Having grown up in a Bengali neighborhood, I have always found fascinating Bengal's love for Chhana mishti, its fish, and the inbuilt importance of fish and food in Bengali rituals from pujas to marriages.
It's said that Bengal has more fresh water fish than weeks in a year, and many customs and rituals revolve around these fish, like dressing up a pair of Rui carp in beautiful detail, like a bride and groom and sending it to the girl's house on the eve of the wedding or presenting a 'joda ilish' to Maa Saraswati post which only it comes to the house for consumption.
The fish that undoubtedly stands tall above all others and is my first and eternal Bengali love is Hilsa or Ilish, and that's our conversation today.
Bengal has two distinct cooking styles the "Ghoti" style represents West Bengal and the "Bangal" style from East Bengal, which is more rustic and tastier in my opinion, and voicing this opinion has made me many enemies among my Ghoti friends. Among other heated arguments that ensue when Ghotis and Bengalis eat together, the most common one which I recently was a witness to is about the queen (ilish).
Sudipa Mukhopadhyay is a wonderful lady, who cooks the most amazing Bengali food and hosts the longest running cookery show in Bengal "Rannaghar". She shared the most interesting Ilish recipes and stories this January on my visit to Kolkata. Her husband is a Bangal and they are a lovely couple except when it comes to the conversation on which ilish is better, the Ganga Ilish from West Bengal or the Padma Ilish imported from Bangladesh. This conversation lights up the dining table instantly like a haybarn on fire, and that fire is the spice to her marriage, she jokes. But there's no difference of opinion over the fact that Hilsa is the Queen of Bengal and it rules both sides of the Padma. The fact that no fish can rival its exquisite flavour and tenderness, not even the giant prawn with its succulence and flavoursome coral-filled head.
All good stories have a message right? Even love stories. This story has a heartfelt message too. It's painful to see the Ganga Ilish become a rare commodity due to river pollution and overfishing. The
Padma Ilish is the only variety available in fish markets and the Ganga Ilish are only becoming rarer and smaller and skinnier because of the not so great water of today's Ganges. If you are a fish lover, try out this recipe, fall in love with the ilish and then do drop a line to the Ganga pollution control unit giving them another reason to keep up the good work.
1 inch Ilish Darne (locally known as the ring cut): 2 no.s
Poppy seed paste with green chilly: ¼ cup
Kasundi mustard: ¼ cup
Mustard oil: 1 tbsp
Curd: ½ cup
Turmeric powder: 1 tsp
Salt and lemon juice to taste
Banana leaf to wrap
Marinate the fish with turmeric and salt leave aside for five minutes. Mix all the other ingredients and apply on fish. Wrap in banana leaf and steam, serve hot.