Fishticuff: Two Ilish enthusiasts take the floor and present their cases
What is a Bengali monsoon without ilish? Fried fish, eggs et al floating in golden oil or steamed with a generous layer of mustard, the fish head and tail cooked with eggplant, or a light jhol speckled with kalo jeere and one or two green peppers. There is no disagreement, no dispute over the supremacy of Ilish or Hilsa in Bengali cuisine. The current debate is about which variety of fish tastes the best. The Telegraph asked two English enthusiasts to speak up and present their cases
Padma Nadir Ilish
By Goutam Ghose
I am from Faridpur and I hold the Padma-r ilish Dear. For me it is the tastiest fish, but maybe it is because of the emotional connection.
When I was little, I accompanied my father to Jadubabur Bajar in Bhowanipore. I still remember the cries of the fishmongers there – “Sirajganj-uh ru, Sirajganj-uh ru… and Goalundo-rilish. Goalundo-rilish… ”Sirajganj is now a district in north-central Bangladesh, and Goalundo in central Bangladesh is located near the confluence of the Jamuna and Padma rivers. At the time, there was a wide gauge railway line running directly from Goalundo to Calcutta; and fresh catches of ghat traveled to India.
Padma-rilish is a generic term for all ilish from Bangladesh. It could well be ilish born in the Meghna, also in Bangladesh. And now the generic term has become a trademark.
Ilish is a delicate fish; it should not be manhandled. Bangladeshi fishermen go fishing in small boats. They don’t use the trawlers that are common here in Bengal. In fact, Bangladesh has banned the use of trawlers. Trawlers push the ilish in deep water and it becomes difficult to catch them.
Bangladesh has always helped fishermen who trade ilish. They contributed in every way possible to make Padma-rilish A brand. Do you know that the Gramin Bank of Bangladesh introduced the first cell phones to the subcontinent and the first batch of devices was handed over to the fishermen, so that they could talk to the mahajans and negotiate for the best price?
I have been to Bangladesh countless times. On one of these trips, the fishermen caught ilish of Padma. They cleaned the fish, coated it with salt and turmeric, added oil and green peppers, and buried the ship in the sand. They pulled it out of the hot sand after 30 to 40 minutes. The smell, the texture, the oil, the taste of fish … it was divine with steaming rice.
During the filming of Padma Nadir Majhi (1993), we were served ilish at almost every meal – ilish bhapa, ilish bhaja, ilisher dim bhaja, ilisher tel and what not. It was just after the monsoons, and the Padma-Meghna Delta was teeming with silvery fish.
Do you know what they do with fish that remain unsold? They throw them into huge woks and heat them to extract the oil. This fish oil is then used to ignite kupis or small lamps.
So those who think that the Padma-r ilish is only good to taste and it is Ganga-r or Hoohly-rilish who has a large amount of fat will now understand how wrong they are.
Ghose is a filmmaker. One of his best-known films is an adaptation of Manik Bandopadhyay Padma Nadir Majhi
Ganga Ilish. Sangrami Ilish
By Sugata Hazra
“Alik ilish gnaws, moje lok dui Bonge. “Meaning – the dream of ilish enough to intoxicate the Bengalis on both sides of the border. Ilish is the fish that no one can get enough of. You would have heard that Alexander the Great died of food poisoning; some say he died after eating ilish of the Tiger. Then there is a story by Syed Mujtaba Ali about Mohammad bin Tughlaq and how he got so taken by ilish that he couldn’t stop eating it and, as a result, died.
I have eaten ilish which weighs over four kilos but none tastes like Hooghly-r ilish, also called Ganga-r ilic by some.
Many people believe that omega-3s are what give fish flavor. If so, Gujarat ilish or Godavari ilish should have tasted the same; But this is not the case. Why? Because the flavor of fish depends on the type of food it receives. Ilish does not eat anything when swimming upstream to lay eggs. In the past, the Brahmins believed that ilish feeds on carcasses and they avoided it. But this is incorrect. Ilish is herbivorous, feeds on plankton and diatoms. And the Ganges delta has a huge reserve of diatoms.
From the 16th century, and before the rise of the Farakka Dam, the main flow of the Ganges is diverted towards the Padma. Ilish available in the Padma is in fact fed by water from the Brahmaputra, and it is via this river that ilish reached Assam. So to all those who claim that the Padma-rilish is the best because the fish spend time in freshwater there I ask – how come you never credit the Brahmaputra which has more water than the Padma? Have you ever heard a Bengali proclaim that Assam ilish is the best?
If you ask me why I love my Hooghly-rilish, it is because it is a fighting fish. the ilish who enters the Ganges has to go through so many obstacles – first there is the zero mesh behundi net, then the little water. The entry point of the Hooghly is also the international sea route and there is continuous turbulence which the fish have to contend with. After all this, he manages to swim to Kolaghat or Baghbazar.
On top of that, my Hooghly-rilish must climb a ladder to reach Allahabad. The government planned to create an eight-meter-wide ladder-shaped passage that the ilish will have to go up step by step. The ladder is intended to help fish cross a dam. This was done as a result of similar salmon projects in various countries. It is another matter that the salmon is not a scaly and not delicate fish like the ilish. It is also another issue that once the ladder is built, the government may need to train the fish adequately to climb it! But tell me, does the Padma-rilish have to work like this?
Think of it like this – we admired our lanky revolutionaries who fought against the well-built British military not because of their physique but because of the fiery combat they fought. My Hoohly-rilish is exactly like that, a real fighter, a ilish sangrami. And that’s why I love him the most.
Hazra is professor of oceanographic studies at the University of Jadavpur and a member of the 16th Indian Antarctic Expedition 1996-97