Yes, the ilish, also known as the ilisha, hilsa, hilsa herring or hilsa shad, is a species of fish related to the herring, in the family Clupeidae. It is a very popular and sought-after food fish in the Indian Subcontinent. The most famous hilsh fish comes from Chandpur District, Bangladesh. Scientifically known as Tenualosa ilisha.
The Hilsa fish is a fresh water species and tastes good. But have you seen the sheer amount of tiny little bones that this treacherous fish comes with? The smelly and bony fish is an acquired taste for many.
It is called the king of fish. It is silver in colour and tricks your tastebuds into believing you’re having a slice of manna when you are finally done with the millions and millions of tiny bones. Bengal has sung paeans to it, right from Tagore to Didi.
Bengal has now got Bangladesh to lift its ban on the export of Hilsa because of Durga Puja and Durga Puja is incomplete without Hilsa. Much like any other festival in Bengal. But Hilsa, the flesh-and-bone dream wrapped in silver, never really worked for me. Primarily because of the hype.
Hilsa, or Ilish, as Bengal calls its priciest fish, was a rare delicacy. Like all things rare, it was a delicacy precisely because it was rare. Bengali women and men don’t much care for stocks or investments as much as they care for their Sunday lunch. And monsoon marks the arrival of the plumpest of Hilsas, with eggs in their sacks, and makes the average Bengali swoon first over the price and then over the taste.
Like every Bengali household, my growing-up years were marked by this lesson of sorts: you need to respect Ilish. Something that has now become part of the folklore in my family is how I, one-year-old, told the paediatrician that I loved “Ilish maach, chingri maach, mangsho (Hilsa, prawns, meat)” when he asked me my favourite food.
The doctor stared saucer-eyed for a while, then left me, went to my parents and told them how they were ‘criminals’ for turning a one-year-old (very fat) kid into this glutton of sorts. So what did my parents do? They changed the doctor, of course. Because no one interferes with food in Bengal. In a state like ours, very few things are held sacrosanct; and Ilish sits right on top of that list.
All through the later years, I never quite understood the hype around this fish. Yes, it tasted good. But have you seen the sheer amount of tiny little bones that this fish comes with? As cousins and their parents waxed eloquent about the Ilish on lazy Sunday lunches at family get-togethers, I would inevitably wait for the prawns, or whatever other, less treacherous fish the menu included.
The first bite into the Ilish is always scrutinised. The host couple would have their eyes fixed on you as you navigated the tunnels of prickly fine bones, then reach the main bone, till you finally picked out the flesh. Fish: 20 per cent, bone: 80 per cent is your average Hilsa. When you put that first mound of Ilish into your mouth, you are expected to close your eyes and let out a sigh of ecstasy. The hosts would not have it any other way. You are judged if you don’t like Ilish. You can never really blurt out, ‘No, I don’t like it!’ You want to be a social pariah? Sure, go ahead and condemn the Ilish.
One of the main reasons behind this extreme reaction is the price. Money always decides what is tasty. So even if an Aar or Katla might taste far better than Ilish, it would have to accept defeat in front of the Rs 1500/kg Ilish. You simply cannot fight Ilish. Monsoon also coincides with Jamai Shashti in Bengal, a strange festival where sons-in-law are treated like they have single-handedly rescued the world from an asteroid. The most expensive of fishes are bought, the most difficult of dishes are cooked and all of those are placed on a platter in front of this ‘jamai’, the miracle of a son-in-law. The menu simply, has to, include Ilish. Because Ilish in Bengal is not a mere fish.
It is a symbol of social status too. No one wants to call upon themselves the curse of the Ilish. So the father-in-law sets out for the fish market on the day before Jamai Shashti, his nylon bag in hand, and lands up in front of the many, many fish stalls. Then begins the haggling. During an average Jamai Shashti season, the price of Hilsa might peak at Rs 2,500 a kilo. The father-in-law and the fish-seller eventually reach a consensus, and the ritual of buying the Ilish is complete.
The price of the Hilsa has always been a clear case of demand and supply, and the overratedness, of course. Ask any Bengali about their love for Ilish and wham, you have an entire stanza of silvery goodness. Some might even compose a song and tell you why Ilish is an inseparable part of the Bengali ethos. But they will not tell you about the time when a fishbone got stuck in their epiglottis and gallons of water could not wash it away.
A ball of dry rice usually came to the rescue, taking that tricky little fishbone along with it. And once you’ve been through that amount of gagging, your eyes sticking out, the air knocked out of you, the fishbone not moving, tell me, can you love Ilish the King of Fish?
There’s something about this fish, called ilish. It inspires poets to write irreverent couplets. Think of poster child for Bengali poetry, Srijato whose poem on the fish is an email forward now. It inspires debate. What is better, the Ganga ilish or Padma ilish, food critics ask gravely.
And the question of whether lobster rule over the ilish – wars, football matches and family feuds have been fought for less. Okay perhaps wars are a bit of an exaggeration. But then what is a Bengali pontificating over hilsa and its many virtues, if not prone to a little bit of exaggeration.
At the table, on a rainy afternoon when The Park kicked off its hilsa festival, Ilish Reinvented, talk revolved around all things hilsa. Chef Sharad Dewan claims, that hilsa at the hotel can’t even hope to compare to a Bengali home-cooked meal. So they have left the classics – the hilsa in mustard gravy, ilish begun jhal (a simple stew of the fish tempered with kalonjee and slices of brinjal) and ilish tel to the home cooks. Cooking with the expensive hilsa can be a lesson in common garden housewifely economy.
With prices soaring, (at my regular departmental store trip last weekend hilsa was priced at Rs 1398/kg) it’s a lesson many can do with. “Households know how to use every bit of the ilish. The ilish head would be used either in a daal or with greens. The middle for gravy, and the tails for another kind of gravy, the entrails or fat is served as ilish tel which is had as a starter,” mentions Dewan.
But contrary to popular opinion it’s not an easy fish to like. Especially if one hasn’t grown up with it. It’s far too bony; it has a distinct flavour which many might think of as a not entirely pleasant smell. As a child I remember liking the taste but taking nearly an hour to sort through the bones to get to the flesh.
True connoisseurs, the words said, as if it seemed to mean “true Bengalis” or “true fish lovers” (as if they were all interchangeable) would know how to put a piece of fish in their mouth bones and all and would know how to separate the bones from the fish in their mouth and spit it them out like cats or like cats do? And for a Bengali nothing makes you feel quite as inadequate as not being a true fish lover.
But the ilish is nothing if not persistent. Be it in the form of a pretty but well-constructed illish sushi or like a warm hug in mug (the gooey savoury ilish risotto) it worms a hole of affection your heart. A lot like the city it is so popular in – somehow compelling despite its faults. #KhabarLive #hydnews