Courting the queen

August 12, 2010

I can’t recollect when i first tasted hilsa, but i distinctly remember when i first saw the queen of fish.

It was a rainy evening in 1978 when my maternal uncle whistled his way home, literally, swinging a silvery catch in his hand — like the bhadralok did those days after pocketing his salary.

The prize catch

The occasion, for my mama, was more joyous. East Bengal Club — his heart, soul and mind, save a sizeable corner reserved for Mohammed Rafi — had got the better of Mohun Bagan in the Durand final.

Because uncle couldn’t watch the match live — Durand’s played in Delhi and there were no live matches on television then — he clung on to a Murphy radio, sandwiched by two or three of his friends, the sound of their heart beats reverberating across the room till Surajit Sengupta transformed their agony into ecstasy with a neat drill into the green-and-maroon net.

The match over, the friends leapt out into the pouring rain with placards and banners and painted the otherwise Mohun Bagan bastion of Hazra red and gold.

An hour later, mama returned home with what must have been a 3-kg hilsa; i still remember grandpa asking him where he got the Rs 24 that the fresh catch from Ganga cost (mama was still in college) and the taste of the khichdi and fish we had for dinner.

But such was the delirium surrounding football in Calcutta that the jobless splurged on hilsas (if East Bengal won) or on prawns when Mohun Bagan saw the back of their archrivals.

The craze for the beautiful game (except during World Cup where India plays in our collective dreams) has died in Calcutta, but the oohs and aahs over shimmering hilsas are as loud as ever.


My parents came to Delhi last Sunday, their bags bursting with a kilo of prawns, two dozen duck eggs and to my delight, at least 2.5 kilos of hilsa.

Khichudi, ilish bhaja and fried potatoes (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

I had endless prawns in Bombay just a few days ago, so i was more interested in the hilsa and the eggs (you get duck eggs — their yolks like molten lava — in INA Market, but at a price: at least Rs 20 a pair).

While we decided to refrigerate the eggs and the prawns for a day or two, the fish had to be sampled that afternoon itself. I shook off my customary laziness, took a bath, ignored the lure of games on the laptop and scurried to the dining table no sooner than it struck 1.

Ma kept the menu simple: steaming rice, hilsa fry and hilsa jhol (thin gravy cooked with black cumin seeds (kalonji or kalo jeere), brinjal and pumpkin; you can also use slivers of raw bananas).

I polished off my thali of rice with the machher tel (fish oil), two fried pieces and dim bhaja (fried fish eggs that Bengalis love more than caviar), before being served an equal portion of rice for the jhol.

The quality of the fish was awesome: it was so fatty that you could have cooked the jhol without pouring in a single spoon of mustard oil.

The heavens came crashing down just as we wrapped up lunch. The numbingly blissful state of the mind was heightened by a languid discussion on how the mians (cooks) from Chittagong still serve the best hilsas on steamers plying on the Padma.

Soon the pitter-patter of the rain mingled with our conversation, and my Sunday afternoon blurred into the vision of an endless expanse of water flooded by the full moon and dotted by a hundred fishing boats.


I have asked countless people why they love the hilsa and what their favourite preparation is. The first answer has, almost always, been ambiguous: “The fish is sooooooooo tasty”; “It catapults me to the realm of ecstasy”; “The fish is tender and the taste divine”.

Ilisher jhol and bhaat (Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

The vague replies don’t surprise me; after all, can i pinpoint why i dote on mutton-rice or prawn curry? The simple conclusion: a dish which you can tell why you like is probably not that great after all.

The second question throws up three broad answers: “Just ilish maach bhaja” (hilsa fry); “Ilish bhapa aar bhaat” (steamed fish and rice) and “Kalo jeere kancha lonka diye patla jhol (the thin gravy i had on Sunday).

The rest: shorshe-posto ilish (hilsa cooked in a paste of mustard and poppy seeds), ilisher paturi (steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves), doi ilish (hilsa cooked in curd), ilish korma, ilisher tok/tenga (a sweet-and-sour jhol cooked with tamarind), marich bata diye ilisher jhaal (hilsa in hot pepper gravy) and kaacha ilisher jhal (a hot thin gravy of the fish without frying it), are merely derivatives of the main three dishes.

The fancy dishes served in the so-called hilsa festivals at the eateries — hilsa with lemon sauce, anarasi ilish (fish cooked with pineapple), hilsa in French mustard sauce and ilish machher patishapta (Bengali crepes with fillings of the fish) are, pardon my orthodoxy, sacrilegious. If you love these dishes, i guess you are the type who can as well die for chocolate paan or strawberry roshogollas.

Or if you are the healthy type, fret not. For, hilsa is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, which are good friends of your heart.

Here’s a recipe for the calorie-conscious — a dish which needs no oil and can be cooked in a jiffy.

Tel chhara ilisher jhol (Thin hilsa curry without oil)

Serves four

You need four big fatty pieces (peti/koler pieces) of an ilish, preferably weighing 2-3 kilo, the quality of which should be superlative.

Marinate the fish with turmeric and salt for a little while.

Dice potatoes, pumpkin and brinjal in rectangular pieces, wash these and keep aside.

Pour 300 ml water in a pan and set to boil.

Place the diced vegetables in boiling water and simmer by covering the pan.

Add salt when the vegetables are done. Stir briefly.

Gently lower the fish in the pan and let it simmer.

When the jhol (thin gravy) comes to a boil, add kalonji and green chilli paste, stir for a second, switch off the gas and cover the pan.

Allow it a standing time of five minutes, garnish it with three-four slit green chillies and serve with steaming rice.


4 Responses to “Courting the queen”

  1. Sharmi said

    A vivid childhood memory is that of my grandmother cooking a yummy mustard curry with raw hilsa (without frying the fish that is). It used to taste heavenly with steamed rice.
    My favourite fish is, I’m sorry to dampen your excitement, not Hilsa, but Beckti (I think). The intricate bones in Hilsa puts me off. But I like the taste it renders to the curries. In that the fish is excellent. This is an aromatic post, full of flavour 🙂

  2. netdhaba said

    It’s a challenge to not let these fantastic dishes die out.
    Bekti is good, but hilsa is leagues apart.
    Thanks for the comment 🙂

  3. NP said

    I remember by grandparents reminiscing about the taste and smell of “Padma’r ilish” ie. ilish from the Padma river in their native Bangladesh, when it was still East Bengal. I remember tales of how the smell of ilish refused to leave the brass utensils and the house and their fingers long after they had finished eating it! Bhaja ilish is one of my favorites. As a child, living at home, I used to snub ma’s efforts to feed me ilish, saying it smelled like a helium balloon and had too many bones. But now…I’ll eat the queen in any form 🙂

  4. netdhaba said

    @NP: Ah, the talk of Padma and its ilish! How i wish i could spend a night in a boat on the great river. The majhi would cook a mean ilish dish for me after which i would lie back watching the stars and the moon, the murmur of lapping waves serenading me to a trance.
    Bhaja ilish is also my favourite; back in 2000, i had polished 17 pieces with Kingfisher at a ilish festival in Taj, Calcutta.
    Thanks for the comment and please read on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: