The COVID-19 pandemic has come as a boon for Bengalis, for it has after many years brought to the market the high quality craze of Bengalis: Hilsa…
By Amit Kumar Das
“Arey Amit shunechhish? BSF ekta lok-kay dhorachhey karon o ilish smuggling korchhilo. Shey byata trish kg ilish Bangladesh thekey pachaar korchhilo.”
That was Barun calling out to me.
(“Hey Amit, do you know that the Border Security Force has arrested a young man for smuggling 30 kg of Hilsa from Bangladesh.”)
Hearing this over the noise of the teeming crowds at Jadavpur Sandhya Bazaar, South Calcutta, I was a bit perplexed.
It transpired later that the young man had been smuggling Hilsa for a living, after he found no job since he came back home as a migrant labour, having lost his job in Surat.
But why smuggle Hilsa? Why not gold?
Because the young man knew that Hilsa is gold.
At least, for us Bengalis.
The Hilsa has landed… finally, after almost three years!
From March through end of September, all factories by the River Ganga had been shut due to COVID-19. That means almost nil pollution in the waters of the river.
And due to its particular qualities, unpolluted Ganga water produces the tastiest hilsa, though fish sellers are now peddling Bangladesh hilsa as best. It is not.
Besides, due to ‘social distancing’ norms during the extended lockdown, fishermen were forbidden using trawlers in the river and the river mouth, Bay of Bengal.
All this has ensured that large-sized Hilsa is available, after the population had started dwindling over the years due to water pollution as well as over-fishing.
Joda ilish is sold in the markets, with two hilsas tied by a thin rope through their mouths, and if a family failed to buy that on Saraswati Puja, it was a matter of dismay! But now this culture has died. Hilsa is now anything between Rs 1,700 to Rs 2,500 a kilo
And now finally the Hilsa is here, what we call as the ‘silver harvest’.
Bengalis are even now teased as ‘machhli-khor’, for our obsession with fish.
And yes, what is a Bengali if there is no fish.
Over the last few years, the price of fish has sky-rocketted. But so what? Unless a Bongo has fish curry and rice at least once every day (which used to be twice a day before such high prices), it becomes a sad tale.
From shrimp to Hilsa… it is a part of Bongo folk culture.
Take the football clubs, East Bengal and Mohan Bagan, the eternal rivals. One from erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh), and the other native to West Bengal.
And after any the clash of the titans, fish will sell, and sell like mad, no matter which club wins!
If East Bengal wins, Hilsa will sell at a premium. And if Mohan Bagan wins, it will be prawns setting fire to the markets.
Hilsa is even part of our religious festivities. For in most Bangal (people from erstwhile East Bengal), it is almost mandatory to offer joda ilish, or two hilsa fishes to Devi Saraswati during her puja in early spring.
Joda ilish is sold in the markets, with two hilsas tied by a thin rope through their mouths, and if a family failed to buy that on Saraswati Puja, it was a matter of dismay!
But now this culture has died. Hilsa is now anything between Rs 1,700 to Rs 2,500 a kilo! But still, even if it is one day in the year, hilsa we must have.
There are so many recipes for cooking hilsa.
The easiest, and perhaps the most undiluted to taste, is like this: marinate the hilsa, along with some cut brinjals for 30minutes.
Heat the mustard oil and put in kali jeera (kalaunji for north Indians) and some split green chillies.
Then fry the bringal in this, and once it is fried, put some water in the oil. Then just put in the hilsa (without frying it), and let it simmer in the boiling water. Hilsa is a very delicate fish, so do not boil for too long. Just a few minutes and then put a lid over the wok.
Uff! What taste… And because there is hardly any spice, the taste of hilsa is almost untampered.
Of course, there is hilsa fried and then cooked in a mustard sauce, which is equally yummy. Or hilsa cooked in a gravy of curd, which also uses fried hilsa.
But there is a catch here: after you fry the hilsa, keep aside the oil in which you have fried the fish. This oil will go into your steaming rice – with a spot of salt and green chilli – as the first course of your lunch.
Then, there is eggs of the hilsa. These eggs come at around end-September. Many of us let the egg remain in the fish when we fry it, and eat it like that.
But then, there are many others who take the egg out and fry it separately for lunch.
And the hilsa head? Yes, of course! Fry it well, and then put it in a maturing finely pieced and fried lau (calabash, or bottle gourd).
That is for Sunday lunch, though, as it takes a long time to get through the head and the fine bones.
Al this had almost become a distant dream till last year. But thanks to the boon from COVID-19, all our Sundays have come together.
Its hilsa time… cheers!
Picture credits: Amit Kumar Das and Debashish Chakraborty
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Amit hails from the industrial town of Kulti in Barddhaman district and has settled in Kolkata for the past 25 years, He works as an Assistant Director in Tollywood and has for the past decade or so assisting famous Bengali filmmaker Kaushik Ganguly, especially in films like “Apur Panchali” and “Bisharjan”. His passion is acting and writing