The River And The Fish: How Padma Hilsa Lives Up To Its Hype
Image Credit: Pic- Prasad Sanyal

On a balmy Sunday afternoon in June, I find myself headed Mawa a two-hour drive south from Dhaka. I am being taken to see the massive Padma bridge that was inaugurated on June 25. The Padma Multipurpose Bridge is indeed a feat of engineering — a 6.2 kilometre bridge connecting the North-East of the country to the South-West through road and rail links over the mighty river. This bridge that’s the largest over the Ganges (Padma is is largest distributary) has been a dream project of Bangladesh since the formation of the country in 1971. Impressed as I was with the super-structure, my gluttony had other interests that required an entirely different contribution from the river.

The mighty hilsa, Pic- Prasad Sanyal

 As I chose the fish for our lunch and saw it being cut, cleaned and prepped, a lesson that has reverberated in some of the best tasting food the world across was reiterated in good measure - if the ingredients are fresh, do not try some thing fancy with the additives (spices, cooking techniques, et al). So here’s my takeaway to the cooking the Ilish in the simplest of ways — takes 15 minutes and virtually no prep time.

So here’s how you undertake the 10-step journey on the road to Elysium in this life:

  1. Take all the pieces of the fish and separate the roe, if any
  2. To 1 kilogram of fish (10-12 pieces excluding the tail and the head), add 100 grams of turmeric, 100 grams of red chilli powder, salt to taste and a liberal dose of mustard oil (cold pressed please, if possible)
  3. Dust the roe in the spice rub and add salt liberally (skip the oil)
  4. While the marinated fish and roe rest, heat a liberal amount off mustard oil on a flat fry-pan, shallow wok and toss 1 kilogram of finely chopped onions
  5. Fry the onions till crisp and keep aside
  6. Fry the fish roe in the oil and keep aside
  7. Toss the fish pieces in the oil and fry on high heat for 4-6 minutes
  8. Lay out the fish pieces on a tray and top it with the fish roe and fried onions
  9. Garnish with slit green chillies and fresh coriander (skip if you don’t care for the flavour or think garnishing is a spectacular waste of time)
  10. Strain the oil from the pan with a cloth sieve and ladle liberally over the fish

Climax: EAT (ideally best enjoyed with white rice; I enjoyed my meal with the traditional Kalijira rice, a flavourful, stout-grained rice which is grown in and around Dinajpur traditionally and is Bengal’s answer to basmati).

This experience is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys hilsa — and if you can’t undertake the journey, find the freshest fish possible, undertake steps 1 to 10. As someone who has grown up on Shorshe Bata (spicy mustard curry), Jhol (runny curry tempered with spices) or Kalia (the onion-thickened curry), these ten step symbolise less is more — Hilsa with the cooked with the least fuss that makes the fish the hero and not the sauce.