Celebrating the monsoon with the quintessential Ilish

Hilsa, the ‘Queen of Fish’, has achieved cult gastronomic status in Bengal

28 Jul 2021

What’s monsoon without a plate of soulful ilish mach (Hilsa fish)? Deep-fried fish, roe floating in golden mustard oil or steamed with a generous coating of mustard, ilish in Bengali cuisine is cooked to perfection. Among the variety of fishes savoured in the region, it is the Hilsa, which is a cultural legacy, unique to true-blue fish enthusiasts from either side of the border — West Bengal and Bangladesh. Succulent and soft, Hilsa is mainly available in the monsoon months (its upstream migration begins in late June and continues until early November and again from late January to early April). The Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea are its marine homes; while the rivers Ganga, Hooghly, Brahmaputra, Rupnarayan, Narmada, Cauvery and Godavari are its spawning grounds.

As with any other fish, Bengalis do not leave any portion of the hilsa uneaten. Every Bengali loves it grilled, pan-fried or steamed. Hilsa connoisseurs treasure its oil, pouring it over piping hot rice, reinforcing the fish flavour.

Full of bones and with a sweet flavour, the fish is tricky to eat. But Bengalis take pride in eating this seasonal fish and can dole out tips on buying the perfect catch. A well-sized fish is pressed on the belly to ascertain its firmness — the more upriver the fish has been caught, the fatter it is, and thus flavourful. Also, the fish should not have roe. The flavour of the fish depends on the kind of feed it gets.

Ilish Macher Jhol (with potatoes and brinjals), Shorshe Ilish or Macher Paturi are just some of the popular dishes in which the fish is smoked, dried, fried, steamed or cooked in gravy using mustard paste or coconut milk. But that’s not all. Every famous Bengali household has its absolute ilish favourites. And with the deeper exploration of regional delicacies in 2021, as predicted by the Godrej Food Trends Report 2021, here’s a look at some of the ilish-based culinary gems from Bengali cuisine.

Ilish macher pulao

The primary ingredients for this pulao are the Hilsa and gobindobhog chaal (short-grained aromatic rice). Marinate the fish in yoghurt, ginger-garlic paste, cumin powder, red chilli powder and salt. In a pan, add onion slices and fry it over medium flame to prepare Beresta (crispy fried onions). The fish is then cooked in mishti doi and coconut milk along with rice and mild spices. The pulao has a unique combination of earthy flavours of fresh ilish and whole garam masalas.

Ilish shukto

In this delicacy, Hilsa is shallow fried, and vegetable curry (made with bitter gourd and aubergines) is flavoured with randhuni (strong spice similar to ajwain) and panch phoron (five spices). The recipe finds mention in a Bengali cookbook ‘Rannar Boi’ written by Sulekha Sarkar. Some households also cook this dish with aubergines minus turmeric.

Ilish macher korma

This is a Bangladeshi delicacy but much loved in Bengal too. The fish is cooked in a paste of onion, garlic and green chillies. A little dahi is added to thicken the gravy, along with cashew paste and raisins to give it a nutty aroma. After the fish is cooked, ghee, garam masala and crispy fried onions are added from the top. It is served with steamed rice.

Macher chutney

This is a tamarind-based chutney made with the fish head or tail and is characterised by the balance of sweet and sour flavours. The fish head (or tail) is lightly fried, and in that same leftover oil, tamarind paste, jaggery, salt and sugar are added. Once it boils, fried fish heads or tails are added. Adjust water as much as required.

Have you tasted any of these Hilsa dishes? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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Monsoon Regional cuisine Bengali cuisine GFTR2021 Hilsa
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