How Bengali literature pays homage to hilsa

Come monsoons, hotels and restaurants across Kolkata gear up to celebrate the piscine queen of the season hilsa, or ilish. This year, Eden Pavilion at ITC Sonar has taken its cue from the fabled kitchens of the Tagore household to create a special hilsa spread that will be served a la carte for lunch and dinner between August 12 and 28. The menu curated by Sudripto Tagore, the grandson of Purnima Tagore, whose cookbook Thakur Barir Ranna is a treasured possession in many Bengali homes, features dishes like narkel doodh diye ilish (hilsa cooked in coconut milk) and the yoghurt-rich doi ilish to the more European smoked ilish and ilish roast accompanied by sautéed vegetables and mash. The dishes celebrate a culinary tradition shaped by the cosmopolitan tastes and adventurous spirit characteristic of the Tagore clan and sustained by the family’s affluence. 

A veritable culinary connoisseur, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s love for ilish is legendary – a love perhaps nurtured during his years at his family’s country house Shilaidaha Kuthibari in the Kushtia district of present-day Bangladesh, perched on the south bank of the mighty Padma river. In Tagore’s short story Abdul Majhir Golpo, it is from the Padma that Abdul Majhi brought hilsa and turtle eggs. It is, in fact, surprising that Tagore never really wrote about hilsa in depth, except for a few instances. 

But Bengali literature – across time and genre – is strewn with references to the hilsa: be it in baroque eulogies to its silvery beauty or solemn observations on the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes it’s a marker of socio-economic disparity, sometimes as a crest of propitious times, and above all, an icon of Bengaliness with all its quirks and kinks. Hilsa contains multitudes. 

Few edibles have been lavished with such generous tributes and fulsome praises as the hilsa. In his novel Kamalakanter Daptar, the celebrated 19thcentury novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay writes a lurid ode to hilsa that loosely translates to “Where the hilsa fish, purified with oil, bathes in the Ganges of broth and mounts a throne, be it of clay, bronze, glass or silver, there my heart remains prostrated, overwhelmed by devotion, and refuses to leave that site of pilgrimage.”

Nineteenth-century playwright and theatre personality Amritalal Basu, in his poem Ilish celebrates the indulgent pleasure of hilsa paired with bottle gourd leaves and pungent mustard paste, the rapture contained in a morsel fried hilsa and khichuri, the nuanced of raw hilsa cooked into a runny jhol with slit green chillies and nigella seeds or the joy known only to those who have savoured unctuous hilsa sheathed with a blend of mustard paste and yoghurt, on the banks of the Padma. Basu further declared hilsa oil as efficacious as cod liver oil.

On the other hand, author, educationist and former-parliamentarian Pramathanath Bishi, in his short story Gangar Ilish (1944), draws parallels between the unctuous, glistening hilsa fish with the crescent phases of the moon, and its silvery tail with the white moustache of an old man. The story is a hilarious account of how a modest schoolmaster lands himself in a soup over the price of a Hilsa, fresh from the Ganges when he unthinkingly lies to a bus full of probing passengers. 

Some of Bengal’s favourite fictional characters, too, are great fans of the Hilsa. Take, for instance, Ghana Da, the protagonist in poet and author Premendra Mitra’s eponymous series of science fiction novels, who had a soft spot for Ilish, especially ones from Diamond Harbor, a town in West Bengal’s 24 Parganas, perched on the Eastern banks of the Hooghly. His close associate Shibu is known to set off on long, arduous journeys all the way to Canning, another town on the Banks of the Marla river, to get hold of good prawns, bhetki and Gangar ilish.  Shibu is only one among many Bengalis who are willing to go to great lengths for a good Ilish.       

In the novel Padma Nadir Majhi, author Manik Bandyopadhyay's evocative imagery brings to life the season for Hilsa fishing on the mighty Padma - the hundreds of fishing boat lanterns glimmering on the mysterious, dark waters of the Padma, like fireflies, under a night sky dappled with tufts of clouds, in which hangs a faint moon. The fishing boat’s floor piles up with white, dead hilsa. Their scales shimmer in the soft light of the lanterns, and their lashless eyes look like clear blue gemstones. 

