The divinity of dried fish



My brutally frank wife says it stinks. My in-laws are more polite. A wan smile and a firm “no thanks” is all I get when I offer the Sindhi part of my family that fragrant, crunchy coastal delicacy – sukat.

You know those iconic images of Mumbai you see in coffee table books: A wooden trawler and fishermen mending nets framed against fish strung out to dry on clothes lines? Those photos of shrimp being dried on pavements by fisherwomen in their colourful nine-yard saris?

Well, my family eats these fish. Sukat is one of three varieties of dried fish we consume. But it apparently engenders a feeling of faint disgust in anyone who hasn’t been brought up eating dried fish.

And so it came to be the other night in Mumbai that the unfamiliar-to-sukat eaters came to be firmly ranged against the lifetime sukat eaters. Even a mild, fruity South African white wine paired with the sukat didn’t help reduce the hostility at the table to god’s dried bounty.

“Can we please not keep it on the table?” the wife asked tartly to protests from the opposing side.

My niece Tara fools around with my precious packets of dried fish -- and indicates just what she thinks of them. Brat!

My niece Tara fools around with my precious packets of dried fish -- and indicates just what she thinks of them. Brat!

Even my pre-teen nieces – traitors – turned up their pretty noses at this old family delicacy. But that’s their Telugu DNA I guess. My college buddy (he has popped up on this blog previously under the name “Bong”, a Telugu boy who grew up in Calcutta; in real life a hotshot banker), is married to my sis, and it was at their breezy Napeansea Road flat that the sukat war unfolded.

Against: Wife. In laws. Aforementioned friend, and aforementioned daughters, and their grandfather.

For: Me. Sister. Aunt.

Eventually, an uneasy truce prevailed. The poor sukat was kept to one side of the table with the naysayers turning their faces away when they had reach over it to help themselves.

The dried-fish glossary

If you must understand my fascination for dried fish, you must first understand dried fish.

1. Sukat, which I’ve told you about, is dried shrimp; actually, smaller than shrimp, a variety locally called karandi. Rs 175/kg.

2. Soda, dried medium-sized prawns, the  Mercedes of the dried-fish world. Rs 700/kg.

3. Dried Bombil, the delicate fish called Bombay Duck, the fish of the fishing-village photo. Rs 175/kg.

Gitanjali Mehta Anand)

My aunt is the family supplier of dried fish, and she's stuffed her husband's booze-and-cold-drink fridge with packets of them. The aroma is rather strong, and my uncle is not particularly happy. (Photo by: Gitanjali Mehta Anand)

Now, you must get to know my aunt, Meena Mehta (if you’re wondering how a Guju loves dried fish, she’s originally a Deshmukh from Shivaji Park, Mumbai). She has variously served as my alternate mum-certainly in my teenage years when she knew things my mother did not-and is my lifetime dried-fish supplier.

I landed in Bombay this week, and I was about to call her to replenish my supply of sukat when she called in great excitment, saying she had just got fresh stocks. It’s fate. So, we both got excited together.

Meena Moushi (MM), as I call her, is my mum’s younger sister (and yes, they both love dried fish), and she can go into rhapsodies over sukat. She tells me how she loves eating soda-raw. Hmm, I’m not sure even I would go that far. “It is such a treasure,” sighs MM. But you see the effect dried-fish can have.

Many people would prefer to throw dried-fish in the trash, and indeed, that is where much of it ends up really. Cats pillage it as it lies out in the sun, and vast quantities are lost to other predators. Some of it is simply swept away.

MM has always warned me against buying dried-fish from any Bombay fishmonger at any local market. Now, I personally have eaten local-market dried fish, but she’s right-if you are finicky about cleanliness, it’s best to find a reliable supplier. My aunt’s supplier is one Ashok Chaudhary from the distant western suburb of Borivali, but he will deliver packets of dried fish anywhere in Bombay. Here’s his number: 9987924635.

As I’m writing this, my colleague, Shailesh Gaikwad (who is chief of the Hindustan Times‘ political bureau in Bombay) is waxing eloquent about the breakfast he often eats at his native town of Palghar in Thane district: rice bhakri (a handbeaten thick chapatti made of rice flour) with sukat or dried-bombil fry or sode with sliced onion.

