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Ilish is an emotion. For a Bengali, there are few things that could surpass the sublime pleasure of feasting on piping hot ilish machh bhaja on a rainy day. They will brave the weather, the jostling crowds at the fish market, long queues, and staggering price tags, to pick up the best of the season’s silver harvest, for lunch. Ideally, an ilish meal should start off with some ‘tel (fish fats), dim bhaja (the fried roe should be crisp on the outside and with a slightly gooey centre), and couple of machh bhaja (deep fried pieces of ilish). Move on to a light stew tempered with Nigella seeds and slit green chillies, followed by a rich mustard-laced shorshe ilish. All this is paired with insane amounts of steamed rice. But there is so much more you could do with this delicious fish.
In fact, Hilsa has long moved beyond its traditional boundaries and chefs in the city have been experimenting with a host of ingredients and cooking styles to trump up innovative, sometimes quirky, avatars of the revered Hilsa. Here are five ilish Festivals in Kolkata, you must check out this monsoon, to see for yourself.
The Ilish special menu at 6 Ballygunge Place will leave you spoilt for choice. From crisp parathas stuffed with spiced minced ilish, to ilish cooked with tangy raw mangoes in pungent mustard oil – aam tel ilish – and a garlic-infused ilish bhapa, wrapped in bottle gourd leaves and steamed to moist perfection – Chef Sushanta Sengupta has crafted a fantastic menu playing up traditional flavours in innovative ways. A good way to explore their repertoire of hilsa specialties is to opt for the thali, which features pop picks such as ilish machher dim bhaja (fried hilsa roe), ilish machher matha diye kochu shaak (taro leaves cooked with fish head) and a delicate malaikari made with ilish, instead of the usual chingri (prawns).
Or, head to The Park Kolkata for their annual Ilish gala – Hilsa Reinvented. Other than traditional favourites such ilish paturi (hilsa laced with mustard and steamed in banana leaf wraps) and a soupy ilish machher jhol tempered with Nigella seeds and green chillies, the menu also packs in a few quirky, innovative numbers such as a risotto with grilled ilish served with dill walnut ice cream and deep fried fish balls made with minced ilish, crisp on the outside, tossed in a slightly sweet and sticky, kaffir-lime scented Thai sauce. Or, pair some piping hot rice with some ilish vindaloo. A personal favourite on the menu is the Borishali ilish biryani, albeit greasy, but delightfully flavourful, served with mustard-based shrimp curry. However, if you are intimidated by the fine bones, go for wood-smoked ilish that comes laced with a spicy marinade and without bones. The Hilsa special menu will be served at Saffron and The Bridge July 15 onwards, and at The Zen, August 9 onwards.
Hotel Hindustan International’s Indian specialty restaurant, Kalash is also celebrating the Queen of Fish at their Ilishiana festival, with a delicious spread featuring imaginative dishes such as narkeli orange ilish (hilsa cooked with orange and coconut cream) and steamed hilsa laced with a lip-smacking raw mango chutney, along with quintessential Bengali numbers such as ilish paturi, doi ilish (hilsa cooked in yoghurt), a fragrant ilish pulao and a fiery kancha lonka ilish, cooked with loads of green chillies and a hint of fresh coriander. The special menu will be served á la carte between July 22 and August 9.
On the other hand, if you want to sample authentic Bengali specialties only, head to Lokahaar, a quaint specialty Bengali outfit in Jodhpur Park. The menu has time-honoured recipes such as the deliciously tangy ilish tok made with tamarind pulp and a tempering of mustard seeds, a traditional paturi rich with mustard and coconut paste, and a light stew tempered simply with kalo jeere (Nigella seeds). You could also try the soupy, light, curries made with seasonal vegetables such as ash gourd or yam, cooked with minimum spices, so the distinct flavour of the ilish stands out. The festival will continue as long as there is good ilish in the market.
At Swissotel Kolkata’s Durbari, you could enjoy dishes such as anarasher ilish, hilsa cooked with slit green chillies and fresh pineapple, or the malai hilsa that comes laced with a delicate, silken coconut cream and mustard gravy and deep fried hilsa marinated with a paste of dried red chillies and a mix of aromatic spices. The hilsa specialties will be served á la carte for dinner during weekdays and for lunch and dinner on weekends. The festival ends on July 24.
An independent journalist based out of Calcutta and a dedicated food enthusiast, she writes mostly about food and travel, and has worked and written for publications India Today, The Telegraph, Live Mint as also Lonely Planet India’s website. She also loves to experiment in her kitchen and runs a food blog – allthatsdelicious.com. But mostly she eats, frets about how much she eats and then eats some more.