For centuries, Bengalis have been known for their characteristic devotion to good food and adda. Hilsa in the monsoons is probably the cherry on top. Starting with the urge of buying this special fish from the market even at an-otherwise-ridiculous-price to cooking them in numerous ways for an entire platter in a family meal – Hilsa has always been an integral part of Bengalis across the borders.
For 65 year-old Shailesh Bardhan, monsoon and Ilish are two sides of a single coin; you can’t have one without the other. Every weekend trip to the fish market during the rainy season would entail at least some ‘freshly caught’ hilsa as a promised treat for his beloved grandchildren.
92 year-old Ratan Bala Debi relives her fond memories of monsoon feasts with Ilish in her ancestral home at Barishal every time she breathes in the aroma of Ilish bhaaja emanating from the kitchen in her Kolkata abode these days.
But it’s not just the senior people who are so affectionate to this King of Fish. The younger generations of Bengalis savour this tasty treat with equal zest and ardour.
Bangalore based DRDO engineer, Susmita Basu makes it a yearly practice to visit her home in Kolkata during the monsoons. The sole focus on these annual trips for the 35 year-old is: Her mom’s Ilish Paturi and Sorshe Ilish. “Nothing can keep me from a week long date with Ilish at home”, she says.
She is not alone in this mad-venture for Hilsa, the fish that unites Bengalis beyond political borders, geographical distances and varied cultural backdrops.
Aveek Bose, a 27-year old newly-wed, was blown away with his first Jamai Shasthi treat earlier this year, with varieties of mouth-watering Hilsa dishes cooked by dear mom-in-law. She definitely had her homework done to know of his ardent love of all-things-Ilish!
Nitin Chatterjee, a 32 year-old software professional, relocated to Dallas, Texas, USA with his family for a new job overseas. But this geographical offset did not tear him from his fish-crazy Bengali roots. He makes it a part of his bi-weekly routine to visit the nearest Bangladeshi store to check out the haul this fortnight, religiously searching for Padma-r Ilish (Hilsa from the river Padma in Bangladesh).
Decades of Hilsa adoration in Bengalis have ingrained this fish into a glorious part of their lifestyle, culture and heritage.
Hilsa in Bengali Culture and Traditions
The Bengalis of both West Bengal and Bangladesh have openly embraced Ilish to grace their tables on numerous occasions and celebrations. Gradually, the Hilsa has eked out a vital part in the traditions as well, starting with Poila Boishakh (Bengali New Year).
As part of the Bengali New Year celebration in Bangladesh, it is customary to share a meal of Ilish Maach and Panta Bhat (fermented rice) with friends and family. West Bengal simply revels in any and all delicious recipes with Ilish along with their chingri and mutton on special days like Poila Boisakh, durga puja feasts, bhai phonta, etc.
As the year rolls on, comes monsoon – the dedicated Ilish-season. With a good harvest, the markets literally flood with this shining silvery fish with a delicate pink streak. Not surprisingly, the demands never curb and the prices determinedly stay on the upper scales mostly. But that never prevents the killer combo of Khichuri and Ilish bhaaja to satisfy the cravings of an average Bengali on a rainy day.
The eternal cultural debates between ghoti and bangal go on over the supremacy of Ilish from Ganga and Padma respectively. Despite all such controversial banter, Ilish thrives on as a darling subject in Bengali art and literature.
Hilsa in Bengal’s Art and Literature
Bengalis are naturally romantic. The drizzling monsoon rains are called ‘ilshe guri’ in dedication to the fish. Their love for this delicate fish easily seeps into the fine arts, literature, songs and even on the celluloid screen.
From Satyendranath Dutta’s nostalgic poem ‘Ilshe guri’ to Manik Bandopadhyay’s realistic novel, Padma Nadir Majhi to numerous blogs of current times, Ilish has found its mark in Bengali literature countless times. People have even dedicated songs to the heavenly feeling of Sorshe Ilish on a rainy day!
Along with unique video blogs on YouTube and posts on various social media platforms, Ilish has scored its due screen-time with Goutam Ghose’s film adaptation of the novel, Padma Nadir Majhi.
In the words of renowned poet Buddhadeb Basu, Ilish is truly the “Silver harvest of the river’.
Hilsa Love among Eminent Bengalis
Love for Hilsa affects one and all among Bengalis. Here are some interesting anecdotes about famous Bengali personalities who fell hopelessly in love with this beauty in its true sense.
