Ask Indians about Hilsa; chances are that most won’t know what you’re talking about. While fish is widely consumed across the country, Hilsa is a fish that shows up only in few cuisines. Nevertheless, to the communities that are familiar with the joys of a Hilsa, it’s the most prized fish. Legend has it that Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the tyrannical Sultan of India, perished due to succumbing to the lure of Hilsa. If you believe the story, Tughlaq was already suffering from various ailments when he tasted this fish. Hypnotised by its unique taste, he couldn’t stop eating and died due to his gluttony.
Not many countries have a National Fish. Bangladesh does, and unsurprisingly, it’s Hilsa. As a kid growing up in Bengal, I used to look forward to the arrival of Hilsa in the markets, soon after the onset of monsoon. However, as crazy as the Bengalis might be about Hilsa, after arriving in Hyderabad, I realised that our love for Hilsa might pale in front of the demand for this fish in Andhra Pradesh.
What Makes Hilsa Special
Look at the most prized fish around the around; whether it’s tuna or salmon or cod, almost all of them tend to be fatty. It’s the fat that lends them a distinctive aroma, taste, and texture. And this is incredibly healthy fat – packed with the goodness of Omega-3 fatty acids. It’s no different with Hilsa. The distinctive aroma of a Hilsa can be a turn-off, if your idea of a good fish is Basa; however, to fish lovers, its allure is irresistible. Like bacon, the oil that oozes out from the fish while frying it in mustard oil, is cherished for its flavour and consumed with steamed rice.
Much like Salmon in the western world, the Hilsa lovers in India are finicky about the origin of the fish. There are four primary sources for Hilsa sold in India. To Bengalis, the most prized catch are the ones from the Padma river in Bangladesh. Following close on its heels is Hilsa from Ganga and its distributaries such as Rupnarayan and Hooghly river. In Andhra Pradesh, though, the only Hilsa worth caring for is the one that comes from the Godavari. Finally, there’s Hilsa from Narmada and Tapti rivers in Gujarat, and Irrawaddy in Myanmar.
While Bengalis and Andhraites don’t agree on which river has the best Hilsa, there’s one thing that both of them agree upon. It’s which kind of Hilsa is the best. Hilsa spawns in freshwater, and the young fish then makes a several monthlong downstream journey into the sea. Later, the adults swim several kilometres upstream to return to freshwater and lay eggs there. These adults that have made their way from the sea are the prized catch. This is also why you’d often find Hilsa with a bellyful of roe, which is a delicacy in itself.
Hilsa, or Ilish as it’s called in Bengali, is a delicate fish. While there is a myriad of different ways of preparing it, my favourite is Bhapa Ilish – Ilish steamed in mustard gravy. I’ll not go into the recipe since there are plenty of excellent YouTube videos of the same. It’s a deceptively simple dish. Coat the Ilish in mustard and green chilli paste, add salt to taste, a bit of yoghurt, and seal the bowl in cling wrap, and microwave for five minutes. Let the fish continue cooking in the residual heat for another five minutes, and you’re done. The only tricky part is ensuring that your mustard paste has the pungency of the mustard but not the bitterness. Everyone has their own favourite trick; soaking the mustard seeds for an hour or two and coarsely grinding it with slit green chillies is the most common technique. I also prefer to add desiccated coconut to add a bit of body to the gravy besides a gentle sweetness. Another popular preparation is Ilish Tel Jhol, a thin curry of Hilsa and Eggplant cooked in mustard oil and tempered with nigella seeds and green chillies.
Oh Calcutta does an excellent job of showcasing the various traditional preparations of Hilsa in its annual monsoon Ilish festival. If you don’t want to cook your own, head to your nearest Oh Calcutta outlet to relish this exquisite fish. Besides the homely recipes, you’ll also get a chance to savour preparations such as Paturi (Hilsa steamed in banana leaf), which are reserved for weddings and other special occasions. Hilsa has several slender and small bones, which can make enjoying it challenging for the unacquainted. Thankfully, Oh Calcutta usually offer several deboned varieties. Anglo-Indian style Smoked Hilsa, and Oh Calcutta’s own innovative Mocha Ilish are some of the other preparations worth trying at the Hilsa festival.
While there are a lot of similarities in the cuisine of Bangladesh and West Bengal, Bangladeshi cuisine has also evolved and morphed since partition. Bhorta, which simply means mash, is a prominent feature in Bangladeshi meals. Although it’s similar to the bharta Indians are familiar with, Bangladesh has taken the humble mash to an entirely different level. Its an evolution and amalgamation of mash as well several other techniques — pora (roasting), baata (ground paste), and bhaatey (steamed while cooking rice). One of the theories is that the strife brought by partition and then the Independence left many unable to afford large portions of Ilish. Hence, Bhortas, which allowed a small piece of the fish to be shared by an entire family, became a popular food of the masses. Bhorta has now become a defining aspect of the cultural identity of Bangladesh. It’s an indispensable part of any feast, including new year’s celebrations.
