Ilish is the elixir of Bengali cuisine, it is the epitome of all fishes, a delicacy that is looked forward to by everyone. There are only a few rare fish haters among Bengalis spread worldwide who don’t revere Ilish – I know a few such people, can’t say I’m proud of them though. Much has been written about this enigmatic fish around the globe, and about an average Bengali’s obsessive compulsive disorder in buying the best Ilish for their family. Have you heard of people serving Ilish to goddess Saraswati to worship her on Basant Panchami? Multitudinous families in Bangladesh and West Bengal follow the tradition of serving the goddess with a pair of good stout Ilish on Saraswati Puja. Similar rituals are followed on Kojagari Laxmi Puja right after Dusshera. While rest of the country is content in worshipping Laxmi with laddoos and other sweetmeats, few Bengalis carry the legacy of serving the goddess a whole, consummate Ilish later to be cooked and consumed as bhog. A good harvest of Ilish looks somewhat like the image below, with red/purple streaks vertically along its spine and glittery silver scales.
Did you know? Ilish grows and thrives in the sea, but travels all the way to fresh water in the estuaries to lay eggs.
My earliest memories of Ilish obviously dates back to childhood when we lived in the Ministry of Defence staff quarters at Ishapore (about 25 km from Calcutta, in the suburbs) near the banks of Ganga. While my in-laws’ house is within 500 metres from the river, we lived a little away in the staff quarters. Those days, about 20 years ago, Ilish was still harvested from Ganga and it tasted better than its other river contemporaries. My father used to reach the river bank at dawn where fishermen would be ready with freshly harvested Ilish, gleaming in the rising sun. Due to global warming, water distribution issues between India-Bangladesh and heavy export, Ilish has become rare in Bengal now. They don’t flock to Ganga anymore, I believe, as the Farakka Barrage diverts the water. The availability of Ilish mostly depends on Kolaghat (Rupnarayan river) and Diamond Harbour (estuary at the Bay of Bengal). This year though, has seen quite a bit of supply from Bangladesh, probably illegally. My parents have bought some of it in Calcutta, where the seller informed them in hushed tones that his father in law sent a lot from Bangladesh though channels. We have seen an Ilish weighing 3 kg here in Pune, which looks like import from Bangladesh too, priced at Rs 1800 per kg.
Forget the economics for the time, although Ilish is trussed more with its price and the politics behind it rather than solving the issue of lesser supply. As I did with mutton, I will illustrate a few recipes of Ilish that are common in my families and savoured with much enthusiasm. Ilish has such a charisma that nothing is discarded except the scales. There’s an array of recipes that come in the traditional category, let alone the recent fusion items like ‘Boneless Ilish Biriyani’ in restaurants. The fish is available in every major Indian city now. If you still haven’t tried, go for it once, albeit with trepidation as it’s a very aromatic fish laced with thin bones in every layer of the meat. If you can handle the bones once and for all, you’ll get a hang of the taste as well. It is acquired, so be prepared for it. But I can assure that if you love fish, you’ll love Ilish too. Try these from our kitchen, the simplest of recipes that require just a few ingredients.
Tel and Matha Bhaja (Fried Ilish head and oil) – Ilish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that is good in small quantity of consumption. There’s a purple pouch of oil in the gut that is separated while cleaning, or not in most cases. Melting that oil pouch in very little mustard oil gives an aromatic pool of oil that is delicious when had with steamed rice. Fried Ilish head is a much loved appetiser in our family, both my father and M love it. The crispy fried head has a lot of juices and flavours of the fish, more than in rest of its body. The bones have to be savoured, chewed, sucked till dry and only then do they find a place in the waste bowl.
How to – Coat the halved Ilish head with salt and turmeric. Shallow fry in mustard oil till crispy. Serve with steamed rice and slit green chillies. Look for a purple blob of oil in the gut of the fish while cleaning. Wash it lightly and melt in just 1 t of mustard oil. It should melt to quite an extent if the fish is fresh, scoop it on hot rice.
Ilisher Dim Bhaja (Roe Fritters) – This one’s perhaps among my most favourite starters in a Bengali meal. Ilish roe is very rich in flavours and has a compact taste. It doesn’t need much to do with, just coat with salt-turmeric and fry till it’s crispy on the skin and moist inside. Perfect to go with daal-rice.
Kalojeera-Begun diye jhol (Light curry with eggplants and Nigella seeds) – This is the easiest of Ilish curry recipes – light, flavourful, easy on the tummy and doesn’t need any effort at all. It is my go-to curry when nothing else works.
How to – Heat 1 T mustard oil in a wok. Fry the Ilish pieces lightly, coating with salt and turmeric. Set them aside. Add a pinch of Kalo jeera (Kalonji/Nigella seeds), diced eggplant and potatoes, fry a little. Add salt, turmeric powder, slit green chillies, enough water to cover the contents. When the potatoes and eggplant are cooked, add the fried fish and switch off the flame. Serve with steamed rice.
Ilish Chalkumro Chochchori (Ilish with Ash Gourd) – This is my mother-in-law’s recipe and I tried for the first time this year. Chalkumro (Dudhi in Hindi) is a bland vegetable with no taste of its own. Adding Ilish makes it much better, IMHO.
How to – Dice Chalkumro into fine slivers. Fry Ilish head and the tail piece too with salt and turmeric. Set aside. Heat 1 T mustard oil in a wok. Add the finely diced chalkumro, fry it till water is released. Add salt, turmeric, red chilli powder. Add a little water and the fried Ilish pieces. Let it cook till the water evaporates. Garnish with slit green chillies and serve with steamed rice.
Sorshe Ilish (Ilish in a mustard gravy) – The most popular item in an all-Ilish menu. It is rich, sumptuous with a sharp punch of mustard and a kick from the green chillies.
How to – Heat 1 T mustard oil in a wok. Fry the Ilish pieces lightly, coating with salt and turmeric. Set them aside. Add a paste of salt, turmeric and red chilli powder into the residual oil. Add slit green chillies and water. Simmer for 2-3 minutes. Add the fried fish pieces. Grind mustard seeds with a little water and green chillies. If you’re using black mustard seeds, sieve the paste to discard the black peel. To cut off this extra step, use yellow mustard seeds. Add 1 t of curd into the mustard paste. Add this to the simmering gravy, keep it thick. Garnish with 1/2 t mustard oil, slit green chillies and serve with steamed rice.
Pro tip: Adding that little t of curd gives the gravy a rich creamy texture.
Bhapa Ilish (Steamed Ilish with mustard) – Bhapa (steamed) is a technique that is grossly underrated in Bengali cuisine. There’s just a handful of recipes like Bhapa Ilish/Chingri and Bati Chochhori that use steaming instead of the usual deep frying. That’s about the only difference between Bhapa and just Sorshe Ilish as both use the mustard gravy. Do try this one though, it’s the easiest recipe to execute, even a novice can make it work.
How to – Coat the Ilish pieces with salt and turmeric powder. Make a paste of ground mustard seeds, add little salt, turmeric powder to it. Balance the salt and turmeric as they’re already added to the fish. Line the fish chunks inside a steel tiffin box. Yes, the one with a tight lid, preferably round, that we used to carry to school. Cover the fish with the mustard paste, add a little water to make it a thick gravy. Add 1 T of mustard oil in top with 5-6 slit green chillies. Cover the tiffin box, tighten the lid and steam it in a wok filled with boiling water or a steamer. Serve with steamed rice and you will thank me for sure.
Do try the recipes and let me know how they turned out🙂 Hope you enjoy reading these, cooking and savouring the Ilish as much as we do. #BanglaKhabar
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