|Nothing fishy: Fragrant hilsa pulao. — Photo Shahrear Kabir Heemel
by MH Haider
The opinion above sums up our love for ilish pulao (ilish means hilsa; pulao means pilaf: the name translates to hilsa pilaf in English). To understand our fascination with this dish, one must first understand its context. To describe the choice of staples and the eating habits of Bangladeshis, the widespread phrase, "macche bhaat e Bangali", – loosely translated to "fish and rice makes a Bengali" – comes handy.
Shawkat Osman, in his book Recipes from the Rannaghor, wrote, "A large number of rivers and abundant rainfall on the deltaic plain of Bangladesh is ideal for the fish and rice farming… hundreds of species of fish are available… These factors have, through the ages, made rice and fish the chief diet of the people."
Hilsa is the national fish of Bangladesh. Our love for it has been embedded in our genes. Eating hilsa has become an integral part of the menu in festivities. Hosts serve hilsa with great fervour to entertain guests.
The enthusiasm does not end there. Mawa Ghat is one of the places – quite near Dhaka – where you get fresh hilsa. "If you are a die-hard enthusiast, you must go there at dawn to buy hilsa fresh from the river," says Asif Aziz, a businessperson in his mid-thirties.
Hilsa experiences and memories are plenty. Nondini – a college professor who gets nostalgic every time she eats hilsa – shared her feelings for an article published in Star Lifestyle. "Long time ago, back in Comilla, there was this marketplace called Rajgonjo Bazaar. Whenever the price of ilish fell, a man used to beat a drum through the whole neighbourhood and inform everyone about it. Even today, when I have hilsa, I hear the drum, and feel the happiness associated with it."
Among the numerous recipes of hilsa, one of the most popular is ilish pulao.
In Bangladesh – along with many parts of the world – pilaf is widely consumed. Pilaf with meat is common all across, including Bangladesh.
But Bengalis, given their love for hilsa, uses all gastronomic skills they have to make recipes with this fish.
As ilish pulao reaches your dining table, the distinct and strong aroma entices you. Often, the pieces of the fish will be laid at the top of the heap of pilaf, with 'beresta' (caramelised onions) sprinkled on the surface. This sight and smell, for a Bengali, are a promise of the delights to come.
The stimulating aroma is soon to be followed by its complementary taste.
The deliciousness, some people enthusiastically argue, depends highly on from where the hilsa was caught. "The taste hilsa of Padma River is the best, because the nutrients there are superior," many opine.
Theories, thoughts and tales – that is what ilish and its magical pulao never fail to bring.— The Daily Star (Bangladesh)
Ingredients (serves 10)
- 2 hilsas (1.5kg each)
- 2 carrots, roughly diced
- 4 white onions, quartered
- 10 green chillies, chopped
- 2 green cardamom pods, gently cracked
- 2 black cardamom pods, gently cracked
- 2 cinnamon sticks, 2.5cm-long
- 10 cloves
- 2+3 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
- 2 cups yoghurt
- 2 tsp coriander powder
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 2 tsp red chilli powder
- 2 tbsp red onion paste
- 2 tsp garlic paste
- ½ cup mustard oil
- ½ cup ghee (clarified butter)
- 2 cups red onion, sliced
- 2 tsp ginger, grated
- 2 cinnamon sticks (2.5cm long)
- 550g kalijira rice (fragrant rice)
- ½ cup hot evaporated or thick milk
- Scale the fish. Cut out the head and tail. Reserve them for making stock. Pull out the guts and discard. Place the pan-dressed body of the fish on its side and slice diagonally, cutting into 1.75cm-broad steaks.
- In a large pot, pour eight cups water. Now put hilsa head, tail and other fish pieces, carrot, quartered onions, green chillies, two green cardamoms, two black cardamoms, two cinnamon sticks and 10 cloves. Bring contents to a boil. Reduce heat to medium simmering. Allow the stock to reduce for 90 minutes. Strain the stock and discard the vegetables, spices, herbs and fish parts.
- Return stock to the flame. Sprinkle two teaspoons salt and pepper and simmer over a very low flame till required. In a mixing bowl, combine yoghurt, coriander powder, cumin powder, red chilli powder, red onion paste, garlic paste and three teaspoons salt. Whisk to a smooth paste.
- Drop the fish pieces into this mixing bowl and coat with the paste. Heat the oil in a wok. Gently slide the fish pieces into it, saute both sides until the spices release aroma, strain the fish pieces and keep aside.
- Pour the residual oil into a heavy deghchi*.
- Add ghee. When the fat is heated, toss in the sliced red onion and saute until golden. With a latticed spoon, scoop out 3/4th of the fried onions and place them on absorbent paper towels to drain, to make a baresta**. Add the remaining ingredients to the oil and onions in the deghchi in the following order: grated ginger, black cardamom, green cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. Saute stirring vigorously until spices release flavour.
- Tip in the rice and saute, stirring all the time, until the spices are blended well with the rice. Cook until the rice changes colour. Pour enough stock to form a 4cm layer on the rice. Swirl the rice with a spatula. Check for salt, add more if required and bring to a boil.
- Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and reduce the flame to its lowest point. Simmer for 10 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is al dente (tender but still slightly resistant to the bite). Use a fork to loosen the grains. Sprinkle hot milk on the rice. Arrange the fish pieces over the rice, and spread out 1/2 the baresta on top, cover again with the lid, and cook for about seven to 10 minutes.
- Carefully take out the fish pieces and set aside. Arrange the rice on a large rice dish. Assemble the fish pieces on top of the rice.
- Garnish with the remaining baresta on top.
Recipe is adapted from "Khunti Korai: Bangladeshi Cuisine" written by Shawkat Osman
*Deghchi is a large cooking pot with a lid
**Beresta is caramelised onions