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Bhapa Ilish - The quintessential love story of the bongs


As I sat there, in front of my laptop, giving due credit to the ‘new normal’ of “working from home” (WFH), my eyes wandered outside the window to watch a misty drizzle called ‘ilshe guri’ in Bengali. My mind instantly reached out for few lines of Satyendranath Dutta’s famous poem “Ilshe Guri” (the drizzle) which goes as –

ইলশেগুড়ি ইলশে গুড়ি ইলিশ মাছেরডিম|

ইলশেগুড়ি ইলশে গুড়ি দিনেরবেলায় হিম |

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ইলশেগুড়ির নাচন্ দেখে

নাচছেইলিশ মাছ|

It appears as though the poet was thinking of Hilsa (an indigenous variety of herring) with full of roe on a drizzling and chilly day, and how the Hilsas are dancing merrily under water with the monsoon drizzle.

It is thought that when there is a misty drizzle during the monsoon season, the Hilsa fish swims from the Bay of Bengal to the estuarine waters of the rivers which meet the sea, and hence the name derived from Ilish ‘Ilshe Guri’.

For us Bengalis, the monsoon season is synonymous to ‘Ilish Season’, as the unique flavour and taste of Hilsa are enhanced during the monsoon. Preparation of culinary delights with Hilsa is a sort of a ritual engrained in the Bengali culture. Here when I say Bengali, I mean both the Bengals (east and west), though the argument over which side possess the best quality of Hilsa, persists eternally. According to the noted food historian and author Chitrita Banerji, ‘Hilsa from Padma river in Bangladesh are bigger than those of Ganga specimens. However, in terms of flavour and emollient texture according to the proportion of oil in the Hilsa, it seems the Ganga Hilsa out scores the Padma specimen.’ Well, I cannot disagree to that, given my biasness of belonging to West Bengal and enjoying the catch from Ganga.

For the Bengalis, Hilsa is a sentiment similar to their obsession with football. Even when there is a football match between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, the price of Hilsa or Prawn goes up depending on the match outcome.

There are numerous ways Hilsa dishes are prepared. Hilsa in all its varieties, viz., dried (Nona Ilish), fried, smoked, steamed or cooked in gravy using mustard paste or coconut milk, can pleasure the human palate. Even Hilsa roe (described as Caviar of the tropics by Chitrita Banerjee) is a favourite side dish for Bengalis. Often fritters prepared from Hilsa roe are used as a side dish for lunch or evening snack on a rainy evening.

Thinking about the various dishes of Hilsa prepared in both the Bengals, my mind again begins to wander as to when was the first dish of Hilsa prepared or how was Hilsa discovered as being a fish which can bring such adventure to the palate. Renowned for its fertile land and perennial rivers, “Sujolang Sufolang….” as aptly described by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in our national song ‘Vande Mataram’, rice and fish has been a staple food for Bengalis for centuries. According to Suvajit Halder in his blog “Our Food Their Food: A Historical Overview of the Bengali Platter”, a 12th century poet named Jimutavahana mentioned the popularity of Hilsa and its oil (in which the fish is fried) in his writing Kalaviveka. Also, according to Mr. Halder, Narayanadeva in his Padmapuran mentions about fried Hilsa amongst the various vegetarian and Non-vegetarian dishes. However, the first mention of ‘Bhapa Ilish’ or Steamed Hilsa uniquely prepared in a bed of steaming rice, is found in the first Bengali cookbook written by Pragyasundari Debi, niece of Rabindranath Tagore.

The very thought of ‘Bhapa Ilish’ was enough to make me salivate. So, before my mind starts wandering again to another ‘Hilsa thought’, I rush to my man (K) to ask him to bring Hilsa the very next day so that I can prepare our first ‘Bhapa Ilish’ for this monsoon.


The recipe….

Bhapa Ilish can be prepared in quite a number of ways. But being the sloth that I am, I prefer the easiest way of preparing the dish in microwave.

Marinate the washed fish pieces (7 to 8 pieces) with salt and turmeric for about 30 minutes. Alongside, soak 1 tbsp of poppy seeds, 2.5 tbsp of mustard seed in lukewarm water. After some soaking, make a paste of the poppy seeds and mustard seeds with two green chillies. Now add 1 tbsp of yogurt to the paste, salt according to taste, turmeric powder, 2 teaspoons of mustard oil (Hilsa releases its own oil), 1 cup water and mix it up. Before putting the paste and the marinated fish into the microwaveable dish which will be used for the preparation, smear some mustard oil on it. Then spread some of the prepared mustard paste onto the dish, place the marinated fish pieces, pour the rest of the paste on top of the fish pieces with 2 slit green chillies and pour 2 teaspoons of mustard oil. Cover the dish.

Now put the container in the microwave, cook at high temperature for 5 minutes and at half the temperature for 20 minutes.

Et voila! ‘Bhapa Ilish’ is done!

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