Ilish maachh….just the name is enough to make me start drooling. Most Bengalis including me, my family, and my neighbors have a Freudian obsession with this fish. Unfortunately, in a few years, this beautiful silvery creature is likely to be found not glistening over crushed ice at your local fishmonger, but in the history books your children will read at school. The reason – greed. Simple, unadulterated human greed. I feel we are becoming both exponentially greedier and less considerate about nature. We want everything, all the time. I’ve heard people say “If I can afford it, why shouldn’t I eat hilsa in November?”. Well, you can now, but not for too long, you idiot.
Tenualosa ilisha or the beloved ilish, as we call it in Bengali, is a very special fish. It is anadromous, meaning they live their adult life in the sea and come to the fresh water/river to hatch eggs. Once they lay the eggs, they go back to the sea again. The duality of its lifestyle, involving both saltwater and freshwater diets, is what gives hilsa its distinct flavor and taste, which really has no close approximation in other fishes (shut up, those of you about to talk about shad).
Overfishing and even more cruelly, harvesting of juveniles, is killing hilsa populations as I write this article. Can you believe that it’s now very hard to find a mature hilsa weighing more than 1kg in Kolkata? When I came to the US just six years ago, I often saw hilsa which were several kilograms in weight. Now even in the US (where we get the premium specimens, even if they are frozen) it’s hard to find a big enough fish. The taste is not that great either. Due to overfishing and bad water management by governmental authorities in the Ganges and Padma rivers that form their freshwater habitat, hilsa are moving more and more toward the undisturbed waters near Burma. Fishermen are left with little choice and are following the fish to their new homes, so it’s not like the hilsa has had any time to recover. Consequently, hilsa from the Padma are almost extinct (some would say these were the prime ones) and the ones from the Ganges are threatened too.
Traditionally we were not supposed to eat hilsa before late February or early March (more here). The first hilsa fish was offered to the goddess Saraswati and then eaten to start the season. Now, who cares? Traditions are for idiots and poor people who cannot buy hilsa in winter. Unfortunately, soon it will vanish from the plates of the wealthy too and all we will be left with the memories and the stories of what was once an absolutely fundamental component of Bengali existence.
On the weekend of Saraswati Puja, I wanted to make hilsa curry too. I was so disappointed to see the sizes of the available fish that it forced me to think about the future of hilsa and the nature of human greed and short-sightedness.
Hilsa fish: 4-6 medium to large pieces/steaks
Eggplant: 10-12 two inch long rectangular pieces
Black mustard seeds: 1 tbsp.
Green chili: 3-5 nos.
Turmeric: 2 tsp.
Mustard oil: 1 tbsp.
Kalojeera/Nigella seeds: 1 tsp.
Salt to taste
- Soak the mustard seeds in water for 10-15 minutes and then grind to a smooth paste with one green chili.
- Coat the fish with generous amount of turmeric and salt. Leave them for 15-20 mns.
- Heat up the oil (leave around 2 tsp of oil)
- Very lightly fry the fish steaks. If you have access to the fresh fish, leave the frying part. It tastes best if not fried. Keep them aside.
- Add Nigella seeds and 2 slit green chilies to the same oil.
- Once you get the nice aroma of the nigella seeds and the green chilies, add 1 cup of water.
- Bring the water to a boil. Add salt and turmeric powder.
- After few minutes of boiling, add the fish pieces. Let the fish get ¾ cooked, uncovered.
- Add the eggplant pieces.
- Boil the gravy for few more minutes to cook the eggplants.
- Add the rest of the green chilies and the mustard paste.
- Bring to a boil and turn off the heat.
- Add several drops of raw mustard oil before serving.
This is NOT like hilsa fish in mustard paste/shorshe bata diye ilisher jhal. It’s much lighter in consistency and more delicate to taste. Try not to cook the gravy for a long time once you add the mustard paste. It will take the fresh pungent taste away from the mustard. You can omit the eggplant if you don’t like it.
I don’t think any fish can replace the taste of hilsa. BUT, if it’s not available, you can try shad, mackerel or salmon. Salmon being an anadromous fish as well, a very good quality salmon might be the closest alternative.
Best served with steaming white rice (preferably gobindobhog chaal or kalijeera rice).