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Hilsa reigns over Kolkata palates

india Updated: Sep 10, 2010 15:38 IST

As the monsoon drenches Kolkata, hilsa, the silvery delight of a fish that tantalises Bengali palates, is firing the imagination of chefs at restaurants as they dish out a range of delicacies, traditional and cross-border!

Steamed, fried, roasted in banana leaf, or cooked with rice as biryani, it can invade your senses in many avatars, especially the catch from neighbouring Bangladesh's Padma river that has as much appeal for the sentiments of people here as for their appetites.

Bengali cuisine restaurant 6 Ballygunge Place organised a Bangladeshi Illish Utsav, with the fish locally known as illish.

Food"Bengalis have a special liking for illish-based cusines, whether costly or not. The response to the festival was quite good," Partha Banerjee, spokesperson for the eatery, told IANS.

The hilsa is a sea fish that swims up to the river to spawn. During the monsoon, the rivers of West Bengal are dotted with the fish.

There have been concerns about the dwindling numbers of hilsa due to over-fishing, but that has not stopped Bengalis from putting it on top of their menu. And never mind its many bones; they know how to negotiate it anyway.

"It's the queen of all fish. Bengalis love it. Bangladeshi dishes based on the hilsa are simply mind-blowing. Preparations such as lauer pata diye ilish, dhakai bhapa illish, langka dhonepata illish, illish macher dimer ambol and ilish paturi are indeed marvellous," said Dhurjay Batbal, a hilsa lover.

Dhakai bhapa hilsa is one of the most famous dishes of Bangaldesh. It is prepared with poppy seed paste. Langka dhonepata illish sees the fish combining deliciously with coriander leaf paste and chopped chilis.

"The response to the illish festival has been fantastic. Illish is a weakness of Bengalis all over the world. We too offer various kinds of illish dishes," Hindol Basu, spokesperson of Tero Parbon restaurant, told IANS.

The innovation - laupata diya illish macher dhakai paturi or gravy cooked with the leaves of the bottle gourd - can be paired with illish biriyani, blending two different traditions of cuisine.

Illish maachh bhaja or the simple fried fish with khichudi brings back many fond memories of monsoon evenings, especially for those who left the then East Pakistan - present-day Bangladesh - when India was partitioned. Generations have grown up on stories of the Padma illish, with the fish continuing to make an appearance in many kitchens during celebrations.

Even those who don't have time to cook due to hectic lifestyles don't miss their date with the hilsa, thanks to restaurants which dish out an incredible variety.

"As many families are nuclear families, they don't have time to cook different kinds of preparations. So hilsa festivals are the best way to satisfy the taste buds of Bengalis," added Basu.

Some Bengali cuisine restaurants also offer the illish thali. A thali ranges from Rs.500-800 depending on the items included.

For enthusiasts, the illish thali comprises plain rice, dal with fish head, fried potato, fried hilsa eggs, bhapa ilish, shorshe illish and illish macher chachra combined with chatni, papad and sweets.