My kingdom for an ilish. A Bengali food love song recorded in Mumbai.

Ilish bhaaja with khichuri and miri papeta

Statutory warning: Be careful of  its bones while eating the ilish for the first time and do not try to tackle them unsupervised.

Happy ilish to you

It is a dear friend's birthday today and I could not think of a better way to celebrate his birthday than to head out to the Khar market with the massive ilish that he had got us from out of town sometime back. I know that this sounds strange and self centred, but stay with me.

He had got the ilish frozen and put in an ice pack and then flew back to Mumbai and come straight to our apartment to give it. I kept this gift of the Magi in the deep fridge, where it lay nestled cozily all this while. I had to go to market to get it descaled and sliced first before cooking. I kept postponing that because of multiple reasons such as the rains of the past few days and K's going out of the town (she loves ilish too) and my being under the weather for a day or two before that. Doing this to ilish is criminal is what my fellow Bengalis would say and I agree.

I decided that it was about time that I take Miss Ilish 1976 to the market when I got know that it was my friend, the bestower of ilish's, birthday today (5th August).

Shabana Azmi at the end of Broken Images
Flanked by Raell Padamsee at Andrews, bandra

I met the said friend (Zaved) yesterday too. You know him as 'JayZee who is not Jayzee,' on the blog. He messaged to say that he had spare tickets for Shabana Azmi's play, Broken Images,  which was to be performed at the Andrew's auditorium next door in bandra. I happily joined him and his friends at short notice to watch the very intense play (written by the late Girish Karnad and directed originally by the late Alyque Padamsee) where Ms Azmi delivered a stellar performance which was a privilege to watch.

Being a group of Bengalis, we decided to have Chinese for dinner and went to the House of Mandarin after the play and of course we discussed Jimmy's Kitchen while at it. The lady in our group was rather startled when I said I need to click a pic first when a plate of prawns arrived. She has not eaten with 'our kind' before!

Z, quite the ilish Santa, had got an ilish for this couple too and the lady had a boti at home and a cook from Kolkata and the two together had cut theirs the day Zaved had given it and cooked it.

Not like lazy old me!

Sustainable eating

Ilish my darling

 For those who did not know, ilish is the Bengali name for hilsa, a sort of shaad which all of us in the east of India are obsessed with. There are big debates about whether Podmar ilish (from Bangladesh) is better or Gongar ilish from Kolaghat near Kolkata is so. The verdict depends on which side of the border drawn by the Brits that you trace your heritage to.

The more immediate issue though is that there is an ilish crisis in the state of Bengal due to overfishing from what I gather. There is hardly any ilish available in the market says my mother as well as friends on social media and the price of what is there is astronomical.

To counter this in their own country, the government of Bangladesh has put a seasonal ban on catching what they call jatka (small) ilish and have enforced limitations on exports too so that locals gets to enjoy their treasured fish. Z tells me that the Bangladesh government has even undertaken serious educational campaigns in recent years to explain to people that ilish consumption in April/ May and and September/ October should be avoided as that is the spawning season. The problem arises during pohela boishakh, as they call poila boishakh or the Bengali new year in Bangladesh, which falls on the 14th or 15th of April said Z. That is when everyone wants to have ilish though that is actually the time to let the ilish enjoy some privacy.

There are talks in Bengal about enforcing a ban on catching on what we call khoka or small ilish, which is less than a kilo, from what I gathered from Indrajit Lahiri when I asked him about this.  Many of my blogger/ food writer/ chef friends from Kolkata are exhorting their readers not to buy small ilish in the spirit of sustainability. Let the fish spawn first, is the message that they are trying spread. And do not buy too many ilish.  Stick to buying just one in the season, is what they say, so that everyone can enjoy it. The large ilish is very expensive of course and most would not be able to afford more than one in any case I reckon.

Accentuating the problem some say, the five star hotels in Kolkata and some standalone restaurants too, have started ilish festivals and the number of these being held has grown over the years. I would reckon that it makes more sense to buy an ilish and cook it at home than spend so much money for just a slice in hotels and restaurants, but whatever works I guess. The festivals would offer more variety of course. I am not that worried about the rivers being emptied because of this as five star hotel festivals have a limited audience as they are so pricey. Yet, with their money muscle, they might empty the market of ilish and drive up the prices, but then that is to be expected Adam Smith would say. Bengal has said bye to Marx after all.

Adding to the fun is a momo company which had announced an ilish momo festival. Imagination boggles, as Bertie Wooster would say!

Ilish in Mumbai

Ilish sliced expertly by Poonam at Khar market

If you are not Bengali and did not know what ilish meant before reading this post, then you would not have got my earlier reference to the Aparana Sen song, aami miss Kolkata 1976 from the movie Basanta Bilap of course.

It is not that ilish is unknown in Mumbai. It is just that it is known by other names.

The Parsis call it bheeng and my late father in law loved it and was particularly fond of bheeng nu garab. Fish roe. What we call maacher deem. Zenobia Schroff makes an excellent Parsi pickle with the ilish roe and retails it from Dadar. Chef Vicky Ratnani, a Sindhi himself, told me that a fish called pala is considered to be the vehicle of their supreme deity Jhule Lal by the Sindhis. From what I understand, the Sindhis cook pala with tomatoes and onions. The pala is nothing but the hilsa!

The hilsa that one gets in Mumbai comes from Jamnagar. Of late, they do try to source ilish from the east for us Bengalis too. You need to ask your fish seller here about whether it is 'Calcatta' or Gujarati ilish if you are fussy about it, and which you will be if you are Bengali.

