“Teto diye shuru, mishti diye shesh” is Bengali for ‘start with bitter, end with sweet’. A Bengali meal usually spans several courses; The first of these is bitter, and is meant to whet your appetite for what lies ahead. Shukto, the natural choice, is a bittersweet dish of sautéed mixed vegetables (usually pumpkin, gourd, string/ broad bean, raw banana, radish, aubergine, drumsticks and potato) subjected to a panch phoran tempering and that archetypal poppy-mustard paste. The addition of karela makes a shukto bitter, and milk tames it, so what you’re left with is a perfectly balanced flavour in the end. No tomatoes, onions or garlic are harmed in the making of a shukto.
The shukto I’ve made here is with just lauki or bottle gourd and gets its bitterness from the leaf of the night blooming jasmine, or raat rani. The tempering for this shukto is simple too- cumin and methi seeds, bayleaf and ginger are fried together with the poppy-mustard seed paste. You can also make the same shukto with white pumpkin or chal kumro, if you like. Since Shravan is upon us, this is also the perfect dish to put on your table this time of the year. Traditionally, the courses that follow a shukto are usually dal, a vegetable, fish or meat, chutney, and finally something sweet.
Bottle Gourd / Lauki 1 1/2, cut thinly into sticks
Yellow Mustard seeds 2 tbsp
Poppy Seeds 4 tbsp
Ginger 1 tbsp, freshly grated
Ghee 1 tbsp, plus more
Cumin seeds 1 tsp
Methi seeds a pinch
Bay leaves 2
Turmeric powder 1/2 tsp
Raat rani leaves 4-5
Milk 1/2 cup
Sugar 1 tsp
Parboil the bottle gourd in water with some salt for five minutes and remove.
Soak the mustard seeds for at least an hour, then pulse it together with the poppy seeds and ginger and set aside.
Heat the ghee in a kadai and add to it the cumin seeds, methi seeds, bay leaves and let it splutter. Next, add in the mustard paste and stir-fry for a few minutes. Add in the parboiled lauki and stir-fry for a minute more.
Add to this a little turmeric, give it a good mix, and pour in 3/4 cup of water. Cover and let this mixture cook till it is almost done. Next, uncover the kadai, tear up the leaves of the raat rani and add this to the pan. Once all the liquid has dried up, add in the milk, a teaspoon of ghee and a teaspoon of sugar. Give everything a good mix and taste.
Recipe credit: Puja Ganguli