Hilsa, the queen of fish

Hilsa may not be known to most fish connoisseurs as it is restricted to very few cuisines. For some, this is the most precious fish. Legend has it that Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the tyrannical sultan, also succumbed to Hilsa’s allure. The fish is full of fat that gives it a distinctive aroma, flavor and texture. It’s healthy fish fat packed with the goodness of Omega-3 fatty acids. Like bacon, the oil that oozes from the fish when fried in mustard oil is prized for its flavor. Hilsa spawn in fresh water, and then the young fish make a several-month journey downstream to the sea. Adults then swim several kilometers upriver to return to fresh water and lay eggs. These adults that have made their way from the sea are the most precious prey. This is also why we often find Hilsa with a belly full of roe, which is a delicacy when fried with the steak cut – the belly and back we refer to as ‘peta’ Y ‘peethi’.

Come monsoon and when the talk/gossip takes its turn to catch fish, it focuses on Hilsa. I still remember sitting on the handlebars of the bike and my uncle rowing me to Jobra Annicut from Meria Bazar to fetch Hilsa, also known as Illish, from the always bustling Jobra fish market. The Mahanadi Hilsa has her own charm, shining like a fresh ingot of molten silver. The once famous Mahanadi Hilsa has now faded and become the talk of the youth days for all those who have devoured it.

It is a fish in which all the parts are savored in the same equation and are cooked in different styles and recipes. either the ‘mundane’ (head) or ‘lanja’ (tail) or viscera or fillets. Each part as described is unique and delicious. Coming to Hilsa it’s a ‘waste, don’t want, don’t’ policy.

Now there’s the ‘world’ (head), roe and the ‘cloth o trimmings: offal (fat, liver and intestines). The bony tail is not to be missed. These are the parts that most kitchens throw away or use as food for the hands that help in the kitchen. But when it comes to Hilsa, each and every part is a culinary delight and is prepared through a specialized process. Therefore, each part is open to culinary interpretation.

Starting with the center part of the body, we usually divide or divide the steak into two parts ‘peta’ Y ‘peethi’. the ‘peta’ Depending on your palate, you can leave the roe or the viscera and the flavor is yum, which tastes similar to duck fat. These parts come to the dining table, in the form of potato chips, steamed with mustard spread on the pieces, kiss jhol either Haldi Pani Jhol, And the list goes on. Although the above recipe has changed quite a bit with the fusion approach, there is a lot of waste in fusion recipes that we Odis cannot afford.

All said and done though, my favorite way to eat the ‘peta’ Y ‘peethi’ is a preparation that is as traditional as it is progressive: the Microwave ‘Bhappa Shoresho Hilsa’, a technique I have seen and heard DINK housewives employ, which is magical. Since it’s a more consistent and controlled cooking device compared to a steamer, it’s very difficult to overcook mustard-slathered fish, and it truly is the most succulent, melt-in-your-mouth experience.

Heads I win and tails you lose: The ‘mundane’ is very often used to make ‘chenchada’ either ‘daal’ — as a meaty backbone of Umami to a stronger plant base. But the most unique and delicious preparation with the trimmings can only be with a sour base using a sweet and sour element such as raw mango or tamarind. That union of fatty Umami with sour-spicy-sweet (sour-sweet-spicy) is just one of those combinations that goes so well with steaming hot rice – the choice is yours, polished or unpolished. the ‘lanja’ it’s for the hardcore fans of Hilsa – it’s the bonyest part of the bony fish and it’s so delicious when you eat it fried. Although it is bone, but the marbling makes it an a la carte menu.

The wonderful offal of Hilsa aka ‘Hilsa cloth means the offal and entrails of the fish with liver and tripe nestled in its abdominal cavity. These offal are usually left inside the ‘peta’ fillet. So when it’s served, everyone gets a succulent little bite of the crunchy, fatty piece to enjoy. After frying the rendered fish fat together with mustard oil it is a real treat when mixed with hot steamed rice and fried green chili in the same oil.

For the road: don’t settle for fish that weighs less than a kilo. Make sure the catch is from the area upstream of the river. It is not tasty if it is from the mouth, estuarine and marine. Be a gentleman when you feast on Hilsa.

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