The Illish (Hilsa) Lush

Chef Sujoy Gupta (Executive Chef, Taj Bengal) waxes eloquence on the charms of the famous Hilsa – one signature dish at a time.

By Madhulika Dash

It’s the boniest fish, eating it can challenge even the most adept fish eater, and yet, every year, close to the end of monsoon, East and North East India flocks to market in search of the gem of the seafood world – Hilsa. Perhaps one of the most loved, most revered and most expensive fish in the market.

So much so that the arrival of Hilsa, says Chef Sujoy Gupta, “markets a certain dip in the market of other seafood beings – and this includes chungri as well. Your standing as a foodie is often determined by not only how well you know your illish but how many dishes you have eaten made of this extremely oily -bony fish.”

Legend has it that not so long ago, a homemaker’s ability to run a family was determined by how well she could handle this flavour lush of a fish. “Cooks, says Chef Gupta, “knife skills were often tested with the fish that perhaps is the only seafood that is washed first and cut; and uses minimal oil to create delicacies that are fit for the king.”

Such reverence is given to the fish which swims against the sea to get its bony structure and flavour that Hilsa is the fish used for annaprasan and all-important occasions including weddings and Jamai Shosti.

Back in the days, a wedding was considered lavish if it had Hilsa in its menu, says Chef Gupta, who even today considers a “challenging but extremely satisfying” ingredient to cook with. “It was the first fish I learnt to make at home, and then fillet when I wanted to challenge my knife skills.”

Such is the value of Hilsa, a fish that become popular in and around the port of Tamralipti before it conquered homes -including that of royalty – that even today in Odisha, Bengal, Assam & Shillong, a gift of hilsa – Padma or Chandana Hilsa – is one of the finest gift to present any host. It is considered as the best form of gratitude and love and is akin to 1996 Dom Perignon Rose Gold Methuselah. But the charm of Hilsa, goes well beyond its reputation of being an extremely flavoursome fish. It is prized for its nutrition as well. Hilsa is perhaps the only fish that takes care of a person entire day need of calcium, protein, iron and vitamin C – not to mention infuses the skin with enough fish oil to remain supple, soft and blemish free.

In fact, fish oil from Hilsa was extracted to be a part of Nur Jahan ‘s beauty line for the skin. But where Hilsa really ruled was the food scene. From being an absolute favourite of Raja Man Singh, who took an instant liking to dishes and promoted the fish dishes in his court – and that of the Mughal to becoming a choice of Zamindars of Bengal to treat Emperor Jahangir and later Emperor Shah Jahan.

Foodlore has it that one of the scion families when asked to treat the touring Jehangir as part of their stopover decided to create a biryani that upped the dish he tasted in court. The cook was instructed to use the most fragrant rice and green bay leaf and silverware to serve was asked to choose Hilsa as the fish. The cook chose the expensive Padma Hilsa that came to the fish port from Bangladesh every second day. That dish is believed to be the first iteration of Maccher Dom Pulao, which later became Fish Biryani – and showcased in Wajid Ali Shah court in Metiabruz.

This, says Chef Gupta, “were one of the many incidents where illish literary came to the rescue and became the centre of any diplomatic meal. Take Sugandi illish for instance. This iconic dish from Shovabajar Rajbari eventually turned into boneless Baked Hilsa when the Deb scions had to befriend their colonial rulers. Likewise, is the case for Zafrani Illish, which was an ode to the subtle art of Bengali-Mughal cooking.”

Having said that, the beauty of Illish is only understood, adds Chef Gupta, “when you get to taste one. And monsoon now is the best season to do so.”

Check out these recipes:

Iilish Maacher Paturi

Iilish Maacher Biriyani

Sea Salt Baked Hilsa