I had the opportunity to savour a dozen varieties of Bhorta prepared at an event curated by noted food researcher Pritha Sen and culinary expert Nayana Afroz from Dhaka. Amongst the Bhortas served was Ilish Bhorta. The dish relies on simple ingredients, but the process of preparation is far more laborious than most Ilish recipes. Fried Ilish is painstakingly deboned and then mashed with onion, green and red chilly and a dash of lemon. Typically, the tail portion of the fish, which is the least desirable section of a fish in Bengali cut, is used for this preparation. The variant served at the event also incorporated sweet pumpkin in the mash. Another dish that Nayana showcased wasn’t a Bhorta, but again used a part of Ilish that’s often ignored — Fish head cooked with Colocasia greens and stalk (Ilish Matha diye Kochushaak).
In Andhra, the river bound adult Hilsa is known as Pulasa. If you believe the connoisseurs, it’s the Godavari’s mud that makes Pulasa distinctive and better than all other variants. Young Hilsa or the adults caught in the sea are not Pulasa. It’s the adults that have thrashed their way up the murky waters of the Godavari delta that are prized. Godavari Pulasa regularly sells for as much as Rs. 5000 per kg, and large catches can be auctioned for several times more.
I’ve only come across one recipe for Pulasa, and that’s a Pulasa Pulusu. While Bengali Ilish recipes are easily spotted in restaurants, you’d rarely see Pulasa being served commercially. My first Pulasa was at a food promotion by Westin Hyderabad where traditional dishes from the villages of Andhra and Telangana were showcased. More recently, I was able to relish Pulasa Pulusu at Aaha Food Village (Kukatpally) during a specially organised meetup by The Great Hyderabad Food and Travel group.
Besides the steep price, the other reason why Pulasa Pulusu is rarely available in restaurants is the long prep. This Pulusu is cooked in earthen pots over wood fire. The cooking process lasts between two to four hours. Since Hilsa is a delicate fish, the temperature has to be carefully controlled. The Pulusu should only be allowed to simmer; too much heat and you’ll kill the taste of the fish. The Pulasa Pulusu at Aaha Food Village had far fewer bones than I had anticipated. I had presumed that this might have been due to the way the fish was cut, but I later learned that due to the unusually long and slow cooking many of the smaller bones simply melt and you’re left with only the big bones that are relatively easy to tackle.
Pulasa Pulusu is a robust gravy that’s spicy and tangy. Typically cooked with okra, the main flavouring ingredients are onion, garlic, tamarind paste, curry leaves, chili powder and chilly. Most also add oil from homemade mango pickle prepared during the summer.
Whenever someone hears about Pulasa two questions that follow ‘Is it worth the price?’ and ‘Is it worth the hype?’. The astronomical prices commanded by Pulasa are difficult to justify. Hilsa from Bengal or Bangladesh usually retail for around Rs. 1000 to Rs. 1800 per kg. I am not an impartial commentator, but I’ve found the Hilsa from Godavari to lack the intense aroma and flavour you’d find in the ones from Bengal or Bangladesh. The insane prices are a reflection of the shortfall in supply vs demand for Godavari Hilsa. You aren’t necessarily getting something that’s better. Socio-economic factors also have a role to play in this. The well to do families take pride in acquiring the best Pulasas in auctions and even gifting them. Pulasa is an aspirational product for many and this undoubtedly adds to the demand. However, one thing that I don’t doubt is that Hilsa is the Queen of Indian Fish. And a well made Pulasa Pulusu is quite simply irresistible. Aaha Food Village can prepare Pulasa Pulusu for advance group bookings. There are also home chefs that serve this in Hyderabad.
The Threat of Extinction
The popularity of Hilsa is also proving to be its bane. Overfishing has led to a massive depletion in Hilsa population across India. While Bengal and Bangladesh Governments have tried to impose seasonal bans on Hilsa fishing and imposed regulations on net sizes to prevent jatka (pre-adult Hilsa swimming towards the sea), these restrictions are regularly flouted. Besides overfishing and flouting of regulations, pollution and blockage of paths by dams and debris are some of the other major issues. The problem is so severe that this year, Bangladesh (the largest producer of Hilsa) imposed a blanket ban on fishing for over a month. If you’re looking to buy Hilsa, it’s best to avoid buying it outside of the monsoon. And if you must, then always ensure that the fish weighs no less than 800 gm.