How Hilsa Saved The Day For Many Royal Households Of Bengal

How Hilsa Saved The Day For Many Royal Households Of Bengal
Mustard Ilish is a popular Bengali cuisine made from the Hilsa fish using mustard seeds, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Enjoy some of the secret recipes from four select households of West Bengal at the ongoing Royal Hilsa Festival at ITC Sonar Kolkata.

Uttara Gangopadhyay
August 17 , 2018
05 Min Read

Come monsoon, it begins to rain ‘Hilsa festival’ in Kolkata. After all, a Bengali’s affinity with the fish is proverbial. The fish is prepared in a myriad number of ways in the Bengali kitchen, and is part of most meals. It is eaten in its entirety, including its roe and fat, and only the scales and bones are discarded. But that is common knowledge, isn't it?

The platter with tel dim bhaja and other accompaniments


What is not available in public domain are the recipes that are well-guarded secrets within some of the former royal families of West Bengal. ITC Sonar in Kolkata decided to dig into this goldmine of heirloom recipes from four such households and present them as part of their ‘Hilsa festival’ this year.

We attended a feast at the hotel to know more about the Hilsa Festival. The innings opened with the traditional ilish machher tel (fish oil), ilish machher dim bhaja (fried Hilsa roe), and alu bhate (mashed potato flavoured with fish oil and green chillies) served with a portion of white rice. 

“The heirloom Hilsa recipes of royal families of yore are undiscovered legacies from Bengal,” said Atul Bhalla, General Manager of ITC Sonar. “Some of these recipes date back to 1600s thus stamping their mark in history.”

The recipes were unique but the tales behind each were equally fascinating to hear while dining with the four families who shared them. 

The Sugandhi Ilish, cooked in a special blend of mustard gravy, yoghurt and hand-pounded garam masala, was a favourite of Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shovabajar Rajbari of Kolkata. “And the boneless Smoked Hilsa would be served to the European guests who came to attend the Raja’s house parties,” said Salma Deb, a daughter-in-law of the family where these recipes are handed over from generation to generation.

In the middle of the meal, Deb had the diners in splits when she pointed out that in the earlier times, the married women of the household would often cook dishes that required a lot of time to eat. Their busy husbands rarely had time for a tête-à-tête with them. What better than serving various kinds of Hilsa fish preparations to them for meals, thought the women. As the husband was forced to eat slowly, separating the bones from the fish, the wife would broach their request or complaint. Most of the time the request was granted immediately, divulged Deb. 

It isn't all fun and games, however. The bones of the Hilsa fish are indeed a matter of concern for most people even today, agreed Vijay Malhotra, Executive Chef, ITC Sonar. While one may use hands to separate the bones from the fish in an informal setting, it becomes difficult to do so in a formal setting. Therefore, their regular restaurant menu has a boneless Hilsa preparation, said Malhotra. But for the festival, they have exactly followed the recipes, including fish with bones.

Siddhartha Bahubalindra of Moynagarh Rajbari from East Medinipur district described how one of the scions of the family, having tasted Moghul delicacies at the court of Emperor Jehangir, was inspired to introduce the Ilish Machher Dom Pulao, a one-dish meal made of scented basmati rice and ilish darne cooked in onion and whole spices. The Ilish Machher Mol, also from Moynagarh – where the fish is cooked with boiled onion and coconut milk gravy – is probably a fusion dish inspired by the kitchens of the Nawab of Bengal when Jagadananda Bahubalindra went to visit the Murshidabad royals.

Ilish Machher Dom Pulao is dish to watch-out for at the Royal Hilsa Festival

If anyone at the dining table was sceptical about honey being used to sweeten the Hilsa gravy, their doubts were put to rest as we sampled the Madhu Malai Ilish, one of the two dishes contributed by the Cossimbazar Chhoto Rajbari family. Supriya Roy of Cossimbazar took us down memory lane as she narrated the story behind the dish. Rani Sarojini Devi was unhappy that her husband Raja Ashutoshnath Roy was going on a hunt during the not-so-congenial monsoon season. To stop his wife from worrying, he requested her to cook a special dish for him that he would have on his return. The Rani then came up with this dish where the Hilsa darne was cooked in a coconut and yoghurt gravy sweetened with honey and topped off with a dash of lime.

Rajasree Roy, a young daughter-in-law from the Posta Rajbari of Kolkata, spoke about their family recipe, the Zafrani Ilish. This was a special dish prepared for the first time towards the early part of the 20th century by Rani Kasturi Manjuri Dasi when a feast had to be served after her son Kumar Bishnuprasad Roy’s return from a long European tour. For this dish, the Hilsa was cooked in a cashew-nut gravy, finished with saffron (zafran) milk and garnished with raisins. “The second dish, Doi Ilish, has a religious origin,” said Riddhiman Roy, a descendant of the Posta Rajbari. Since the family is Vaishnav by faith, they do not have to make non-vegetarian offerings to the deities. “Except for Doi Ilish,” he explained, “which is one of the offerings made during the ‘Arondhon’ festival at home.” With a yoghourt base and finished with mustard oil, the gravy had a velvety texture to it.

“It is our endeavour to introduce other distinguished families and their recipes in subsequent editions,” Bhalla assured the diners and surely we look forward to it.

Information: The Royal Hilsa Menu is pegged at Rs 2,000 (+tax) per head until August 31 for lunch and dinner at the Eden Pavilion, ITC Sonar, Kolkata; contact: +9133 2345 4545.

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