From the rivers of Bangladesh to the markets of Kolkata…. Hilsa & other stories from Bansdroni Market, Kolkata

Note: Lots of photos. Keep scrolling

Chapter I … Bangladeshi ilish

I sat down for lunch at home the other day at Kolkata.

Mom took out some deep fried Hilsa or ‘Ilish’ fish. I scowled. These were small gaada or back pieces. Normally full of bones or kaata.

I was tempted to skip these and just go for the alu bhaaja or fried potatoes. I didn’t want to argue with my mom even though the heat at Kolkata often turns me into a sulking teenager.

I decided to tempt fate by taking on the bones.

I took a few bites and was stunned. The fish was so juicy that the bones just slipped out when I squeezed the fish with my fingers.

Felt like silk.

 Hilsa gaada fry alu bhaaja

That seemed pleasantly strange.

I finished the fried hilsa with aplomb and set off on the curry. Here mom served me peti or belly pieces of Hilsa. This was easy meat. A few long bones and that’s it. I was on safe ground. I took a bite.

I got up.

Left the table.

Returned with my camera.

This fish was special. It was so artistically delicate. The texture of the meat so angelic. The fish seemed to float in your mouth. That’s how celestial it was. I had to capture it for posterity.

I have had good Hilsa at Mumbai. The stuff they get from Gujarat. But the hilsa mom served was sacred not mortal. I put a couple of pieces back into the bowl from my plate to photograph them. The roe cheerily peeping out at the camera lens.

Hilsa peti

I complimented mom on the freshness of the fish. She said that the was fish from Bangladesh.

Which is when I realised how much of a philistine I was when I used to tell people that I am happy with my Gujarati ilish. How different would the Bangladeshi ilish be?

Well I found out that I was wrong. Very wrong. There apparently was something that the Modi Government at Gujarat has not been able to crack yet.


And here’s her recipe. As she proudly says, the only one she uses to make ilish curry.

Smear some salt and turmeric on the ilish pieces and shallow fry them. Set the fried fish aside. Heat the oil that remains in the pan. Add some whole cumin (jeera) seeds and a couple of split green chillies. Stir them in the oil till they splutter. Add some sliced potatoes (parboiled to use less oil and to save time), sliced brinjal and stir. Add a bit of salt, turmeric powder and a touch of chilli powder. When cooked add the fried fish back. Add some water for the sauce. Bring to a boil. Cover the pan with a lid, reduce the flame and let the sauce cook for another 5 minutes. Turn the fish around in between. You are done. Eat it with plain boiled rice.

There is a post script to story.

I came back from work. Tired and hungry. Sat down to eat. Served myself some of the prawns my mom made. And the fragrant Gobindobhog rice.

I was about to eat when my mom spoke.

“Such big prawns. Won’t you photograph them?”

Mom's prawn curry

Chapter II : Bansdroni Bajar

Bansdroni market

Friend and food blogger Sassy Fork had suggested that I go to my local market at Kolkata for a shoot. I love shooting markets. This seemed like a good idea.

The next day was a Sunday. The day when all respectable Bengali bhodroloks or gentlemen hit the market. I woke up, took my camera and headed there at about eleven in the morning. I was particularly keen to see the fish market and the ilish or hilsa there.

I walked towards Bansdroni Market. This particular market building had come up after I left Kolkata.

I used to go and shop on Saturdays at Bansdroni Market to help my mom. That was at the earlier make shift market. I was allowed to get chicken. And groceries. Mom never trusted me to get fish. Even now she finds some fault or the other with the fish I get.

I guess you are never old enough for your mother.

This time I was alone and went to the fish section first.

The enterprising gentleman I buy fish from when at Kolkata waved at me. He had heaps of Bangladeshi ilish (Rs 450 a kg). Fresh, cuddly, plump. Would have married one if I could. I took an ilish up and cradled it in my arms while the fish seller variously told his customers that his photograph would come in the Times at Mumbai and on TV too!

Fishermen and their tall tales!

hilsa or ilish              ilish peti               SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                        

Buying and selling fish at Kolkata is serious stuff. It is a man’s business. A far cry from the fish markets at Mumbai which are manned by Koli women.

I walked around and took photos of prawns Golda (tiger/ big), baagda (medium), pomfrets as a fish seller arranged his wares for me to photograph on his own accord. The fish sellers of Bansdroni market seemed to be the antithesis of its sari sellers. They actually wanted to promote their business and sell their stuff unlike the sari sellers just sulked if you showed interest in their stuff. But the sari sellers have to deal with women and you can’t blame them.

You think that I am sexist?  Well let’s just say that I have been privy to some very harrowing sari buying trips.

SONY DSC                       kaatla...the blood denotes freshness                     pomfret or 'pamphlet'             tiger prawns or golda chingri                Medium prawns or baagda chingri                   parshe or boi at Mumbai           SONY DSC                       Had of a caatla for daals or mudi ghonto              Loita or Bombay Duck

This was one happy market with men floating around happily checking out the fish, some polite good natured bargaining. Often more a formality than anything else.

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I moved on to the meat section. The loan mutton shop, Once standard fare for Bengali families on Sundays. Now rather empty.


Upstaged by the heathen fowl. Chicken. In the racist world of food, red is a bad bad word.

We had moved over to chicken early in our house thanks to my mom. I used to come to the market every Saturday to buy chicken which would be cooked at night and be spread over two meals.

I spotted the gentleman I used to buy chicken from. He broke into a huge smile of recognition as he saw me while he beheaded a chicken.

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I left the blood and gore of the temples of flesh and moved towards the Garden of Eden. The vegetable sellers. Well there was more stuff here than what one sees at Mumbai. I didn’t know the names of half the things on display. I asked around.

Ashok Babu who was shopping there told me that the green porcupine-like thing was kakrol. Apparently it’s seeds taste very well when fried with ground poppy seeds or posto. He responded to my discomfiture with vegetables by saying ‘vegetables taste good. You just have to cook them properly’.

This retired gentleman loved cooking for his wife.

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Potatoes, onions and ladies fingers I knew. Then mocha (banana flowers) of the beloved mochar ghonto which only grannies can make. Pumpkins, bitter gourds, flat beans or sheem.

More stuff which I looked at suspiciously. I had seen then before but had always kept my distance from them. I circled the vegetables like a wary Mowgli sniffing suspiciously at humans.

turmeric                 chillies                    SONY DSC                       Paati or regular lebu/ lime                   Gondhoraj lebu                   SONY DSC                       Laal shaak                Sweet potatoes painted red              SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                          SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       sheem               SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                         SONY DSC                         SONY DSC                       Pumpkins                    SONY DSC                       coconut              cilantra

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I then went past the lonely fruit guy and walked past the shops selling ‘nighties’. Banish any thought of Victoria and her secrets. This is what moms, grand moms, neighbouring aunts would consider kosher to walk around the house or even the neighbourhood in.

Tea shops, groceries, utensils and stationery shops.

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Shops selling religious puja items. One which displayed a number of clay pots. The two proud brothers who had painted them there.

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I headed back home from the market that Sunday. As I did for so many Sundays while growing up at Kolkata. And now as a grown up at Mumbai.

Except this time I returned just with a million photos and a billion smiles.