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Preserving food: the indigenous way

It says so in the Semitic belief that life was simple and smooth at the beginning of creation. The very first humans, Adam and Eve lived in heaven. God himself fulfilled all their needs. No demands, no worrying, no agony. Until one day, Adam and Eve bungled up by eating the forbidden fruit. End result, 600 billion people covering earth. We all know the story. What is more interesting is the following part.

Human beings' heavenly life is now over. On earth, they were cursed with the disadvantage of hunger. Our biological need or craving for food is eternal. The sensation that our taste buds create for us is simply magical and the urge to satisfy those taste buds results in a dilemma. Whenever our body needs recharging, our stomach lets us know. Despite this fact, it was not a subject of concern back then. God gave us plenty to eat. We had everything in abundance. People were righteous and shared their food with each other.

Everyone was happy until one day, when one nefarious person decided to save some just for himself. God became enraged by this selfish act. Thereupon he cursed humans by decreeing that from then on food would start to decompose.

This might be a popular belief among the Semitic people but from then on human beings were burdened with the extra responsibility of preserving food. It was a long way back when it all happened. In due course, humans gained knowledge about so many elements existing in this world. Learned methods of doing so many things. It was necessary for survival. The method of preserving food is one of them. Back then the task was completed using whatever natural means came in handy. The indigenous way of preserving food we should call it.

The culture of food preservation is diverse around the world. The adaptation of this diversified culture is the outcome of divergent geological characters of regions, the availability of food, and other materials. In Bangladesh, this culture mainly exists in the southern and south-eastern regions. Nona ilish of greater Barisal, dried fish of coastal region popularly known as Shutki maach and dried Shatkora of Sylhet, these delicacies still rule.
The advent of ice, freezers and the technology to can food is quite recent. These modern technologies have made life so easy that we are beginning to forget the indigenous arts of preserving food and the sensation that our taste buds used to have by tasting those foods.
Comparing to the easy ways that we prefer, applying indigenous methods of food preservation is very time consuming. In spite of the lengthy process, a banquet consisting of these foods is enjoyed by many. It is inexpensive and worth trying.

To relish these savouries you have to know the secrets. Allow me to enlighten you with some. How about having Nona ilish as the main course. It is originally a preparation of June-July or monsoon to be accurate when ilish of Padma is available in enormous quantity. First, you will have to cut the ilish in to small pieces. The most essential information about making nona ilish, in which lies the secret, is do not wash the fish. Contact with additional moisture will ruin everything. You will need a brand new clay pot, lots of salt and a piece of cloth. Cover the bottom of the pot with a thick layer of salt. Place the pieces of ilish, press them in to the salt. Cover them with lots of salt and finally cover the preparation with a piece of cloth. Remember it is essential that the pieces of ilish do not come into contact with the clay pot or outside air.

By using this method, it is possible to store ilish for up to two to three months. Before cooking, wash the fish with a lot of water as it becomes extremely salty. Sometimes it is possible to cook the fish without any additional salt.
For some other occasions, an exclusive treat with dried meat could be grand, which will obviously need a little effort. Cut solid meat into small pieces. Like nona ilish, dried meat has its secrets too. The meat has to be fat free and this time you can wash it. Mix a little turmeric powder with it. Cook the meat for a very short time so that the juice comes out. Pierce the pieces on an iron wire and dry it under the sun. It will take around seven very hot sunny days to dry the meat properly. When perfectly dry, store them in a tin jar. Before cooking, soak the meat in lukewarm water for several hours. Dried meat traditionally possibly started as a way to store the meat of the Eid-ul-Azha slaughter. It is widely performed during that period and the meat is enjoyed all through the year.

Dried fish or Shutki maach is so available in the market that you do not have to bother making it at home. Mass production in the coastal region made this possible. Shutki maach is very popular among both bangali and aadibashi people. Among all the shutki maach, Loitta shutki is the most popular. In the hills, daily cuisine is always accompanied by shutki maach. From octopus to shark and shrimp to kaachki maach almost all kinds of fish are dried. A very popular shutki among the Chakma, Mog, Rakhains and so many other hilly people is the shidol shutki. All these fishes have a certain additional odour that many people do not like. Surprising the fact might seem but there are so many others who simply adore this smell. Ilish shutki generally stays free from odour. After cooking there will be no additional smell. With a high level of concentrated protein Shutki maach is highly nutritious and it is a very important export item of Bangladesh.

Shatkora shutki is a favourite among the people of Sylhet. Shatkora is a type of lemon with a slight bittery and sour taste and it is generally eaten after drying. Only the Sylhetis know the secrets of shatkora preparation. It is dried in pieces, pierced on iron wires, under the hot sun and eaten with meat, fish and kochu. Even if they live a thousand miles away from home, preferably London, Sylhety people never forget to carry some along.
There are also, traditions in some regions to eat dried corrolla, chichingaa and some other vegetables. The vegetables are dried in their respective growing seasons and eaten when no longer available in the market. Methi shaak and paat shaak are very popular among these dried foods.

Among all the fruits, mostly mango is preserved in different forms. To mention some of them there are aam chur, aam foli both made of green mango and aam shotto with matured mango. Aalu bokhara is dried in the Chittagong region. It is later used in biriyani. These dehydrated fruits can be preserved until the next season. With all the variety of fruits grown in Bangladesh, it could also be a potential export commodity.

Food may be preserved with the help of modern equipment these days but the indigenous method is still widely practised and treasured. Craving for food (or should I say hunger) may be considered a disadvantage. However, all the quests and endeavours of human beings are in some way or the other related to food. Walking through the path of civilisation for thousands of years, humans adopted a thousand forms of cooking and eating. With all these methods, human beings satisfy their infinite longing for food.

By Shahnaz Parveen


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