Thursday, 26 December 2013

Shutkani Torkari à la Kurigram

The shutkani torkari ready to eat!

How to make shutkani torkari etc. in 12 easy steps:-

Opening note: the following process would’ve been much simpler had I’d met my friend’s younger brother stationed at Ulipur fire station at first, as described last week. But that was on the second arrival in Ulipur in the space of days, while discovering shutkani torkari, a Kurigram District specialty, was a task of the first. I didn’t know any Ulipur locals then. Anyway, let’s get started...

The locals at the Al Shad Hotel, College Road, Ulipur will prove enthusiastic accomplices in the quest to discover the local cuisine

250 grams fresh puti fish
3 onions
2 cloves of garlic
15 – 20 small chillies
25 grams jute leaves
2 pinches salt
2 teaspoons turmeric
half a glass of water
cooking oil
2 brothers and 1 sister-in-law
1 village kitchen
a generous serving of Ulipur hospitality

Step 1: For the best result in experiencing shutkani torkari you’ll first need a bou, amma or apa – a wife, mother or older sister from Kurigram District, preferably from a village, who will be expert in cooking. Local dishes are not served in restaurants and homemade food is best. Political correctness aside, it remains a general truth that the ladies of a household are the culinary master chefs.

However, finding one of these relatives at short notice isn’t easy – and in the case of a bou the endeavour will be complicated and have lifelong consequences. But don’t despair – a suitable substitute is to find a generous bhabi or elder sister-in-law. It is well-known that a Bangladeshi bhabi is a close relation akin to a friend and that bhabis by habit take care of their choto bhais or little brothers, especially when it comes to food.

The good news is that bhabis are easier to find. Bangladesh is full of bhabis – all you need to do is to first locate a kindly bhai or brother.

Step 2: A recommended starting point for locating a bhai in Ulipur is the Al Shad Hotel on College Road. With the hotel managers and patrons it will be easy to quickly establish cordial relations and enquiries regarding a desire to sample the local cuisine will be received with enthusiasm and lively discussion.

If possible, try to raise the subject when Health Assistant Md. Shohidur Rahman has stopped by for a bite to eat. It is likely he will kindly volunteer the cooking skills of his own bhabi in Bisnubhallabhe village of Dhamsreni Union, some ten kilometres from the town.

It might be that he is able to call ahead to ask if it is okay, at which point his bhabi, Umma Habiba Mitu, will likely agree. Any offer to buy the ingredients before setting out on his Honda will be firmly refused – everything is available at the house, you will be told. In such a case, one may be on the way to the beautiful village by Shohidur Bhai’s motorcycle within minutes.

Health Assistant Shohidur Rahman in primary discussion

Step 3: Shohidur Bhai will likely stop to show the fishing nets in the waterlogged land beside ricefields at the entrance to the village where the pint-sized puti fish are caught. In the meantime, Bhabi will have started, unasked, to sort the various ingredients onto plates, chopping and washing the onions, garlic and chillies in preparation – so it looks like a TV cooking show set before your arrival. She will have the clay oven fired.

Bhabi will have neatly arranged all the ingredients in advance, so the kitchen looks like a TV cooking show set
Step 4: There will be introductions with Shohidur’s older brother Md. Mizanur Rahman Bipul and of course, with Bhabi. In due course you will be shown to the kitchen.

Step 5: Next, take the dried jute leaves and mix in water, slightly crushing them in the process. While doing this, Shohidur will explain how the jute leaves are harvested when the plants are young, no taller than his nephew. It is the new leaves which are chosen – a process which does not destroy the jute plant. It continues to grow, to provide the golden fibre. The harvested jute leaves are subsequently dried in the sun for 2 – 3 days. Put the washed jute leaves into a pan, adding the fresh puti fish.

Bhabi will periodically stir the torkari while it cooks for 15-20 minutes

Step 6: Add the onions, garlic and chillies followed by salt, turmeric, water and oil. Lightly mix by hand, and please note that one can be actively involved in this process. All the work need not be left up to Bhabi.

The torkari simmering on Bhabi's stove. 

Step 7: Place on village stove to cook for fifteen to twenty minutes. While Bhabi lightly turns the torkari as it cooks, Bipul Bhai will bring the conversation to a boil concerning that other Kurigram delicacy, shidal – a dish made from shutki, which is dried, emaciated and shrivelled fish and kochu pata, or aram leaves.

The process for making shidal is first to dry the puti fish for seven days in the sun – the usual shutki method. Then the shutki is mixed into balls with kochu and returned to sun-dry for another 15 – 20 days. The brownish, uninviting, disc-shaped and very smelly shidal ball is then ready for use. It’s a strange kind of treasure.

Bipul Bhai will explain that when visitors from Ulipur town reach the villages they often desperately seek out shidal; while visitors from Dhaka tend to react with surprise and curiosity, asking “What on Earth are you eating?”

The smelly shidal ball waiting to be cooked. No outsider would think to put that in their mouths.

Step 8: While this is going on, Shohidur Bhai will be visiting the neighbours. He has already decided that any experience of Kurigram cuisine cannot be complete without at least seeing a shidal ball – as good as the shutkani torkari promises to be. As they had none in the house, the obliging neighbours will have agreed to provide one – and Bhabi meanwhile will metamorphose this plan into actually cooking the shidal, to make more precisely a shidal bhorta – a mashed shidal dish.

Step 9: By this time the steaming shutkani torkari will be served, usually with rice. It has a strong flavour, with a spinach-like consistency but slight bitterness to it – with just a hint of puti fish. Shutkani torkari leaves a lasting taste in the mouth which makes one want more. Even for a novice who’s not particularly fond of fish – shutkani torkari à la Bhabi is delicious.

Brothers Mizanur and Shohidur Rahman.

Step 10: Meanwhile the shidal disc will have arrived. Its odour is worse than a three-day old shirt and certainly no non-local would ever consider putting that in their mouths. Yet, the Kurigramers know better – that when cooked it will have a spicy, fulsome flavour.

Somehow before the eating of the shutkani torkari is completed, Bhabi will have miraculously fried the shidal with onions and chilli before it is mashed into a bhorta with mortar and pestle. It’s spicier than the torkari, saltier with a stronger, unique flavour that, while tasty at first, must be as coffee – a flavour type which only brings increased enjoyment with accustom. It’s not difficult to understand why Ulipur townspeople feverishly seek it out. Next time I will too.

Another dish associated with Kurigram District is pelka, a seasonal soup traditionally available at winter’s end made from jute leaves and soda, or with shozna leaves in other seasons. But word from the Al Shad crowd is that pelka has resigned itself to history and is rarely enjoyed in Ulipur nowadays.

The shidal concoction ready to be mashed into a bhorta.

Step 11: Returning to town, Shohidur Bhai will stop beside a four-hundred-year-old village mazar, an Islamic shrine which sits not fifty metres from a likewise old Hindu temple, now within the roots of a huge tree. He wishes to demonstrate something of which he is proud: in Dhamsreni Union as in Ulipur, people of different faiths live in harmony.

Step 12: Upon reaching College Road, you’ll find half the street talking about the project: to sample Ulipur cuisine. The experience will need to be discussed at length with the crowd at the Al Shad over a cup or three of tea.

Shidal bhorta à la Kurigram, à la Bhabi.

This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Shutkani Torkari a la Kurigram

1 comment: