Monday, July 30, 2012

And, I saw Ilish in Chennai…

Ilish, for the uninitiated, is a fish from the bangla hinterland. But she is not another fish in the sea to be simply dealt with; say with some sesame oil or tamarind (god, forbid!) or some onions or even tomatoes! Ilish, at least to me, is the queen among fishes. And, therefore, should be treated like one; with minimal seasoning and very little cooking so that her inner glow simply shines through and a mere brush with your lips can transport you to worlds that you only dreamt of. 

Ilish to the bongs and hilsa to all non-bongs swims upstream during the monsoon to spawn. Though some dismiss her as a fish with just bones, it’s the discerning tongue that knows what it’s talking about or tasting! Ok, so much for fawning over the Ilish. Let’s get to the real story…

Though a lover of sea food, I don’t much care for the south Indian way of cooking fish, especially with gallons of tamarind and onions and what not! I think this way of cooking completely denatures the flesh and strips fish of its natural juices. It’s of course a different matter that I am also a lover of the Kerala cuisine thanks to my partner’s eternal love affair with Kerala. We’ll deal with that obsession on a different day.

So, back to ilish for now. Back in Delhi when I first heard of cooking fish with mustard, I was a little surprised by the novelty. And that’s because the poor mustard in the south doesn’t get beyond being sputtered or used as a filler in pickles. And of course I was filled with stories (by southies of course) about the strong, revolting flavor of the mustard. So, when presented with the Ilish in mustard sauce (slightly burned though…lovingly of course), I took my first bite rather gingerly. To say that I was in love with the woman who cooked that dish for me is of course an understatement! I was conquered! I couldn’t believe how just some mustard paste, mustard oil, and green chillies put together in a cooker could produce something so out of this world. That day, I was initiated into the beauty that was Ilish. Then, I slowly learned to cook it myself and cooked it at least a 100 times before leaving Delhi for good. And, Ilish joined the list of the many things, besides khadi kurtas, janpath, palika, kebabs, NSD plays, and winters, that I miss in Chennai.
After searching for Ilish  for almost 3 long years, yesterday, at the fish shop, as my eyes fell upon the glittering scales, I almost shrieked at the guy and said, this is Ilish!. He just waved me off absentmindedly and said, yeah, so, you want it? For a split second, I stood there motionless suspended between reality and fantasy (reality being the price and fantasy, holding Ilish in my own hands!). I took it bracing up for jaw-dropping responses back home about the price. Well, that’s just a small price to pay for Ilish. Ain’t it?
So, humming a happy tune, I set off to the kitchen to make ilish. I had to use the sad weikfield mustard powder because white mustard is not available in Chennai, and I don’t quite like using the black mustard. The dishes I finally made were Ilish bhapa, Ilish  paturi, and Ilish  fry. Ilish bhapa is a gravy made with just mustard; paturi is made by wrapping Ilish in a banana leaf (from my garden ;)) and steaming it on a tawa or hot girdle, and the fry of course is with just turmeric and salt and importantly in mustard oil. After a long time, I found myself happy just cooking. It perhaps means good times are ahead…

A small note on the recipes…

Ilish bhapa
Few pieces of Ilish
Some mustard powder (I used weikfield mustard sauce powder)
Few green chillies
Few tablespoons of mustard oil
Wash the fish, pat dry, and keep aside. In a bowl mix a generous amount of mustard powder (you should find this powder in nilgiris, the department store), turmeric, and salt. Take a couple of green chillies and grind them along with this powder, adding some water and some mustard oil. Use this mixture to marinate the fish well and keep aside. Taste the salt. (if you feel yucky tasting raw fish, you are on the wrong page…;)). Then, in a pressure cooker, add some mustard and sputter some finely chopped green chillies, then arrange the fish pieces neatly followed by two slit green chillies and very little water. Shut the lid, simmer, and leave for about 5-10 minutes and switch off.

Ilish  paturi
Few pieces of Ilish
Some mustard powder (I used weikfield mustard sauce powder)
Few green chillies
Few pieces of coconut
Banana leaves
Few tablespoons of mustard oil
Wash the fish, pat dry, and keep aside. In a bowl mix a generous amount of mustard powder, turmeric, and salt. Take a couple of green chillies and some pieces of coconut and grind them along with this powder, and some mustard oil. Do not add any water. Smear this on the fish and wrap them in banana leaves (if you have lots of banana leaf, you can simply fold them into each other or if you don’t have enough banana leaves, just secure them with tooth picks. You could also use turmeric leaves if you do not have banana leaves). Heat a tawa and arrange the banana packets, simmer, and keep turning them over sprinkling some mustard oil on all sides. It shouldn’t take anything more than 5-7 minutes to cook. What signals complete cooking is of course the shriveled look of the banana leaf packets.

Image courtesy

2.       Photos by Saravana Raja (


Sridevi Seshasayee said...

Oh my fish craving got even worse :)yummylicious....cant wait to try some next time..

Anonymous said...

Oh wow! Words fail me. That was very detailed. May be someday I will handle ilish so confidently like you do. Sigh!

PS: Don't get so visibly excited about ilish in the fish stall. That also drives up the price. The fishmongers study people more than fish and know when to strike gold. That goes for pretty much anything you want to buy and which involves bargaining.


Deepa said...

Ahem! looks yummy, but I honestly cant imagine how it would taste without a generous dash of chilli powder, garlic, and of course, tamarind! ;-)
That said, I won't be at all afraid to try it when I visit you next! :-)

Deepa said...

Hey, what's this fish called here, did u ask the vendor?

Sumi said...

What a love for ilish?!! :) amazing write-up.. Just a question - Why you missed curd anni?

Anonymous said...

Awesome! Yumm it looks. Hope nobody from home is seeing me slurping virtually over fish! LOL.

Happy heart said...

@sri girl..thanks dear! come home and I will make it for you!

@M Of course you would one day; after all there's hardly anything to do it. :)

@deepa aiye...even after shaming such 'madrasi' thinking, u won't change! First eat it and then 'wonder.' and, babe, it's called ௨ள்ளம் nobody eats it here and it's always packed off to cal...

@sumi...actually ma, I don't like the curd taste with mustard; actually haven't tried it. May be will do it next time..

@anon...thanks and hugs. ;))

Swarnali said...

That is one amazing story...being a bong and spending almost 13 years in Kochi...i can totally relate to your excitement at having found Ilish :D Am already salivating imagining of the yummy Ilish dishes :D
You've a nice blog but where is the followers icon? I wanted to follow you but couldn't find it anywhere. :(

Vikis Kitchen said...

Love the way you cooked the fish ..I have to add a lots of masala, but crave for the real fish taste:)

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