I think Delhi-ites know how to party but Kolkata has people who know how to celebrate.
Kolkata’s former adopted boy (almost) Gautam Gambhir had said this once. The sentiments, sense of exuberance, enthusiasm the city holds is unparalleled to any. What is not celebrated in this city – from himsagar in the summers to nolen gur in the winters. From Christmas and New year to Jamai Shasthi. Amongst these, monsoon brings in a different kind of celebration. It’s Hilsa or Ilish- the season’s most prized fish which starts the rule.
Ilish for Bengalis is more than a fish. It’s an accomplishment, it’s an elegance, its savoir faire. Ilish is aspirational and it’s this season where the ones who cannot afford would also feel like a king if one can get hold of the perfect Ilish and that too with roe. My father was a great fish buyer. His meticulous way of identifying a good fish, poking the pet (stomach), opening the kanko (gills) for checking the redness was a passionate affair. There were Sundays when his return from the market was normal and there were Sundays when he used to return as a king. Those were the days when his favourite Machhwala (fish monger) Mintu, would have given him the best Ilish Machh. As in the elimination test of Masterchef Australia, Baba’s performance and in turn Mintu’s performance, would be evaluated by Ma as she would cook. Whether the fish is Oily enough, whether the entire house and even the neighbour’s house can smell the fish were some of the stages of evaluation till the final verdict would come at the lunch table. Ma being from this side of the border would order the house help to do the mustard paste which was an indication of the probable Ilish arrival on that day. Sorshe is like a shadow to Ilish in Ghoti households whereas Bangals tend to complain that Sorshe masks the original flavour of Ilish and for them, its lesser the better.
A couple of month back, a phone call from Modhurima di depicted the plan of introducing recipes from Bloggers in the Ilish Festival Menu of Taj Bengal Kolkata. Being a perfectionist in executing her plan, 18th of July, sharp at noon, Debjani (who cooked Ilish Shukto) , Indrajit (presented Ilish Bharta ) and Madhushree made Doi Ilish. Doi Ilish is a family favourite and am sure, just as my grand father and my father would have memories around it, I have too.
Don’t catch them young. Don’t catch them small.
I didn’t understand this when I used to go for fish shopping with Baba. He never liked small Hilsas. Didn’t even look at them. The first whole Ilish which chef Giri showed us was more than 2 Kgs. The eyes went wide for all of us. A lot has been said about the decline in the quantity of catch and why everytime one buys any Hilsa less than 1.5 kg is a cardinal sin. The fish used here in Taj Bengal Kolkata reconfirmed the fact that catching them big only assures oily and buttery textured fish.
The cooking process
The designated cooks (who also blog) were super confident and although the nuances and work flow of a new kitchen and that too an industrial kitchen overwhelmed them in the beginning but support from Chef Giri, Chef Soumalya Sarkar and all kitchen staff made the process and overall experience easier than perceived. The writer of this blog and not a very accomplished cook himself, captured the priceless moments and by 12.30, the dishes were ready by all three of them. I had the privilege of tasting three of them and Doi Ilish, Ilish Macher Shukto and Ilish Bharta – all were on the spot.
The journey of Doi Ilish as I have seen and heard
I have grown up tasting Doi Ilish made by my mother every year. At times it has also been twice or thrice a year. She had once confirmed that the recipe was passed on to her by my grandmother. My fathers side being strong Ghoti, the use of Gur or Jaggery in any dish was compulsory but Ma never confirmed if my grandmother used Bheli Gud in Ilish machh too. If I map the journey of this recipe from my Grandmother’s kitchen to Madhushree’s kitchen via my mother’s kitchen, then I can place a plate of Doi Ilish on these places as a geo tag (no I am not claiming the Geo tag ) – Naihati, Bandel, Chandannagore, Kolkata, Pune, Kolkata and finally at the Sonargaon, Taj Bengal Kolkata. Between three generations, this recipe has been cooked over last 100 years in my family. In these 100 years, other than the socio-political changes, increase in the price and division of Bangladesh and West Bengal, heat source has changed from clay oven to gas oven, utensils have changed, place of eating has changed from sitting on ground to a dining table and many such more. The most important change what has happened is that characters around the main protagonist of Doi Ilish have entered and exited the stage. Who says that only monuments and buildings and rooms are witness to changing times? A family recipe which can be an adaptation of a traditional recipe and which gets slightly improvised with every generation is also a witness, isn’t it ?
The lunch and the Menu
There was no contest but somehow it was a moment of truth when the dishes were served to eminent personalities like Tanushree Shankar, Nandita Pal Chowdhury, Sourendra and Soumyojit, who do not need any introduction. By their reaction, one can safely say that the dishes are worth to be included in the menu. Good food always invoke a great adda and that’s what we were privy to when Tanushree di explained how she, being originally from Bangladesh introduced Ilish beguner jhol to the Shankar household. There is something called a firingi Ilish which gets cooked in her house and many other anecdotes of Ghoti, Bangal and eating habits with a touch of banter floating around. It was not only the bloggers dishes but as I knew him earlier, the silent unsung hero of Sonargaon – Chef Giri kept on feeding us with some of his creations which will be a part of this ongoing festival – Ilish Bhaja tel, Ilish Machher tok, Ilish Machher tel jhal, Ilish Paturi, Ilish Biryani and after this, we couldn’t handle any further. One can also check out Sorshe Ilish, Bhapa Ilish, Ilish dimer bora. There is also Hilsa Head to Tail meal experience.
Ilish is a festival which demands celebration. Last year it was Kalyan da who shared his memories with us. This year we had another set of eminent celebrities sharing their thoughts. But above all, this year will be fondly remembered. This year we cooked at the kitchen of Sonargaon. We will make Doi Ilish at home but we will also feel connected with each and every person who will try this dish at Taj Bengal Kolkata. It’s not only the dish and recipe which has travelled to Taj Bengal Kolkata but a slice of a life of three women which has got shared with a larger audience. Will you try our Doi Ilish at Taj Bengal Kolkata please?
P.S. – Ilish is lavish and grand. It’s an elaborate affair, the last morsel, the last drop of the oil, the last bit of flesh; all have to be devoured and the taste should linger for next few hours, few days and few weeks – I have tried to share the last words and sentences which came from my heart – now whether this writing remains in your memory or not will prove the quality of the piece.