Friday, Aug 19, 2022

The Last Ilish Curry

Smoked, baked, steamed, and now scuppered: Bengal's rivers are cleaned out of their hilsas

The Last Ilish Curry Sandipan Chatterjee

A year ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attempted to win over Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya to his side on the nuke deal and invited him for dinner to his 7, Race Course Road residence. Joymallya Banerjee, chef de cuisine of the restaurant Oh! Calcutta, was invited to prepare the dishes and 'Bhapa Ilish' was one of them. Here's Banerjee's recipe:

  • Hilsa fillet 2 pcs; lime juice 35 ml; salt to taste; mustard paste 60 gm; green chilli paste 25 gm; turmeric 5 gm; sour curd 25 gm; mustard oil 35 ml; banana leaves 4-5 pcs.
  • Apply 1/2 of the salt and lime juice to the fish fillets and keep for 15 minutes.
  • In a stainless steel or glass mixing bowl, prepare a marinade by combining all the ingredients except banana leaves.
  • Apply the marinade generously over the hilsa fillets. Wrap each fillet in banana leaves and steam for 20 minutes
  • When the fillets cool, make long slits along the lateral line of the fish and take the bones out with the tip of a sharp knife. Reassemble the fish once all the bones are taken out.
  • Re-wrap the fillet in banana leaf, steam for another 5-8 minutes and serve with hot rice.


Bengali cuisine is set to be delivered a grievous blow. And blame only gluttonous excess for that. Ilish (aka Hilsa), that ultimate delicacy among fish-loving Bengalis, is nearly extinct in Bengal and Bangladesh. Prices have skyrocketed this year, and West Bengal's fisheries minister Kiranmoy Nanda direly predicts that it will soon cost an astronomical Rs 1,000 a kilo. Ilish from Bangladesh's Padma river—Bengali gourmets swear by its superior taste and texture—has already become extinct. Rampant over-exploitation of the fish has led to this alarming situation, say experts.

"The ilish is anadromous in nature—that is, it swims from the sea up a river to spawn. Ideally, it ought to be caught on its way back to the sea after laying its eggs in fresh water," says S.K. Adhikary of the University of Animal & Fishery Sciences. "But it's usually caught on its journey from the sea to the river. Moreover, the fish's eggs are also much sought-after these days." What's even more disastrous is the indiscriminate catching of juvenile ilish as they make their way back to the sea from September to January. "Fishermen using fine nets and mechanised trawlers catch nearly all the juveniles during their journey to the sea. Thus, the baby ilish has no chance to grow, become an adult and procreate. This is what has led to the sharp decline in the hilsa population over the last few years," adds Adhikary.