There is some error with the pics in this post. For better step-by-step rendition of Shukto check this post.
A traditional Bengali meal usually consists of five to six courses, starting off with something bitter and ending with a sweet dessert. Dal–bhaja (lentil soup & fritters), a vegetable, fish and chutney find their way in between and are served as well as eaten in that order. I think the six courses were to give importance to the six basic tastes or rasas. The first course which is bitter can be a dry preparation of Uchche (bitter gourd), fried neem leaves, neem-begun(neem leaves and brinjal lightly sauted) or the culinary epitome of bangla cuisine the Shukto.
Shukto is a mix of vegetables with an emphasis to the bitterness, a preparation where instead of hiding the bitterness , it is the taste around which the dish evolves. The bitter taste is said to be good for cleansing the palate and also for letting the digestive juices flow and so no doubt it is a good start off to the meal to follow.
Get this recipe in my Book coming out soon. Check this blog for further updates.
Shukto is also a culinary experience for whoever eats it and a culinary achievement for whoever cooks it. In fact a Bengali cook is judged by his or her shukto preparation. Though I don't understand what's so diificult about cooking it, but that might be because I haven't reached the desired culinary height of tasting and neither has my Shukto been dissected and analysed by the Shukto patrol. My shukto doesn't turn out as good as my Ma's or my Ma-in-law's but then that's natural, that's what Mothers are for.
All said and done I am not a big shukto fan though my husband is and thinking of all the goodness that comes out of eating it, we do have occasional Shukto weekends.
Before going into the recipe I would briefly describe the medley of veggies that go into this dish. Lots of veggies to be chopped so be sure to get your bitter (uh-oh better) half to chop them up.
Uchche or Bitter Gourd -- Bitter gourd contains vitamin A, B1, B2, and C. It also contains minerals like calcium, phosphorous, iron, copper and potassium. From the ayurvedic perspective, bitter gourd is excellent for balancing Kapha. It helps purify blood tissue, enhances digestion, and stimulates the liver. http://www.ayurbalance.com/explore_foodbittergourd.htm
Bitter gourd is also known to cure or at least control diabetes.
Jhinge or Ridge Gourd -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luffa
Begun or Brinjal
KanchaKola or Raw Cooking Banana – This vegetable is more popular in the south of India. In Bengal it is popular as a vegetable which is often prescribed to treat a weak stomach or diarrhea.
Mulo or Raddish – I diddn’t have these at home
What you Need
Uchche or Bitter Gourd – 1 chopped
Jhinge or Ridge Gourd – 1 chopped
Begun or Brinjal – 1 chopped
KanchaKola or Raw Cooking Banana – 1 chopped
String Benas – 10 chopped
Potato – 1 chopped
Drumsticks or Shojne Danta -- a couple chopped in 8-10 peiecs, each 2" long
Vadi (nuggets made of ground lentil and later dried )~ 10/15 small ones (Optional)
For Phoron or Tempering
Ideally in Bengali Shukto a seed called Radhuni is used for tempering. In absence of that, I use either methi seeds or paanchphoron
Methi or Fenugreek seeds – 1 tsp
Tejpata or Bay Leaves -- 4
Hing or Asafoetida Powder – a pinch
Mustard seeds ~ 2tbsp soaked in water.
Poppy Seeds ~ 1 tbsp soaked in water
I always make the above paste and keep it in the fridge for later use during the week so I use more. Often the grinder is such that it is difficult to make a fine paste with little amount.
Ginger Paste ~ fresh grated ginger about 1 tbsp
Milk – 1/3 cup
How I Do It
Chop the vegetables as shown in the picture. Try to cut them in the shape as in the pic.
Wet grind the mustard seeds and poppy seeds to a fine paste. While grinding put a little salt. If you are using a dry grinder make a paste of the dry ground mustard powder in a little vinegar and salt, this is because dry grinding sometimes makes the mustard taste bitter.
Saute the vegetables, bitter gourd being the last, lightly and keep aside
Fry the vadi till they are brown and crispy
Heat 2 tbsp of ghee in a Kadai/Frying Pan
Add the methi (fenugreek) seed, tejpata (bay leaves) and the hing (asafoetida powder)
When they start sputtering and you get the smell of hing rising add the veggies.
Add about 1 1/2 to 2 tbsp of the mustard & poppy seeds paste.
Add the Ginger paste
Mix well, add salt add water and 1/3 cup of milk. Enough water to cook the vegetables, this dish is not gravy based so don't add too much water.
Cover and cook till the veggies are cooked and there is very little water.
Once the vegetables are almost done add a little suagr.
Add the fried vadis at the end.
Note: One of my readers pointed out that his Mom's shukto has a slight gravy in it. In fact my Mom too makes shukto sometimes which is more moist. So you can have your shukto with a little gravy in it (ver little though) if you want.
Have this with white rice and remember to start off your lunch with this.
Mandira of Ahaar also has her own recipe of Shukto. Hers is a little different from mine because every Mom puts their distinctive touch to their Shukto.
This is also my entry for WHB hosted by Meeta of What's for Lunch Honey. I didn't know about this event and got to know from Mandira's blog, so thanks to Mandira.
Trivia: Shukta should be had only during the day so don't have it for dinner. Don't know reason yet.
If you have ever thought about trying your hand in some foreign cuisine, some online universities offer courses on culinary arts, Asian cuisine included