A high-scoring joke at the Kolkata Maidan these days is that with the prices of its mascot, the hilsa, skyrocketing, the East Bengal football club might soon have to settle for a lesser fish. A nastier joke is one that links the fate of East Bengal, which recently lost eight games on the trot to arch rival Mohun Bagan, to the hilsa no-show at city markets.
Old and new: (top) Ilish Paturi at Bhojohari Manna, one of the few resturants in Kolkata that has hilsa on its menu this year; (below) Grilled Hilsa with Jersusalem Artichokes cooked in Mediterranean style is something chef Shaun Kenworthy would hesitate to put on the menu in a Kolkata eatery. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
To be fair to the fish—an ageless Bengali kitchen favourite despite its bones and the smell—it has always been above prejudice. Mohun Bagan fans have their prawn, but all sides are agreed on the hilsa.
The ilish maach (as the hilsa is locally known) has always been the consensus candidate in Bengali society, an appetizing round-off to a long list that includes Tagore, Bose, Ray and Ganguly. July to October is considered prime hilsa season, but there’s a dearth this time around and prices are steep.
In recent times, the old adage —“One Bengali is a poet, two Bengalis are a film society, three Bengalis are a political party and four Bengalis are two political parties (but they all love the ilish)”—bore out well at the farewell dinner for former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee in New Delhi. After the controversial end to Chatterjee’s term, Bengalis from across raucous political divides, among other high-profile invitees, couldn’t have enough of the boneless ilish preparation. “We had sourced the fish especially from Bangladesh. They loved it,” says chef Joymallya Banerjee of Oh! Calcutta. Banerjee had earlier supervised another dinner at the Prime Minister’s Race Course Road residence, where West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was reportedly courted over the fish.
So much for nostalgia. Currently, Bengal is seeing the worst ever hilsa famine. Planned hilsa food festivals have been postponed at city restaurants such as Kewpies and Oh! Calcutta. The rate for a 1.5kg fish has gone up by at least Rs100 and crossed the Rs500 psychological barrier, and the quality of the stock hardly befits the fish’s stature. “If this is how it goes, not every Bengali home will have the ilish on their plate this year,” warns Atul Das, president of the Fish Importers Association of Bengal.
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With Bangladesh—from where the best hilsa is imported —hiking prices by 70-80%, imports into India are down from the daily 120 tonnes in 2004 to 30 tonnes per day this year, according to Das. “Kolkata also gets some hilsa from Gujarat and Mumbai, but that is no match to the catch from the Padma and Meghna rivers of Bangladesh. This scarcity is disheartening,” he adds.
He could well be speaking for an entire community brought up to cherish the hilsa to its last bone. Being an anadromous fish like the salmon, which travels hundreds of kilometres from the sea to spawn in rivers, the hilsa is said to get its exceptional taste from being in both sea and fresh water. “But because the fish is being caught even when it’s travelling upstream, and even young ones are not being spared, the fish is not allowed to breed. The natural fish that we get in Bengal is high in both fatty content and muscles, because of being in still, turbulent and sea water. But if the future is farmed ilish, it’ll be tragic,” says restaurateur and food columnist Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta.
At Kewpies, the restaurant specializing in Bengali cuisine where she is the owner-partner, the plan is to replace the proposed Ilish Festival with a generic monsoon festival if the availability of the hilsa does not improve.
In most Bengali homes, the ilish season has traditionally heralded the season of “renewal and rebirth”, where the fish was brought to the plate only after it had been allowed to breed its next generation. Its coming coincided with the first rains and its going with the Durga/Lakshmi Puja in October, when families would close the season with the last hilsa meal. It doesn’t help that Bengalis also have a fixation for hilsa eggs, which sell at astronomical prices and are considered the Bengali caviar.
“The use of smaller nets and electronic surveillance equipment by trawlers, which doesn’t discriminate between big and small fish, together with hilsa becoming an all-season fish, is adding to its fast depletion,” says chef Sujan Mukherjee of Taj Bengal’s Sonargaon restaurant.
