Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (do you know about him? I stumbled upon his life while doing the research for this fish) had once said – In the hands of an able cook, fish can become an inexhaustible source of perpetual delight.” 

One of the many reasons why Hilsa or Ilish is not liked by many is the presence of too many fine bones; but the on the other hand why it is the apple of the eye for many has got numerous reasons. One of the reasons I guess, is the elusiveness of availability only at a fixed period of the year, the non predictability of availability and also more importantly, the feeling of happiness and celebration while having it. Is there any other fish which can be used/ cooked differently together at the same time and be the only dish of a whole meal? The season’s first Hilsa is always a celebration and normally a bengali meal would start with the fish oil that it leaves while frying, if eggs are available – then mild fried fish eggs with red dry chilly and mashed potatoes. Move on to the fried Hilsa. Rarely an intelligent Bengali is there who would not try his hand with a deep fried Hilsa. Deep fried Hilsa in mustard oil with crispy skin is an object of lust for many. The main course can be served in various ways but any preparation with mustard is most common; the other most popular being steamed in a leaf or Paturi.

Ilish Paturi and some green chillies

Paturi is bengali brother of Patrani Machhi by the Parsis. While the cooking methodology and technique remain the same, the spices used are different. Again, Paturi is not only restricted to Ilish; one can use Beckti, pomfret or any other fish also. The process of Ilish Paturi involves marination with turmeric, salt, mustard oil, green chilies, coconut (optional), poppy seeds (optional to get the texture). As we made Ilish Paturi this weekend, we used banana leaves but other plant leaves can also be used. In case you have tried with other leaves then let us know. Well, it seems now that monsoon has finally entered Kolkata. And hopefully, this season, like every year would again get ruled by Ilish and no season of Ilish can be complete without Ilish paturi.

I remember the time when Baba used to take me to fish market when I was a kid. For a kid who never wasted an opportunity to play, this used to be little boring. But now when I look back, I feel that perhaps those were some of the best public relations, marketing and sales, negotiation lessons that I could have learnt. While there was a brand loyalty of taking the fish from one particular person day after day, there was also the best interest of buying better quality products from another seller at a better price. And where do you stop negotiation over a fish? That is an art which not many can master. The art of checking the gills and the colour was one of the first litmus tests that I had learnt.

Ilish Paturi the raw produce

For the last 4 years, Baba and I had developed this small ritual between ourselves. Every season I used to take 1000 rupees from him to buy the first Ilish of the season. The careful, conservative and expenses well planned Baba, never gave me more than 1000, because like everything in his life, this was budgeted too and crossing the line meant luxury, in which he never indulged himself. If the cost was more than 1000, I used to pay and that afternoon when we would have the first Ilish, it would be more than having food. It was feeling of happiness and bonding. The discussion about the fish, the debates over the pieces, the tasty or not so tasty Ilish eggs (yes, they are tasty too) continued the lunch table discussion.

This year, there was no one to give me 1000 rupees. This year, there was no one to pass on the final verdict on the quality of fish and this year when we had the first Ilish, there was moments of pregnant silences at the lunch table .. We missed him.

Ilish Paturi ready

Ilish Paturi/ Hilsa steamed in a banana leaf

Prep Time: 10 Minutes

Cooking Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

Ilish (Hilsa) 6 pieces Turmeric Powder 2 tsp
Yellow Mustard seeds ½ cup Freshly grated coconut ½ cup
Poppy seed paste 1 tbsp (optional) Mustard Oil 5 – 6 tbsp
Green Chilies 7- 8 nos Milk 4 – 5 tbsp
Salt To taste Banana Leaf 2 big ones

Ilish Paturi key ingredients

Method:

  • Wash the fish pieces and pat them dry on a kitchen towel and keep aside.
  • The mustard seeds need to be soaked in water for about 15 – 20 minutes for easy grinding.
  • After 20 minutes, drain the water from the mustard seeds and place in a blender. Add the coconut and the poppy seed paste along with a couple of green chilies, salt and turmeric.
  • For grinding, it is best not to use to excess water, instead use a couple of tbsp of mustard oil.
  • The way I do it is use a bit of mustard oil and a tbsp of milk and grind. After a couple of swirls, add more mustard oil and milk and grind again. Repeat the process till you have a fine paste and has a strong kick of the mustard. The paste should not be runny but of a thick consistency.
  • The next step is to prepare the banana leaves. If you have a large leaf, it is possible to get 4 or may be 6 squares from each leaf. You need to cut the central thick rib of the leaf. Trim the sides and cut the leaves into rectangles of squares of, 6 by 6 inches or may be more if you need. It completely depends on the size of the fish.
  • Once they are cut, wash them properly under running water and dry them with a towel.
  • It is important to wilt the leaves to make them flexible. For this you need to carefully warm the leaves over a low flame with the help of a tong. Keep them a little away from the flame so as to not burn or char the leaves.
  • Once this is done, place one piece of fish on each banana leaf. Rub a bit of salt on each of the fish. Smear the prepared mustard paste generously on each fish. Place a slit green chili on each. Then drizzle some mustard oil. Finally wrap each of the parcels and seal with a toothpick.
  • Place the parcels in a steamer, close the lid and cook for 20 minutes.
  • There are various ways to prepare this in case you don’t have a steamer. You can place them in a baking dish and bake in the oven for 25 minutes at 180 degrees celcius. You can also microwave for 3 – 5 minutes. One can also place them inside a covered tiffin box and place the tiffin box inside a pressure cooker with some water in it and cook for 10 minutes. There are several ways; I used an idly steamer to make my paturis.
  • Once they are done, serve them with some hot steaming rice.

Ilish Paturi