The sound of the tiffin box hitting against the metal kadai sitting inside a pool of bubbling water is a sign of what’s to come next. It’s almost lunchtime and everyone is waiting eagerly for the queen to arrive. I mean Hilsa of course. It’s hard to describe the feeling when the hot tiffin box arrives on the dining table and the lid is opened. Smoke and then a whiff of mustard oil along with the beautiful aroma of ilish can drive any Bengali insane. That’s the magic of bhapa ilish.

Since my marriage, we haven’t had bhapa ilish all that much. Shorshe diye ilish mach and begun diye jhol are always preferred. However, for a special occasion or if there are guests, bhapa ilish is the best rendition of ilish with mustard. It’s the pungency of the mustard paste at its best while steaming. Also, the rich flavour of the mustard paste and the soft, almost buttery texture of the Hilsa makes it irresistible.

Bhapa Ilish cover image

What is the difference between, ilisher jhal, ilish paturi and bhapa ilish?

All three recipes have mustard paste as the primary ingredient. Then what is the difference? The most important differentiating criteria are the cooking technique. All three have different cooking techniques. In ilisher jhal, we cook the hilsa in a kadai (wok) and we also fry the fish before adding it to the sauce. Whereas in ilish paturi, as the name suggests, we wrap the fish with the mustard paste in a banana leaf parcel. These parcels are then placed on a tawa with a little bit of mustard oil, covered and cooked on low heat. Bhapa ilish is one hundred percent steaming. And the fish along with the mustard marinade in placed in a tiffin box and steamed in a pressure cooker or a kadai with water.

Other than the cooking techniques, it is also the difference in one or two ingredients. Usually, shorshe diye jhal is made with black mustard paste only. Sometimes, there is a tempering of nigella seeds. Paturi on the other hand has a mixture of black mustard paste and yellow mustard paste. One can add coconut and poppy seed paste to this too. In the case of bhapa ilish, it can be made with both kinds of mustard paste or either one. Coconut paste and poppy seed paste as optional although, I always prefer adding a bit of coconut paste to give it an additional texture.

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Bhapa Ilish and Red FM with Sunrise Mustard Powder

Anindya and I practice buying Ilish only twice a season. This year, we had already finished once and we took some photos of the whole ilish. The second one was due when Red FM came home with a bag of Ilish. We cooked bhapa ilish, made a video, and took stills at the same time, the first time for us. And it was fun moving from one set up to another after each step to shooting the video and the still. As part of the promotion, we used Sunrise mustard powder for the same. Honestly, I always grind mustard paste, and once I had bought mustard powder with disastrous results. I have to say, and honestly, I am quite impressed with the outcome of the dish with Sunrise mustard powder. The pungency, the texture, everything checked out.

Few Important Tips

  • Don’t wash the ilish too much. Just once under running water is fine. In fact, there are many homes where Hilsa is not washed.
  • Use good quality mustard oil.
  • If you are grinding mustard, then use both black and yellow mustard seeds for the best result
  • Soak them separately and grind them separately, since black mustard paste needs to be strained
  • Be generous with mustard oil.
  • If you are using mustard powder, then soak the mustard powder in water for ten minutes before using.
  • Don’t steam for too long and overcook the fish. 15 to 20 minutes is more than enough.

Serving Suggestions

The only way to eat bhapa ilish or steamed hilsa is with steamed rice.

Here is a step by step breakdown of Bhapa Ilsh which will help you to make one –

Easy way to make Bhapa Ilish - 1

Easy way to make Bhapa Ilish

Wash the fish under running water once

Easy way to make Bhapa Ilish - coconut and mustard powder

Add grated coconut and green chilies to mustard paste and grind

Mustard paste for Bhapa Ilish

Make a mustard paste

Bhapa Ilish and marination of fish

Marinate fish with mustard paste, turmeric powder, red chili powder

preparation for Bhapa Ilish

Arrange the fish with the marinade in a tiffin box

Easy way to make Bhapa Ilish adition of green chilies - 1

Add slit green chilies

Addition of mustard oil to Bhapa Ilish

Drizzle mustard oil

Easy way to make Bhapa Ilish - 11

Close lid and steam for 15 to 20 minutes.

Serving of Bhapa Ilish

Serve with steamed rice

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Ilish Bhapa cover image -1

Bhapa Ilish with Mustard Paste | Steamed Hilsa

Hilsa marinated with mustard and coconut paste and then steamed
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Course Fish Recipes, Main Course, Non Vegetarian
Cuisine Bengali, Indian
Servings 4 people


  • 4-6 pieces Hilsa steaks
  • 3 tbsp black mustard seeds see notes
  • 3 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
  • ½ cup mustard oil
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp red chili powder optional
  • 2 tbsp milk optional
  • 5-6 green chilies
  • salt to taste
  • 2 tbsp grated coconut


  • First, we need to soak the mustard seeds separately in water for 10 minutes
  • Strain the mustard seeds and grind them one by one. Use one green chili and a little bit of mustard oil while grinding. I also use milk in place of water to grind and it gives a richer consistency.
  • The paste has to be of thick consistency. Once done, take a bowl and 2 tbsp of water and strain the black mustard paste. Discard the husk.
  • Grind the yellow mustard seeds with grated coconut.
  • In a mixing bowl, take both the pastes. Add turmeric powder, red chili powder, salt and 1 tbsp of mustard oil. Add the fish steaks in this marinade.
  • Take a tiffin box where you can place all the fish pieces side by side. Place the fish pieces with the marinade in this tiffin box.
  • Drizzle mustard oil and add few slit green chilies.
  • Close the lid and place the tiffin box inside a steamer for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • You can add water in a kadai and place the tiffin box in the kadai. Cover with a lid and let it cook in the steam.
  • You can also use a baking dish and bake in the oven for 15 minutes using the bain marie method.
  • It is also possible to cook this in a microwave and it takes only 5 minutes inside the microwave.
  • However, I find steaming or baking as the best options.
  • Serve bhapa ilish with steamed rice.


  1. If you are using mustard powder, I have used one small packet of Sunrise mustard powder. Soak the mustard powder in water for 10 minutes and then grind with green chili and coconut. After that follow the rest of the process. 
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