Gourmet Secrets: High on hilsa
It is the monsoon when that most marvellous of what is considered a Bengali fish, hilsa or ilish, appears. In Mumbai, we rarely get to see this fish let alone enjoy it Bengali style. We have bhing which is in effect hilsa, and Parsis used to commonly make a bhoojelo bharuchi bhing. The fish is caught in the Narmada estuary and bhing or hilsa roe is also used for their gharab-nu-achar. Today the achar is found only in Parsi shops near Fire temples. Sindhis also love their palla, another name for hilsa. The Bengali hilsa though is another story, as poetic and revered as a Tagore poem.
I was delighted to find a hilsa in the Bengali selection of the menu at a new restaurant in Mumbai on the ground floor of Atria Mall. Mustard has been charming visitors to Goa for a while. The menu is a blend (thank God no fusion here) of true blue Bengali and French dishes, which live side by side on the same menu. Curious? Yes but the symphony works. Both are highly refined cuisines which are served traditionally course wise with great attention to detail and even more passion regarding provenance, and both attract the same zealous following. The Bengali side of the menu is curated and conducted by Pritha Sen, a passionate woman who is both knowledgeable and steadfast in her opinions about everything including traditional food and sustainability. “We offer hilsa as a monsoon special,” she says. “I am a crusader for the conservation of the hilsa which could be on its way to extinction because of over fishing and so I only serve it when I get the right size. I have to say that the hilsa is programmed into a Bengali’s DNA.”
The taste of silver
So, what’s all the fuss about a fish called hilsa? It’s a silvery slippery fish with numerous small bones. Although it is a sea fish, it noses its way up the rivers of Bengal to spawn in the delta of the Bay of Bengal. The sea variety is undoubtedly tasty but nothing quite compares to the sweet flesh of those found in rivers. Though Pritha doesn’t approve of de-boning because she considers it wasteful, the gourmand in me has to admit that I find nothing more delicious than de-boned smoked hilsa. In that form it is superior to the best smoked salmon. Smothered in a paste of mustard and green chilli, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, it is ecstasy. Bengalis also love it fried crisp and served with the onion fritters and khichri. According to Pritha, smoked hilsa was born aboard the Goalondo Ghaat steamers which ferried passengers between East Bengal and West Bengal. Made by Mog Barua cooks, it soon found its way into the Raj kitchens of Calcutta. Legend has it that its first appearance was in the then Grand Hotel, prepared by chef Nibaran Das. Das adds to the legend, saying that boneless smoked hilsa was an innovation to entertain colonial guests who could only use a fork and knife to tackle this fish.
Paturi is the Bengali version of the Parsi patra ni machhi. I always thought “paturi” referred to the leaf but Pritha explains it actually means the style of cooking. Paturi is not only restricted to Ilish. You can use bekti or pomfret too. The recipe involves marination with turmeric, salt, mustard oil, green chilies and either a paste of poppy seed or mustard and then steaming or roasting in banana leaves. At Mustard they do a variety of vegetarian paturi too involving red pumpkin, arbi and paneer, wrapped in edible leaves like arbi or gourd greens.
The scent of memories
The menu at Mustard is different from Bengali restaurants I have visited. “It breaks the stereotype of what has emerged as ‘Bengali’ food in urban Calcutta influenced by affluence,” says Pritha. They focus on the entire region as it once was beyond political borders. The effort here is to show how the now homogenised Bengali people gradually assimilated through a complex mix of ethnicities which shared commonalities that stretched right up to South-east Asia. For example, on the monsoon special menu, they have a dish called Jao-Bhaat. It’s a bowl of Bengal’s indigenous small-grained rice cooked to a gruelly consistency and eaten with various condiments and fried fish and mustard oil to taste. This is very similar to a bowl of South East Asian congee. You rarely see pork on a Bengali menu but Mustard have a Khasi pork dish on the menu – a tribute to Garo-Khasi hill tribes of Meghalaya, which came under the Bengal Presidency. If, like me, you would like to know more about Bengali food and traditions, I recommend you follow the website/blog of young Madhushree and Anindya Basu from Kolkata – www.pikturenama.com
In addition to authentic Bengali and French food at Mustard, you will also find stories and memories, especially if Pritha or French chef Gregory are around!
Here is Pritha’s recipe for one of the hilsa dishes they serve at Mustard .
Daaber Shnaash Diye Ilish Jhol (Hilsa with tender green coconut)
½ kg hilsa steaks (can use any other river fish like catla or rahu)
Tender flesh (malai) of 1 green coconut
¼ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp dahi/curds, whisked
2 tbsp poppy seed paste
2 tsp mustard seed paste (a mix of black and yellow seeds)
½ tsp green chili paste
4 tbsp mustard oil
2 green chillies, slit
Coat the fish with the salt and turmeric. Keep aside.
Mix the curds, the poppy seed and mustard pastes. Add 2 tbsp chopped pieces of the tender coconut and half the mustard oil. Place this masala in a karhai with the green chilli paste and cook on a low flame till the water has evaporated. This will take five to seven minutes. Add the fish pieces and salt to taste. When fish is cooked (seven to 10 minutes), remove from the fire. Finish with a few slit green chillies and a drizzle of the remaining mustard oil.
Garnish with some slivers of tender coconut.
(Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.)
This is a fortnightly column. The next edition will appear on September 16.
From HT Brunch, September 16, 2018
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