When the scorching heat of the Indian summer finally bids adieu, the curtain is lifted to usher in the most prominent and long lasting season of our country – the monsoon. The quality of life in every season is shaped by a variety of factors – food, being a very important one.
I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to hail from that part of the country which can boast of a rich cultural and social heritage – Bengal or Bangla, if we go by the most recent nomenclature. Food is the undisputed hero of every Bengali’s life, and I am no exception. An undiluted Bengali (Khaanti Bangali) mind would wake up thinking about what to have for breakfast, gradually proceed to the lunch menu, followed by the snacks to be relished with a cup of steaming, hot tea and finally, the food that would be served for dinner and wrapping up the entire thought process by dreaming about food in sleep as well. While this may be quite difficult to digest under normal circumstances, this is nothing new for a Bengali – in fact, it is quite normal and mundane for a Bengali psyche. We eat, drink and breathe food – of all kinds and types.
Growing up in Kolkata in a typically Bengali household exposed me to different facets of Bengali life and culture and hardly a day went by when fish (sometimes more than one kind) was not served in my house. Occasional trips to the fish market with my grandfather during my childhood helped me get acquainted with the finer nuances of understanding this staple food of almost every Bengali household and it stands me in good stead now when I go to the market to buy fish.
When I sat down to write, I thought of sharing my thoughts with you about a very special food without which the Bengali life is incomplete – the Hilsa or the Ilish as we fondly call it. The hallmark of monsoon in Bengal is the abundant presence of this amazing fish in almost every corner of the fish market. The glistening, silvery outer coat seems to draw one like a magnet towards it and every time even now I end up making a big hole in my pocket and becoming the proud owner of a good quality Ilish Maachh.
The day there is Hilsa in the kitchen, I feel specially inspired to use my culinary skills to the best of their abilities. Time tested recipes inherited from Ma are always there to guide me the right way. We Bengalis have innumerable preparations of Ilish – fried Hilsa (Ilish maach bhaja), steamed Hilsa (Bhapa Ilish), Doi Ilish (Hilsa cooked in curd gravy), Ilish maachher Paturi being my personal favourites. Needless to say, mustard oil acts as the perfect cooking medium. The very mention of Ilish Maachher Paturi makes me nostalgic – it conjures up in my mind an image of a succulent piece of Ilish, brushed with mustard oil, turmeric and smeared with a combination of mustard and green chillies paste, enveloped in a clean banana leaf and steamed to perfection – a heady concoction indeed. When this perfect piece of culinary delight is gradually unveiled on the dinner plate, the heavenly aroma that greets us is indeed an unforgettable experience – a must try for every fish lover. As far as I remember, Paturi was reserved for special occasions, usually for formal lunches and dinners. It was mostly the regular Ilish Maachher jhol (the typical Bengali fish curry) and Ilish maachh bhaja ( Hilsa deep fried in mustard oil) along with Khichudi ( khichdi as we know it) especially on rainy days.
It is a well-known fact that fish holds a very special place in the life of a Bengali in more ways than one. Bengali marriage rituals are incomplete without fish. A typical Bengali monsoon wedding usually has Hilsa as the main ingredient of Tattwa (gift) which is sent from the groom’s house to that of the bride.
I remember during my childhood, some of my friends’ families observed the ritual of having Joda Ilish (a pair of Hilsa) on the occasion of Saraswati Puja held on Basant Panchami as it was considered very auspicious.
Apart from Bengal, Hilsa is also available in other parts of India and its neighbouring areas but I feel the deep connection that the Bengalis (of both Bengal and Bangladesh) have with the fish, is the stuff romantic tales are made of.
For those who are particularly conscious about their health, I would like to say that the Hilsa is a very oily fish rich in Omega 3 fatty acids and requires very less oil for cooking. It is truly a very dynamic fish – one of its kind. Every noble path is beset with difficulties and learning to overcome those hurdles makes the journey memorable. My experience with the ‘Queen of all fishes’ have also been something like that. This extremely delicious fish is accompanied by very fine and sharp bones, making it quite cumbersome for some to deal with it. Luckily for me, I have been well initiated in that process right from my childhood.
I feel that the deep bond that we Bengalis share with Hilsa transcends generations. I see my daughter enjoying the fish with the same degree of enthusiasm and happiness which makes all my efforts, love and care in preparing it truly worthwhile. The availability of fresh Hilsa is confined to the rainy season here and being considerably heavier on the pocket has made this fish a luxury item – saving it for special occasions mostly. Our culinary tastes have evolved with time but our love for this royal fish continues unabated, transcending age, tastes and preferences. Hilsa or Ilish, as we call it, will always hold a special place in our hearts. It truly defines a pucca Bengali like me and so many of my fellow Bengalis.