From Iraq to Burma: These recipes show that Bengalis aren’t alone in their devotion to hilsa

Priyadarshini Chatterjee

Bengali’s beloved Ilish is all set to earn its Geographical Indication tag as a product unique to Bangladesh. According to reports and data from World Fish, an international, nonprofit research organisation that harnesses the potential of fisheries and aquaculture, Bangladesh accounts for 65% of the world’s hilsa supply, followed by India and Myanmar. Nonetheless, the love for hilsa is not restricted to Bengalis – much as they would like to believe so.

Most Bengalis grow up on tales of hilsa or ilish: there is the wicked petni, or the ghost of an unmarried Bangali woman, who followed a man across rambling fields late evening to snatch the hilsa from his bag, there are pompous reminisces of fish market bargains, heated debates around the superiority of hilsa from Bangladesh’s Padma river compared to that from the Ganga, near-lyrical eulogies to the silver beauty of the fish. Recently, conversations have shifted to a concern for the dwindling hilsa population, thanks to years of intemperate consumption and irresponsible fishing.

Bengalis might like to believe that the only hilsa worth eating is found in the Padma or in the Ganga, but the herring is found in the rivers of several countries, including Iraq and Iran in West Asia, and Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia in the East. In many of these places, hilsa is praised and eaten in myriad avatars.

Following fish

Trending

The mantra to cooking hilsa for many Bengalis is to keep it simple. Mustard oil is mandatory, the use of strong ingredients like onions and garlic sacrilege and experiments and innovations strictly prohibited. Years ago, when an adventurous chef made a hilsa dish with muddled strawberries, an uncle remarked: “No wonder the fish is near extinction.”

But in Malaysia, the hilsa is called Terubuk, and Betty Saw’s book, Best of Malaysian Cooking, recommends cooking it with soya bean sprouts, ground anchovies, turmeric leaves and fermented Durian. In her book For My Children…What I Cooked For You, Malay cookbook author B Bot has archived a unique recipe – salted fish cooked with a paste of dried chilies, galangal, turmeric and shallots along with pineapples and coconut cream. A rather expensive rendition of the dish, she writes, replaces the ordinary salted fish with the salt-cured roe of hilsa.

In China, Zhengjiang, on the southern banks of the great river Yangtze, is famous for its seasonal catch of hilsa herrings that go by the name Shi Yu. Shi Yu means time fish, named after its by-the-clock migration up the Yangtze every year. Eleventh century Chinese premier and poet of the Song dynasty Wang Anshi wrote in praise of the Shi Yu: “Served with bamboo shoots, tender and delicate Shi Yu tastes better than milk.”

In his essay The Hilsa Herring of Zhengjiang in Late Spring Zhao Heng also mentions a recipe for steamed Shi Yu, stuffed with bamboo shoot and bacon slices, studded with dried winter mushrooms, that calls for a minimum of spices and a dash of Shaoxing wine.

There is an old Burmese saying – when you select a fish to eat, choose a hilsa, when you select a wife, choose a teenager. It is best to ignore the second part, but the Burmese do turn out quite a few unique dishes with the hilsa.

“In Myanmar the hilsa which is mostly from the Irrawaddy, is not cooked in mustard oil,” said Chanda Dutt, who runs Kolkata’s only Burmese specialty restaurant, Chanda’s Khaukswey. Dutt was born and raised in Taunggyi, in Myanmar’s Shan state. She recalled early morning breakfasts of steaming hot rice and fried hilsa roe, cooked in a spicy gravy made with ngapi chet (fermented fish paste) and tomatoes, which she would relish at a neighbour’s home.

“They would also make a hot and spicy soup with ilish bones, including the head, and vegetables like aubergine, wilted greens and pumpkin, flavoured with garlic, fish sauce and green chilies,” added Dutt.

One of the finest samples of Burmese culinary ingenuity is a traditional dish in which the hilsa is marinated overnight with vinegar, soy and fish sauce and slow-cooked the next day with garlic, ginger, chilies and other ingredients including shrimp paste, for several hours on a bed of lemon grass stalks, until the hilsa bones are tender enough to melt in the mouth. “An uncle visiting from Burma once prepared the dish with fresh Padma Ilish in my Kolkata kitchen,” Dutt recalled.