In his area, this is originally a breakfast for farm labour, Shailesh explains. The healthy, filling bhakri with the delicious dried fish. Work starts early and those who work hard tend to skip lunch. What could be more apt: fish caught and dried by the sons and daughter of the sea fuelling the sons and daughters of the soil.

And now, to eat

Gitanjali Mehta Anand)

Dried fish and white wine. Yum! (Photo by: Gitanjali Mehta Anand)

The wonderful thing about dried fish – apart from its earthy, tangy flavour – is that it’s really very simple to make.

Maharashtrians love it so much, that they will even put it in breakfast poha (puffed rice).

All you need to remember is to soak it in water for 2-3 hours before cooking. This allows it to plump up. Do remember to drain the water.

The basic recipe is simplicity itself:

- Heat some oil.

- Throw in some smashed garlic, generous quantities.

- Fry onion till translucent. Remember to chop lots of onions-up to three for a standard 200 gm packet of sukat.

- Add haldi (turmeric) and lal mirchi (red chilli powder). Fry.

- Add kokum (see previous posts on this subject) or tamarind water. These give it the all-important tang.

- If you want to spice it up further, add a slit green chilly.

- Garnish with coriander.

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Comments

52 Responses to “The divinity of dried fish”
  1. Priya says:

    Husband, it does stink. And I notice you’ve neglected to tell your readers that I actually cook the smelly stuff for you.

    [Reply]

    Anil Satwik Reply:

    It’s OK Samar. I have heard this sentence before.

    [Reply]

  2. Gitanjali says:

    ok Samar, i concede this is worth the 15 smses you sent me. more sukat to you bro!

    [Reply]

  3. Rachel says:

    Bacalao is now quite fashionable in the west so maybe there’s hope for other dried fish. Any recommendations for restaurants where they are served?

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    Alas. Dried fish hasn’t made it out of our homes. I doubt it ever will.

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    Alas. It isn’t available anywhere outside our homes. Somehow, I doubt it ever will.

    [Reply]

    Karan Kinariwala Reply:

    and.. if it is there in the fridge yet, send some to Bangalore!

    [Reply]

  4. Shalini says:

    as much as I was looking forward to your blog…….. i m truly disappointed cos i m NOT a Sukat lover…… not even remotely close to tht and YES…….. I am a SINDHI too :)

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    Sorry about that Shalini. Will hopefully make amends next time.

    [Reply]

    Shalini Reply:

    thts alrite Samar….Please dnt apologize……… we are all diff with diff tastes :) and thts wht makes us unique !!!

    [Reply]

    Shalini Reply:

    btw the love the bombay duck they make at gajalee :)

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    You know, I actually am a big fan of the gajalee bombil. they flatten and batter fry it, right? I think that kind of sucks out the fleshy delights of the fish. My relatives keep it plump, coat it with the usual masalas and pan fry it. But to each his own, as you say!
    BTW, I have had some Sindhi fish, and I love how lightly it’s made.

  5. paramita says:

    super.

    [Reply]

  6. neha says:

    sukat is a staple diet in konkan.i love ‘javla’.

    [Reply]

  7. TSinha says:

    Hi. Great to read this piece. Bengalis from the erstwhile East Bengal love dried fish, BTW. We mostly have the dried bombil version and is called loitta shnutki. When shnutki is cooked at home, you can be assured that you wont be able to smell any other dish on the menu!!. We dry fry the fish first in the wok and then soak it in water for a bit to get any sand etc off. The dish is prepared as per the following steps:
    1. Fry onions till brown in mustard oil
    2. Add ginger, garlic and chilli paste generously along with turmeric, cumin powder and seasoning
    3. Fry the masala well
    4. We often add potatoes and sometimes other vegetables like pumpkin and drumstick, all cut longitudinally. Tastes great by the way with the fish. Also add green chillies and some chopped garlic
    5. Add the fish and “bhuno” everything.
    6.You may need to add a little water to allow the veg to cook. Cover for 5 minutes on low heat.
    7. Once the water evaporates let the fish cook for a few more minutes and turn off the heat.

    We eat this with steamed rice.

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    I knew that Bengalis ate dried fish too, but I never knew how. Thank you for this. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

    [Reply]

    Deb Reply:

    Yeah, ’shnutki’ is quite a rage among ‘Bangals’ (read: East Bengalis!), my in-laws being same. Keep hearing about it, but haven’t yet got the courage to try.