Despite the odds, Sonargaon is currently hosting a hilsa promotion, where Mukherjee has teamed up with chef Shawkat Osman from Bangladesh to combine the traditional hilsa menu of West Bengal with the typical Muslim-style preparations of Bangladesh. Thus along with time-tested favourites such as Ilish Paturi, which is boneless hilsa prepared with mustard and wrapped in banana leaf, and Ilish Tok Jhal, a hot and sweet dish in fresh mango gravy tempered with whole methi leaves, there are delectable Bangladeshi contributions in the form of the kebab-like Ilish Tikka and Ilish Pulao, where basmati rice is cooked in the fish stock. A spoonful of the pulao, accompanied by the pineapple-based Ilish Anarosh, can make most Bengali gourmets forget that a man-made border exists between the two countries.
A large part of the credit, of course, goes to the fish. In Kolkata, over the years, the hilsa has become a sociocultural emblem brought over by people displaced by the Partition and now settled in West Bengal. It has also been the great leveller between the Ghotis (Bengalis with roots in India and traditional Mohun Bagan supporters) and Bangals (Bengalis with origins in Bangladesh; also East Bengal’s support base).
The silvery fish, admits Rajiv Niyogi of the popular Bhojohari Manna chain of Bengali restaurants, is iconic. Its presence is often seen in the kantha stitch designs, as patterns on saris and canvases, and in Bengali literature and films.
Even though sourcing quality fish is problematic and pricing is tricky considering the steep and fluctuating price, Bhojohari Manna continues to maintain its ilish longlist, Niyogi says. Along with existing items such as Fried Ilish, Dhakai Ilish, which is a dry dish prepared with onions and chillies the Bangladeshi way, and Ilish Barishali, also sourced from Barishal in Bangladesh, this year Bhojohari Manna has roped in erstwhile Bengali film actor Supriya Devi to cook hilsa items for them.
Decades ago, Supriya Devi not only commanded an influential presence over the Bengali film industry, but her romantic association of many years with Uttam Kumar, arguably the biggest matinee idol Bengal has known, added to her reputation. He was a great one for hilsa and she loved cooking it.
“He loved prawns too, but if it was ilish, he would only eat if I cooked. I cooked ilish with mangoes and pineapples and he relished everything that I did,” says the septuagenarian actor. Understandably, each of the three items that Supriya Devi has so far prepared for Bhojohari Manna is named after films—Bon Polashir Podaboli, Agniswar and Dhonnyi Meye—starring Kumar, who died in 1980.
While traditional cooking styles continue to pamper the local palate, over the years some Kolkata restaurants have experimented with the hilsa. There is the Waldorf, which uses Chinese ingredients such as hot garlic sauce and black pepper sauce to cook the fish, and the British-influenced Baked Boneless Hilsa continues to be a fixture in many of the city’s elite clubs.
Food consultant and chef Shaun Kenworthy knows that he has to tread carefully when innovating. Having earlier established his name in Kolkata’s culinary circuit, Kenworthy was recently in Delhi for a Mediterranean food festival at Olive, where he made a grilled version of hilsa with artichokes.
He notes wryly that it is not an experiment he would readily do, or be accepted for, in Kolkata, where it might be seen as wasting the fish. Having married a Bengali from Kolkata, Kenworthy is used to seeing his father-in-law munch and munch on the fish till what eventually emerges is a little pile of bones. “I don’t think Bengali chefs and people in Kolkata like to experiment with hilsa or with their eating habits. They will eat traditional Bengali food or Chinese. Maybe that’s why most experiments with the hilsa happen in Chinese restaurants,” he adds.
Mukherjee explains the Bengali reluctance to innovate. “Being an overtly oily fish with a very strong flavour, you have to either enhance its flavour or do something completely different, which can take away the fish’s original taste,” he argues. “Besides, the recipes from the grandmother’s kitchen are mature and time-tested. As a chef it is my responsibility to pass it on to the next generation.”
And there is no forgetting the childhood stories narrated with relish by generations of grandmas, like the one where the old and wily daini(witch) is trailing the bhadralok back from the bazaar, only to drink the blood running off the jora ilish (a pair of hilsa) he’s carrying home. An ilish-loving, blood-sucking, Bengali daini, if ever there was one.
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