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.

SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       SONY DSC

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.

Kakrol           SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                         

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

SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       DSC04950 SONY DSC

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.

SONY DSC                       SONY DSC                       dhunochi                  SONY DSC                       SONY DSC

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.


Anonymous said…
This is sheer poetry - it transported me right back to the Gariahat market. I have to visit these markets once every trip to relieve the trauma I feel from going to the South City Mall and City Centre. You really have a eye for the beautiful but simple things in life.

beautiful pictures.. but i am amazed about your late encounter with bangladeshi ilish ... anyways better late than never.. and those prawns.. sheer love..i relish the simple aloo jhol of the fresh chingri .. absolute heaven ...
RShan said…
Thanks for sharing the pics of the market - loved the veggies - so fresh. You really ought to get to know them better - the gentleman was right, they just need to be cooked correctly to taste heavenly! That spiny veggie is called kantola in Mumbai and when cooked the right way tastes great.
Ushnish Ghosh said…
Dear Kalyan
You made my day ! Very nice presentation . I like it
Ghosh Kaku
dona said…
ami spain giye oder super market ar wet market giye mach ar mangshor chhobi tulechilam and the sales men looked stunned
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Thanks Sc though I must confess that I occasionally need a bit of the air conditioned lovin of South City :)

@Simple Girl No. Encountered them before. Including in a seemingly bizarre onion based grave at Dhaka. More like appreciated it for the first time

@RShan I agree :) need to find someone to cook them properly

@Ghosh Kaku you made my day :)

@Dona: surprised to see a woman at the fish market?
Kurush F Dalal said…
This is one of your best blogposts ... liked the Pali Market one .... loved this one.
dona said…
orey its me nilakshi... now you know why the woman goes to the fish market
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Kurush : thanks ... all the fish must've worked

@Dona: so you are not Dona Boudi
Kunal said…
This post reminded me of our visit to the Footscray market in Melbourne...I guess all the markets are wonderful in their own way...would love to visit all the Cal markets one day..thanks.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Kunal I remember the markets of Footscray and Vic Market every time I look through the camera lens
Scarlett said…
That picture with rice, aloo bhaja & fried fish looks SO yummy! I don't like fish but I still want to have it!! How Bong I've become after living in Cal for 3 years!!!!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Scarlett well even I prefer buying and cooking fish to eating it but it is difficult to get Kolkata or ilish out of your system once you have tasted them
Ivy said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Was a perfect read for a nostalgic evening. I have grown up in the Bansdroni-Baghajatin-Jadavpur market circuit though many summers back. Loved the pictures and the write-up. Red is unfortunately not the villain of the food world only for health reasons, but also for price, as it now can be clubbed with golda and ilish as specialty items that you dont mind paying the sky for. That probably explains the empty mutton counters better. Loved the post. Thanks for sharing.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
thanks for writing in Shubhorup. Bansroni market never had to glamour of the Gariahats of the world but I have seen it grow across locations...almost as if we grew up together....mutton is 400 bucks a kilo I think at bandra in Mumbai these days if not more
Unknown said…
@ The Knife -
Very evocative post, and coincidentally it describes familiar old Bansdroni market. My parents still live in one of the apartment complexes a 5 minute walk from the market. The whole neighborhood is changing with the Metro Rail station.

Did you ever try Suruchi, the local Roll spot? It's a couple of minutes north on the main road towards Gachtola, past Axis Bank. Pretty decent. One of the first spots I head to after reaching Kol.

BTW, my mom makes an amazing Kankrul Pur. The Kankrul inside is filled with a paste of posto (poppy), mustard & chili, covered with a light batter and fried. Heavenly with rice, some oil from the Kankrul fry, and a green chili!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
So you are a Bansdroni'ite too? Thanks for writing in. yes, the neighbourhood is changing. Not much of eating options yet though. I think I know Suruchi but doubt if I have tried. I will

The kankrul pul sounds very to give her address the next time I visit? :)
Unknown said…
Sure. Let me know when you're in town next :)
She cooks great traditional 'bangal' food...a dying art.
R. Karmakar._@ said…
Had it been a foreign country, market people would have framed the post n the pics on the notice board for the sake of advertisements. But India n specially Bansdroni Market is still a way behind. Remembering an anecdote - how a fish seller used to fool u by giving ruhu ' gada'( full of bones) saying it was ' peti' ( less bony part). But now u are an expert in buying fish.