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Friday, January 13, 2012

Eggplant with Dried Fish...Bangladeshi Baingan Shutki

Foodies the world around that enjoy cooking harbour their inspiration from many facets.  For me I would have to say my “curry culture” comes from my parents.  My siblings and I grew up at home in Melbourne.  Our family comes from India, so we spent many a dinnertime over my dad’s curry concoctions or my mother’s carefully prepared Chicken Korma or Biryani (she's very precise in the ingredients and methods).  The recipes for these dishes always seemed to elude any written form and I am quite convinced that they do not exist, on paper anyway.  Instead, the ingredients and exact specifications for these dishes are imprinted in the memory banks of home cooks alike.  Mums and dads, grandmas and aunts all seem to know just how much of each spice, and just how much salt is required to get the dish to taste exactly the same way it did the last time you ate it.  I am yet to put my parent’s recipes into this blog – it’s just a matter of letting them in the kitchen to cook, with me hovering around taking notes and pictures – stay tuned (future blog topic alert!)
One such cook that follows the same principles of cooking without cookbooks, is my mother-in-law - my Amma (আম্মা - Bengali for mother).  She is originally from Bangladesh and has been cooking almost all her life, and like my parents, her recipes are all in her head too.  For some years now I have been enjoying dishes prepared by her, and true to form, her chicken curry and beef curry always impresses – and meets the requirement of tasting the same each time.  I think that even if I had not had it in a while, I would recognise her curry in a blind taste test.  On a recent visit to “the in-laws” I was greeted at the front door with the aroma of something deliciously spicy being cooked up in the kitchen.  On closer inspection (as you do!), I was delighted to discover that it was an eggplant dish that she was conjuring up.  Over the years, I have falsely given the impression that I like only meat curries, and as a result Amma has only cooked me beef and chicken dishes, which I have loved each time.  Well I have voiced my opinion on all things vegetarian (and fishy) with her, and hopefully now I can experience some dishes from Bangladesh that will be completely new to me.   
Ikan Bilis - use these if you cannot get Bangladeshi Shutki
This highly pungent dish is a classic style Bangladeshi cuisine which uses dried fish as its flavoursome base.  Shutki, as it is known in Bangladesh, can include a variety of fish that have been dried over time, and as you would expect, they share the common characteristic of a very, very stinky smell, similar to Belachan (Dry Shrimp Paste) – that I have used frequently in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking.  In most cases I would recommend when cooking anything with dried fish, to open all the windows and doors in your house – unless you have an industrial strength exhaust fan in your kitchen.  
Despite the recipe being safely locked away in my mother-in-law's head I was able to get the ingredients and directions and decided to try my hand at some Bangladeshi cuisine.  I admit, however, that when I cooked it yesterday, it was not the same as hers, but it was tasty and came somewhat close to its likeness.  This dish is a very easy to prepare and surprisingly simple, given how good it tastes.  I have used Ikan Bilis, as they are easy to come by in your local supermarket, but to be true to her traditions my Amma sources only the finest shutki from her Bangladeshi grocer, and for authenticity I think I will use these next time as my final dish just was not fishy enough.
  • ½ cup x Ikan Bilis , soaked in warm water  
  • 1 x large Eggplant, cut into thick batons
  • Cooking Oil
  • 1 x large Onion, finely diced 
  • 6 cloves x Garlic, crushed
  • 3-4 x Green Chillies, sliced
  • 1 tsp x Turmeric Powder
  • 3 tsp x Coriander Powder
  • 1 tsp x Chilli Powder
  • ½ cup x Water
  • Whole green chillies, sliced lengthways to garnish 
Home-grown garlic straight from my garden
In a hot wok heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil
Add the onion and cook slowly for a few minutes until soft
Now stir in the garlic and chilli be sure it does not catch
Put in the teaspoon of turmeric and combine
Squeeze and drain the water out of the soaking ikan bilis 
Discard the water and add the dried fish to the wok
Add the eggplant pieces followed by the coriander and chilli powder
Mix well, turning to coat with the mixture
Add a little water to deglaze the bottom and sides of wok
Turn the heat to low and cover the wok
Cook for about 10 minutes or until the eggplant is tender but still holds its shape
Remove the lid and allow the liquid to reduce slightly to a thick gravy
Garnish with sliced whole chillies and keep covered until serving

"Traditionally Bangladeshi food is eaten with the hand although I leave this up to the experts.  I seem to get by with a spoon and fork."
"Eggplant and Dried Fish would generally be eaten with rice but I am a big roti fan. Parathas, naans or chapatis go well with the dish too."

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