Hilsa or Ilish or Tenualosa ilisha is possibly the most popular fish from Bengal. Related to the Herring family, the fish is not only consumed in the Indian subcontinent, but also extensively consumed in Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, as well as in Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain. The texture of the fish is rather oily, which makes it ideal for both braising and frying. In Bengal, no part of the fish goes to waste - the head often is cooked into a ghonto with Colocasia leaves and stems, the tail end often ends up in a tawk or awmbol, and the fish itself is often just fried till the skin is crisp and brown and is often served with the oil its cooked in, a few green chillies and hot rice.
In Aaheli at The Peerless Inn, Kolkata, the hilsa generally is celebrated all through the month of July, all the way till September, with a specially curated Hilsa festival that features the fish in different avatars. "We brought in the Dhumrogondho ilish, or deboned and smoked hilsa, to those who love the fish but are afraid of the tiny bones in it," said Debasree Roy Sarkar, President, Corporate Development, Peerless Hotels Ltd. "Ever since we introduced it right at the beginning of our journey, it was a huge hit, and 27 years down the line, guests still love it. We also have a hilsa thaali, where we try to incorporate a full set of dishes from the start to finish that would all have the fish in some format - whether it's the head or the roe."
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The Question of Sustainability and Hilsa
The last few years saw a drastic fall in the number of hilsa in the rivers of Bengal. Overfishing, and the use of smaller-mesh net resulted in a huge number of juvenile hilsa being caught, which further resulted in the drastic reduction of full-sized hilsa in the catch. But, facing that, many hotels and restaurants took an active decision to not buy hilsa under a certain weight. "We prefer the Gangetic Hilsa, at least 1.5 kilo, by weight. Its not cheap, but we know its fresh and isn't juvenile, and tastes great" noted Debasree. She is among a growing number of hoteliers from Bengal who have taken this decision keeping in mind the consumers as well as the sustainability factor.
How to Make Shorshe Ilish
The pungency of freshly ground mustard seeds pairs beautifully with the soft, buttery fish, and the hint of green chillies add to the heat. The recipe made in the Banerjee household is kept as simple as possible, but the quality of the ingredients is the key here. Fresh, good quality hilsa, cut in large chunks, is gently simmered in a mustard-laden gravy, then served with steaming hot rice, preferably a medium-grained one, but not too fragrant, because that takes away from the flavours of the hilsa.
750 gm. Hilsa fish (cut into 6-7 pieces)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 tablespoon black mustard seeds
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
4 large green chillies
100 ml. mustard oil + a few drops to finish
1/2 teaspoon nigella seeds
Salt to taste
Soak the mustard seeds in warm water for at least 1 hour, preferably 2. Strain and make a paste with 1/4th teaspoon salt and 1 large green chilli. The paste should not be runny, so its ideal to use a sil or mortar or pestle to make this paste.
Apply salt and turmeric powder on hilsa fish. Set aside.
Reserve 2 tablespoon of the mustard oil. Heat the remaining oil. Fry the hilsa on both sides over medium high heat till light golden (about 30-35 seconds per side). Remove and put them aside.
To the remaining mustard oil, add 1 tablespoon of the fried hilsa oil, and heat it over high heat till the oil is really hot but not smoking. Add the nigella seeds, lower the heat to a simmer, and immediately add the mustard paste and 1/4th teaspoon turmeric, followed by 1 cup water.
Once the water starts boiling, add the fish and green chillies. You can slit a couple of them to add to the heat. Then, add salt to taste. Stir everything up, cover and cook over simmering heat for 8-10 minutes. Add a few drops of raw mustard oil, then cover and turn off the heat. Let it cook in its own steam for another 5 minutes, then serve with hot rice.