My Fishy Hilsa Tales ~ Part I

My first opportunity to write in Bengali thanks to Hangla Hneshel Magazine – the most popular food magazine in West Bengal. This was for their Durga Puja Special Issue and I was honored to be invited to write and I chose Hilsa or Ilish Fish which is much loved to us in Bengal.

This is the English version I wrote and the Hangla Hneshel Team was kind enough to translate it into Bengali for publishing , a special shout out to Moumita Das.

 Ilish Maacher Pet Pujo

I was born in Kolkata and have spent the greater part of my life living and working in this beautiful city. My heart is truly Bengali and hence like every other citizen of this city the excitement builds with Durga Puja approaching. There is a happiness and underlying excitement that is hard to define but very palpable if you’re attuned to the pulse of the city. For anyone who loves food as much as I do it is a happy time after all Puja is as much about Pet Pujo as it is about welcoming, worshiping and celebrating Ma Durga !

I love my chop, puchka, roll, biryani, fish fry and all those delicious things that one feasts on endlessly during this auspicious period but for me there is one very special treat that makes me truly happy – Ilish Mach !!! Having the good fortune of attending some rather wonderful Durga Pujas at friend’s homes over the years I would always look forward to my most favorite bhog usually on Saptami, Ashtami or Navami – Bhaja Ilish with the Tel and Steamed Rice, completely, absolutely heavenly and happiness on a plate for me.

I love eating my Ilish or Hilsa – most people are surprised to hear this from me because I am a Parsi but I adore this fish. It’s the Queen of Fish for me.
I have eaten Hilsa since I was a child and inherited the love for it from my Mother. My father found it too bony a fish and lacked the patience to eat it but whenever he found a fitting specimen it would make its way home to be happily devoured by my Mother and me mainly either fried (bhaja) or shorshe ilish both of which I still love to eat.

The Ilish Maach is a fish that is an integral part of many celebrations in a Bengali household – since time immemorial but well documented and recorded over the last 500 years this highly prized monsoon delicacy is cherished and celebrated during auspicious days like jamai shosti, annaprashans, durga puja , poila boisakh and so on.

The beloved Hilsa was often eaten on Vijayadashmi – it is said that cooked with Kochu Saag including the Matha (fishhead) it was a favorite food of Goddess Durga herself. The crowd favorites however by popular vote are :

  • Ilish Bhaja with Tel & Steamed Rice
  • Bhapa Ilish
  • Ilish Pulao
  • Ilish Paturi (an interesting twist is to make the Paturi in Lau Pata so that it can be mashed and eaten )
  • Shorshe Ilish

The Ilish Season drawers to a close after Lakshmi Puja. Traditionally a “Jora Ilish” was cooked on Lakshmi Puja to signify that the mating season had officially begun. A purely scientific reasoning, which was made ritualistic so that it was honored by one and all. The Ilish cannot be bred in captivity so between November and March it had time to spawn and regenerate since there was no fishing allowed in this period. Sadly with this practice no longer being followed our beloved Ilish population has been seriously decimated and diminished.

Durga Puja for us all is a time of celebration, adda, laughter and happiness shared with our beloved family and friends. Good food greatly enhances our celebrations. However as a devout Ilish Maach lover I would humbly request all of us to be more responsible and not only buy  Ilish of a larger size  but also less often and only during season so we may continue to enjoy it for generations to come.

Thankyou Ms.Pritha Sen (Food Historian) for your very valuable insights contributed to this article. Wishing all the readers of Hangla Hneshel a Happy & Delicious Durga Puja !


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