“What’s your favourite kind of fish?” asked Priya.
Her mouth was full of badly made chicken patty and her legs were propped up on the center table, on which lay few more chicken patties, more horrible than the other. The 6-month-old puppy that hardly looks like a puppy anymore, sniffed around for scraps.
We’d tried to get as much work done on the Help Center article for our travel website, as possible. Curiously, it has given us a lot of clarity. Priya, someone I haven’t introduced to you, is a childhood friend. We met when we were both in the sixth grade, at a dinner party her family threw. She talked my ears off and I just sat there wearing a kimono.
Nineteen years later and we’re partners in a travel start-up, yearning for a nomad life and 26-inch waists. I mean what is the point of running a travel website, if you can’t travel and look fucking fantastic while doing it, right?
On Sunday, we were watching Dipa Karmakar on the vaults during dinner, when the topic of fish came up. In all honesty, we’re Bengalis — we’re always talking about fish. We could be sitting in our grandfather’s armchair complaining about the heat or traipsing the Salt Flats of Utah solo, but we would always talk about (or even better, eat) fish. It can’t be helped, you know. Throughout our school days, we woke up early to our fathers returning from the markets — sweaty, annoyed with the monsoon and complaining about inflation. The green and grey striped synthetic shopping bags would be heaving under fish, mutton and veggies with their leafy tops poking out through the handles.
Most of the time we wind up eating fish, if lucky, everyday, in curries. Curries with mustard, curries plain with onions and turmeric and sometimes with nigella seeds or soppy with coconut milk. But we also love fish batter-fried, wrapped and steamed in coconut leaves, mashed up in shallow-fried cakes, stuffed into hollowed-out vegetables or even just plain and crispy and salty.
“I like seafood-ish stuff more than fish actually,” Priya continued. “Prawns and squid and stuff.”
I grunted over the patties.
Hilsa. My answer will and always will, be hilsa.
A freshwater wonder that belongs to the herring family, apparently. A word to the wise, if you haven’t grown up around seafood, I wouldn’t advise you to have hilsa on your own. The fish is bony enough to give the sunfish a run for its money. Even seasoned Bengalis or South Indians who’ve grown up near the coast, keep their eyes peeled and tongues trained while savoring the fish. This could easily discourage you from trying the ilish (another name for it). But the lure of the hilsa is real.
It is more of a meaty fish than a fishy fish, if that makes any sense. You can douse it in an oily slurry of mustard and onions or in a crude coconut sauce, it’ll come out fragrant and unctuous and utterly irresistible. So much so, that I, once as a 5-year-old, downed five humongous pieces of hilsa at my grandfather’s wake. I even braved my way through all the bones without any adult supervision, such was my vehemence for the fish.
But it doesn’t end there. Hilsa is one of those species which produce roe that can easily melt in your mouth like herbed butter can. If you ever find yourself in a Bengali fish market, make sure it’s raining. Stand in front of the best fishmonger with his hilsa spread on display and ask for a fish with roe.
One of the easiest and no doubt, delicious things that you can do to a hilsa fish that’s fat with roe, is slather it with turmeric powder and salt and shallow fry it in mustard oil. The fish turns dark while the skin turns crispy and golden against the umami of the crunchy-outside-squishy-inside roe. And that is exactly what we did the next morning.
We worked till lunch and I brought out my new Fujifilm Instax 300 Wide. I’m still getting the hang of experimenting with the instant camera, so the photos may not the be best you’ve seen. The morning was cloudy and fraught with UI/UX exercises. But it had hilsa, golden-skinned and nestled between sheets of kitchen paper.
1 cup of mustard oil (choose one with a strong smell that makes your nose twitch)
6-8 pieces, Hilsa/Ilish (with roe)
1-2 tablespoons of Turmeric powder
Salt, to taste
Sprinkle and coat the pieces of fish with turmeric and salt. Leave for 20-30 minutes in the refrigerator.
Heat the oil in a wok till the top starts to smoke. Reduce the heat and fan away the smoke with your hand (be careful!). Pop the fish into the hot oil in batches of 2 or 3. Raise the heat to medium-high. Depending on the size of your wok don’t put in more than 3 or 4. Keep the batches small.
Cover and fry the fish till the pieces starts to darken and the skin goes crispy. Flip the fish after 1 minute and fry for 2 more minutes. Total frying time should not go more than 4 minutes.
Pick the pieces out of oil and leave them on paper towels that’ll soak up the excess oil.
Serve with steamed white rice, dal and big fat wedges of lime.