One of the reasons I have the blog is that it is a place where I can assemble my ranting, without having to worry about consequences. This particular post is one such which may spark a lot of debate, good or bad; this is what I feel.
For most Bengalis, no amount of writing is enough when it comes to Ilish. Ilish festivals in Kolkata is almost now taken for granted. The timing is dependent on the availability of the fish and the catch is different every year. Some year the fish market is filled with small sized Ilish and some years there are only large ones with an exorbitant price tag, then there are years when the so called’ Bangladeshi Ilish’ captures the market.
I don’t know when and how the Hilsa festival started in Kolkata but I know for sure that it has been there for more than 5. Why 5 years? Perhaps longer; had I not been out of Kolkata before that for 5 years, I would have had more knowledge. And before that I never even thought of eating Hilsa outside and beyond home cooked. Every household has some traditional and evergreen recipes which is cooked every year to celebrate Ilish. This season perhaps, unlike the last few seasons have been too many experimentation on Ilish and that is the context of this write up.
Read – That particular ritual which wont happen at my home any more
Some of the “innovative” dishes which have surfaced this season are Ilish Sizzler, Ilish Moilee, Hilsa Yellow lentil broth, Ilish chili toast and to an extent Ilish Darne with Prawn Paella. These are few of the innovations or fusion of Ilish which have been making rounds this season amongst many others which I may not be aware of. I am not naming the restaurants here as nothing against the restaurants or the chefs who have created these dishes, as with my past experience of running a restaurant I know how tough is the game of getting footfall in the restaurant, not to forget the fact that the location and clientele profile of a restaurant at times play an important role in determining the menu.
The question which has been hovering the mind is that what would have happened if these dishes were made with some other fish other than Ilish. Would they have been below par or would have stood their ground? A Chingri Malaikari without prawn, a rogan Josh without mutton, Eggs Benedict without Hollandaise or a tiramisu without a mascarpone cheese can never be thought of, but what happens when we replace the Ilish sizzler with a Beckti or a Basa, will it taste any different? The essence of Ilish is in the smell, bones and the boneless too, the oiliness of the fish and the texture. Any dish which tends to curb down these USPs and transform it to something else essentially takes away the glory of the fish. I would consider this as remixing the Rabindrasangeet (the best weapon I could get to hit the Bengali sentiment). It sizzled for some years but then died its natural death.
This has been going on in my mind for some time and just wanted to check whether I am the odd one here or am I too orthodox and approaching my 40th summer (in my case autumn) is making me more rigid. While I did a small discussion about this on facebook, I found that most of my foodie friends are of the opinion that Ilish fusion is almost like committing a sin. The ethnic dishes like Ilish Bhaja, Ilish Tok (Ilish with Tamarind and Sugar added with panch phoron and sukno langka with bhaja paanch phoron powder in the end for flavour), Ilish Paturi (steamed ilish with mustard and coconut wrapped in banana leaf or any leaf of your choice which can add on to the flavour) , Ilish Bhapa (marinated in mustard paste with or without cocount paste and at times poppy seed paste and steamed), Doi Ilish (lightly sautéed fish with yogurt, mustard and mustard oil), Sorshe Jhal, Kalo jire begun diye Jhol, are still the evergreen hits which don’t need any remixes or auto tuner. Ilish tastes best when it is handled delicately with the least amount of ingredients used.
In case you know more ethnic dishes which help to retain the essence of Ilish, let me know.
As I said to Ananya, one of my foodie friends who is a well known cook and several cook book authors, that at times simplicity and basic ingredients are sufficient to play a great supporting role, so that the main character (Ilish) flourishes; we often tend to forget that.
Having watched several Jagjit Singh Live shows and being a diehard fan of his, I still remember as most of his fans will remember, that when he used to do the sound check before the concert started, he used to request the sound engineer to not add any effect on his sound track “please don’t add any effect, my voice has enough effect” . Isn’t that true for Ilish also?
I touched upon Rabindrasangeet and before someone says that I am behaving like Bishwa Bharati, the body who has been long alleged and to an extent ridiculed for being the moral police of all rabindrasangeet notations and the way it will be performed and the commercial releases, I will like to mention here that I don’t support the act of Bishwa Bharati who did not allow any release of one of the best Rabindrasangeet artists – Debabrata Biswas because he thought of interpreting the notations in his own way and everyone knows whose loss was it after all. So while the innovations should continue with Ilish, lets innovate to enhance not to remix and come up with a blended stuff.
Chef Ashish Roy the executive chef of Taj Gateway like every year has put up a great collection of Ilish dishes for the Ilish lovers of the city. We were more than happy to be a part of the preview. While the ilisher paturi came wrapped in pumpkin leaf giving it an extra crunch and flavour to the boneless piece in a fantastic mustard sauce, the doodh ilish simmered in milk and yogurt was a masterpiece, being a signature of Chef Ashish. Like last year, this year too, the ilish pithe was served as an appetiser along with ilish bhaja with shukno lanka and peyaj. Some of the other repeat dishes were the ever favourite smoked hilsa, which is a dish by itself served with buttered rice and garlic bread and some wine on the side and the ilish pulao which essentially is ilish bhaja with a fragrant pulao with a kick of ilish flavour. The newest addition to this fare was ilish do peyaza and masala khichuri with morich makha ilish. And even though the do peyaza was made well, as mentioned before, it didn’t do much to the fish in itself and we felt the flavour of the fish was lost in all the rich flavours from the gravy. All in all, The Gateway managed to pull off the ilish festival with a lot of grandeur and hopefully they will continue the tradition year after year. This festival is on till mid of August.
Taj Bengal kolkata is holding an Ilish festival in Sonargaon from 21st July onwards which again does not try to be too innovative or non innovative altogether and offers some of the evergreen ethnic dishes like Ilish dimer Bora, Ilish Bhaja tel, Sorshe bata Ilish, Ilish Paturi. Available for lunch and dinner a meal for two will cost here around INR 3000 plus taxes.
What is your favourite Ilish dish ? Do let us know here