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A food lover friend of mine from Mumbai was planning his trip to Kolkata and I joked to him that there is only one smell which prevails in Kolkata restaurants (at least the ones serving Bengali cuisine) - Its Ilish. For the unknown, it may not ring a bell but for a Bengali staying at any part of the globe, who has mastered the art of separating innumerable bones from the fish and for the others, who prefer the boneless ones, this is the best thing that happens between July to September. Move aside Kosha Mangsho, move aside rosogolla, and move aside mishti doi. It is Ilish or known as Hilsa by most.
To bank in the sentiments and also to showcase culinary skills, the city restaurants line up Ilish festivals this season and come up with some of the traditional, some of the evergreens and some of the innovations (much to the raised eyebrows of purists) but in the end Ilish rules.
Taj Bengal, like always has stuck to tradition at The Sonargaon. Ilisher Tel Jhol, Tok, Bhapa Ilish, Ilish Biryani, bhaja, smoked and many more are part of this festival which is very interestingly being named ‘ileecious’. Boneless Ilish is available in the paturi form and is a killer of a dish. The menu is served as À la carte however one can also try out Ilish Head to Tail Meal experience. The festival has started on 17th July and will continue till the end of August.
Must try dish - Ilish Paturi
Cost for 2 - INR 5000 AI
The Gateway Hotel, Kolkata also traditionally does Ilish festival every year during monsoon. However, they tend to change their menu each time bringing in delicacies from across various districts from West Bengal and Bangladesh. This year they have surpassed expectation in the baked hilsa with parmesan which comes as a complete meal in itself. From Dhakai shorsher bata to Ilisher Korma, Doi Ilish where the Hilsa has been steamed, Ilish bhaja with a glorious roe, ilisher chop and more are the traditional dishes. The signature this time is ilish diye jhuri posto. But my pick would be kancha aam kasundi diye Ilish. Thinly sliced green mango in a mustard curry, bringing out the flavour of the Ilish is a glorifying dish. Again this is available on À la carte basis till the end of August or may even be extended for more depending on the availability of a good catch.
Must try dish - Baked Hilsa
Cost for 2 - INR 2000 plus taxes
6 Ballygunge Place has another story going on for them. Other than the traditional dishes, they go all the way in innovations, where some turn out to be great and some unfortunately bomb. This beautiful fish gets made into a cutlet, achari ilish with pumpkin leaves, kochu saag and matha diye chorchori, anaras ilish, to name a few. They have a thali that has at least 3 kinds of ilish dishes. I believe this year, there is also ilish dolmas (talk about innovation and here we are). The festival is on À la carte basis until the 17th of August.
Must try dish - Anaras Ilish
Cost for 2 - INR 1200 plus taxes
Oh! Calcutta has been doing Ilish festivals for almost a decade now. This year they have Ilish fish fingers, mochar ilish, daaber ilish, aam shorsher ilish, lal lonkar ilish and so on. The boneless varieties are quite a few. Other than smoked Hilsa, there is pickled steamed ilish, posto narkol ilish, kumro pata aam achar ilish and more in just boneless. Available in À la carte basis, this festival is on till the end of August and may get extended further.
Must Try Dish: Aam Shorsher Ilish
Cost for 2: INR 1500 plus taxes
Innovation is also a key part of the Ilish festival at Social Kitchen, Holiday Inn Kolkata. They have a unique Hilsa and mango combined menu, where there are dishes like ilish mach bahaja with green langra mango marmalade, Borishali style ilish fry with Himsagar mango and chili salsa, ilish paturi with mango mint chutney and you get the idea. Other dishes without the mango includes Maharashtrian style masala bhaat served with ilish pudina mircha, ilish steamed in beetel leaves served with gondhoraj lemon rice, the traditional aam Kasundi ilish with pulao, ilish begun jhol with steamed rice and more. Each dish is a complete meal in itself and also has a roshogolla in the end to satiate your dessert craving. This festival is from the 4th until the 13th of August.
Must Try Dish: Ilish Paturi with Mango mint chutney
Cost for 2: INR 2000 plus taxes
Many more restaurants like Aaheli, Kewpie's, Bhojohori Manna, Kasturi and Tero Parbon are offering a variety of dishes in Ilish in their menu. The major concern which has been observed for the last few years is the decreasing size of the Ilish. Khoka Ilish or the baby Ilish with an avg size between 800g to 1Kg is mostly available in the market which is supposedly not to be caught and they, on any day cannot taste like the bigger ones. A recent trip to the fish market and I realised that they were selling even 400 gms of Hilsa! As discussed with most of the chefs, in order to carry out an Ilish festival, a minimum average size of 1.8 kg to 2Kg of Ilish is needed which can only be done with a smooth supply chain. So being a seasonal produce, the duration of these festivals and the quality of the fish on a particular day remains doubtful. Bigger and more structured the supply chain, better are the chances of a wonderful meal. For the time being, get your hands dirty and separate the bones from the flesh.
For someone who's run two restaurants, being a baker and cook par excellence comes easily to Madhushree . When she's not eating out, she's organizing her own pop ups or experimenting with regional recipes. Her experiments with food and her recipes are part of Pikturenama , where she's a co founder.