When you think about Bengali cuisine the word fish immediately comes up in the mind. Well, this is the story of the queen of fishes Hilsa or Ilish cooked to perfection in pungent mustard paste. Sorshe Ilish is now publically acclaimed to be one of the most amazing Bengali dishes ever. Learn more about this tantalizing gastronomic delight.
The Tales of Hilsa
Hilsa has always captivated Bengalis by its delicate yet tantalizing taste. Though Hilsa is traditionally deemed to be an East Bengal (Bangladesh) favorite, Bengalis from West Bengal are also seduced by its taste. Tradition says that the price of Hilsa or Jumbo Prawns go up in the market depending upon who has won in the latest East Bengal Mohan Bagan match. The Hilsa is also a fish which finds a place in Pujo rituals at Dusshera and Saraswati Puja. History says that once Swami Vivekananda was travelling down the Padma River in 1899. An impressed fisherman sold him 16 Hilsas (the big ones were sold for Rs 1 each) including 4 free smaller fishes. The fisherman then requested to be accepted as the Swami's disciple and the Swami agreed!!!
India's erstwhile Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was served Sorshe Ilish or Hilsa in Mustard Curry by Sheikh Mujibarraham (prime minister of Bangladesh) on her Bangladesh visit. The lady was so impressed by the dish that she demanded to know its recipe!!
Sorshe Ilish is one of those rare dishes that look deceptively simple but need the perfect balance of right ingredients to come out in its right avatar. For every 600 gram of Hilsa/ Ilish (this will serve 4 people) you will need 3 spoons of mustard oil, 3 spoons of Posto or poppy seed, 3 green chilies (slit from the middle), 4 spoons of ginger, 1 diced tomato and 1 spoon of panch phoron (a traditional Bengali spice mix). The base ingredients are salt, turmeric and a dash of red chili powder.
The Cooking Process
The Ilish has to be marinated with salt and turmeric and set aside for at least half an hour. In the meanwhile the mustard and poppy seeds (sorse posto) are ground together to make a coarse paste. The mustard oil is heated up in the pan and the panch phoron is thrown in. Very soon the panch phoron utters spluttering sounds and it is then that the ginger paste and the sorshe posto paste should be added. It is necessary to just sauté the mixture and not fry it. The next ingredients to be added are turmeric and red chili paste. After one minute of stirring the whole mixture it is now time to add the marinated Ilish with the green chili and salt. The last ingredient to go in is tomatoes and the whole concoction should be mixed well and cooked on a slow flame.
Sorshe Ilish goes best with a plate full of steaming hot fluffy rice. It is common knowledge that Bengalis prefer using boiled rice and it is the tenderness of this rice that compliments the tangy pungent fragrance of sorshe ilish. Ilish is the kind of fish that tends to overpower the senses. So, Bongs actually do not need any side dishes with sorshe ilish and bhaat (rice). However macher tel (the oil of ilish), macher dim bhaja (deep fried eggs of the hilsa) and aloo sedho (bong style mashed potatoes) are the perfect sidekicks that are capable of transporting you into food heaven.
Occasions on which sorshe ilish is served
Bengalis are so in love with sorshe ilish that they do not really wait for any specific occasion before delving into its gastronomic charms. Each Sunday post the first monsoon shower calls out for Sorshe Ilish. Pujo bhoj (feast during Durga Puja) is incomplete without this delectable fish. Weddings and other festive occasions call out for this dish. Jamai Shosthi (which usually falls pre-monsoon) is incomplete without at least one pair of ilish (jora ilish). Interestingly, the mother in law (sasuri) prepares food for her son in law (jamai) with her own hands during this occasion.
This mouth watering dish is best enjoyed post monsoon when ilish migrates to sweet water rivers and its flesh turns even more delicious. Ilish is nowadays available around the year but it tastes the best when consumed in monsoons and the winters.
Sorshe Ilish Restaurant Trail
In Kolkata there are several places you could go to sample this delicious dish.
• Aaheli in Peerless Inn serves sumptuous Sorshe Ilish and if budget is not an issue for you then you can make a beeline for this restaurant which promises to make your experience exceptional by its great ambience.
• Oh Calcutta serves excellent smoked ilish in sorshe that is wrapped in banana leaves and then served to delighted customers.
• 6 Ballygunge Place also proclaims the famed Soshe Ilish to be one of its signature dishes. The eclectic old world charm of the restaurant adds to the ambience.
• Bhojohori Manna which has several branches all around Kolkata serves really great Sorshe Ilish. This is a budget restaurant which won't cause much wallet damage either.