    [Reply]

    Deb Reply:

    I’m a bit disappointed on this line, though, with my pa-in-law’s reaction to the prawn pickle from Reliance. He turned his nose up (as if ’shnutki’ would be any better!), while I enjoyed it immensely.

  8. Pervin Sanghvi says:

    Nice read Samar, thanks. We Bawas make Tarapori patio (a dried Bombil sweet-sour dish/pickle to be had with khichdi or dal-chaawal).
    You’re lucky the ‘pure Jain’ lobby of Napean Sea Road didn’t stage a dharna outside the Napean Sea Road apt.! I’m petrified of cooking tarapori patio at home lest the veggie brigade in my building black-list me. ;)

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    Pervin, don’t be intimidated. I have eaten Tarapori patio. Delicious. Let them blacklist you — at least you’ll be happy

    [Reply]

  9. sunit says:

    Delicious piece!!

    [Reply]

  10. Mitalee Salvi says:

    Theres a variation we make at home:inc.potatoes,and vaangi(brinjal) stuffed with aforementioned sukat-bhaaji…
    same recipe,only a whole lotta oil and red chilly powder..
    its heaven!!!!!
    also to be tried before you die:sukat-kaalvan..basic coconut-cashew base,but with potatoes.

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    Sukat kalvan? I have to confess I haven’t heard of that Mitalee. I do recall having vaangi with sukat when I was a kid, but let I haven’t actually made it. I should try it.

    [Reply]

  11. AM says:

    Hi Samar,
    Being a Bengali, it is easier for me to identify with a delicacy that half of Bengal swears by while the other half swear at. “Sukat” is “Shutki” is Bengal and stinks with as equal an ease that Sukat does. I am surrounded by friends (and neighbors) who source their Shutki a bit too often for comfort, although I am probably part of the camp which has your wife and niece.

    Most of my friends regularly have Shutki and insist, often try to force me to have it. there standard line is “It tastes much better than it smells…” But I have managed to resist that temptation. Once, I did falter and had a bite. I am a changed man since then.. and have sworn to never go even close to Shutki again in my life.

    But the curse of the dried fish is more dreadful than the tricks of a Hong Kong martial arts movie. I shifted to a new house five years ago, away from the mass of Shutki eating Bongs. But last year, one of my neighbors sold his house to a Manipuri, a fine gentleman by all counts — his etiquette, his behavior and with a sweet wife in tow. Within two months of his arrival, my admiration of this impeccable gentleman dried down because of the intense and pungent smell that started coming out of his kitchen almost three times a week. Initially I smelt a rat (quite literally) but later, I realised that it was nothing but Shutki that was changing color in their kitchen.

    I have developed a following for Ramdev Baba of late.

    [Reply]

  12. AM says:

    Oh, and must add. Few years back, on a flight from Penang to Singapore, I opted for local breakfast while my other Indian friend (sitting four rows behind me) opted for a continental one. To my surprise and delight, it was rice and fish (at 8 am!) with a rather lavish sprinkling of Ikan Bilis –the Malaysian version of Sukat/Shutki. Even before I could open the pot properly, my friend shouted from behind: “Bangalee, subah subah machchee kha raha hai…” I was really annoyed as I was not the only one with an rice-fish pot on the flight. My anger disappeared when I tasted the stuff on my plate. It was excellent. Last year when I took my wife and kid on the same route, and ordered the same for them as well, with the same results. But the Indian, specially Bengal variety, is a real turn off though.

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    AM, that made for very interesting reading. I suspect that though you don’t, you really want to like Shutki,eh? By the way, what airline was this? I must try to ensure I get onto one of its planes.

    [Reply]

    Deb Reply:

    While on it, some airline staff especially in SE Asia seem have a funny (as in to laugh) idea about ‘vegetarian’. Once on a flight from Bangkok to Xian in China, I was informed by the courteous hostess that since I had opted for the vegetarian meal (I would’ve killed the travel agent!), would prawn-rice be OK with me (:-). I delighfully agreed!
    Even in many hotels across SE Asia (and I’ve been to half-a-dozen countries there), when you say ‘vegetarian’, all it may mean to your host is “something with vegetables in it”! So you could be offerend a (rather delightful) Tom Yum Gai soup in Thailand, with a lot of vegetables, as a ‘vegetarian’ option (:-).

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    Prawns with rice? Remind me to opt for vegetarian in Asia

    [Reply]

  13. .Mummy says:

    What sukat Nirvana! Look back on a life spiced with tangy sukat and sode intervals. Add these ambrosia to rice pohe brinjals – again Nirvana.

