The Legend of Ilish

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.

At Gariahat Market, Calcutta.

At Gariahat Market, Calcutta.

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.

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