Ilish Shukto ? My cousin-in-law gawks at me in stunned disbelief.
A pristine shimmering-silver ilish rests on my kitchen counter. Caught overnight in Kolaghat, my fishmonger had declared, pride stark in his voice, flown here this morning.
And I had just proposed that I would be cooking a classic Ilish Shukto with this gorgeous beauty.
Inviting reluctant, if not a wee bit caustic (maybe that’s an exaggeration), skepticism for a response.
Well, this is not the first time I have been greeted with such a reaction when I, in my unabashed enthusiasm, have recommended cooking an Ilish Shukto to my husbands family.
The classic East Bengal – West Bengal culinary divide, I grin.
For my husbands family, early settlers in the city of Kolkata, shukto is a bitter-sweet delicacy, the de-facto first course of a celebratory meal. Bittergourd cooked with a medley of vegetables – potatoes, sweet potatoes, eggplant, radish, drumstick, to name but a few, perfumed with ginger and the humble radhuni.
Shukto is necessarily niramish (vegetarian), a non-vegetarian shukto is sacrilege to say the least 😀
In contrast, I grew up in a sylvan sleepy hamlet in the far-flung Barak Valley of Assam. Amidst pristine verdant greens. On the banks of the lazy grey Kushiara river.
Just across the river was Sylhet, the land of my grandparents, the land they had to desert in the throes of partition and its subsequent inhuman carnage and the land they dreamt, till the last day of their lives, they would be blessed enough to return to.
And do not get me wrong, we adore our shukto too.
But we relish our maacher shukto (fish stew with vegetables) as much as we savor our niramish variety.
And as I have written about in the past, these two Bengals, the east and the west, till even about fifty years back, were indeed different. A study of contrasts. Since then the cultures have clashed and collided, bickered and brawled, but the accomplishment of these decades of unpleasant divide has been an astonishing coming together of two very disparate ways of life.
It would still be naive though to ignore the subtle differences that still exist.
In a lot of mundane facets of everyday life. Customs. Rituals.
And of course culinary habits. As in the case of the humble unpretentious shukto where we still choose to remain divided.
Ilish Shukto. A classic delicacy from East Bengal. Gorgeous Ilish. A medley of vegetables. The warmth of ginger. The earthy aroma of radhuni. Delectable !!!
And if you haven’t had Ilish Shukto, do ask my cousin-in-law, she shall vouch, it’s definitely worth a try !!!