A Fish Lover's Guide To Cooking Hilsa

A Fish Lovers Guide To Cooking Hilsa

ilish-bhojohori-manna Hilsa prepared in a mustard gravy is the most popular preparation. Photo: Bhojohori Manna

It was one of those rainy days. I had been listening to the tedious pitter-patter of the rain since morning. Suddenly the aroma of fried Hilsa wafted in the air from our neighbour's kitchen! It made me instantly hanker for ilish macher jhol, one of my most favourite fish curries.

Since it was not possible for me to step out at an unearthly hour to buy fish, the next best option was to write a post about my favourite ilish curry. Coincidentally, I also received a WhatsApp message from my little sister in Dubai around the same time wherein she asked me, "Are you writing about anything now? Please write about the fish curries you used to make. They used to be very tasty." So I had no choice, but to write. I thought of starting with my most favourite fish, ilish.

Like salmon, ilish also thrives in the sea, but swims across many miles to reach a river where they can breed. After breeding, they go back to the sea again. Hilsa from the Ganges in West Bengal and river Padma in Bangladesh are supposed to be delicious.

Hilsa can be prepared in a variety of ways. A simple curry with kalo jeere (or nigella seeds), bhapa ilish (cooked in steam), shorshe ilish (cooked with mustard), ilish paturi (fish wrapped in banana leaf and cooked), ilish macher ambal (cooked in a sweet and sour gravy), boneless ilish preparations (found mostly in restaurants) and many more.

Today, I will share a simple ilish macher jhol or curry, which takes minimum time to prepare and is high on taste. The best thing about Hilsa is that it has a flavour of its own, so you do not require a lot of spices. Another quality is that it releases oil while frying, and hence you can cook it with very less oil. It tastes the best when cooked in mustard oil, and is supposed to be good for the heart.

I usually pair the fish curry with ilish mach bhaja or fried ilish, which completes the meal.

Recipe for ilish mach bhaja (serves 3)


3 pieces of Hilsa, preferably gada or the backside & tail of the fish*

2 tbsp mustard oil

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

Salt to taste

3 green chillies

*Bengalis have a distinctive style of cutting fish. 'Peti' is the area around the stomach with a whole in the middle. 'Gada' on the other hand is the area around the back, which is usually bony. The latter is usually fried as they are easy to eat.


1. Wash the fish lightly and smear them with turmeric powder and salt. Set them aside for five minutes.

2. Heat 2 tbsp of mustard oil in a wok. Put the fish in the oil one by one.

3. Lower the heat a bit. Fry the pieces till they are brown and crunchy, turning them now and then.

4. Take them off the wok along with the oil. Keep the pieces in a bowl, immersed in the same oil.

Serve the fried ilish with plain rice as the first course. Mix a small portion of rice with a little fish oil. Sprinkle some salt over it. Eat the rice along with the fried fish and the oil. Take a green chilli and bite on it while eating the fried fish, oil and the rice. It is yummy!

Recipe for Ilish macher jhol or curry (serves 3)


6 pieces of Hilsa

1 medium size brinjal/ 3 long thin brinjals

1/2 tsp black nigella seeds/ whole cumin seeds

1/2 tsp each of turmeric, cumin and chilli powders

3 tbsp mustard oil

1 and 1/2 cup of water.

3 green chillies

Salt and some extra turmeric powder


1. Wash the fish pieces lightly. If you rub them hard, the flavour of the fish will go away.

2. Try to include as many 'peti' pieces as possible as they taste good in fish curry.

3. Smear the fish with some salt and turmeric powder and set them aside for 5 minutes.

4. Heat 2 to 3 tbsp mustard oil in a wok.

5. Fry the fish pieces lightly (not too brown), three at a time. Keep them separately in anther bowl.

6. Cut the brinjal in slightly big square pieces as they cook very quickly. Smear the brinjal pieces with salt and turmeric powder.

7. If the fish is of good quality, a lot of oil will come out while frying it for the curry. In that case, take out some oil as too much of it will spoil the taste.

8. In the residue oil, put either 1/2 tsp black nigella seeds or whole cumin seeds. Anything will do.

9. When the seeds start crackling, pour the smeared brinjal pieces in the oil and fry them for a while.

10. Add the paste made of turmeric, chilli and cumin powders (made beforehand with a little bit of water) in the oil and keep stirring the brinjal along with the spices till oil separates.

11. Pour one and a half cup of water in the wok.

12. Add salt to taste. When the water starts boiling, put the fried pieces of fish in the gravy.

13. Put three slit green chillis and simmer for a while. Switch off the gas, cover it and give it some standing time.

14. Pour it in a bowl and serve it with hot rice.

Rekha Karmakar is a proud mother of two sons, and having retired as a college professor, spends her time writing about her varied life experiences in her blog Tabulous Mom on her computer tablet. She started blogging in 2010 as a guest blogger on Finely Chopped. She writes mostly about her stay and travel in foreign countries and her teaching experiences.

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