The house where I grew up had a neem tree in the back. I don’t know how old it was but I can never remember the house without remembering that tree. Our terrace covered with its little green fruit. The sticky white sap that oozed out when you popped them. I can still see the dainty white flowers. After a thunderstorm our roof would be littered with them, a comet’s trail of starburst. I remember the first tender leaves, more copper than green, as trusty a harbinger of spring in these parts as Wordsworth’s daffodils in our poetry books. Growing up in Kolkata, we have never seen a daffodil or a snowdrop. We had to make do with our neem leaves.
But being Bengali, we were not content with writing odes to our harbingers of spring. We ate them. Baby neem leaves stir-fried with chunks of eggplant was a staple in the house.
I hated it.
My sister loved bitter. I did not. My mother says when she was a baby she refused to relinquish her pacifier. She dragged it around with her, sucking on it endlessly much to the consternation of our parents. Someone suggested they douse it with neem paste. To their shock she sucked on it with even greater fervour. Eventually they switched to Dettol and that did the trick.
My grandmother was a great believe in the bitter. In the morning on an empty stomach we were given a spoonful of Kaalmegh, an Ayurvedic medicine that’s supposed to kill intestinal worms and protect the liver. It was vile, pure, distilled bitterness. My sister, of course, liked it. When my parents lived in England, bottles of Kaalmegh would go with anyone visiting London for my sister.
The child who loved bitter became part of family lore.
Luckily for her Bengali food was full of bitters. Us rosogolla-people have a secret bitter life. These are not the bitter herbs of Passover, meant to remind us of bitter times. Our bitters are eaten as “gustatory treats”, writes Chitrita Banerji in The Hour of the Goddess, to get the juices flowing.
Neem Begoon. Palta pata. Tetor dal. These rarely make it into Buzzfeed lists of 10 must-have Bengali dishes. Neem leaves stir fried with eggplant. Dal with slices of bitter gourd and cubes of bottle gourd. The leaves of the humble parwal, dipped in batter and fried to a crisp. Uchhe, the little bitter gourd chopped into rounds stir-fried with little sticks of orange pumpkin, the sweetness of the pumpkin offsetting the bitterness of the gourd. Or just simply karela mashed with boiled potato and just a splash of mustard oil and a green chilli.
And of course, the shukto, the start to a proper Bengali meal, a mix of vegetables like beans, sweet potato, plantain with bitter gourd the star attraction, stewed gently, tempered with randhuni or celery seed. Anyone can make a good prawn malai curry it is said, but the perfect shukto, that’s the mark of a true cook.
My mother still has a recipe book she got as a wedding gift. Its binding has come apart. The pages are falling out. It has a whole section on shukto. Shukto with palta leaves. Shukto with green papaya. Shukto with neem leaves (for the truly embittered). Shukti with cucumber. Shukto with milk. And since this is Bengal after all, shukto with tiny fish.
I read somewhere that the Portuguese gave us shukto as we know it now, mellowed with poppyseed paste and milk. But Chitrita Banerji writes that in the narrative poems of the 15th and 16th centuries they talk about shukto made from the leaves of the jute plant. The sayings of Khana, that famous medieval oracle and all-round wise woman, tell us to eat karela in the summer months. “A little bit of salt, a little bit of bitter, and always stop before you are too full.”
In Pragyasundari Devi’s cookbooks, considered the mother of Bengali cookbooks, she recites the names of the bitter greens of Bengal as if in mantra — neem, palta, naltey, shiuli and hincha. She admonishes the cook to never cook parwal with palta leaves. Mother and offspring should not be eaten together — the palta leaves are from the parwal plant.
I knew none of this then. I picked my way through the bitterness, sure this was just another way tyrannical adults exerted control over helpless children, part of the grammar of the Good Bengali Boy. We wore our hair in a side part. We did our homework. And we ate our bitters without protest. We were just told it was good for us. And that was that.
Over time something changed. I lost the side parting. I had no more homework to do. And I learned to appreciate my shukto. Perhaps it was an evolution of taste, an appreciation of different flavours. Or perhaps it was simply growing up and understanding loss.
After my father died, we decided to sell the house. The roof was springing stubborn leaks. The plaster kept peeling. It was turned into an apartment building. I was far away in California when it came down. I just heard stories about boxes of heavy old pots and pans that had been unearthed, crates of musty books and old clothes that fit no one anymore. From a great distance, away from the dust and silverfish, my nostalgia was pristine. As the old house came down, my mother asked if we could save the neem tree. I was surprised. My mother hated neem begoon, and ate it as if swallowing medicine. But she admitted she would miss that tree. It had been there when she came to that house as a bride. It was older than all of us. We had never had neem begoon that had not come from that tree. The builders said they would try to save it. But one day they just chopped it down. We mourned it. Perhaps it was easier than mourning the house we grew up in.
Now we buy sprigs of neem leaves from the market. I wish I could say the neem begoon does not taste the same, that the shukto is somehow bittersweet. That’s not really true. But what is true is that every time we have it we remember the tree. Others remember lost zamindaris, orchards of mangoes and jackfruits and coconut palms, and ponds full of fish. We had none of that.
But once we had a neem tree. Now only the memory remains, serrated like a neem leaf.
From Vol. 1 of Amish O Nramish Ahar by Pragyasundari Devi
1 karela/ bitter gourd
10 tender drumsticks
2 bay leaves
1 handful soaked chickpeas
1.5 tbsp mustard
2.25 inch turmeric
2 tsp coriander powder
2.25 tsp radhuni/ ajmod/ celery seed
3 tbsp cooking oil
4.5 cups water
1 green banana
1.5 tsp salt
2 tbsp milk
1 tsp sugar
1. Scrape karelas. Cut into 12-14 pieces. Cut potatoes into 6 pieces each. Cut drumsticks into finger length pieces. Cut eggplant into 8 pieces. Cut green banana into 8 pieces. Cut parwal into 4 pieces each.
2. Keep aside 2.25 tsp mustard aside. Mix together ground mustard, coriander and turmeric. Keep aside a little bit of radhuni and make a paste of the rest. Crush ginger and extract juice.
3. Put your pot on the fire. Add 1.5 tbsp oil. Fry the vadis and remove. Saute eggplant slightly and remove. Add the karela. Toss. Add potatoes.
4. When slightly browned add the spice mixture mixed with a little water. After 5-6 minutes when the gravy starts bubbling add eggplant, green banana, drumsticks, salt and chickpeas. The vegetables should be tender in about 15 minutes.
5. Put another pot on the fire. Add the rest of the oil. When it’s heated add bay leaf and mustard and radhuni mix and sizzled. Add in the shukto and stir.
6. Mix the radhuni paste into the milk with sugar and then pour into the shukto. After it comes to boil 3 or 4 times add the ginger juice. Keep covered.
Sandip Roy is the author of Don’t Let Him Know, and like many Bengalis likes to let everyone know about his opinions.