As I wrote on my Doi Ilish recipe post, a dish remains a silent witness to changing generations, different kitchens in different places and how with technology, the cooking method evolves. So it was a pleasant surprise when ITC Sonar Kolkata started the festival of Royal recipes fit for a Queen to celebrate the Ilish and bring to the commoners table some closely guarded recipes from erstwhile Royal Households. Some of them date back to the year 1600. The Bengal Rajbari Ilish spread will be available in ITC Sonar for the entire month of August at the Eden Pavilion.
Who discovered smoked Hilsa? Sovabazar Rajbari, Lord Clive and Bengal Rajbari Ilish recipes to woo your husband -an age old trick relevant even now
We met Salma Deb, the 5th generation daughter in law of Sovabazar Rajbari who was attending this event – She passed on an age old trick, which is relevant till now. Ilish is a delicacy to be cherished and needs time to eat. Whenever the wives needed time from husbands as dinner was the only interaction time and needed to discuss something important – Ilish or Crab was a savior. They would serve that as part of dinner and the time devoted behind deboning and slow eating the fish would be the time window for them to discuss important family affairs. I realised this is a trick which is so prevalent till now. Sovabazar Rajbari has been host to many dignitaries from the British Raj as well as the legends of Bengal like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vidyasagar and many more. Naturally, Ilish played a key role in pleasing the taste buds. Sugandhi Ilish (Fragrant Ilish) was a personal favourite of Raja Naba Krishna Deb and it is a recipe beyond the popular Shorshe Ilish, made with yogurt and some common ingredients like hand-pounded whole garam masalas.
We got talking about the legendary Smoked Hilsa. According to Pritha Sen, eminent food chronicler and researcher, the Smoked Hilsa was born aboard the Goalondo Ghaat steamers which ferried passengers between East Bengal and West Bengal. Made by Mog Barua cooks, it soon found its way into the Raj kitchens of Calcutta. Popular lore attributes its first appearance in the then Grand Hotel, prepared by Chef Nibaran Das. Ms Das adds to the legend, saying that boneless Smoked hilsa came was an innovation to entertain colonial guests who could only use a fork and knife to tackle this fish. Lord Clive, Lord Wellesley and Warren Hastings used to be frequent guests of this Raj Bari and were served this revered dish.
A grand homecoming of son and use of Zafran, the most expensive spice by the mother – Posta Rajbari and Zafrani Ilish and chingri machher chine kebab
We have grown up hearing these words in a different context – Rajyo Joy kore esecho (you have come home after winning the world). Awaiting her son’s return eagerly from his travels across Europe and Scandinavia, Rani Kasturi Manjuri Dasi of the Posta Rajbari of Roys, planned the homecoming meal of her son Kumar Bishnuprasad Roy with the grand yet mellow Zafrani Ilish as the piece de resistance. Flavoured with saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, it lay on a splendid gravy bed of cashew and raisin. Doi ilish is one more recipe from the kitchens of the Roys which is a part of the festival here. This is an eternal favourite of the family. Riddhiman Roy and Rajashree Roy, the Aunt / nephew duo from Posta Rajbari went on to share more the family stories. Ilish machher paturi made in the Posta raj bari is made with bottle gourd leaves where the leaf is edible. One recipe which is still family guarded is Chingri Machher Chine Kebab. It is a unique combination of Prawn and Ilish and I will aim to dig it out the next time I meet them.
A wife waits for her husband with Madhu Malai Ilish to come back on a rainy evening when he goes out for hunting a Cheetah – Ilish made as a note of love at Cossimbazar Rajbari
A business family which was conferred the title of Raja in recognition of their great humanitarian work, the Cossimbazar rajbari has some attractive stories to share on the mighty Ilish. A romantic Ilish dish named Madhu Malai Ilish was created as an expression of love between Raja Ashutoshnath Roy and Rani Sarojini Devi. The Raja was going out on a rainy-swept evening and he requested his lady love to prepare a dspecial ish on his return. A dish which has coconut milk, honey, yogurt sans mustard or turmeric. Yes honey was used as a sweetening agent. As the name suggests, it’s a sweet and creamy dish. Rani Pasand Ilish has its history going back to the year 1880 when Raja Annadaprasad Roy and his wife Arnakali Roy were the then ruling zamindars. Cooking was one form of entertainment too. Rani Pasand, as the name suggests, the Queen’s favourite and had emerged as the winning recipe in a competition between her cooks. The fish, marinated with mustard and green chillies and wrapped in banana leaf was shallow fried on both sides instead of steamed. As we spoke to Supriya Roy and Ashish Roy from the family, she narrated that their kitchen was professionally managed with storekeepers, gardeners growing vegetables etc. It was almost like a Private Limited company. There were separate skilled cooks specialising in different cuisines for officers, employers etc. What used to be cooked in the Rajbari used to influence the surrounding community also. Incidentally, Machher jhal chorchori slightly influenced by East Bengali cuisine, is cooked in iron karhais or woks and offered during Durga Puja as a bhog. Panch foron or 5 spices is used to temper the chorchori made with potato and cauliflower. The dish is finished with a drizzle of mustard oil. A funny family story wraps ups the cnversation. Apparantly one time after the dish was prepared with the fish and vegetables, the entire karhai full disappeared. The empty karhai was found the next day in the bordering jungles!
How emperor Jahangir influenced one of the Ilish dishes of Bengal Rajbari Ilish dishes – Moynagarh from East Midnapore
Moynagarh Raj Bari from East Midnapore district has the title of Bahubalindra, which is an honour to the grit and determination with which they fought their enemies. They share similar culinary stories too. One of the forefathers, Raja Paramananada Bahubalindra had gone to meet Emperor Jahangir in Delhi and got influenced by Mughal and Turkish and other middle eastern dishes. He came back and tried the pulao with Ilish. The Ilish machher dum pulao cooked in scented basmati rice with onions, whole spices acts as the perfect foil to the delicate queen of all fish. The other dish from this Raj Bari was Ilish Machher Mol which was invented by Jagadanada Bahubolindro. He introduced the cooking of Ilish in coconut milk and was inspired by the Nawabs of Murshidabad. A Rajbari and a dynasty which has the legendary King Lau Sen at the helm and then a history of acquisitions, communal harmony and bravery and grit would defintely have a rich culinary history too.
All these plates are accompanied by the best innings possible – Ilish Bhaja Tel, Ilish macher dim bhaja (fried Hila roe), Ilish bhaja (Hilsa darne), aloo bhate (mash potato) , Ilish macher matha diye chorchori, and Sada Bhaath (Govindo bhog or steamed rice) . One of the heirloom dishes with the accompaniments comes at INR 2000 plus taxes .
When we are focussing on mindful eating these days – can there be a better match made in heaven with stories of royal kitchens along with Ilish ? In case you know some more, share here please.