Why the ilish machher jhol is such a good example of the simplicity and subtlety of Bengali cooking

The illish beguner jhol that I cooked last  night
Scroll down if you are in a hurry for the recipe

Few things capture the simplicity and subtlety of Bengali cooking as much as the machher jhol or light fish curry. This gets amplified even more if the fish used is ilish or hilsa  as one makes it a point to not overcook or over-spice the ilish.

Hilsa is the most prized fish of Bengalis. The jury is out on whether the Kolaghat ilish from Kolkata is better or the Podma ilish from Bangladesh. My mother, who doesn’t think much of the ilish (bheeng) that we get in Mumbai, prefers Kolaghat ilish as she feels that the Bangladesh ilish that she gets in Kolkata is frozen for too long to retain its taste. I have heard folks like Ushnish Ghosh say that that the ilish from Burma is pretty good. Bengali expats across the world make a beeline for local Bangladeshi run shops for ilish and pathar mangsho (goat meat). 

Many Bengalis strongly believe that the taste of ilish shouldn’t be smothered by an excess of spices. That it should be cooked with a lot of tender love and care. Just as they would treat a good entrecote (steak) in France. 

Some turn their nose up at the spate of ilish festivals conducted by various restaurants these days saying that classic flavours shouldn’t be messed up with. My only point here is that the moment you add anything to ilish, even if just mustard oil or mustard paste, you are adding a level of tempering to the original taste. So to have an ilish naked, you need to make an ilish sashimi. And remember today's 'classic' pairings were experiments at one point. So don't be too hard on those experimenting with ilish. Provided they are doing this for the love of food, and not for the sake of gimmicks, they might come up with a new hit.

I remember the time I had ordered ilish in Dhaka in the early 2000s. I was aghast when I saw it was served in an onion based curry. ‘Blasphemous,’ said Amitesh when I spoke about ilish and onions during a Facebook Live video. Well, not in Bangladesh evidently. Blasphemy for some is sauce for the others.

Ilish is pretty expensive in Mumbai this year and folks like Indrani, a Finely Chopped reader, and chef Anirudhya Roy of the Taj Lands End, told me that they haven’t been able to get a decent sized ilish in the local Khar station market. I got lucky a couple of days back as the folks from the online shopping site, Gourmet Delight, send home an ilish for me to sample just when my mother came into town. How's that for divine intervention? The site lists ilish at Rs 1,380 a kilo.

On mom's request, I made my doi posto shorshe ilish, the night she arrived. The taste of the sauce is a big part of this dish and the fish turned out to be of pretty good quality and made for a nice ‘Welcome to Mumbai’ dish for her. 

Doi posto shorshe ilish
Here's the link to my recipe

Ilish can be quite bony and intimidating but this was a big fish so K and I were not too put off by the bones. Mom adroitly had the bony ilish fish head with lau the next day. Mom's tip for handling bones is to deep fry and eat the bonier pieces such as the lyaja (tail) and gaada (back) as this makes it easier to handle the bones. Her other tip is, "never add coriander leaves (dhone paata) to ilish".

That rules out a Parsi patra ni ilish I guess!

Couple of days later, I took out some of the remaining ilish from the freezer and made ilish beguner jhol. Hilsa cooked in a light curry with brinjals.

The ilish'er jhol that I cooked last evening was anchored on simplicity. I added in a few elements of my own like a teeny weeny bit of fresh ginger which my mother doesn’t use and some finely chopped tomato which my mother uses but not all Bengalis do in an ilish curry. That’s because I like playing around with flavours a bit to see what works for me. For me what matters is food that tastes good and not food that adheres to tradition. Incidentally, on the tomato bit, my mother says that my granny (who is close to 90 yrs now) grew up in a house at Jalpaiguri which had tomato trees and says that tomatoes were not that alien to their diet.

One thing which I realized about the ilish I cooked yesterday is that it is difficult to always expect the lightness and balance that one gets in a freshly cooked ilish curry at home in a restaurant where things are not always made from scratch.

