Hilsa is the national fish of Bangladesh. ‘Ilish’, as it is popularly known in Eastern part of India as well as Bangladesh, is extremely popular in West Bengal, Orissa, Tripura, Assam and North Eastern States. The fish is defined by its soft aroma, intense flavour and buttery texture. With the onset of monsoon, the atmosphere starts to fill with the scent of ilish. Like the salmon, ilish is also a sea fish. However, it lays its eggs in the river with onset of monsoon and on its way back to the sea, it gets caught.
Every household has its own recipe and tricks of cooking that special dish which has been passed on from generations. The preparations also vary from home to home and region to region. More than often, the recipes vary depending upon the origin of the family or the ancestral roots, whether they belong to West Bengal or erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh). There can be an ilish machher jhol, again a traditional dish which is made with mustard seed and mustard oil or a jhol which will have sliced aubergines, nigella seeds and more.
Come monsoon in Kolkata, hilsa festival becomes an annual event. Almost all the restaurants, serving Bengali cuisine and the five star restaurants, start celebrating the season and try to cash in on the evergreen love for this fish. The flavour and smell is unique and unmatchable with any fish, however, the count of the bones in this fish is also unmatchable and perhaps that is one of the reason there are numerous fish loving Bengalis (especially living out of Bengal) also, who prefer to stay away from this fish. While some of the festivals focus on a mix of handpicked dishes from Bangladesh and West Bengal, some try to reinvent the same with focus on boneless and steamed varieties of the fish to attract the not so Bengali and non-resident Indian crowd.
Some dishes which definitely deserve a mention and are high on innovation are mochar ilish or ilish cooked with spiced banana flower or char grilled hilsa with cheese and herbs; smoked boneless hilsa with flavour of jasmine rice and some herbs and tossed in some dijon mustard, honey and a dash of pommery; kumro pata aam acharer ilish which is steamed boneless ilish flavoured with mango pickle and wrapped in pumpkin leaf, ilish sushi, ilish teriyaki; the list could go on.
No matter what, the traditional dishes are also present, which instantly touches the sentimental chord of Bengalis - like the shorshe ilish (ilish in stone grounded mustard seeds), ilish bhaja (deep fried hilsa), ilish tok jhal which is a perfectly balanced dish with sweetness of onions and tanginess of tamarind, ilish paturi (steamed hilsa marinated in mustard paste and green chillies wrapped in banana leaves), Ilish pulao and ilish biryani, are also some of the varieties of the ilish which gets cooked along with rice.
Sounds lip smacking? Well, if you are in Kolkata or plan to travel to Kolkata in the next few days, do try to catch up on this festival in any of the city’s Bengali or five star joint. Almost all the restaurants carried out the festival this year, noteworthy amongst them being Taj Gateway Hotel, 6 Ballygunge Place, Oh Calcutta, The Park and others however the delicacies are still available in most of the places as a part of the main menu.
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A true blue Kolkata foodie, Anindya loves cooking and eating his Kosha Mangsho. Anindya weaves stories around food as he believes exceptional food is an emotional experience. Previously a restauranter, now a passionate photographer and traveller, he runs a successful blog called Pikturenama and contributes to other publications.
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