The memory is cloudy. As was the day. Black lines of pine against the cold, colourless sky as I walked home from school. But on my lunch plate, there was a dab of darkish maroon. As I ate, slowly mixing the shidol chaatni — a mash of dried, fermented fish, smooth but for the prick of delicate, easy-to-chew bones — with the rice, the afternoon’s gloom seemed to lift. My eyes watered from the heat of chilli and garlic, my ears reddened, my mouth came alive with a burst of flavours. I was warmed. Hours after the meal, I could find it on my fingers — the smell, like a secret, hot, fierce, and illicit.
Growing up in the tiny Sylheti community of Shillong, I knew there was something not kosher about shidol and shutki (dried fish). The preserved fish eaten by Bengalis who originally belonged to the Sylhet and Chittagong districts of what is now Bangladesh was — if not a secret — then definitely an embarrassment. For one, it marked us out as ungainly, rustic outsiders — much like our angular Bengali accent — as we ventured out of our tiny outposts in the Northeast and into Kolkata. Its cooking was preceded by nervous shutting of windows and worry at neighbours’ noses wrinkling in disgust. Those who know not how they sin have associated the fragrance of shutki with that of mildewed, rotting socks or decaying animals. I still recall the pang of regret when a friend in Kolkata — from epaar Bangla (this side of Bengal) — exclaimed, “It does stink, you know.”
My mother remembers watching her Manipuri neighbour soak a large bowl of shidol (tiny silvery fermented putthi machh) in water, and grinding it to a paste with an equal amount of red chillies. A dab of the chaatni with a large mound of rice was breakfast for her large family. The shidol is evidence of the continuity in the culinary histories of Northeast’s tribal and non-tribal communities, not always known to live harmoniously. Food historian Pritha Sen says that while eaten across then East Pakistan, shidol and shutki were most popular in the Sylhet and Chittagong districts. “Because these were tribal-dominated areas. And, in my opinion, that is why the tradition continued in these places, while the more non-tribal areas and communities slowly discontinued it. Dried fish and shidol are eaten all over north Bengal and the Northeast by tribal and non-tribal communities till date, because the two cultures still coexist,” she says. Last year, for example, finance ministers of several states in the Northeast took up half-hour of a GST council meet to lobby for a tax exemption on the dried fish.
Like in all cultures, excess of fish and meat are preserved/salted to avoid wastage — and with an eye on the uncertain future, when there might not be enough. In the villages of Assam’s Barak Valley, freshwater fish like pabda, puthi, tyangra and the superstar, ilish, are fermented and dried around August-September, before the onset of winter. Eventually, dried Bombay Duck or lotka/loitta shutki also found its way into our kitchens — one reason why Mumbai’s salty odour of drying-decaying fish endears the great city to me. I would later discover that this peculiar smelly secret of ours is a delicacy in several cuisines — from Goan to Naga, Tamil to Kashmiri.
There is the smell, of course. But shutki and shidol have got a bad rep because they are a poor man’s delicacy. “It is associated with tribal cuisine and food of the lower strata of society. As we become more affluent, we want to dissociate ourselves from the food of the masses. Also, mostly people from the West Bengal looked down upon it, right? That is because the culture changed across the river Padma and so did the eating habits. West Bengal did not have the custom of eating dried fish,” says Sen. Especially after the Partition and the 1971 war of liberation, when people from East Bengal came in as refugees, says Sen, food habits of the “outsiders” were the first to be mocked. “The language and accent were mocked later,” she says.
The streets of Bengaluru jostle with accents and tongues — you can hear at least six different languages on a 15-minute walk in this astonishingly multicultural city. On lucky days, the dialect of Sylhet is the seventh. When two Sylhetis meet, they lapse into their mother tongue with gleeful freedom. I was a newbie to the city when I met one such compatriot, a salesman at the neighbourhood supermarket. “Shutki khain ni? Koi faimu? (Do you eat shutki? Where can you find it?),” I asked. He asked me to wait, turned a corner and came back with two packs of dried Bombay Duck and shrimp. I went home assured. This was a city I could be friends with.
Each recipe carries the distilled wisdom of experiments carried out generations ago. My ancestors knew that dried and fermented fish can make vegetables sing. As a child, I would love dried shrimp and ripe pumpkin cooked together with a lot of garlic — the perfect balance of sweet, hot and meaty flavours come together just right. I have grown to love more fiery creations, with no reservations. Both shidol and shutki are cooked with seasonal vegetables such as brinjal or squash — either as a dry relish or a spicy comforting broth. It could also be had on its own, just roasted with onions, garlic and chilli and mashed.
But the shining star of this sub-cuisine is the shidoler bora. The shidol would be pounded and cooked with plenty of garlic, onion and chillies. The dark-maroon paste would then be placed at the heart of a fresh squash or pumpkin leaf, wrapped, dunked in a batter of besan or maida and deep-fried. Had with rice, it is a slow, time-lapse experience of cascading flavours — from the crispness of the batter to the leaf’s slightly rough texture and the spicy, fragrant shidol hidden inside like a secret.
Those who arrive from small towns often experience the metropolis as a dislocation; as a place that demands that you shed your provincial habits for a scrubbed, more polished self. It is, perhaps, reflected in the whittling away in the diversity of the things we eat, in the colonisation of our palate by sweet, salty and mainstream flavours. Shutki remains an acquired taste. It is (and will remain) resistant to the easy evangelism of Instagram filters and is unlikely to find place in hipster diets. But in its stack of smells and tastes are all the notes of life — from the heat of spice to the decay of time and tide. It will linger on my fingers, for a long time to come.