August 07, 2020
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The Last Ilish Curry

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

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The Last Ilish Curry
Sandipan Chatterjee
The Last Ilish Curry
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.

The last few years have witnessed a huge surge in demand for ilish—one of the most expensive of fishes to grace the tables of the middle classes, eating out-of-season ilish used to be a luxury. But now, with rising disposable incomes, many more people want to eat ilish all round the year. "This growing demand has led to indiscriminate fishing, which has sounded the death-knell for ilish," explained a senior officer of the state fisheries department. The ban on catching of ilish below 800 grams in weight is hardly ever observed. "It is difficult to implement this ban," Nanda told Outlook. "So now we're educating the fishermen, explaining to them that if they keep on catching the juveniles, in just a couple of years they'll have no more ilish to catch. Unfortunately, many of them get carried away by the lure of immediate gain and ignore their long-term interests."

It is the anadromous nature of the ilish (which belongs to the 'Clupeidae' family under the genus 'Tenualosa') that gives it its unique, delectable taste. "It is the unique combination of tastes of both seawater and freshwater fish that makes ilish so mouth-watering," said Nanda, who counts himself as an ilish connoisseur. Ilish caught from different rivers taste different. The difference in taste is due to the difference in the food it consumes while migrating back towards the sea—each river's zooplankton and phytoplankton that the fish feeds on is unique. "Discharge of chemical and other poisonous effluents from industrial units into the rivers, mainly the Hooghly, is another reason for the decline in the hilsa population," says Adhikary.

Till even five years ago, ilish weighing one kilo and above was easily available in the markets; now, they've become rare and mostly weigh between 500 to 700 grams. A decade ago, ilish weighing a kilo and above used to cost Rs 150 a kilo; now, it sells for upwards of Rs 500 a kilo, while the juvenile fish weighing less than 800 grams costs Rs 300 a kilo. These prices will very soon double, predicts Nanda. "There's no ilish in the Padma and only very little in other rivers of Bangladesh, so it is now exporting ilish caught off the coast of Myanmar or further down from the Irrawaddy to us at very high prices." But that fish, say ilish-lovers, isn't half as divine as the now-extinct ones from the Padma. Experts say the hilsa population in Bengal will decline even more sharply in the next couple of years as supplies dwindle and demand escalates, leading fishermen to become more reckless and catch more juveniles. What makes the situation more gloomy is that ilish is not a fish that can be bred in fish farms.

One more factor leading to the extinction of the hilsa is the jettisoning of an old tradition that helped conserve the hilsa population. Explains Adhikari: "In the past, we never used to consume ilish between Lakshmi Puja (mid- to end-October) and Saraswati Puja (early- to mid-February). Traditionally, the last time ilish would be consumed was after a pair of the fish would be offered to the goddess on Lakshmi Puja day. This abstention, timed when the juveniles swim to the river from the sea, allowed the fish the chance to grow, reach the sea, grow larger and then procreate. But in our greed, we've discarded tradition and are now facing the consequences," said Adhikari.

Already, desperate fish traders and importers are sourcing ilish from non-traditional areas—faraway Myanmar and Gujarat. "In a year or two, ilish from Gujarat and Myanmar will be the only ones available," says Syed Anwar Maqsood of the Bengal Fish Importers' Association. And that is a prospect Bengalis don't relish at all. Nothing, after all, like a fresh ilish from the Padma or even the Hooghly. But ilish from the Irrawaddy or the Tapi? Sacrilege, as any Bengali worth his mustard oil will gravely declare.
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