- A Hilsa fish dish at a Hilsa Festival in Siliguri, Sept. 12, 2012.
One of my earliest memories of eating fish is digging into steamed hilsa in coconut gravy. The only word to describe the taste is sublime. Hilsa is one of the most popular and relished fishes in Bengal. It’s also one of the boniest. Many a novice has choked from not being hilsa-savvy.
Ilish is the hilsa’s actual name – what the Bengalis call it. Hilsa was the name the British gave to the fish. It usually weighs at least a kilogram (it can be grow as large as 2.5 kg), with firm flesh and small silver scales. It is in abundance during the monsoon. In fact, non-gluttons would advise you not to eat ilish at any other time so that the fish can reproduce at leisure to stock up supplies for the following year.
The hilsa begins its journey in the sea and comes to spawn and reproduce in the estuarine waters where the rivers meet the Bay of Bengal, and then slowly travels up the rivers. It’s also a bone (cough) of contention between East and West Bengalis. “Baangals” (Bengalis in East Bengal or Bangladesh) and “ghotis” (Bengalis from West Bengal) both claim that the ilish found on their side of the border tastes the best. The Padma river in Bangladesh is supposed to have the tastiest hilsa according to our baangal brethren, but we Bengalis who live in West Bengal know that the best ilish is found in the Ganga.
So why is hilsa all the rage? It has a distinctive taste, strong and delicious. It isn’t exactly an acquired taste but the ability to pick through the bones which dot the hilsa flesh is definitely an acquired skill. It’s also one of the most expensive fish you can buy in Bengal and, like all good delicacies, is an extravagance. No occasion – wedding or even a funeral wake – is complete without serving ilish. And you can rest assured that you’ll be struck off the social calendar if you make the mistake of not serving hilsa when you invite guests for a celebration.
This is also not a fish to be eaten with cutlery, so you need to get your hands dirty. And the entire hilsa is cooked. Not a portion is spared. The fish head is cooked with cabbage, the eggs or roe are fried whole and eaten, and the rest of the fish is either steamed with coconut (called bhapa ilish) or cooked in a yogurt gravy (doi ilish) or with mustard (shorshe ilish) or made into a simple thin curry (ilisher jhaal) or fried and eaten with rice which is drizzled with the oil the fish has been fried in. Hilsa also has the magical quality of being the only way to shut a Bengali up. Just serve them some hilsa. And the only sound you’ll hear is of munching.
I can’t possibly omit mention of the best contribution of the British to Bengal: The smoked hilsa. The Brits, not wanting to spear their manicured fingers with the hilsa’s bones, came up with a wonderful recipe for steamed marinated hilsa from which the bones were tweezed out. This is one of the most painstaking dishes to cook but – oh! — the taste. Paradise on your palate.
Here are two of my favorite recipes for hilsa. Ask your fishmonger to cut the hilsa into gaada (the back portion) and peti (the stomach portion) pieces for you. And try to choose a larger-sized fish as the bones will be bigger and easier to manage.
DOI ILISH (Hilsa in yogurt gravy)
– 1 kg hilsa
– 400 grams yogurt
– 1 tablespoon freshly ground ginger paste
– 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
– 1 teaspoon sugar
– 2 teaspoon salt
– 1 tablespoon mustard oil
– 1 teaspoon freshly ground garam masala powder (equal portions of clove, cardamom, cinnamon ground into a powder)
– 2 green cardamom, 4 cloves, 1 cinnamon stick
– 5 dried red chilies
Mix the yogurt with ginger paste, sugar and half a teaspoon of turmeric powder. Keep aside.
Marinate the fish pieces with 1 teaspoon salt and half a teaspoon turmeric powder.
Heat the oil in the pan and when the pan is hot, lightly fry the fish pieces so they’re slightly opaque on the outside, about two minutes on either side.
Remove from pan.
Add whole spices (cardamom, clove, cinnamon) and red chilies to the hot pan. As it sputters, add the yogurt mixture. Lower the flame.
Stir the mixture and then add the lightly fried fish pieces. Stir and let it simmer, covered, for 10 minutes.
Sprinkle with garam masala powder, stir, adjust seasoning. Take off flame.
Serve with boiled rice.
PATLA ILISH-ER JHOL (Hilsa in thin gravy)
– 500 grams of hilsa
– 2 tablespoons mustard oil
– 1.5 teaspoons turmeric powder
– 1 teaspoon chili powder
– Half a teaspoon nigella seeds
– 4 slit green chilies
– Salt to taste
Marinate the fish with 1 teaspoon turmeric powder and salt
Heat the oil and lightly fry the fish, 2 minutes on each side. Then remove from pan.
Mix remaining turmeric and chili powder in 3-4 tablespoons of water and keep aside.
Add the nigella seeds to the same pan. As they start sputtering, add the turmeric and chili-water solution.
Add the chilies. As the masala starts drying, add 2 cups of water.
Let the mixture come to a boil and simmer till it reduces to half. Then add the fried hilsa pieces and cook for 5 minutes. There should be a thin red gravy.
Add salt and remove from flame.
Serve with rice.