Treating the Queen of Fishes, Hilsa in the Best Possible Way with Bhapa Illish
Did I just call Illish maach or Hilsa the queen of fishes? As a ghoti, I might have been ostracized for this had it been few decades back. However, even I am not spared of the charm which this particular variety of fish holds upon us, Bengalis. Now, don’t wage the gonga-podda war by trying to assert that Illish belong to Bangladesh only. Let me put it across like this, Illish isn’t just a fish that we relish but it is an emotion which connects Bengalis all over the planet.
For centuries, Illish has been one of the most prized fishes. Wholeheartedly relished by Bangali bhodroloks, it has been an ice-breaker on more than one occasion. Enemies have turned into friends over this piece of delicacy. The whole family gets along and eats together over a simple meal of Illish mach jhal deva and bhaat. Beloved jamai-babajibons are pampered by their in-laws with an elaborate spread of Illish meals which would often pan out from Illish macher tel (Hilsa fried oil) to Illish maach bhaja followed by Illish macher jhal or the luxurious Bhapa Illish.
Few days back, I was having this conversation with a fellow blogger where he asked something that enraged my inquisitiveness. He plainly asked, “Why are Bengalis so obsessed with this particular fish?” And, that led me to delve deeper into the endless abyss of internet in search for an answer.
One thing I was almost sure was that it couldn’t be just about its taste which drives an entire community mad in love with it. This fish has inspired more literary work than any other food! Don’t believe me? Popular Bengali literary work, Padma Nadir Majhe features this fish as the favorite to the lead protagonist. He has elaborated his love for this on many occasions in the story where he has clearly expressed his love for the hilsa or illish coming from opaar-bangla or present state of Bangladesh.
The love and appreciation for this fish has been has failed to diminish even though the price of Hilsa has seen a steep rise over the past few decades. So much so, that gold dealers and jewelry shops in Kolkata offer this fish as a freebie with a certain amount of purchase done from their shop!
How to Buy Hilsa Fish & Cook Bhapa Illish with it.
Cooking a Hilsa or illish also breaks the stereotype as the fish blood is carefully preserved while cutting and subsequently frying it. So, here’s a quick tip on how to buy hilsa fish from a common fishmonger at fish market. Never ever allow him to wash the fish after it has been cut. Once the fish-scales have been removed, ask him to wash the fish thoroughly in fresh and clean water. Later, allow him to cut it in pieces and remove the gut. Without wasting any of the fish blood, ask him to bag the fish pieces carefully along with the fish roe and fish fat, if there’s any.
After coming home, do not wash the fish or you would lose the flavor. Simply rub some salt and turmeric powder, and fry it for Illish maach bhaja. Once you are done with the fish pieces, fry the fish fat or oil in the same mustard oil and season it with some salt. Enjoy this oil with rice as Illish macher tel which is a rare form of delicacy, hardly imaginable by any other community.
After enjoying illish maach in two ways, come to Bhapa Illish which sits proudly as the centerpiece of the feast menu, waiting to be ushered in. The pungency of mustard tamed with sweetness of coconut and tang of gondhoraj lebu or kafir limes, this illish maach bhapa recipe takes you to a dreamy gastronomic journey.
In the following recipe, I have cooked using a normal gas-top steamer. You can also make bhapa illish in microwave by following the steps of this recipe and using a heatproof borosilicate bowl and placing it in a microwave. Cook it on full power or at 170c for 7-10 minutes.
- 800 gms Illish Maach Cut in slices
- 1 tsp Mustard Seed Powder
- Salt To taste
- 1/2 tsp Turmeric Powder
- 2 tsp Poppy Seeds
- 2 tbsp Mustard Oil
- Juice of 1/2 Lemon
- 3 Green Chilies
If you are using Mustard Seeds powder like me, then soak it with some salt in warm to tepid water for 10 minutes.
Take Poppy seeds and buzz them with some water to make a smooth paste of it. Now, add the soaked mustard powder in it and pulse it together with some turmeric powder and a green chili.
Take a glass baking dish and put it in your steamer. Now, dip each piece of fish in the mustard-poppy paste and lay it in the baking dish. Once all the fish pieces are laid side-by-side, pour the remaining paste over the fishes.
Drizzle some mustard oil on top and lay 2 green chilies slit in halves.
Now, steam it for 7-10 minutes or till the fish has been cooked properly. Once done you will see that the flesh has turned white inside.
Serve hot with steamed rice.