From being a trustworthy convalescence to a dependable palate cleanser after a string of festive feasts, the Sheddho Bhaat, or an all-boiled courses lunch, is the truest celebration of the flavours of the season’s produce
As I grow older, and because of my constantly increasing gastronomical curiosity, I have realised that allowing our palates to evolve is our own responsibility. There is so much we love when we are kids that we slowly turn away from as we grow up, and turn towards so much that we hated when we were young. In my case, though, because I was a fussy child, and because I grew into a food enthusiast and academic, my journey has been one of constant exploration and discovery. There is so much I wouldn’t eat when I was young, so much I hated, that I am almost ashamed of listing them these days. I have written at length about my prodigal-son-esque journey back to eating, and subsequently, falling in love with fish. Along with shame, I also feel regret for missing out on so many opportunities to have relished such culinary bounty.
One of the things I used to hate as a child — and well into my young adulthood — is Sheddho Bhaat. Sheddho Bhaat translates to “boiled rice”, but basically means a lunch in which every course is just a boiled preparation, and involves no other form of cooking. It is a typically Bengali affair — I haven’t across such a meal practice in any other part of the country — and is rustled up when 1) someone is ill or has a bad tummy, 2) when the lady of the household is feeling lazy or has run out of options and is too tired to come up with anything (this could happen right after the family is back from a long holiday, and the helps haven’t resumed service), and 3) as a palate cleanser after a string of festive, fancy, and fulsome feasting. So, after over a month of gluttony — from Durga Puja to Diwali — right now is quite the apt time for some Sheddho Bhaat.
Often also referred to as Bhaatey Bhaat, boiled rice is served with a string of boiled vegetables, dal, and eggs, with sides of salt, raw onion, raw green chillies, butter, ghee, and mustard oil. The beauty of cooking Sheddho Bhaat is that it’s a one-pot, one-cook meal. You dump the vegetables and de-shelled eggs with the rice, throw in the dal too, tied in a muslin cloth pouch, and it all gets cooked together. Once done, pull them out, separate, and serve. You generally start the meal with boiled bitter gourd, and then move on to boiled potatoes, had with butter, and then other vegetables, depending on the season and availability. During summers, you would have a mash of boiled red pumpkin, and potatoes after that. Or boiled ladyfinger. In winters, you would have boiled radish. Many people also enjoy boiled flat beans. Then you serve Dal Sheddho, or boiled dal of choice (generally moong or masoor), and wrap the meal up with boiled eggs. Many people enjoy mashing the boiled eggs with some boiled potatoes. Many mash eggs with the dal. The customisation is never criticised. Everything is had with a generous drizzle of mustard oil or ghee and a big sprinkle of salt, and crunchy bites of raw onion and green chillies for heat. In my family, a Sheddho Bhaat meal always comes to an end with Doi Bhaat — rice mixed with the Bengali red sweet curd, Mishti Doi — for just that touch of indulgence.
It is completely understandable if kids are not fans of Sheddho Bhaat.
I have realised, especially during the lockdown, that our attitude towards cooking a dish or preparing a meal has a huge impact on its flavour. Cooking is an extremely organic process, the dish becoming an extension of the person cooking it. Which is why, even if we replicate our mother’s recipes, the same preparations will taste different. Food is alive. It is a living, breathing organism. Attention and care can transform even the simplest of meals into divine ones. The Sheddho Bhaat is a testimony of that fact. If you cook a completely boiled meal with the attitude of cooking something unpalatable, just for the sake of it, you will be serving something unpalatable. It is important to pick the vegetables correctly — the reddest of pumpkins, youngest of beans and potatoes, sweetest of radishes. Be generous with the drizzles of oil and ghee, the knobs of butter, and appreciate the flavours the fats bring to the plate. Sheddho Bhaat teaches us to absorb the true flavours of the produce, sans spices and frills. There are few things as comforting as boiled moong dal, just dressed with salt and oil. It requires a mature palate, an intuitive palate, to soak up and experience every detail.
People around me get quite surprised when I swoon about Sheddho Bhaat. I am the man who spent three days putting together a Galouti Kebab (and other assorted Lucknawi goodness) feast for the whole family on Diwali. But I have a special place in my heart for boiled radishes and daikon. Cut them into long chunks, boil them till they are cooked but firm, let them cool slightly, and then massage some salt and mustard oil into them. Have warm. Feel love. I have learned the joy of boiled potatoes with rice with some salt and butter from watching my father eat that before heading off to the office every morning, back when I was in school. I used to hate it then. But now, that creamy-buttery mash of fat and carbs is a hug for the soul, especially during winter afternoons. I have also realised that cooking dal with spices and fat for a long time over heat kills most of its nutritional value. I have taken to having boiled dal with lunch every day, and it has been a healthy and satisfying shift. And, I will fight anybody for the bigger share of a boiled pumpkin-and-potato mash with smashed green chillies.
Eat Sheddho Bhaat when you are exhausted, need a meal that will feel like home, and want to give your gut a healthy break. Or eat it like I do, to truly enjoy the flavours of the earth. Either way, any excuse will do.