The much-famed Ilish (Hilsa, for the uninitiated), holds a special place in the heart of Bangalis worth their ‘Machh-Bhaat‘. Be it fellow commuters in the crowded bus, or colleagues at office, or even relatives meeting after years, the conversations held any time between May and September, has to, invariably, hover around the Ilish.
“Ajkal shob export hoye jaye toh, bajare ekdom kom” (Nowadays all of it is exported, hardly any in the local market),
“..khoka ilish e moja nei” (there’s no fun in small-sized hilsas),
“aagun daam cholchhe, kiloproti barosho, modhobityo r nagaler baire” (…too expensive, Rs.1200/kg, beyond the reach of the middle class),
“halka kalo jire-kancha lonka, aloo, begun diye jhol ta banabo” (will cook it in a light gravy with black cumin, green chilli, potato and aubergine)
Cooking styles in our homes have undergone a sea of change in the last few decades, our definition of good food too has drastically been altered. But ilish continues to be not just loved but revered, as the mighty Queen of the Fishes. The craze for it remains un-wavered through generations.
A few years back we were introduced to the idea of boneless-hilsa, where the pieces are painstakingly pin-boned to cater to those who struggle with fish-bones. I had tried it just once at the Marco Polo at Sarat Bose Road, and didn’t really find it very impressive, mostly because much of the beautiful natural texture of it is lost due to tampering of the fibres.
So I stuck to my Bhaja, Jhol, Jhaal and Tok and honestly, they never gave me a chance to complain. However, last week as I entered Tero Parbon at Hindustan Park, for a dinner on a weekday night, to try out some of the things from their Ilish Parbon menu, I couldn’t help but get tempted by the name Ilish Sizzler. But let me tell you very honestly, I was very skeptical about it and in fact, was almost sure that I will not like it. So I also ordered a much tamer and orthodox dish, Narkol diye Ilish Polao along with Ilisher Tel Dim, to make sure I have some back up to make my taste buds happy.
This was my first visit to Tero Parbon, and I was quite impressed by the high ceilings, the elegant fans, the cleverly concealed air-conditioning units, the pillars and the simplistic furniture. The decor is minimalistic and elegant, with no unnecessary clutter and noise marring the beauty of the white and mahogany, accentuated by the warm reddish tones.
The sizzle of the sauce on the hot iron plate notified us of the arrival of our food in a few minutes, and there it was! A beautiful cross-sectional piece of ilish, sitting pretty on a hot plate over a cabbage leaf, surrounded by peas and carrots. Well the sight itself could have given a mini heart attack to many traditionalists, who would be outraged at this blasphemy of sorts, but I was already enticed by the smell of it. As I plunged my cutlery into the fish, it felt very odd using such sharp, ruthless metal things into a velvety soft, beautiful piece of ilish, so it transferred it to my plate and dug in with my comparatively kinder fingers. It took me quite a few moments to decide if I like it or not, and finally I was forced to conclude that yes, I do like it, a lot. It was a joy to have that steak-fied hilsa, in a sweet-tangy glaze which at no point over-powered the intrinsic taste of the fish itself. And it was in that co-ordinated harmony that I realized that off-beat ilish might not be a very bad thing after all!
Of course the other dish of Narkol Bhapa Ilish Polao (Steamed Hilsa Pilaf with Coconut) went wonderfully well with the Ilish Tel-Dim, and that too was polished off in a matter of seconds. So, in all, it was a strangely satisfying meal, as I finally overcame my orthodoxy towards the treatment of Ilish.
P.S. The Ilish-on-Toast at Saptapadi is next on my quest list for off-beat hilsa dishes.