use a tablespoon of fish sauce.

Burmese Balachaung
Burmese Balachaung

Thai Raw Mango and Green Papaya Salad

Ingredients

Raw papaya, cut into strips- 2 cups
Raw mango, cut into strips- 1/2 cup
Carrot, cut into strips (optional)- 1
Coriander leaves- 3 sprigs
Tomato, cut into thin wedges- 1/2
Palm sugar jaggery- 1 tsp
Juice of half a lemon
Garlic- 2 Cloves
Green chilli chopped- 1 
Dried shrimp powder roasted dry- 2 tablespoons

Method

A teaspoon of dry roasted sesame seeds. In a bowl mix the cut mango, papaya, all the listed ingredients, hand toss them thoroughly, adjusting the taste balancing with a little sugar, Thai fish sauce, tamarind juice, salt and more chopped green chilies.

Bangladeshi Loitya Shutki Bhorta

Ingredients

Dried Bombay duck/loitya/bombil (or your choice of dry fish)- 300 grams
Onion finely chopped- 100 grams,
Garlic whole pod, finely chopped- 2-3
Dry red chilies fried crispy- 4-5
Turmeric- 1 tsp
Mustard oil for cooking- 1 tsp
Chopped coriander leaves
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste          

If you wish you can put fried aubergines cut into bite sized pieces along with sweet pumpkin diced and fried with tomatoes. 

shutki maach or dried fish
Loitya shutki bhorta

Method

Wash and cut the dried Bombay duck into bite sized pieces, fry them in a little oil. Drain and keep aside. Put the chopped onions, taking only half, along with garlic pods in a blender with the fried Bombay shutki and grind the lot into flossy consistency and crumbly. Now take a little mustard oil, red dried fried chili, fried aubergines, pumpkins and tomatoes. Give it a hearty mix with your hand, add salt n sugar to taste. Your bhorta is done, ready to eat with hot rice.

Notes:

  1. Traditionally Bengali Hindu widows were not allowed to consume non-vegetarian food
  2. Boiled and mashed yam mixed with mustard oil and other condiments
  3. East Bengal- the part that is now Bangladesh 
  4. West Bengal- Indian Bengali majority state sharing its border with Bangladesh
  5. Ghoti- People originating from West Bengal
  6. Bangaal- People originating from what is now Bangladesh
  7. Begoon- brinjal or aubergine
  8. Aloo- potato
  9.  Posto- poppy seeds; a paste of poppy seeds is commonly used in Bengali cuisine 
  10. Shorshe bata- mustard seeds paste; also commonly used in Bengali cuisine 

Images courtesy: Wikipedia & Facebook

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