Citizens! While the palate of the Beneficent One – the Suzerain of Spicy who ALONE is TFD – is sophisticated beyond measure and revels in subtle flavors unappreciated by most, it is also true that I am equally fond of potent flavors that can literally stun you into the culinary equivalent of ‘fight or flight’. Today’s recipe is one of the latter – a powerful mixture of mustard, Indian spices and oily fish that is truly epic in its flavor potentials. I give you the famed Bengali (and Bangladeshi) dish of renown, the mighty hilsa fish in mustard sauce!
Shorshe ilish is a Bengali dish, native to the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent, made from hilsa or Tenualosa ilisha – a type of herring that lives in salt water but spawns in fresh – cooked in mustard gravy. The dish is popular among the people in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura and Assam’s Barak valley, as well as the nation of Bangladesh.
The ilish (Tenualosa ilisha) (Odia: ଇଲିଶୀ, romanized: iliśī; Bengali: ইলিশ, romanized: iliś), also known as the ilisha, hilsa, hilsa herring or hilsa shad, is a species of fish related to the herring, in the family Clupeidae. It is a very popular and sought-after food fish in the Indian Subcontinent. It is the national fish of Bangladesh and state symbol in the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura.
Hilsa contributes about 12% of the total fish production and about 1.15% of GDP in Bangladesh. On 6 August 2017, Department of Patents, Designs and Trademarks (DPDT) under the Ministry of Industries of Bangladesh has declared the recognition of ilish as the product of Bangladesh. 70-75 percent of total produced ilish in the world is produced in Bangladesh which applied for Geographical Indication (GI) in 2004. About 450,000 people are directly involved in the catching of the fish as a large part of their livelihood; around four to five million people are indirectly involved with the trade.
The name ilish is also used in India’s Assamese, Bengali-and Odia community. In Iraq it is Called Sboor (صبور). In Malaysia and Indonesia, it is commonly known as terubok. Due to its distinguished features as being oily and tender, some Malays, especially in northern Johore, call it ‘terubok umno’ (to distinguish it from the toli – which species is rich of tiny bones and not so oily).
Hilsa is found in 11 countries: Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Bangladesh is the top hilsa-producing country in the world, followed by Myanmar and then India.
70-75 percent of the total hilsa catch is taken in Bangladesh. Production has dropped in the other ten hilsa-producing countries; in Bangladesh, however, production reached 517,000 tons in FY 2017-18, up from 279,189 tons in 2006-07, as a result of a strategy implemented by the Bangladeshi government. Hilsa is popular food amongst the people of South Asia and in the Middle East, but especially with Bengalis and Odias. Bengali fish curry is a popular dish made with mustard oil or seed. The Bengalis popularly call this dish Shorshe Ilish. It is also popular in India, especially in West Bengal, Odisha, Tripura, Assam, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. It is also exported globally.
In North America (where hilsa is not always readily available) other shad fish are sometimes used as an ilish substitute, especially in Bengali cuisine. This typically occurs near the East coast of North America, where fresh shad fish having similar taste can be found.
Hilsa has very sharp and tough bones, making it problematic to eat for some. Ilish is an oily fish rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Recent experiments have shown its beneficial effects in decreasing cholesterol level in rats and insulin level.
In Bengal and Odisha, ilish can be smoked, fried, steamed or baked in young plantain leaves, prepared with mustard seed paste, curd, eggplant, different condiments like jira (cumin) and so on. It is said that people can cook ilish in more than 50 ways. Ilish roe is also popular as a side dish. Ilish can be cooked in very little oil since the fish itself is very oily.
Ilish is the National Fish of Bangladesh. In many Bengali Hindu families a pair of ilish fishes (Bengali: Joda Ilish) are bought on auspicious days, for example for special prayers or puja days like for the Hindu Goddess of music, art and knowledge Saraswati Puja, which takes place in the beginning of Spring or on the day of Lakshmi Puja (The Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity) which takes place in autumn.
Some people offer the fish to the goddess Lakshmi, without which the Puja is sometimes thought to be incomplete. In Bengal Ilish is also used during wedding as tattwa gift. During Gaye Holud tattwa the family of the groom presents a pair of Ilish to the family of the bride. However, due to the scarcity of Ilish, nowadays it is often replaced by Rohu in West Bengal, while the tradition continues in Bangladesh.
Sadly, Ilish are not found in North America – the closest fish by far to it in taste and texture are fresh Shad fillets, which can be found on the East Coast of the United States in springtime. Like Ilish, it is a herring that spends time in both fresh and salt water. Failing the availability of shad, TFD finds both mackerel and bluefish to have the correct taste, and even salmon could be used though the taste is totally different.
It is VERY IMPORTANT to note that while mustard oil is a very popular flavoring agent in this part of the world, it can be toxic if eaten in abundance. There is one and ONLY one mustard oil guaranteed to be safe for human consumption, and this is it. Under no circumstances substitute this brand for any other! You can also buy kalonji seeds from here and Kashmiri mild chili powder from here.
Citizens – this is a potent dish for an adventurous palate – but you already have one of those, or you wouldn’t be a card-carrying member of TFD Nation! 🙂 Consider serving a cooling Bangladeshi dessert with this meal.
Battle on – the Generalissimo