Swami Vivekananda’s fondness for Ilish is now well-known among the curious Bengalis and beyond. His favourite dish was Ilish with pnui saak (Malabar spinach). The famous Bengali writer, Sankar, has highlighted this fact in two interesting books he has penned on Swamiji — Aahare Anahare Vivekananda and Achena Ajana Vivekananda.
The world-famous movie director Satyajit Ray was a connoisseur and visionary in his field of expertise. However, he was reportedly a bit choosy when it came to fish. But even he surrendered to the charms of Shorshe ilish (Hilsa cooked in spicy mustard gravy).
Renowned author Sunil Gangopadhyay enjoyed the delicacy while slightly favouring the Padma Ilish over the Ganges ones.
So, what special recipes of this extraordinary fish have everybody drooling for – from simple common folks to celebrities alike? Let’s find out.
Hilsa Recipes – Past, Present and Future Perfect!
“If Bengali cuisine were Wimbledon, the hilsa would always play on Centre Court.” ― Samanth Subramanian, Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast
And that statement can’t be any truer!
There were umpteen ways to prepare this delicate fish. You can relish Hilsa as smoked, dried, fried, steamed or cooked in gravy using mustard paste or coconut milk. Or you can go about breaking the fish pieces and mixing it with different greens and vegetables to cook lip-smacking side dishes.
Some people like it in its dried and salted version, known as Nona Ilish (‘Nona’ means salty). It’s a revered dish among Bangals in West Bengal and people from other parts of India, like Tripura, Odisha etc.
Generations of Ilish admirers among Bengalis have strived and successfully created many Ilish recipes that are unique, flavourful and undeniably savoury, to say the least. With time, a few of these recipes, such as Ilish Jhuro (Crispy crumbling hilsa), Tetul Ilish (Hilsa in Tamarind sauce), etc. have been almost lost to practice.
Some of these treasured recipes are still swaying Bengal kitchens in its full force, with little variations from one cook to the other. For instance, Pragyasundari Debi (who single-handedly introduced us to the Tagore family’s heirloom dishes) cooked Bhapa ilish on a bed of rice.
Still, some new fusion recipes with Ilish are coming up with innovations by gourmet chefs and food enthusiasts — Anarosh Ilish (Hilsa with pineapple), Ilish risotto, and baked Ilish are some examples.
Hilsa Adoration Continues
These days, we have entire festivals dedicated to Hilsa by various private organizations, hotels and even West Bengal State Tourism department, such as –
- Ilish Utsav 2019 (recently held)
- 6th Sundarban Hilsa Festival 2019 (multiple dates)
- Gongabokhhe Ilish Utsab (September 8)
If these festivals are too crowded for your taste and the markets too ‘fish’y, try out home delivery of fresh Hilsa by ordering online from your smartphone, using apps like ‘Smartfish’ (WB Govt. app) and Delybazar. Though, be prepared to be sneered by most Bengalis you know who may roll their eyes at the very thought of buying hilsa online. You see, in Bengal, buying fish is an art and the beauty of fresh hilsa is worth all the hassles in the world!
A Word of Caution
Too much of nothing is ever good for the long run. Unfortunately, this extreme demand for Hilsa is leading to overfishing in both West Bengal and Bangladesh rivers. Ignoring the tradition of abstention from Hilsa post Lakshmi Puja, people are netting the juvenile fishes (khoka ilish) without giving them a chance at reproduction to compensate for the past season’s haul. Government initiatives coupled with general awareness among the fishermen and the consumers need to be enforced to avoid this issue becoming a severe crisis. Or else, future generations of Bengalis may never get to taste this delicacy and the darling Ilish may end up in our history books.
As a consumer, you have the power to lessen the crisis (less demand means less supply, isn’t it?). So here are some steps you can take to save the beloved fish from extinction:
Focus on quality vs. quantity. Commit to buying one or two good-sized Ilish every year. It won’t come cheap but will be more satisfying than the smaller fishes.
Don’t buy small. If you can’t limit yourself to one or two ilish per season, then at least promise to not buy fish that weigh under a kilo. Buy a fish which weighs at least a kilo.
Eat every part of it. Ilish lends itself excellently to nose-to-tail cooking. From the prime cuts to the head, bones, fat, and offal — there’s a Bengali recipe for every part of this fish.
A delight in its own worth, the Hilsa commands great cultural and culinary value with a large fan-following among Bengalis globally. Let’s treat it like the precious commodity it really is!