Here's my recipe:


  • ·      6 cut pieces of ilish. If you get a 1 kilo plus ilish then you have hit jackpot
  • ·      4 slices of thinly sliced aubergine/ begoon unpeeled
  • ·      3 tablespoon mustard oil (for frying and the curry)
  • ·      Tarka/ foron for seasoning oil: ½ teaspoon whole shada jeere (cumin), 2 slit green chillies
  • ·      Curry/ jhol base: Less than an inch of finely chopped fresh ginger for pungency. This is my touch, not everyone uses this in ilish curry, nor does my mother. 1 tablespoon of finely chopped tomatoes for tartness. Our family uses this. Not everyone does. I like the flavour it adds to the very light sauce
  • ·      Spices: ¼ teaspoon cumin/ jeera powder (not everyone uses this), ½ teaspoon red chilli powder and 1 teaspoon turmeric powder and ½ teaspoon salt (make a paste with a teaspoon of water so that the spices don't burn when added to the hot pan)
  • ·      1.5 coffee mugs of water


  • ·      Smear the aubergine pieces in a little bit of salt and turmeric and red chilli powder and shallow fry in mustard oil
  • ·      Smear the hilsa pieces in a little bit of salt and turmeric and red chilli powder and shallow fry in mustard oil. Do not deep fry. You can deep fry the fish in rohu/ catla curries but not ilish which requires a lot of TLC
  • ·      Add a teaspoon of water to spices and make a paste


  • ·      Heat a teaspoon of mustard oil in a pan
  • ·      When the oil is hot, add green chillies and whole jeera/ cumin seeds to it, Be careful as it will sizzle and sputter
  • ·      After 30 seconds, or less, add the finely chopped ginger and tomato
  • ·      Let it cook for about 30 – 60 seconds more, blend the mix into the oil by pressing it with a ladle. Add the spice paste and stir for 30 seconds more on a low flame
  • ·      Add the shallow fried brinjal pieces. Let them cook on medium flame for 45 seconds and then turn the pieces over and let them cook for about 45 seconds more
  • ·      Gently place the shallow fried fish pieces on the pan. Let them rest on the pan on a medium flame for about 1 minute
  • ·      Very, very gently turn the fish around. It breaks easily. Add the water and let it come to a boil
  • ·      Reduce the flame and cover the pan and let it cook for another 2 minutes and you are done
  • Add a dash of mustard oil at the end for flavour and aroma just as Italians add some extra virgin olive oil to a dish at the end of cooking.

·        Serve the curry (jhol) with rice. I like Basmati rice though most Bengalis traditionally don't have this daily and prefer other rice varieties.

     Bhaat and ilish maccher jhol makes for an Uttam Suchitra level of pairing as any Bengali will tell       you.

Ilish machher jhol and bhaat

Uttam Suchitra for those who didn't get the reference
Picture source & nice read on the topic:

The dish was pretty quick to cook and I got our cook Banu to help by shallow frying the begun and fish first.

What I liked about the dish I cooked last night, and the reason why I am sharing this recipe, is that the jhol (sauce) had a very nice and sharp taste and combined well with the taste of the ilish.  Both complimented each other well. The spices used were minimal but yet packed in loads of flavour.

The ladies at home seemed to agree!

Ilish brought our family together across India last evening. While I cooked ilish in Mumbai for my mom and wife, my sister in law in Guragon cooked it for my brother and her. I don't have a picture  of that though as, unlike me, the little one doesn't upload pictures of everything that he eats. This was completely unplanned. 

Beat that Manmohan Desai!

At the end of the cook
wearing the tee my mother in law gave me

My mother in law got me a bunch of tee shirts from her recent trip. "You can wear them when you do Periscopes," she said.

I wore one when I did a Facebook Live video while I cooked last night. I am sure she won't mind

You can catch the saved broadcast here and please like the Finely Chopped by Kalyan Karmakar Facebook page to catch more such broadcasts


Loved the fish & the man in tee��