Some years ago, I ate a piece of fried hilsa – and my world changed.... Oh! Calcutta at International Trade Tower in Nehru Place serves some terrific varieties of fish.
Fish was not something that I grew up with – despite the fact that my mother was a Bengali. My childhood was spent in a village in Muzaffarnagar, where fish was as rare as a Khap panchayat (I don't know when these panchayats came up, but they certainly didn't exist then). Later, when I was with my parents, fish did figure in our meals every now and then, but I avoided it, worried about the bones.
Then, as I began eating out, I started developing a taste for fish. I enjoyed the occasional grilled fish or fried fish with tartar sauce, and then zeroed in on rahu cooked with mustard. Hilsa, however, was still on the no-no list, for I was convinced that I wouldn't be able to handle its tiny bones. Then, some years ago, I ate a piece of fried hilsa – and my world changed. I still can't devour it the way my Bengali relatives and friends can and do, but I enjoy the fish, and love to occasionally feast on it.
One such feast happened the other evening. I was invited to a hilsa festival at Oh! Calcutta at International Trade Tower in Nehru Place – and had an excellent dinner there. The great thing about the restaurant, which serves all kinds of Bengali delicacies, is that it experiments a bit with the hilsa every time it hosts a festival. And what's interesting is that even diehard hilsa fans – who think the fish should only be fried, or cooked with mustard or onion seeds and green chillies – enjoy the new ways of cooking. For instance, the hilsa cooked with milk and cheese (dudh ilish – Rs.340) was simply delicious. The sauce had a light taste and colour, and was incredibly smooth.
The other preparation that caught my fancy was a dish in which the fish had been flavoured with the masala of mango pickle, and then cooked in an edible pumpkin leaf (aam aacharer ilish). The pickle gave the fish a spicy and tart touch, while the leaf had soaked in the flavours of the fish and its masala.
Another entrée was the dhone patar bhapa ilish – in which the fish had been wrapped in a banana leaf, smeared with a paste of coriander leaves and then steamed. I am afraid this dish was overwhelmed by the flavour of the coriander.
I had some other non-hilsa dishes there as well – including an excellent bekti fillet, grilled and served with a sauce prepared with lemon, butter and parsley. This was out of this world. But the festival celebrating the hilsa has a host of other dishes that you can try out – from hilsa cooked with cucumber to coconut milk, or even a mixed vegetable (called chorchori) prepared with a hilsa head.
The old favourites are there as well – hilsa cooked with mustard, with curd or in a simple gravy. And of course, the fried ilish – which is truly a wonderful preparation – was the star of the table. The hilsa dishes all cost Rs.340, barring the smoked hilsa (Rs.550) and the boneless bhapa ilish (Rs.825).
I am glad I discovered the hilsa. Late, no doubt, but as they say, better late than never.