Dhakai Ilish, Bengali fish eaters, Hilsa fish,
An Ilish recipe with onions, ginger and garlic is an abomination, a sacrilege to most diehard Bengali fish eaters; barring a minor, disparate group who claim that Dhakai Ilish has all or at least some of these biruddho (opposing) ingredients.
Ilish Pani khola is definitely in this league and popular with rural Bangladeshis but let’s leave that aside for a moment.
It’s also true, many a nouveau chef proclaims his own brand of onion- garlic concoction of doubtful lineage.
Ilish, the most iconic fish of the Bengali culinary pantheon strides the rural – cosmopolitan divide as a colossus and is perpetually being written upon.
However, my endeavor is more engaging towards a fleeting childhood memory. I remember my parents disparingly, referring to gifts of Jora Ilish, by relatives of meager means, as Korachir lish and therefore not asol maal.
The idle quest for a slightly rarer recipe combined with this intriguing remark led me to this fishy trail of distinctly diasporic appeal.
All bengali kids have grown up on Gopal Bhar stories which are quite similar to Birbal or Telani Rama ones. Gopal Bhar was the court jester of Raja Krishnachandra, king of Nadia, West Bengal in 18th century.
Surprisingly; this king and Gopal Bhar also have a hilsa connect.
Once, the people of the entire state were getting crazy on Hilsa fish during a monsoon season and even courtiers were busy discussing the fish, ignoring important state affairs.
The king got furious at this and was alarmed to find even Gopal Bhar holding forth on Hilsa fish. He therefore dared Gopal Bhar to bring Hilsa fish to the court, past all the guards and courtiers, without getting caught.
After a few days, Gopal Bhar dressed as a beggar, with ash on his face somehow hoodwinked the palace guards and even the king who allowed him audience with the prized fish. The king eventually admitted Gopal’s genius and thus Gopal Bhar once again won the heart of the king.
The story signifies the deep connect Bengalis have with the fish. It is used in religious ceremonies, marriages and celebrations including that of the winning of a particular football team. But what about the mystery of Korachir Ilish ?
Tenualosa ilisha ( Ilish Maach) is a relative of herring, in fact a Shad. It is found in countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Thailand, Myanmar etc. Though the bard may say there is nothing to a name, this delicious fish is variously known as Hilsa, Ellis, Jatka, Palla Fish, Ilisha, Ulla Meen, Modar, Palva, Ilishi, Pallo Machhi, Pulasa, Sboor, Terubok, Nga-tha-louk and many more.
Earlier, in Calcutta (now Kolkata), it was also known as Sablefish but this name has fallen into disuse. Many Bengalis, especially those originating from eastern part of Bengal, swoon at the very mention of the fish but it’s the people of Andhra Pradesh who pay the highest accolade to it. In Andhra, there is a saying – It’s worth selling one’s mangal sutra to eat Pulasa.
Amongst the argumentative Bengalis, the debate whether Padma, Ganga, Rupnarayan, Damodar Hilsa is better may have evolved into the contemporary Diamond harbor versus Kolaghat Hilsa, today.
In fact, Raidighi, Kasafal, Chandipur and Dhamra have also been added to the realm. However, those who are a trite snooty would dismiss all this hullabaloo with a curt answer – Tigris! Indeed, Shatt al-Arab water confluence of Iran and Iraq consisting of Tigris and Euphrates rivers indeed yield quality Hilsa fish.
Of course, there will be those who will swear there is nothing to beat freshly caught hilsa from Brahmaputra river in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. Despite Hilsa being the National fish of Bangladesh and hugely popular in West Bengal besides some other parts of India; it’s the Sindh province of Pakistan which takes Palla fish to the ultimate position of reverence.
Jhulelal, the zinda pir whom Sindhis, both Hindus and Muslims alike, pay respect to is seen sitting on a lotus flower with a pair of Palla fish.
Hindus often refer to the saint as Jhulelal while Muslims also venerate him as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Jhulelal is said to control the currents of river Indus.
All know that Hilsa swims against the current to spawn. It is said that the otherwise black fish, upon reaching Jhulelal’s Sukkur shrine gets blessed with a shining silver colour, a red dot on its forehead and its unique taste.
The local fishermen of Sindh traditionally thank Jhulelal for controlling the currents. Hilsa or Palla fish plays a major role in Sindhi culture and the fish is gifted along with mangoes on special occasions, a’ la Bengal.
Today, as in other countries, in Sindh too, the fish is dwindling in numbers. Sindhis, traditionally cook the fish with local spices, onions and potatoes. It is also deep fried, specially garnished into a fish meal curry or barbequed.
Sometimes alcohol is added during cooking to get the added caramel flavour.
These styles may be in stark contrast to the traditional mustard sauce preparation, Bhapa or Paturi style of cooking Hilsa in Bengal but surely must be tasting just as good.
Thus, using onion, garlic and potatoes is not an anathema to cooking Ilish and Bengalis of any hue not the sole claimants to the Hilsa legacy.
After all, even Syed Mujtaba Ali, Bengal’s finest travelogue, quoting legends said that the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughlaq while on his way to Sind, found the fish so delicious that he continued eating the tasty Palla till he paid with his life.
So somewhere Sind seems to have as great a connect with Hilsa as Bengal and Korachir Ilish may yet be the digne rival of Paddar Hilsa.