But at the heart of the novel are poor fishermen who toil on the waters and brave the fury of nature and other uncertainties for little in return.  The protagonist, Kuber, a poor fisherman whose year’s income depends on the Hilsa season, ruminates how once the Hilsa season comes to an end, the munificent Padma turns parsimonious and hides her piscine offspring in some inaccessible recess of her vast expanse. He also muses how the people of Calcutta will buy this hilsa, carried by railway wagons to the city, in the morning and in the evening, before returning home, and the scent of Hilsa will saturate the Calcutta air. 

Poet Buddhadeb Bose’s poem Ilish(1943) too conjures vivid portraits of “half-naked fishermen” casting their nets into the dark waters of the Padma to catch Hilsa late at night. At the end of the night, the hilsa, ‘water’s lucent harvest’, is transported from Goalundo Ghat in blind black railway wagons to faraway Calcutta. Bose notes how these men “famished themselves…are food’s pipeline for others”. He juxtaposes the macabre imagery of heaps of hilsa corpses, a morbid reminder of the death of the “river’s deepest delight’, with the spry imagining of the aroma of fried Hilsa wafting out of every home in Calcutta the morning after, in a striking assertion of life’s inherent paradoxes.  

However, few can match Bose in his admiration of Hilsa, which he calls a “noble and most versatile of fish”, singularly capable of yielding “as many as five courses with delectable gradations in taste”. Every Bengali worth their fish will tell you that no part of the Hilsa is meant to be discarded.  Bose constructs a nose-to-tail, panchapodi (five-course) meal. He recommends cooking tender gourd with the head of the fish, followed by saporous moong dal in which the spare bones, fried to a crunch, have been simmered. Next, a light soupy jhol cooked with green pumpkin and nigella seeds followed by a richer, mustard-laced bhateor paturi. The final course that doubles as a palate cleanser is a tangy ambol or tok cooked with the gelatinous tail “cooked in sweetened lime-juice and the green chilli”. “And to get the best out of it all,” writes Basu, “you must make the slices triangular and never allow onions or ginger or potatoes to approach this queen of fishes, for cooking hilsa with any of them is a worse offence than cooking rohit-kalia without them.” 

Bose’s contemporary Syed Mujtaba Ali, a prolific writer and storied epicurean, recommends slitting open a whole hilsa, stuffing it with ground spices, and roasting the whole fish in fire, wrapped in banana leaves. The dish, writes Ali, is not only fit for the Gods but so healthy that one could easily polish off a whole fish weighing 2-3 kilos without falling ill. In Bangladeshi author Humayun Ahmed’s Misir Alir Choshma, the eccentric Misir Ali draws up a multiple-course menu featuring jeera paani or cumin-spiced water, aubergine and tomato bhorta, moong dal and yoghurt. It’s the main dish. The dish called Istri Illishor Iron Hilsa – an invention of Misir Ali starts out by marinating the fish with a blend of mustard paste, chillies and salt and wrapping it up in bottle gourd leaves. But then comes the twist. The wrapped fish is then pressed down with a heated iron, turned around, and the iron press is repeated. 

Bengal's folk literature, too, is rife with references to Hilsa and the many ways in which it is cooked by rural folks, albeit on rare occasions. In his encyclopedic book on Hilsa titled Ilish Puran (2005), Digeen Burman writes about an old folk rhyme /song from the Kumilla and Noakhali region of opaar Bangla (erstwhile East Bengal and present-day Bangladesh) sung on the day of Saraswati Puja when it is customary among many erstwhile East Bengalis to offer a pair of Hilsa anointed with vermillion and turmeric to the Goddess. The song is replete with references to ways in which Ilish is cooked in the region. For instance, Ilish macch kaate bou/ dhaar nayi bonti diya/ Ilish maach raandhe bou/ Kochu begun diya (The missus cuts hilsa fish/with a kitchen knife that’s blunt/The missus cooks hilsa fish/with taro roots and eggplant)

Besides, there’s hilsa cooked with mustard and banana (likely raw green ones), or with ridge gourd and ash gourd. Hidden in a Tushu song (sung during harvest festival honouring the folk goddess Tushu) of the Sundarban region is a recondite recipe for hilsa, along with phalsa, fried with fenugreek. However, a Tushu song from the Rarh region of Bengal points out that it’s not hilsa that the people of Rarh love, but posto or poppy seeds. It also ponders on how ilish and posto, both expensive items, are off limits to the poor. Pocket-e poisha achhe jar pustu ilisho tar. (Poppy seeds and Hilsa belong to those who have money in their pockets)