Dec 20, 2010

Holiday spirit---first course with shukto :)

Continuing with the holiday spirit theme 

Its all about a way to celebrate holidays with gourmet Bengali holiday food
The first course-- bitter vegetable stew called 'shukto'

Bengali food is all about sedate flavors. It teases the palate very slowly and seductively. Meaning that the build up  to the main couses is a very important part of the tango. And it all starts with food that cleanses the taste bud. Bitter taste has been known to be palate cleanser.  Celery used to be served-- and i think it still is served in many Italian dinner tables in between courses to cleanse the palate and taste bud. But in Bengal, when we say bitter..we mean bitter. Really. Much like 99% cacao chocolate. There is this vegetable called ucche that imparts this super bitter tatste. Much like very old and bitter Kale. Here is how it looks. 

And if that thought is scaring you off from starters,  let me tell you that its is paired with savory lentil scones and tons of root and leaf vegetables. Such that the bitter taste cleanses the palate but all you feel is a fresh savory and sweet taste in your mouth. Quite incredible and  I don't think I have seen the likes of this dish in any part of the world. 

There is a fun folklore associated to it too and me thinks its a good time tow share. After all what is food without a tale to tell :)  Back in the days when a girl came to meet the future (often very intimidating) mother-in law, the one quiz she could expect was ' what are the spices you put in shukto? And if the petrified girl could answer that question, that was a winner all the way :) 

Apparently, and I can vouch for that as well, he dish has spcices which you can't identify at all...the combination gives off a flavor very different from the spices themselves. And I think, it has to do with the presence of tiny amount of  the super bitter vegetable. 

Much later..when I started making this vegetable stew (that's really what it is) I could not understand the great mystery surrounding shukto. And why would someone really think highly of a person who could make it...To me its as easy as it gets and a sure way to start a meal and wow the guest!

But maybe its just me? :) So here is how you start your gourmet Bengali food marathon--- with a touch of bitter

 Any number of hearty veggies-- 
1 medium eggplant- chopped up
1 potato-  coarsely sliced up
1 Plantain- peeled and coarsely chopped
A handful of green beans- coarsely chopped
1 carrot- coarsely chopped
1 stalk of kale. Take the leaves off the stalk and run your knife through it. This is for the bitter taste.

1.5 tbsf mustard powder
1 tsp of ginger
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp of whole cumin
1 tsp of whole mustard
4 tbsf regular oil
2 cups of tepid water or veg stock at room temperature.
1/2 cup of milk
3/4th  cup pf unsweetened coconut
Salt and 1/2 tsp of garam masala powder (optional) to season

Take a big pot and start!!

Roast all the veggies (except kale) with 3 tbsf oil at 420F for 10 min. Take a deep and big skillet. You will need one which will hold all the veggies.  Heat  1 tbsf oil in it and pop the whole cumin and the whole mustard. Once it releases aroma (~ 5-10 secs), drop all the roasted veggies. Lower heat and saute and cover.  Keep an eye out on the  veggies and stir them to prevent sticking to the bottom.  Do this for ~ 5 minutes. Add the mustard powder, ginger and sugar and water/ stock. and milk.Give things one big stir and let cook through on low heat for ~ 10- 15 minutes. When things look cooked, add  the kale and the coconut. The kale will give a slightly bitter taste to the veggies and that is what will make it excellent as a starter dish. Season with salt. Wait a beat. Take it off the fire and sprinkle the garam masala powder (optional)
Serve it over warm rice or even good to be had by itself, in place of a soup. After all there is nothing to beat a warm cup of vegetable stew there?

Happy eating and healthy living!


SE said...

To be frank, Bengali food in very new to have got started by just getting the panch purn masala..

Have a wonderful holiday season !!!

Sayantani said...

shukto really looks good. Have a great Christmas holiday.

radha said...

I will have a Bengali guest next month. She always insists she will cook a meal for me. Now I know what I should ask her to make. My daughter said she loved this dish.

Jhonny walker said...

Hi sayantani and Radha

Glad you and your family loves shukto :) Its well worth your chances :)
happy holidays!