Hooked on hilsa

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By THE GOOD OLD ILISH LENDS ITSELF JUST AS DELICIOUSLY TO NEW WAYS OF COOKING, SAYS RAHUL VERMA Courtesy: Chef Joymalya Banerjee, Oh! Calcutta, Photographs by Rashbehari Das
  • Published 10.08.08
Ilisher bilati roast

I some ways it is like the Everest. It is, as was once famously said, there — and mountain lovers keep going back to it. The ilish — or the hilsa — is like that. If you are an ilish aficionado, you want to revisit the fish over and over again. And like the mountaineers who always look for new ways to conquer the peak, the fish lover has to keep searching for innovative ways to cook the hilsa.

These profound thoughts hit me when Chef Joymalya Banerjee of Oh! Calcutta told me that he was cooking the hilsa in new ways this season. But that’s what he did last year, I thought to myself. It turned out that he had hit upon some more novel recipes. For instance, the chef has now been cooking the fish as a bileti roast — complete with Worcestershire sauce, white wine, Dijon mustard and honey.

For this, you need to rub salt and lime juice to two hilsa fillets — to feed four people. Keep the fish aside for 30 minutes. Make a marinade with salt, pepper, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, white wine and Dijon mustard. Apply this to the fish, and keep for 30 minutes. Now bake the fillets in an oven for 20 minutes. Remove and cool, and rearrange the fillets into individual portions.

Ilisher aamtel laupata bhate

Heat oil and butter in a pan. Sauté chopped onions, ginger and chilli. Add salt, pepper and boiled potatoes to the pan. Toss and cook till it’s mixed together, but not entirely mashed. Cook honey (diluted with water) and chilli flakes in a pan. Remove and add lime juice.

Apply the honey glaze on the fillet and grill to brown. Toss some rice with butter, tomato concassé — blanched, skinned and cubed tomatoes. Pan toss the potato mash and spoon it next to the rice. Place the grilled fillet in the centre of a plate and serve.

Some people, of course, would rather die than play around with the hilsa. For them, the fish should be eaten fried, or in a light gravy of onion seeds, turmeric and green chillies, or cooked with mustard. But a growing band of ilish lovers says that the fish is equally delicious when prepared in new ways.

One of the leading members of this group is another ilish innovator — the Calcutta-based writer of cookbooks, Satarupa Banerjee. I always turn to her when it comes to the ilish, for she really loves to experiment with the fish.

For instance, she cooks it the way you’d do a butter chicken — with tomatoes, butter, cream and cashew paste. She cooks it with raw mango and lime leaves. And she does a Thai ilish curry with lemon grass, green curry paste, kaffir lime leaves and so on. “All these recipes come out of my head,” she says. “You can cook it with anything nice and flavourful.”

Chef Joymalya Banerjee has hit upon novel recipes for preparing ilish

Satarupa has a great recipe for ilish cooked in milk. For this, take ¼ cup mustard oil, ½tsp nigella seeds, 4 green chillies, ½tsp turmeric and 2 cups milk which have been thickened into 1 cup. Heat the oil and add the nigella seeds and slit chillies. If you want, you can add some grated ginger too. Add turmeric with 1tsp water. On low heat, let the masala cook for a minute or two. Add the milk and increase the heat.

Add the fish (500gm, cut into six pieces), salt and sugar (to taste) and let it cook on low heat for five minutes. When the oil starts rising, you know the fish is done.

I suppose the great thing about the fish is that not only does it have a wonderful taste — sweet and smoky — it also very readily accepts other flavours. So when you cook it with mustard and grated coconut, you get the characteristic taste of the fish, but enhanced with the additional flavours. If you cook it with roasted brinjal, as chef Banerjee does, it infuses new aromas into it.

Ilisher dhoan paturi

Take the chef’s smoked brinjal and ilish dish — called ilisher dhoan paturi. For this, the chef roasts a brinjal and then peels and mashes it. He smokes the ilish by placing a lighted and oiled charcoal in the centre of a tray where the fish has been arranged, and then covers it with a foil.

He smokes the roasted brinjal mash in another tray. Then he cooks onions, tomatoes and the brinjal mash with turmeric, chilli and mustard. He uncovers the fish and adds its juices to the mash. He puts a fish piece in a parcel made out of a banana leaf, covers it with the mash, and then steams and grills it.

Chef Banerjee also cooks the fish in mango pickle and mango pickle oil. He wraps the fish in a bottle gourd leaf and lets it steam with half-steamed rice. He has a special ilish dish cooked with methi seeds. Satarupa prepares ilish with karomcha or karonda (a sour berry called Carissa caranda) and the leaves of the fragrant gondhoraj lime.

Truly, there are as many ways of cooking the hilsa as there are ideas. Just turn on the bulb.        

Ilisher methi morich jhol

Ingredients (for four)

• 4 pieces hilsa darne • 10gm methi seeds • 10gm raw turmeric • 6 slit green chilli • 10gm turmeric powder • 10gm red chilli powder • Salt to taste • 50gm mustard oil • 5gm mustard paste • 15gm green chilli paste • 2gm methi seed powder


Apply salt, turmeric and green chilli paste to the fish. Peel and slice the raw turmeric, crushing it lightly. Make a paste of the red chilli and turmeric

powder with a little water. Heat oil in a kadai, add the methi seeds and fry till brown. Add the slit green chillies and crushed turmeric. Sauté. Add the fish and sauté lightly. Add the masala paste. Cook for a few minutes and then add 500ml of water. Cover and simmer. Add the

seasonings and mustard paste and cook till the fish is done but the gravy is thin. Sprinkle methi seed powder. Serve with boiled rice.