Local variations

In India, hilsa is found in the Narmada, Tapti, Mahanadi, Krishna and Godavari. Known as Pulasa in Andhra Pradesh, it is a much sought after delicacy in the region – an old adage justifies the selling of one’s nuptials just so one can eat the Pulasa.

“Its dwindling population in the Godavari adds to its exoticism and price tag,” said Srinivas Velidanda, a partner at the popular Andhra restaurant Coringa in Bengaluru. “The price can go up to Rs 9,000 per kilogram. A treasured dish in the Godavari districts is the Pulasa Pulusu, a piquant, slow-cooked curry with a distinct tang from tamarind. Recipes, of course, vary – some call for a smidgen of jaggery, others a splash of mango pickle oil, and there are those that include whole okra cooked with the fish.”

The Parsis know the hilsa as bhing. “An iconic dish is the bhoojelo bhing,” said archaeologist and caterer Kurush F Dalal who runs Katy’s Kitchen, a popular catering business started by his mother, the legendary Katy Dalal. The bhing is cleaned, gutted, laced and stuffed with a mix of fresh coriander, mint, chilies and other spices, wrapped in soft muslin cloth, which is then smeared with sticky, riverine clay and roasted on fire.

In Parsi Food and Drinks and Customs, BJ Maneckshaw writes about a particular rendition of the dish in which the bhing, stuffed with spicy chutney-like marinade made with fresh coriander, grated coconut, sesame and poppy seeds, tamarind extract and a few other spices, is then stuffed with roe or prawns – before being wrapped in banana leaves, followed by muslin and finally caked in clay or wet sand, covered with hot charcoal to cook, unhurried.

Sadly, such elaborate dishes are now rarely made.

The bhoojelo bhing is similar to the Sindhi rendition of a roasted hilsa called Wadi di palla. The dish is traditionally cooked in pits dug in the sand – a recipe perhaps born in the deserts of the Sindh region, in Pakistan. “The whole palla [hilsa] is stuffed with a mix of onion, ginger-garlic, chilies and fresh coriander muddled into a paste,” said blogger Alka Keswani, who runs the food blog Sindhi Rasoi. The stuffed fish is wrapped with uncooked rotis and roasted in a pit. “Of course now people cook it in an oven,” added Keswani. “Besides, there’s the iconic kok palla – palla fillets laced with a spice masala, with chopped onions, tomatoes, chilies and fresh coriander.”

Among Sindhis, the palla also enjoys major cultural and religious significance. “Our patron saint Lord Jhulelal is seen riding the palla,” said Keswani, “Among Hindu Sindhis, it is considered auspicious to eat palla during Maha Shivaratri.” Several legends and folklore exist about the palla in Sindhi culture. “We have grown up on tales of how the palla swims up the Indus to the shrine of Zinda Pir in Sukkur, Pakistan, to pay homage to the great saint. It is only then that the fish gets its signature taste and silver gleam,” Keswani recalled.

Comparable to caviar

In most cultures, it is the roe of the hilsa that is more sought after than the fish itself. Parsis, for instance, love bhing roe: “In its simplest form, the roe is first steamed wrapped in muslin, anointed with spices typical to Parsi kitchens and fried. Or, we make the gharab nu achaar, which is pickled roe.” said Dalal. The whole roe of the bhing is pickled in sarko – barrel matured sugar-cane vinegar which no Parsi kitchen is complete without. Pickling spices like turmeric, roasted cumin, garlic and sometimes, cinnamon are added too.

The hilsa roe has been compared to caviar and the Sindhis love it too. A treasured dish is the aani ji bhaaji, a curry made with fried roe or aani. Surprisingly, what is served as aani ji bhaaji in a Sindhi household is often a vegetarian dish, made with chickpea flour dumplings slow cooked with onions, tomatoes and spices.

The besan ji aani is a classic case of culinary jugaad, perhaps for the benefit of Sindhis who have embraced vegetarianism. “Unlike in the past when palla roe was easily available in the bazaars of Sindh, often for free, today the palla roe, and the fish are hard to get,” said Keswani. So the dumplings perked up with spices, are given a grainy texture akin to fish roe with the addition of poppy seeds and shaped like roe too.