It is difficult to imagine Indian cuisine without taking into account the foreign influences. Whether or not you were attentive in your History class, you would still be aware how India was one of the most sought-after country for traders back in the day. Several European traders set said for the subcontinent in search of spices, textiles, pulses and what not, in turn they also brought with them a whole lot of their culinary secrets and wisdom. It is said that the Bengali dish Shukto is inspired by the Portuguese practice of stir-frying locally available vegetables and cooking them in soft stew.  

For the uninitiated, shukto is a bitter blend of vegetables like karela, neem, sweet potato, raw banana, drumsticks, yam etc. It is served right at the start of a Bengali meal. The idea is to start with something bitter and end with something sweet for a balanced palate. Shukto may be bitter and pungent, but it is a much beloved delicacy in Bengali households. The secret is in the layers of flavours, so the bitter dominates, but it is also balanced with sweet potatoes and pumpkin, that add bulk to the dish and also a certain creaminess. Dudh shukto, or shukto dipped in milk is also very popular variant of the dish that is much milder and spells comfort for countless Bengalis out there. Shukto is mainly a component in the Bengali lunches, in dinner, it is not as popular.

 

So, the legend goes, that Portuguese, who settled in Bengal somewhere around 16th century A.D, were quite fascinated by the local produce, they used their cooking techniques to develop a stew like dish very similar to Shukto. The Bengalis, were more than happy to give it their own spin by adding baris, a hint of hot mustard oil and paanch phoron. Bengalis, are known for their legion of sweet treats, but many won’t know about their affinity for bitter foods that has existed long before Europeans set foot on Bengal’s shores, especially those grown locally. Since there is a prominent prevalence of Ayurveda in Bengali cooking and dining practices, Bengalis favour all flavours equally. Bitter foods like bitter gourd and neem are not only helpful in giving our health a natural boost, but also keeping our bodies immune to diseases.

Here’s a recipe of shukto you may enjoy.