The Jamnagar hilsa cost Rs 1,200 a kilo at the Khar market today said Poonam who runs a fish stall at the Khar station market along with her sister Sangeeta and mother Heera Bai. Heera Bai had started this business 40 years back and they are Koli women. I had gone to them to get my ilish scaled and deboned today and they gladly did so. I ask them to make round slices with gaada peti (back and belly intact) as both K and I love the peti more. This way we do not have to choose between either and the marital peace at home is not disturbed by the entry of ilish!

In a hat tip to my identity as a Mumbai immigrant, I bought some pomfret and bangda (mackerel) too. Pomfret here is as popular as ilish is in Bengal. As it is the spawning season at the moment, the local Maharashtrians do not eat fish during this season and the Kolis do not go out to fish in local waters either. The sea fish that you see in this season in Mumbai comes from Andhra and Gujarat and is largely consumed by non-Maharashtrians. Sustainability is ingrained into the culture here.

Treat her with tender love and care

Back home with my ilish

I came back home from the market and portioned out the fish into small boxes to have when K returns to town.

I took out one large piece and fried it in mustard oil after patting it with just a hint of turmeric, red chilli powder and salt on it. My grandmother and mother too were born in Dhaka and my granny tells me that they would never over spice or over fry fresh ilish caught from the river in the monsoons in Dhaka when she was a kid.

That is how I treated mine too today. With tender, love and care. Shatlano as we call it. I paired it with some khichuri and this is a classic monsoon combination. So what if the rains finally stopped this morning? It was still nice and cloudy through the day. Plus my mother had told me when she visited us the last time that one should always fry some of the fish one has brought from the market once one returns home. I do not know whether this is her own 'rule' but I found this to be more palatable than her 'no girlfriends' rule (studies come first) when I was a teenager!

I approached the slice ilish with a bit of trepidation while eating I must admit. Specially the gaada or back part which is a minefield or bones. "As a Bong, you are born equipped to handle kaata," quipped Z when I told him about this later, but then unlike him, my granny or mom, I was born in Canterbury in the UK and not Dhaka.

I heaved a sigh of relief once the gaada part was over and when I moved on to the fleshy belly and the roe and the machher tel (fish oil/ blubber). The way one would, after hitting the Mumbai Pune expressway in the rains after navigating ones way through the potholes and crevices of the city roads in the blinding rain. Not that I ever have any plans of leaving Bandra when it rains (though I did go to Pune to eat last year when it was raining).

An ilish party

Z was very happy when I sent him the pic of the ilish and told him that I had really enjoyed it. Then, given that it was his birthday, I invited Z over for some ilish maachh bhaaja at night, made with the ilish he gave me!

I called over my friend and my college senior, Shaswati, who often cooks and feeds K and me, and who like Z and unlike me, can navigate through the kaata easily. Which was a stroke of genius as it was about 11 pm by the time I had got dinner ready as I had returned home rather late from the salon where I had gone to shave off my week long experiment of trying to keep a beard (why show to the world how much white hair I have?). Plus I had to run out while cooking and before the guests arrived as I realised that we were short of potatoes. It was a bit like one of those reality shows and I am sure I would have got eliminated by this performance.  It would have been rather awkward if the birthday boy was by himself while I was in the kitchen though in all fairness, I did get the food ready while it was still his birthday!

I made an ilish machher mudo diye dal (fish head dal) as well and which made it a head to tail ilish party as I had fried the lyaja (tail).  To have with it, I boiled  Gobindobhog rice instead of the usual basmati. Let's make it shola aana Bangali (Bengali to the core), I thought. We had a couple of observations on Gobindobhog in the adda that followed during dinner. Firstly, that it no longer seems to have associated with in which case it Comes down to the texture and size of this short grain rice varietal. Secondly, it does not expand as much as the basmati and hence one needs to take out a larger amount while cooking it.

I also made an alu sheddo/ alu makha to go with and had put in the potatoes with the rice to boil. What they call alu bhorta in Bangladesh. I put out the jar of Jharna ghee at home and Zaved took out a liberal spoonful of the sort my granny would approve of and not the measly half a teaspoon that I take.

I later learnt from our friends KC and Manishita, who had first introduced us to Zaved, that he loves bhorta apparently.

What a happy coincidence is that? The magic of ilish you could say!

Alu bhorta/ maakha/ pitika/ choka, gobindobhog rice, ilish bhaaja, machher mudo diye dal

Update (19th April 2019): Here's what I did with the rest of the ilish once the missus returned to town

Doi posto ilish: Ilish smeared with turmeric, red chilli powder & salt. Lightly fried in mustard oil and to which I added a mixture of crushed posto (poppy seeds), water, a bit of dahi, salt and cooked it for a couple of minutes more

Bhaapa ilish: Ilish smeared with tumeric, red chilli powder and salt, with a mix of grated coconut, a bit of kasundi, mustard oil - put in a sealed stainless steel tiffin box - put in boiling water for 10 min and then turned the gas off and kept it in the hot water for another ten min

 I had both dishes with Gobindobhog rice and Jharna ghee. She, without the rice.


Some of my ilish posts from the past:

1. Panch phoron ilish and the launch of Times Kitchen Tales
2. Ilish in Bansdroni market in Kolkata
3. Ilish maachher jhol and the subtlety of Bengali cooking
4. Grannies ilish stories from Dhaka
5. My recipe for ilish bhaaja
6. Fish head dal recipe
7. Jimmy's Kitchen
8. My alu sheddo/ bhorta recipe

The song I was referring to: