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Monsoon Special: Soul fish, ‘ilish’

The culinary magic that gladdens hearts across the Bay of Bengal during the rainy months

Fried, steamed, cooked into a curry, ‘ilish’ lends itself to versatile recipes. Photo: Alamy
Fried, steamed, cooked into a curry, ‘ilish’ lends itself to versatile recipes. Photo: Alamy

The arrival of the hilsa season in the Bay of Bengal usually coincides with the onset of the south-west monsoon in the subcontinent. It is a moment every Bengali (worth their fish) awaits with bated breath.

The rise and fall in the price of the beloved ilish makes headlines and breaking news in local newspapers and on television channels. Even if you have a low bar for what passes for news in contemporary Indian media, that fact alone should still attest to the special place the fish occupies in the hearts of millions of Bengalis.

Regrettably, there is also a minority among Bengalis who fail to grasp its appeal or, worse still, complain about the fish being too full of bones—as most non-Bengalis do. The dexterous handling of ilish bones, for sure, is an art, acquired over years or genetically passed on through generations (incredibly, I have witnessed a British-born Bengali expertly making her way through the fish using fork and knife). But for the vast majority of Bengalis, especially those living in Kolkata, the consolation offered by ilish, prepared in a variety of styles, makes the ordeal of wading through the waterlogged streets of the city, or dealing with the inhuman humidity that stretches through the monsoon months, somewhat bearable.

Although available at other times of the year, ilish is best consumed at the height of the rainy season—its taste is at its peak during this time. For Bengalis in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, the fish is a delicacy, cooked in a variety of spices and flavours, though each side naturally claims supremacy over the other. Ancient debates over the right way of cooking the fish persist. Recipes inherited from bangal (families that moved from east to west Bengal during Partition) and ghoti (the original inhabitants of the west) traditions compete for glory. Like the age-old battle between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan clubs, the beacons of football in Bengal, the rivalry over ilish is fought fiercely in Bengali kitchens.

As with any other fish, Bengalis do not leave any portion of the hilsa uneaten. The fish is deep fried to a crisp and served as an entrée, alongside a splash of its oil, on steamed rice. The fish head is smashed, fried and added to dal, used as an item in vegetable dishes, or cooked with sour mango to make delicious chutney. As part of the main course, hilsa releases glorious flavours when cooked with eggplant into a light curry. A bangal version uses pumpkin, which adds a hint of sweetness. The roe of the hilsa, deep fried, is either eaten as an entrée or added to curries and chutneys as embellishment.

Ilish can be identified not only by its glistening scales but also its distinctly “fishy" odour. It is popularly cooked in a mustard paste; steamed in a banana leaf; and prepared in a yogurt sauce. Being a delicate fish, its cooking time is brief, like prawn, and it should ideally be added only after the gravy is almost done. Ilish is also turned into muri-ghonto (the fish head is cooked with rice and savoury spices), pulao and biryani.

Of course, fusion cuisine has unleashed many newfangled ways of eating it too. The Kenilworth hotel in Kolkata, according to reports, is serving smoked hilsa fillet as one of the rainy season’s specials: a Continental-style dish, where the fish is de-boned and smoked to a crisp texture. It is then served with a side of gnocchi, made with raw banana and mustard, some broccoli, and a helping of lemon butter sauce.

Like every good thing humans love, the ilish population is also dwindling. Official data says the annual landing of hilsa in Odisha’s Chilika Lake has fallen from 311 tonnes in 1954 to a measly 10.51 tonnes in 2016-17. The government of Bangladesh has strict laws prohibiting fishing during its breeding seasons, which is just as well for a fish that contributes 1% to the country’s GDP and provides livelihood to over two million. Only last month, Bangladesh earmarked an 83km stretch of the Meghna river as an ilish sanctuary, the sixth of its kind.

If, in a dreaded future, ilish really becomes extinct, the damage will be as much ecological as cultural—an end to a long-standing way of life.

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