An Obsession called Ilish Maachh


ilish fish
Hilsa Fish Curry – Source

The Bengali Bhadralok have a fancy for many things and chief among them is fish or ‘Feesh’. It is a Bengali ritual for the man of the house to go to the market everyday to buy a fresh supply of fish. The queen of fish ‘Hilsa’ or Ilish fish, popularly known as ‘Ilish maachh’, in Bengali language, is the essential ingredient of Bengali cuisine.

Although, ilish maachh is a tropical saltwater fish (scientific name: Tenualosa ilisha), it thrives in rivers and estuaries. This fish is found in the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and of course in the Bay of Bengal. The Hilsa is also a fast swimming fish, so it can quickly cover kilometers and swim up the rivers draining into the Bay of Bengal. The marine Hilsa caught in sea is not considered as tasty as the fish caught in inland rivers.

Hilsa is mostly available during February-March and in the monsoon season from August to October, as it is a seasonal fish. It is soft and easily perishable. Therefore, it is very expensive and needs quick transportation, freezing and other facilities to maintain it, before it reaches the various fish markets across Bengal. During the rainy season, it is considered to be the most wanted delicacy, meant to stoke the taste buds of the Bengali palate.

Ilish Fish
Fishermen seeking the elusive Ilish – Source: Monsoon Lover

The two main varieties of Hilsa are the Padma variety, loved by the Bangali immigrants from Bangladesh, and the Kolaghat variety found in the tributaries of river Ganga, which is sweeter and softer. This sweeter variety is loved by the Bengalis in Kolkata. The Hilsa is full of tiny bones that require trained eaters/hands to handle.

Bengali Bhadralok ensure that atleast two Hilsa fish (Joda Ilish) are bought for the occasions of Saraswati puja and Lakshmi puja. On auspicious occasions like pujas, functions and weddings, this fish is prepared in several ways: smoked, dried, fried, baked, steamed or cooked in curry. It is also prepared by mixing Brinjal, curd and green banana. There are several simple and grand ways of preparing the Ilish, and here are some of the popular recipes:

hilsa fish
Hilsa fish offered for sale in the market

There is the famous Shorshe Ilish or the Ilish Shorshe Bata, prepared with mustard paste, green chillies, and onions. It is a traditional and easy dish that can be prepared at home. Dahi Ilish is also an easy to serve dish, Bhapa Ilish (steamed Ilish) is a signature Hilsa dish, where fish pieces are mixed with paste of white and black mustard seeds, poppy seeds, marinated and then steamed in a particular way before being served in plantain leaves.

Ilish Maccher Paturi is where the fish pieces are smeared with turmeric powder, and put into a mixture of mustard paste, chili paste, yoghurt, salt and mustard oil, along with spices. Each spiced up piece is then folded in marrow or pumpkin leaf and the pieces are fried in oil. Ilish Maccher Jhol is also made in a somewhat similar manner with ginger paste, garlic paste and tomato puree, but it is mainly a curry preparation. Even the simple to make Illish Macch Bhaja is a mouth watering fried fish dish. Most of these dishes go well with steamed rice.

Ilish fish
Daily ritual at the fish market – Source: $owmya

Not just Bengalis, even visitors from within the country and abroad, fall in love with Ilish delicacies once they taste it. Anyone fond of fish, will truly obsess over the Ilish for the rest of their lives. It is good idea to try it once, and decide for yourself!

Photo Credits:
Monsoon Lover

Fact file –
Wiki Hilsa
Wiki Bengali Cuisine

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