    [Reply]

  14. .Mummy says:

    Sukat and sode- sheer Nirvana

    [Reply]

  15. anshuman ray says:

    Lovely article. Made me remember about my time in Bombay and the gajalee bombil which was incredible.
    More power to your pen and of course your cooking skills

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    I am back in Delhi and suddenly missing Bombay tremendously. I am also very hungry…

    [Reply]

  16. Arun Sahoo says:

    A basic Oriya receipe involving dried shrimp. I would call it a type of chutney, instead of a complete dish.This is usually eaten with Pakhal bhat( left over Rice mixed in water and left for few hours or overnight). May also be eaten with rice & dal & subzi.

    1)Head mustard oil. Deep fry some dried shrimps over medium heat.Fry until crunchy.
    2) Fry few baddis( Available in all grocery stores.Plain ones are better than the masala ones)
    3) Let it cool
    4) Pound the baddis & fried shrimps with raw onion, green chilles, salt to taste. You will get a powdered version of the shrimp & badi mix. It should not be too fine.
    5) You may use garlic instead of or along with onion.
    6) Also you may mix a roasted tomato in the mix to get another variant.

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    Arun, this sounds delicious. One question: What are “baddis”?

    [Reply]

    Arun Sahoo Reply:

    Baddi or Badi you may call them. Made of lentils( Urad ones are great) after sun-drying the lentil pastes made into round shapes.Ask any grocer in Delhi. There are many varieties. Go for the plain white ones for this receipe.

    [Reply]

  17. kaa says:

    i discovered your columns of food recently, and i love them. i love fried dry fish too. Only problem with frying it in delhi, is it stinks like hell, obviously to non-eaters. for me the smell is divine :) . my personal favorite being salted and dried sharks. the dried prawns are used for making chutneys in kerala, and is had with rice.
    is the maharashtrian version (sukat, soda etc..) salted as well?

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    My colleague, who is originally from Kerala, just told me over lunch that he is going to be me one of those dried-prawn chutneys.
    The Maharashtrian versions are mildly salted I think, or not at all.
    As for the smell, hmmmm, I guess the neighbours in Delhi will just have to grin and bear it!

    [Reply]

    sree Reply:

    can u pls tell me how u r preparing chutneys/dishes using dried shark?

    [Reply]

  18. Aradhana says:

    wow this was quite piece of writing …..i really liked it……well i am a fish eater from eastern india and love this yummy dry fish …..the smell of it makes my taste buds work more faster and u can just imagine how it will be after it is cooked with all garlic and ginger……u know one interesting fact about eating dry fish is that if u suffer from Malaria eating dry fish helps in curing…..i dont know if it works…..have u ever tasted the dry fish that is dried up in fire in some tribal belts in north east india….try them…u will surely love them,,,,,,

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    Aradhana, I have not tried the dried fish eaten by the tribals but I would love to. Malaria eh? I’ll keep that in mind for sure. Beats carrying quinine tablets.

    [Reply]

  19. Jaya says:

    Hi Samar,

    I am pure vegetarian but your article was very lovely. your passion for the fish was so obvious to read!!! good job.

    Regards,

    Jaya

    [Reply]

  20. toufiq says:

    hi samar.

    I know the response is late but as i love reading your blog, was reading eveything I missed since I was away.
    I am totally for dried fish inspite of the stink–yes Kashmiris eat a lot of it in winters, I am sure not many people know this. We also have smoked fish. its all fresh water Kashmiri carb (schizothorax). In different sizes.
    your recipie sounds great. Will surely try.
    regards
    Toufiq

    [Reply]

    Samar Halarnkar Reply:

    Toufiq great to see you here! when i come to Kashmir you better feed me that smoked and dried fish.

    [Reply]

  21. Vidya says:

    Hi Samar,
    On a recent visit to Sri Lanka, I tasted what might be the Sinhalese version of sukat — locally called seeni sambol. It’s essentially dried Maldive fish (don’t know what these actually look like) — cooked into a chutney with onions and lots and lots of chillies. It’s irresistible — even to a former vegetarian like me who hasn’t yet got used to the smell of fish — especially when you have a pile of “hoppers” to soak it up with

    [Reply]

  22. Reshmi says:

    What luck! I come lured by one dried fish recipe and find not just the Maharashtrian version but Bong and Oriya ones too. Now will you or any Bangalore based reader please please tell me where to find dried fish similar to your aunt’s standards in this city?

    [Reply]

  23. Anisen says:

    Your (and your readers) passion for dried fish brought tears of joy to my eyes, man! I am marooned in my family (only my father shares the taste and he does not stay with me)…the wife refuses to allow any dried fish at home….even fresh bombils from the market are a strict no-no….eating out is the only option….but alas, no bengali restaurant serves authentic ‘chatgan loitye shu(n)tki” (dried bombil prepared chittagong style) – hot and spicy!

    [Reply]

  24. neville says:

    Marathis, Bongs, what about Goans? Not to brag, but we consume more dried fish than any of you guys! I’m a Goan living in the San Francisco Bay Area and my freezer is always full of dried prawns, dried fish (several varieties), dried and masala bombil, dried ganbo (tiny shrimp) etc – not to mention the prawn and bombil balchao in the fridge. My wife who is a Maharashtrian loves this stuff (my sympathies to you, Samar) and so do a lot of my non-Indian friends. And stinky is in the nostrils of the sniffer – I think of it as aromatic.

    [Reply]

  25. Nita says:

    Lovely blog, lovely recipes. I am an asli Goan living in Mumbai. We absolutely love all sorts of dried fish. For the non-loving humans, please do not stay in a building with Goans. The smell of dry roasting, shallow frying, deep frying, steam cooking ; bombeel and other varieties of dry fish will ruin your happiness. But it is sheer joy to Goans sepecially in the monsoons when fresh fish is not available. We salivate at the exquisite smells coming from a neighbours house ! .. And sigh ! and try to guess — is it dry roasted bombeel ? or today kardhi curry ? or sukke from dry prawns ? or is it pakoras of dry surmai with mash potatoes, or is it shark curry , or is it our age old balchao pickle of dry bangdas …..Sigh !
    We buy our fish from the dry fish wholesale market at Sewree which has at least 15 varieties of fish, or from Bandra Danda fishing village.

    [Reply]

  26. Utpal Kenwar says:

    Dry fish is great. At times it is better than fresh water fish. only you should know how to enjoy it.

    Chutney made of ripe tomato,lot of green chili and the wonderful garlic, all half cooked on direct flame or on very hot wok placed over direct flame. When these half cooked vegetables are ground with pestle, add small bit of fried dried fish (can be dried shrimps, or bombay-duck, or any other variety of fresh water dried fish) and blend them with the other ingredients. Add salt , also small bit of mustard oil. It goes wonderful with plain rice and dal .

    There is also another wonderful item. Combination of pumpkin , brinjal and Poisag ( tender pumpkin leaves, and stems in place of poisag also welcome) all in good measures and some bit of potato and onion. All cooked in normal quantity of oil , as pasty mixed vegetable. Add fried dried fish (can be dried shrimps, or bombay-duck, or any other variety of fresh water dried fish). Quantity of dried fish can be to your liking. Continue cooking till the fried dried fish become soft and gets blended with the mixture. goes wonderful with plain rice and dal.

    In our part of the world (Plains of North East I mean) people catch small fish when the ponds and
    the other water bodies gets dried up in winter. When they have excess catch of small fish, these are cleaned first. Then smoked by spreading them on bamboo mat over the kitchen chullas, where they burn firewoods for cooking . When properly smoked , the dried fish are ground to powder and preserved inside containers made of bamboo pipes.

    [Reply]

  27. Anita says:

    I scanned all the comments too…in the hope someone may have written about how Kashmiris prepare dried fish. Of course it stinks! But in an umami sort of way. :-) Similar to what hing is to vegetarian cooking?

    I recently bought some small dried fish in Kochi and see that there are quite a few ways with it! I have fading memories (but a strong sense of smell) of how my mom would cook the tiny dried fish she would carry to Delhi from our visits home to Srinagar. Time to make that call and ask her.

    (I am a regular reader of all your writings in the HT. Glad to know you are also a foodie, amongst other things! Just this morning I said out loud at the table that I did not know how to say your last name…)

    [Reply]

  28. Ranawaka says:

    im from srilanka, western province. we call sukat , koon isso and we make it excactly like you have said. We also make chunks of dried fish (karavala) like that . I luuuuvvvv it!!!

    [Reply]

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