A two-step with Hilsa – Bengal’s monsoon queen

The Bengali Bhadralok will do anything to get his share of this priced fish. Ilish connoisseurs come in two groups - the old school and the new experimental ones.

Kalyan and Sudeshna July 25, 2011 16:24:06 IST
A  two-step with Hilsa – Bengal’s monsoon queen

Ilish, or Hilsa, stands tall in the long list of Bengal stalwarts that includes Tagores, Boses, Ray, Basus, Ganguly and Mamata. And that isn’t a hyperbole.

Ask the numerous men who rush to the fish market despite the monsoon (or rather, because of it) hoping to get there before the stock runs out. The Bong beauty costs north of Rs 300/kg in Kolkata and even Rs 800/kg in some supermarkets in Bangalore or Mumbai. The cost is not without reason though.

Ilish is facing a severe crisis due to excessive and untimely consumption. You can read more about it in this Outlook article.

But monsoon is the time when you should shell out that few hundred rupees for what is the best fish you could ever have. Despite the bones. Ask any Bangali Bhadrolok how he scouts for the best Ilish More often than not, he goes to each fish stall and searches for the right silvery textured plump fish with the right weight and with a belly filled with roe. But ask him about the best way to eat ilishand you might get very different answers.

Ilish connoisseurs come in two groups, the old school which doesn’t like to experiment. They will always swear by the time-tested ilish bhapa and other recipes. Or, maybe even the not so popular but still traditional ilish macher tok (hilsa is sour gravy)  or the Nona Ilish (Hilsa dried in salt).

A  twostep with Hilsa  Bengals monsoon queen


The other group is more experimental and by trial and error comes up with several interesting combinations  such as Ilish with Arbi, Ilish with white wine, Ilish with white garlic sauce, Hilsa Musallam, or the Baked Boneless Hilsa. Some combine the cultures of Bangladesh and West Bengal and come up with kebab-like Ilish Tikka and Ilish Pulao 

Let’s talk about two quite contrasting preparations of Hilsa. One is Patla Ilish-er Jhol, or hilsa cooked in non spicy gravy, and is pretty easy on calories. The other is a more exotic preparation, but not tough to prepare – Ilish Paturi, or Hilsa steamed in rich mustard gravy wrapped in plantain leaves. There really isn’t an English, or rather any non Bong word for this that we know of.
Happy monsoons.

Patla Ilish-er jhol
(Hilsa cooked in non-spicy gravy with Nigella)

4 pieces Hilsa, 1 raw Banana, 4 tablespoons mustard oil, ½ teaspoon nigella, 2 green chili, 1½ teaspoon turmeric powder, salt to taste

• Wash the fish well, put in a bowl and mix well with 1 teaspoon turmeric powder and salt

• Cut the raw banana longitudinally into half and then into 2 inch long pieces

• Heat the oil in a wok and half fry the fishes, take out and keep aside

• Throw in the bananas and toss for a minute, add the nigella seeds

• Mix turmeric powder in 2 tablespoons of water and keep ready

• As the nigella seeds start popping pour in the turmeric paste

• Add the chilies (slit them if you like the curry to be hot), and pour in 1 ½ cup of water

• Let the water boil and reduce to half

• Gently add the fried hilsa pieces and cook for 2 minutes

• Take off the flame and serve with warm rice
Futher Tips – If you want you can replace the raw banana with thin long purple colored aubergine/ egg plant.

Ilish Paturi
(Microwave baked plantain leaves wrapped Hilsa)


A  twostep with Hilsa  Bengals monsoon queen


8 pieces of Hilsa, 8 pieces of 6” square plantain leaves, ½ cup mustard seed paste, 1 teaspoon turmeric powder, 8 green chilies, 4 tablespoon mustard oil, salt to taste, kitchen thread for wrapping

• Clean the fish, mix all the spices; season with salt

• Pour the oil generously over the fish

• Heat the leaves over a griddle so that they become soft

• Wrap each piece with plantain leaf and tie with the kitchen thread

• Place the pieces on a microwave safe plate

• Micro high (100% / 800 watts) for 6-8min

• Serve hot with warm rice

Further Tips – The paturi is traditionally prepared in a steamer or double boiler, but takes about 30- 40 mins for the fish to get cooked. Other than plantain leaves, the fish is sometime wrapped in pumpkin or gourd leaves.
How do you like your hilsa?

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