A common misconception about Bengalis is that their love for food is only limited to all things sweet or meat and fish-based. It’s true that their overwhelming obsession with ilish mach, mangsho, chingri and roshogollas have led to this stereotype, but there exists an underrated vegetarian culinary star in Bengali cuisine that is replete with subtle flavours and interesting twists — the hallowed ‘Shukto’.
One of the staples in any Bengali household or nemontonno bari (party), shukto is quite deceptive. By the looks of it, shukto seems to be a simple vegetable stew, but hides an ocean of complexity within.
A medley of vegetables cooked with paanch phoron (Bengali five spices), especially korolla or ucche (meaning bitter gourd) and spices cooked deftly to bring out delicate flavours, making shukto is truly an art that only the most nuanced cooks can master. A slight miss and an exquisite dish that should feel like a warm hug after a hard day, might end up tasting like a bland watery broth.
In any authentic Bengali platter, which usually is rich with overpowering fragrances and flavours, the shukto acts like a welcome coolant. Best served with hot rice in the first course of a traditional five-course meal, the bitter bite of the creamy shukto gravy at the beginning of a meal is said to cleanse the palate for a richer gastronomic experience.
An integral part of the true-blue Bengali cuisine, let’s dive deeper into the bittersweet journey of shukto.
Not borrowed from the Portuguese
Expert Chitrita Banerjee in her book, Bengali Cooking, says that the term ‘shukto’ comes from Bengali ‘shukuta’, which means the dried leaves of a bitter juice plant.
However, several reports claim that shukto is a dish influenced by Portuguese cuisine. Post-colonisation it was believed Portuguese settlers had developed this dish with locally available ingredients like bitter gourd and used it as a palette refresher. Later, the Bengalis adopted it with minor additions like milk, bori (lentil dumplings), mustard oil and paste.
However, food historians and experts vehemently dispute this theory. The simplest argument to disregard it is the fact that several ancient texts refer to the consumption of shukto in Bengal much before the 16th century, when the Portuguese arrived in India.
The tradition of starting a meal by consuming something teto or bitter has been a part of India since ancient times owing to its medical value. A cooling appetizer to combat the hot and humid climate of Bengal, shukto was said to be consumed in the ancient kingdoms of undivided Bengal like Vanga, Anga and Kalinga, said a food researcher, Pritha Sen.
Furthermore, shukto finds mention in medieval period texts like Mangal-Kāvya and biographies of Sri Chaitanya. In one of the Mangal-Kāvyas, a set of narrative poems, Shiva requests the goddess of plenty, Annapurna, to cook shukto.
Stored throughout the year, and cooked with seasonal vegetables, it was said to be quite popular much before the Portuguese set foot in India.
Hence, the more likely explanation to the previous assumption could indeed be the other way around, with the Portuguese falling in love with an ancient Bengali dish and making it their own.
Edited by Yoshita Rao