For the Love of ‘Shidol’

Loved by a few, loathed by many…

The pungent smell filled up the air as I sniffed the familiar mouthwatering aroma. Shidol Chutney it was! You don’t need a sharp nose for a smell as strong as that. I ventured to the kitchen for a quick glance to make sure I was right. And, Oh yes I was! Lunch time was a good two hours away and I wondered how to divert my attention and control my already salivating tongue till then.

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Pic 1: The spicy and pungent Shidol Chutney

It was that time of the year when my parents were visiting my home in Bangalore. Food is always a top priority during their stay here. Going with the firm notion of their daughter being deprived of all the good food life has to offer, every day during their stay is nothing but a feast. Their misbelief, fueled by parental love and affection, is true to a certain extent especially considering the authentic, indigenous food that only moms and aunts can cook. And in my case, Shidol Chutney (also known as Shidol Bhorta) is definitely one of them.

Shidol Chutney is a heavenly mishmash of Shidol, onions, and garlic spiced up with a generous dose of red chilli powder.

Savored with white rice, this and its variant Shidol Bora fall in the category of most eagerly looked forward to dishes from Ma’s kitchen.  Shidol is a traditional fermented fish, popular in North East India. It is nothing but the freshwater Punti fish, the scientific name for which is Puntius sophore, and the common English name is Pool Barb.

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Pic 2: Fermented Puntius ready to be cleaned and cooked

I never bothered before, but just learnt from Google that Shidol is prepared by stuffing earthen pots with the sundried fish. The earthen pots are then sealed airtight to provide the anaerobic conditions for fermentation and stored at room temperature for 3-4 months. Bamboos are also used sometimes instead of earthen pots. Pretty interesting, isn’t it!

I am not a foodie, but when it comes to Shidol, it’s a different story altogether. My Shidol affiliation has to be attributed to my lineage – the Sylhet district in Bangladesh. Sylheti Bengalis are tad touchy about their Shidol and I am no different. In fact, without my love affair with Shidol, I may lose my credibility of being a true Sylheti*!

Many Sylhetis lovingly call it ‘Hidol’. Shidol is our pride and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Shidol Chutney and Shidol Bora have evolved to become a cultural identity for us.

*Sylhetis are an ethno-cultural group of Bengalis, who speak the Bengali dialect Sylheti. Native to the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and Barak Valley in Assam, they have a significant presence in Meghalaya and Tripura.

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Pic 3: Shidol Bora with white rice

And, being a Sylheti with roots in Shillong, my craving for this dish can only be understood by fellow Sylheti Shillongites. Shillong supposedly has the best quality Shidol in the country (maybe world, for all you know). And with an epidemic of Chayote (called squash locally) plants all over, the popularity of Shidol becomes even more pertinent. After all, the leaves of Chayote plants are considered the best for preparing Shidol Bora. Pumpkin leaves (Kumro pata) are otherwise used.

Shidol is also popular amongst the communities of Khasis, Tripuris, Kacharis, and Manipuris, in North East India. I am not quite sure how they cook their Shidol though.

Back home, the pungent appetizing aroma was only growing stronger as Ma had closed all the doors and windows to prevent our neighbours from having to put up with something they may find rather repulsive. During the process of cooking, Shidol emanates a rather obnoxious smell. And that smell is definitely not for the faint-hearted! It’s strange to think that a delicacy for one becomes nauseous for another. The pungency of onions and garlic balances out the smell in the cooked dish.

Finally, the much awaited lunch time arrived and I gorged on a sumptuous meal of white rice and hot and spicy Shidol Chutney even as tears streamed down my face and my nose ran. Only a Shidol-lover will understand the utter joy of my gastronomical delight. My mouth waters even as I write this. Can’t wait to have it again, which can happen only when I go home or Ma comes here. I haven’t tried my hand in preparing it yet….  Too used to the taste of Ma’s hands. The dish has to be prepared well in order to taste well and not everyone prepares it well. Hopefully, it’s in my genes and I’ll do good!

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Pic 4: Loitta or Bombay Duck

Besides Shidol, something else that truly delights a Sylheti is Loitta or Lotka (dried Bombay Duck). Shidol and Loitta, collectively known as Shutki mach can be prepared in various other ways – combined with brinjal (eggplant/aubergine), or with a variety of vegetables, or simply with potatoes. While my Shidol favorite is the chutney and the bora, my Loitta favorite is the roasted dry fish mashed with onions, mustard oil, salt and chilli powder…………….slrupppp!

