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Making sense of shidol: In Tripura, sales of a fermented dry fish rise amid Covid-19

Locals in Tripura have long believed shidol boosts immunity. How is it prepared, and what do experts say about its health benefits?

Written by Debraj Deb | Agartala | September 20, 2020 9:09:42 pm
Tripura Covid news, tripura coronavirus news, shidol, shidol good for immunity, shidol tripura, immunity boosting foods, indian expressPots of shidol on sale at Maharaganj Bazaar in Agartala. (Express Photo: Debraj Deb)

As people seek out natural immunity boosters amid the Covid-19 pandemic, in Tripura, a local preparation has seen its sales shoot up considerably – the shidol, or fermented dry fish.

Shidol or berma has been eaten in Tripura for over a thousand years. While dry fishes are extensively consumed in different parts of India and in countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand, what makes shidol special is its immunity-boosting benefits.

Shidol, Hidol, Tungtap or Berma?

Fermentation as a technique is common in Northeast India’s culinary milieu. With abundance of fishes in these states, especially in hilly rivers and streams, preservation came naturally to the local populace, to ensure availability in dry seasons.

Shidol is known as hidol in Assam, Tungtap in Meghalaya, and Berma in Tripura’s indigenous Kokborok dialect, indicating an adaption of the item in respective cultures.

In Tripura, shidol bears imprint of the East Pakistan immigrant Bengalee community too. The dish is known for its pungent smell, which makes it so hard to carry, even inside layers and layers of wraps around containers.

How is shidol made?

Preparing shidol involves smearing an earthen pot with oil, sun-drying it, tempering its insides with a paste made from crushed dry fish, then pouring brine and mustard oil, and finally hard-stuffing the processed fish to the pot’s optimum capacity. The pressing was traditionally done by feet, though manufacturers now use hands or wooden appendages.

The pot then goes inside a deep hole dug into the soil, covered, and left there for 4-6 months depending on the quality and quantity of fish. The microbial fermentation is catalysed by the cold, darkness and geothermal energy underground. When the pot is ‘harvested’, shidol is ready for the market.

Why is everyone buying copious quantities of shidol?

Over 30-40 varieties of dry and fermented fishes are available over the counter or on demand at Maharaganj Bazaar in Agartala, the largest wholesale market of Tripura. But shidol certainly has its edge. Sellers, like 65-year old Subodh Das, say sale of dry fish, especially the fermented variety, has shot up in the past few months.

“People are buying shutki (dry fish) more these days. Shidol has a very large share of this sale. I am selling at least 4-5 kg shidol on a daily basis. It has good immunity boosting factors. Even I eat it frequently,” Das told indianexpress.com.

Das imports large shidol-stuffed matkas or earthen pots from Bangladesh and from West Bengal. These matkas usually have between 38-42 Kg shidol and cost Rs 15,000-17,000. The sale value, he says, is much higher.

Tripura Covid news, tripura coronavirus news, shidol, shidol good for immunity, shidol tripura,  immunity boosting foods, indian express While some traders bring in shidol-stuffed pots from Bangladesh or West Bengal, some just import the dry fish, and prepare it here. (Express photo: Debraj Deb)

Dulal Das, a 35-year-old dry fish trader at MG Bazaar, said he is selling shidol worth Rs 10,000 a day, while other varieties of dry fish like Hilsa or Elish shutki, prawn or chingri shutki, tyengra shutki etc. also sell profusely.

Tripura mostly has three varieties of shidol – those made from puti fish (Puntius Sophore), baspati fish and kata shidol (assorted local varieties). These sell at Rs 600 per kg, Rs 350 per kg and Rs 300 per kg respectively, depending on the quality and origin. While the more exotic and costly varieties come from Bangladesh, the cheaper ones are sourced from West Bengal via Jagiroad of Assam, which is the largest dry fish market of NE India.

Immunity: Traditional belief or medical benefit?

Does shidol actually have any health benefit to it? Experts say it does.

Dr. Kuntal Manna, Assistant Professor of Medicinal Chemistry & CADD at Tripura University, told this publication that a doctoral study to analyse the nutrient content of raw puti fish, and its processed version, or shidol, revealed polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, amino acids in abundance, which was increased through frying.

The team studied nutritional components in both raw fish and dry fish, with samples collected from local markets, identified by zoologists and tested at the state food testing laboratory. Samples were also sent to a food laboratory at New Jersey, USA.

“The widespread traditional belief is that fermented fish is beneficial for common cold and flu or malaria. We haven’t found any direct relation to that, but healthy components have been found in our study – ingredients like proteins and amino acids, drastically increased due to fermentation in the dry fish,” Dr. Manna said.

The university teacher also said the microbes and enzymes released during fermentation were found to contribute to good gut bacterial growth, leading to better digestive health. Also, there is an abundance of amino acids, minerals and fatty acids in shidol.

Dr Dayeeta Choudhury, a dietician and assistant professor at ICFAI University in Agartala, said processed dry fish are preserved using brine, leaving them with high sodium content. But the product is very rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, protein and minerals, which directly or indirectly boost immunity. She also said certain varieties of dry fishes were found to be richer in protein content than fresh eggs.

“Omega 3 fatty acids are available in high concentration in traditionally prepared dry fishes. It helps people with cardiac problems and diabetes. But since dry fishes have high sodium content, people with heart ailments should undergo a lipid profile test and make sure their sodium, potassium levels are within the safe bracket. This might be used for boosting immunity to better combat diseases like this Covid-19,” she said.

How is shidol taken?

Well, that’s up to your taste. The varieties of shidol-based dishes in NE’s diverse cuisine are wide. It’s taken dry roasted in fire and mashed with copious amounts of onions, garlic and hot chillies; fried in oil, infused with fried onions, abundance of chillies, a dash of tomato and coriander leaves; mashed in a paste or boiled with bamboo shoots, lots of hot chillies, spices and condiments; even stewed with different vegetables as a one-pot dish.

Pratima Debroy, a former athlete and sports department employee with the state government, said her kitchen is never bereft of the pungent aroma of shidol. “I use it very frequently. In case of common cold or flu, I find it very helpful. Now that the corona pandemic is going on, my family is having mashed shidol every other day. It’s the gharelu nuskha (home remedy) our culture follows,” she said.

Dipa Choudhury, a retired health department employee, said she takes shidol and other dry fish almost every other day, if not regularly. “We find shidol very helpful to ward off common ailments. Plus, it is tasty. Taste and health rarely comes together,” she said.

Health hazards

Though the benefits far outweigh hazards as explained by exerts, rise in demand and consequent efforts to speed up fermentation has led to use of chemical components in the process.

Dr. Manna said their research found microbial contamination, antibiotics, heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and pesticides like chloride and formaldehyde, albeit in traces, in many of the samples studied.

“The traditional method is always the best. But race for producing more and more shidol and speeding up the fermentation process has led to chemicals creeping into the industry. This should be regulated,” he said.

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