Bengalis have a rich tradition. Something that I have been taught when I was a mere toddler. While I love reading the bengali books, the good food and music has somehow never exactly enticed me. However, there is nothing like home-cooked (and well prepared, of course) food. Bengal, before its partition into eastern and western parts, has been ruled by various ethnic groups. This has influenced the cuisine to a great deal. While West Bengal has developed and progressed (well, somewhat) into a multi-cultural hub, Bangladesh i.e. East Bengal still maintains a traditional influences when it comes to the world of culinary experience.
Due to the proximity to the Great Ganges, fish is the dominant choice for non-vegetarians (I can not recount to you how many times I have been the butt of all kinds of fishy jokes) Unlike the norm, the traditional society of Bengal is more based on agricultural practices. Due to the abundance of rivers, ponds and lakes, freshwater fish holds a particular appeal to the natives, not only because of the taste but also because of the varieties that you can see; more than forty types of mostly freshwater fish are common.
Bengalis prepare fish in innumerable ways – It could be fried, cooked in roasted, a simple spicy tomato based gravy (jhol), or mustard based with green chillies (shorshe batar jhaal), with posto, with seasonal vegetables, steamed, steamed inside of plantain leaves, cooked with doi (curd/yogurt), with sour sauce, with sweet sauce or even the fish made to taste sweet on one side, and savory on the other. Almost every part of the fish (except fins and innards) is eaten; the head and other parts are usually used to flavor curries. The head is often cooked with dal or with cabbage. Shorshe Ilish, a dish of smoked hilsa with mustard seeds paste, has been an important part of both Bangladeshi and Bengali cuisine. Salt water fish (not sea fish though) hilsa (hilsa ilisha) is very popular among Bengalis, and is considered as king of fish. Ilish machh (hilsa fish), which migrates upstream to breed is a delicacy; the varied salt content at different stages of the journey is of particular interest to the connoisseur, as is the river from which the fish comes – fish from the river Pôdda (Padma or Lower Ganges) in Bangladesh, for example, is traditionally considered the best. Being a part of both sides of Bengal, I have been told by my grandmother that the fish can be cooked in 108 different ways. And I have only tried out one type!! Such a shame, right?
Mustard might seem like a strong, pungent flavor. But when the king of fish is in the picture, you just have to bring the best flavor to color that picture.We may have borrowed the idea of black mustard seeds from the South Indians, but there is no one who uses the freshly-ground mustard paste like the way Bengalis do. It is one of my favorite fish in this world, actually it is the only fish that I truly love and enjoy. So I will share the recipe with you, my dear readers with the hope that you enjoy it the way I do.
- Hilsa fish/ Ilish Mach: 5-7 pieces (500g)
- Black Mustard Seed for paste: 4 Tsp. (it should be soaked in lukewarm water)
- Sour Curd/Tok Doi: 4 Tbsp.
- Freshly Grated Coconut: 3 Tbsp. (I have used Coconut Powder instead of Fresh grated coconut)
- Poppy Seed/ Posto: 1.5 Tbsp.
- Salt: to taste
- Turmeric powder: 1 Tsp
- Green Chilli: 4-6
- Red Chilli Powder: 1/2 Tsp
- Mustard Oil: 4 Tbsp.
1. Wash the fish. Coat the fish with turmeric powder and salt. Keep it aside and let it marinate for 15 minutes.
2. Prepare a thick paste of Black Mustard either in grinder by adding 1 green chilli and 1 Tsp. of salt and keep it aside.
3. Heat a pan with 2-3 tblsp of mustard oil. Put ½ tblsp of Kalonji (onion Seeds) and 2 green chillies.
4. Add the paste and stir for a minute. Next add the fishes.
5. Pour 2 cups of water. Cover and let it cook for about 10-15 minutes. (You can also pressure cook for 2 whistles.)
Steaming the Ilish: Any of the process mentioned below can be followed:
Using Vessel or Handi: Take a deep Vessel/ Handi with and place the Box and then pour 5 Cup of water in the box and place the stainless Steel box and then cover the Vessel with the lid and place the vessel in high flame for around 5 minutes or till water started boiling and then cook in low flame for around 20 minutes.
Using Pressure Cooker: Pour 5 Cup s of water in a Pressure Cooker and place the Stainless Steel Box and then Pressure cook in pressure cooker in medium flame for 2-3 whistles. Wait till steam comes out of the cooker.
6. Let the gravy thicken.
7. Bhapa Ilish is ready to serve with steamed rice.