Here’s Ma’s recipe for the adventurous you:

Shutki process

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The Story of Osla

It was a bright sunny April afternoon when we were on our way towards Har ki Dun, walking alongside river Tamosa. As we took a turn in the valley our gaze instantaneously fell upon a bunch of beautiful wooden houses on the mountain slopes. The haphazardly arranged houses almost appeared to be rolling down the mountainside in some form of a disarrayed haste. This was Osla!

Awestruck we were by this neat little village tucked far away in the Himalayas. We took a spontaneous decision to visit the village on our way back with the help of our guide, who had friends and relatives in the village.

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Haphazardly arranged homes on the mountain slope and river Tamosa that flows below.

Situated in Uttarakhand, in Western Himalayas, every little thing about this quaint little village intrigued us – the city dwellers.  Stuck in some bygone age, this unfrequented and relatively unseen village has millions of stories to tell.  As we set foot into the village through the narrow pathway lined with randomly arranged stones on one side and a mountain slope on the other, we noticed the place was dotted with apple trees all over. Just a few meters and the narrow pathway ended at the village temple.

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The wooden village temple as seen while entering the village, a view from the back.

Beyond this there was no clearly defined pathway.  Dedicated to ‘Someshwar Devta’, the unique wooden temple has a charm of its own.  The area around the temple appeared to be some sort of a village square. Young men were idling around, smoking ‘beedis’ while playing cards without a care in the world, children with cheeks as red as cherries chased one another as they ran around unmindful of the dust all around.  Some people say the temple used to worship Duryodhana*, who was a well-loved king in the region but the villagers deny this.

*An important character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, whose desire and ego blinded him leading to the famous war of Kurukshetra.

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The temple as viewed from the front.

The beautiful wooden homes that had caught our attention earlier had roofs made of flat stones that were apparently procured from some faraway place. The stones provided the much needed protection during the harsh winter months. With wood appearing to be the primary source of firewood, furniture and construction, a rapid discussion on deforestation ensued between us, the cognizant city dwellers, only to die down quickly as our focus was on the villagers and their lives.

The indigenous people of the village stole our hearts in an instant with their hospitality, innocence and simplicity. Untouched by the vices of the modern world, the love and respect they showered on us was overwhelming, something we can never experience in the cities. Almost everyone we met invited us for tea or dinner. A young girl, Shamita insisted we go to her home for a cup of tea and we had to oblige.  The teenagers, Kashmina and Krishna weren’t tired of showing us around the village. They even got their best clothes to dress up my sister in their traditional attire – something that the whole village gathered to see and which they found profoundly amusing.

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The villagers dress my sister in their traditional wear.
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She poses with Kasmina (right) and Krishna (left). Notice the flat stones that make up the roof of the homes.

The concept of community living and the self-sufficient people truly appealed to us. There were villagers who were spinning yarn from sheep wool. The sheep is again reared by themselves and they use the yarn to weave their own warm jackets.  They proudly announce that their wool is priceless and cannot be found anywhere in the world – a claim that perhaps cannot be denied.   We notice that almost everyone in the village was busy doing something or the other, not many are seen idling time away. We were amused to see a lady stomping her feet in a large wooden basin that had clothes and water. That’s a community laundry where everyone goes to wash heavy clothes like blankets. Also, we were astounded to find children barely 7-8 year old busily washing clothes in the only tap in the village. Tap would be a wrong usage, it was rather a pipe through which water flows out constantly into Tamosa.

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Villagers spinning yarn from sheep wool.
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The yarn is processed further and colored with organic dye.

There is just one tiny little shop in the village which sells a few packets of chips, toffees, and potatoes. There is no grocery, no vegetables. The hard working villagers cultivate and grow their own rice, rajma, and potatoes. These constitute their staple food. Besides, some thorny leaves, bushes, and roots gathered from in and around also constitute a part of their food. There is no concept of storing these items, they are simply plucked as and when required. Cows, sheep, and mules constitute their livestock – cows for milk, sheep for wool, and mules to ferry things from outside. The mules also cater to trekkers like us to carry necessities like food, tents, etc. and in some cases carry our bags as well, enabling us to walk light.

A typical well-to-do home constitutes three floors – upper floor for people, middle one for sheep, and the lowest one for cows. Mules stay outside. Upper floor typically has three rooms alongside a long balcony overlooking the snow-clad mountains. The rooms are minimalistic having only cotton mattresses and quilts. Most of the homes however are smaller, constituting of just one room that serves as the bedroom, kitchen, living room, and everything else.

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A typical well-to-do home with three floors. Notice the apple trees on the side.
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An ordinary home that has just one room.

The tough life of the villagers brought tears to our eyes. The village has no network and hence no phones, Internet is out of question. There are no toilets, no roads, no electricity. A few homes do have solar panels that provide some basic not so bright lighting. Young girls barely 12-13 year olds carry a minimum of 20 Kgs of firewood regularly from the forests and walk 11-12 Km with that load.

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An old woman carries firewood and she must have walked 11-22 Km or more with that load.

In spite of such adversities, the village folks wore a happy smile complementing their unparalleled hospitality. As we bid goodbye the next day, they packed rajma for us in keeping with their tradition of not sending off visitors empty-handed. With an experience of a lifetime we left Osla.

It is incredulous to think that even after 70 years of independence, such remote and backward villages still exist in India. This is strikingly contrasting to the digital India and smart cities that we are supposedly moving towards.

There is a primary school but children are uneducated as the teacher is always drunk. A few children have the good fortune of being educated in other villages or in cities but mostly can’t afford the cost. In some families, especially those with several children get only one or two of their children educated while the rest remain in the village either because the parents cannot afford to educate them or they are needed to run the chores of the home. Amidst all of this, we happened to meet a young man who was completing his Masters in Botany at Dehradun and who had come home during the holidays. This was so refreshing and hopeful indeed!

The worst part is the village has no clinic or dispensary. The nearest medical help is 27 Km away. With no roads, seriously ill patients are tied to a chair that is then carried by four people, who walk 16 Km to reach ‘Taluka’, where they get transport and then drive another 11 Km, and that’s the nearest medical help.

We are back to our comfortable city lives with precious memories of Osla etched in our minds forever. However, each time we remember the lovely time we spent at the village it is accompanied by pangs of guilt as our mind does a spontaneous inadvertent comparison of our comfortable lives with the difficult lives of the villagers. The innocent villagers continue their daily struggle relatively oblivious to all the amenities of modern living.

Note: I am not quite sure I have been able to express myself well enough to do justice to the wonderful experience we had in the beautiful village of Osla. Hence, sharing a few more pictures below with the hope that you might be able to relate to our surreal experience at the village. (All pics are clicked through phone and are unedited raw photos.)

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Pic 1: A patch of green encountered just upon setting foot onto the village.
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Pic 2: A lady busy weaving at her home with several apple trees in her yard.
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Pic 3: Not quite sure about the purpose of these houses, probably a storehouse for wooden planks.
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Pic 4: Beautiful jewelry and rich deep wrinkles that must be harboring millions of wonderful tales!
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Pic 5: There’s just one or two such community taps rather pipes through which water flows out constantly.
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Pic 6: The wooden basin for washing clothes, the community laundry area, where clothes are washed by feet stomping.
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Pic 7: A wooden stairway leading to the upper floor of a 3-storied house.
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Pic 8: The balcony overlooking snow-clad mountains, a view that I could die for!
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Pic 9: There is no proper pathway as you go around the village. It’s like an obstacle course as you pass by somebody’s yard, jump over a pile of stones, walk through stone steps and so on…
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Pic 10: A lovely group photo with some of the village kids!
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Pic 11: Dinner being prepared over a ‘chulha’ in the minimalistic kitchen, which also serves to make the room warm during winters.

The Humble ‘Kwai’

A Symbol of Hospitality in the East Khasi Hills of India!

The humble Kwai made a very special appearance at my Bangalore home last week. Preciously wrapped in banana leaves, the Kwai had travelled all the way from East Khasi Hills in the North East to the Deccan Plateau in the South. Kwai is nothing new to me and I have my usual rendezvous with it each time I visit home, but seeing it perched on a ceramic plate atop my dining table made me nostalgic and evoked special sentiments in me. My mind immediately took off on a virtual tour of my homeland, Meghalaya – the abode of clouds. Everything associated with Kwai flashed before my mind like a continuous slideshow and I started missing my pretty little homeland with renewed vigor. It suddenly occurred to me that Kwai was such a unique aspect of the culture of Meghalaya and I wondered how many people know about it.

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Kwai is the combination of a neatly folded betel leaf (paan) smeared with a generous dose of lime and areca nut, which is chewed with the optional tobacco leaf. While chewing paan is common place in India, the state of Meghalaya has a very special relationship with their paan and areca nut. All the three tribes of Meghalaya – Khasis, Jaintias, and Garos are equally passionate about it – ‘Kwai’ for the Khasis and Jaintias, ‘Gue’ for the Garos.  An integral part of the traditional tribal culture, Kwai brings people together regardless of their backgrounds and is considered to be an equalizer between the rich and the poor. People irrespective of their age and gender are literally addicted to it. Chewing paan by young children may be frowned upon in other parts of India but not in Meghalaya where even school children can be spotted chewing Kwai even though most schools have it banned. Associated with red lips and a constant chomp, Kwai is of special significance to the tribal etiquette in Meghalaya.

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Kwai is an integral part of all formal and informal gatherings – official, social, or religious. Whenever you visit a Khasi family, you will be welcomed with Kwai and it is considered to be a mark of respect and honour. Women carry Kwai in pouches tied around their waists, while men have it in their pockets. Sometimes, Kwai may also be carried in small tin boxes made specifically for this purpose. It is fairly common to greet each other by offering Kwai, which in turn indicates offering a hand of friendship and honour. Refusing Kwai is associated with bad manners. Besides Kwai is a boon during the cold winter months as it gives an instant boost to the body temperature. The humble Kwai can be used for many other miscellaneous purposes as well. Such as, Kwai-chewers use the coir of the betel nut to clean their teeth and scrub off Kwai stains as it leaves deep red stains on the teeth and tongue.  The importance of Kwai can be gauged from the fact that in earlier days it was used as a unit for measuring distance – how many Kwais are chewed to cover a distance!

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An elderly Khasi woman with lips and teeth stained from chewing Kwai.  (Pic Credit: A.D. Roye)

Scientific researches over the past decades have evidences to indicate the carcinogenic effects of areca nut. Notwithstanding, Kwai is deeply rooted in the culture of Meghalaya, the symbol of hospitality and its significance will not wane away any time soon. The significance of areca nut spreads out to the neighbouring states of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram as well.

Over the years the traditional Kwai has seen quite a bit of change with the addition of ginger and coconut as other ingredients, surely influenced by the common paan. But most of the local people swear by their traditional Kwai.

But, the one thing that I am most proud of is, despite its obsession, people in Meghalaya manage to keep the red stains of the Kwai on their ever smiling lips. The land is untainted by smear marks, characteristic of the paan chewing habit in other parts of the country. This is probably because of the cleanliness obsessed native people or because tobacco is not usually used in Kwai – a detail that perhaps makes this hill tradition a safer addiction than its counterparts.

I missed mentioning how the Kwai landed into my second home, Bangalore. A Khasi friend was staying with me while on a visit to the garden city. Addicted to Kwai, it was like her lifeline. It baffled me to see that she had gotten 200 rolls of Kwai for a period of four days, which amounts to 50 per day. The sheer number of Kwai neatly stacked in my refrigerator amused and astonished me. It got me thinking about the importance of Kwai in her life and I decided to write about it. 

Kwai Khasi FolkloreThe story behind Kwai, tympew, shun, and duma (betel nut, betel leaf, lime and tobacco):

It’s a tale of friendship between a wealthy woman, Ka Mahajon and a poor man, U Baduk who grow up together. Baduk moves to another village after marrying Ka Lak. Whenever Baduk goes to his ancestral village, he makes it a point to visit his rich friend. Mahajon  in turn would give fruits and vegetables to Baduk to take back home. Baduk and Luk feel they should return the favour and invites Mahajon to come over some day and have dinner with them. Then, one day Mahajon goes to her friend’s house. Baduk and Lak are overjoyed to see her. However, on that day there is no food in their house. Lak goes to the neighbours to request for some food but gets none. Disappointed and ashamed, the couple kills themselves as they cannot bear to face their friend. Mahajon, who was waiting for the couple in the courtyard, wonders what happened and enters the home only to find her best friend and his wife dead. Disheartened and shocked,  she feels her life is useless without her friend. Mahajon too kills herself. In the meanwhile, a thief enters the home while running away from people who were chasing him. He hides for a while in the house and discovers the three dead bodies. Scared of being accused of murder, he too kills himself. The villagers are aghast when they get to know of this unfortunate incident. They pray to God that something like this should never happen again and even the poorest man should have something to offer to visiting guests. God answers their prayers by transforming Ka Mahajon into betel nut, U Baduk into the betel leaf, and Ka Luk into lime. That is why betel leaf and lime are always served together. The thief is transformed into tobacco. The place between the lower lip and gum where Khasi women keep the tobacco is the thief’s hiding place. The humble Kwai was born making the lives of Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo tribes incomplete without it.  

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