The magic called hilsa or ilish: whenever I cook this Bengali fish, I purposely don’t turn my exhaust fan on. The moment my hilsa or ilish maach touches my wok, my house fills with a delicious aroma of unexplainable uniqueness. While the fish starts to get cooked, I can make out how good the hilsa is. An ilish maach is good when it is fresh and firm and doesn’t disintegrate on cooking. At the same time, chewy hilsa is undesirable. But by saying “good”, I don’t mean just the freshness. When a raw hilsa is chopped into pieces, layers of fish-meat demarcated by very thin, white fatty lining signifies that the fish is of good quality. But a “good” oily ilish is also the one which comes from the best of the waters. Yes, the water in which the fish thrives, decides its taste. Any fish-loving Bengali will tell you that Bangladeshi hilsa fish is loaded with the best of flavours. The fishes caught from river Padma or Padda (Paddar ilish) in Bangladesh are the tastiest. In India, hilsa is of good quality if it comes from the waters like the Rupnarayan river in Kolaghat.
Coming back to the topic of the “good” ilish again, it is the one which has red gills and shiny eyes, as my father always used to explain to me. When I was a child, he also told me that you should not wash the raw, chopped hilsa much. If you do, a good part of the flavour and aroma is gone. In fact, some people do not wash hilsa at all before cooking! He used to tell me how his mother (my thakuma) used to make the authentic, old-school nona ilish at home. It is similar to the Chinese salted fish. Salted ilish or nona ilish was very common during the British-rule days. Recently, my aunt-in-law (father-in-law’s sister: my pishishasuri) told me how it was made. Fresh and high-quality fish was sliced and smeared with salt, after removing excess liquid, bile and intestine from the fish. For nona ilish, scales were not removed. This salted hilsa was then hung up in an earthen pot and kept for a long time. The purpose of preservation was to enjoy hilsa throughout the year! You still get nona ilish in Kolkata. Just head towards the Baithakkhana Bajar near Sealdah station in Kolkata and you will find it if you are lucky!
Cooking ilish always brings back childhood memories for me. And a Bengali can never dissociate from food memories associated with ilish mach. The luxurious hilsa or Ilish, with price ranging anywhere from Rs. 1,000 to 1,600/kg, is a fish that a Bengali never minds to splurge at. But inspite of spending so much, these days, most ilish or hilsa fishes lack that distinctive flavour to die for.
By now, everyone in my family knows how much I love traditional recipes, alongside my love for fusion cuisine. My aunt-in-law has taught me this fabulous vintage recipe of her mother, and this recipe is believed to be originally from Kumilla, before the partition. A very important factor in this recipe is that the ratio of coconut paste to hilsa eggs is always 2:1 for best results. In this recipe, you cannot substitute freshly grated coconut paste with coconut milk or coconut cream. Not even the cream of a tender coconut will do. The perfectly matured coconut has to be broken open and the white thick flesh has to be removed first. The blackish skin needs to be removed and the white flesh has to be grated. It is recommended to add a green chilli and a pinch of salt when you make a paste of the grated coconut.
During the Durga Puja, with Bengali restaurants constantly innovating ilish recipes and also propagating authentic Bengali hilsa preparations, you will be spoilt for choices trying out different kinds of hilsa recipes in these, or for that matter, other authentic Bengali fish dishes. But believe me, more than what restaurants are doing with hilsa, it is the Bengali household kitchens across the world, which are constantly trying out new and old ilish recipes!
Go ahead and enjoy this fish-roe recipe if you love seafood. This dish (Ilish Macher Dimer Jhuro) is eaten as a starter/first course, with steamed rice. It is a crispy preparation and is best eaten when tastes a little extra spicy. When I have this in my thala (plate), I don’t care if I am served anything else. Just rice and this dish, and I am the happiest!
Ilish Macher Dimer Jhuro (Crispy Hilsa Roe Crumble)
[A heirloom Bengali recipe of an almost forgotten dish, this fish-egg recipe is just fit for the upcoming festive season.]
Fresh hilsa (ilish) roe: 250 g
Dried bay leaf: 1
Mustard oil: ½ cup
Salt: little more than ½ tsp, or according to taste
Turmeric powder: ¼ tsp
Cumin seeds: 1/5 tsp
Broken Dry red chillies: 2
Coconut paste (freshly grated): 500 g
Slit green chillies: 4
Marinate the ilish eggs with salt and turmeric powder. Marinate for 15 min. Heat oil till it smokes. Add the eggs and sauté, breaking it into tiny pieces. Crisp-fry the eggs on a medium flame. Remove in a bowl, with the help of a perforated spoon. When the eggs become cooler to handle, crush the pieces (with the help of your fingers) further, as much as possible.
In the same oil, add the bay leaf, dried red chillies, cumin seeds.
When the seeds turn brown, add the coconut paste and fry until it releases oil.
Now add the crispy fried eggs and sauté on a low flame for around 10 min, adding the green chillies.