For centuries the argumentative Bengali has been involved in a dispute - which mighty river provides the best catch of Hilsa - the Ganga or the Padma. While the 'ghotis' (from western part of Bengal) vouch for the Ganga bred catch, the ‘bangals’ from East Bengal (now in Bangladesh) will scoff at their claims, believing that the catch from Padma taste far superior! Needless to say the issue remains unresolved but whichever is true, Ilish is undoubtedly the piece de resistance among the fish of Bengal.
Traditionally, in West Bengal Ilish is not consumed during the period following Durga Puja till Saraswati Puja since it is believed the fish is not tasty in the months from October to February which coincides with the spawning season. But once the Ilish season starts, a sumptuous feast is on the platter of every Bengali. Countless dishes are prepared, and countless more are being innovated.
However, traditional Bengali cooking harbours reservations against using onion or garlic to prepare the fish. Traditional dishes include Ilish Bhape (steamed), Ilish Kacha Jhol (light stew,) Doi Ilish (in yogurt), Tetul Ilish (in tamarind), Ilish Tak Jhol (with mustard and tamarind), Ilish Jhal (spicy with chili and turmeric) or simply Ilish Bhaja (fried). Across the border, there many imaginative dishes with liberal use of onion, garlic and ginger, such as Ilish Korma (with yogurt and spices), Ilish Biriyani, Ilish Pullao (with rice), Ilish Annars (with pineapple) to name a few. Hilsa, like Topse or mango fish, has taken an eminent place in Calcutta's Anglo-Indian kitchen as well. The most famous dish is, of course Smoked Hilsa. During the monsoon all the Clubs and continental restaurants in the city have it on their menu along with a variety of other Hilsa dishes such as grills and bakes. Another famous Anglo-Indian preparation of the Hilsa is the Moulee or Moolu, which originated in southern India. Hilsa Vindaloo and Pickled Hilsa were very popular with the travelling British-Indian troop, as it did not require refrigeration up to a month.
The Hilsa's life cycle is similar to the Salmon; it lives its adult life in the sea and comes to spawn in the rivers. It is an oily fish rich in Omega 3. It has a lot of fine bones and is also very delicate. Hence, it should neither be cooked too long as it tends to break easily, nor should it be washed or put in water for any length of time, otherwise it loses its flavour. The ideal size for the catch is between 1 ½ - 4 kgs in weight. The roe is prized like 'caviar' and fashioned in delectable dishes such as Ilish Dimmer Tak Jhal (with mustard and tamarind), Dimmer Bora (fritters) and Dimmer Ambol (relish). It is such a versatile fish that every part is used, including the head and bones to make delicious Kattar Chorchori. So what are you waiting for? Go out and simply relish this King of fish, with or without bones!
Chef, food columnist and owner of Kewpie's Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta needs no introduction among the food connoisseurs of Kolkata. This month she explores Kolkata's romance with the king of fishes –the Hilsa
Kewpie's – Purveyors of Authentic Bengali Cuisine 2, Elgin Lane, Kolkata – 700020 9831677610/9883059818 Ilish festival – Aug 13 to Aug 29 (excluding Mondays)