Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (do you know about him? I stumbled upon his life while doing the research for this fish) had once said – In the hands of an able cook, fish can become an inexhaustible source of perpetual delight.”
One of the many reasons why Hilsa or Ilish is not liked by many is the presence of too many fine bones. On the other hand, it is the apple of the eye for many. The seasonality, the non-predictability of availability and more importantly, the feeling of happiness and celebration while having it makes it precious. Is there any other fish that can become the centrepiece of any dinner table conversation?
The season’s first Hilsa is always a celebration. Normally a Bengali meal would start with the fish oil that it leaves while frying. If eggs are available – then mildly fried fish eggs with red dry chilly and mashed potatoes. Move on to the fried Hilsa. Rarely an intelligent Bengali is there who has not tried his hand at a deep-fried Hilsa. Deep-fried Hilsa in mustard oil with crispy skin is an object of lust for many. The main course can be served in various ways but any preparation with mustard is most common; the other most popular being steamed in a leaf or Paturi.
The Process of Paturi
Paturi is Patrani Machhi’s Bengali brother, according to the Parsis. Having said that, everything else has changed except for the way it is wrapped in a banana leaf. The method of cooking is also diverse, as are the spices utilised. Once more, making paturi is not limited to Ilish. Pomfret or any other fish can be used to make bhetki paturi. Ilish Paturi is prepared by marinating it with ingredients including poppy seeds, coconut, mustard oil, green chilies, turmeric, salt, and mustard paste. This past weekend, we prepared Ilish Paturi using banana leaves, but you may also use leaves from other plants.
Baba and Ilish Memories
I remember the time when Baba used to take me to the fish market. It was boring for a kid who loved to play. But now when I look back, I feel that perhaps those were some of the best public relations, marketing and sales, negotiation lessons that I could have learnt. While there was brand loyalty in taking the fish from one particular person day after day, there was also the best interest of buying better quality products from another seller at a better price. And where do you stop negotiation over a fish? That is an art that not many can master. The art of checking the gills and the colour was one of the first litmus tests that I had learnt.
For the last 4 years, Baba and I had developed this small ritual. Every season I would take 1000 rupees from him to buy the first Ilish of the season. The careful, conservative and well-planned Baba, never gave me more than 1000, because, like everything in his life, this was budgeted too and crossing the line meant luxury, that he never indulged in. If the cost was more than 1000, I would pay. And that afternoon, when we would have the first Ilish, it would be more than having food. It was a feeling of happiness and bonding. The discussion about the fish, the debates over the pieces, and the tasty or not-so-tasty Ilish eggs continued the lunch table discussion.
This year, there was no one to give me 1000 rupees. This year, there was no one to pass on the final verdict on the quality of fish and this year when we had the first Ilish, there were moments of pregnant silences at the lunch table. We missed him.
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Ilish Paturi | Hilsa in Banana Leaf Parcels
- 5 numbers hilsa steaks
- 2.5 tbsp black mustard seeds
- 2.5 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
- 2 tbsp grated coconut
- mustard oil as needed
- salt to taste
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 7 nos green chilies
- 2 tbsp thick yoghurt
- 5 nos banana leaf squares -8 inch by 8 inch
- toothpick or thread for fastening
- Soak the black mustard seeds and yellow mustard seeds in water for 10-15 minutes.
- Then using a grinder or a silbatta, grind these into a thick paste along with 2 green chillies, salt, turmeric powder and grated coconut.
- Use 1-2 tsp of mustard oil for making the paste and as little water as needed.
- Transfer the paste to a bowl and add thick yoghurt to this and whisk it well.
- Take the banana leaf squares and run them over an open flame to make them soft.
- Then place a dollop of the paste on the center of a leaf. Place one pc of fish on top and cover with more paste. Place one green chilli on top and then drizzle a little mustard oil.
- Wrap the fish with the banana leaf and seal it with a thread or a toothpick.
- Take an iron griddle or frying pan, and heat 1 tbsp of mustard oil. Place the fish parcels and cover and let them cook gently on low heat for 8 minutes on each side.
- Remove from the heat and serve it immediately with rice.