The fish is steamed in a spicy paste of mustard, yogurt and hot green peppers. This is an authentic recipe from home, close to my heart, evoking bountiful thoughts of beautiful times with the recipe and the taste etched in my memories for ever.
I would wait to get that first whiff, when ma would open the container where the Hilsa/Ilish would be cooked. Steaming hot with the smoke blurring the vision while the nose was tickled by the strong sweet flavor of mustard and spices. The hot white rice impatiently waited for the steamy yellow fish and the sauce to be spooned over it and devoured and licked clean! Lip smacking good! If the fish had the roe they would be removed carefully and placed on the side of the plate; a treasure to be savored at the end of the meal for Hilsa roe is considered a delicacy.
A place called “home”, where the cuisine is popularly known to revolve around fish and rice and sweets, Ilish/Hilsa can be called the icon of the Bengali cuisine. No the vegetables are not neglected, nor are the lentils; for they do play some pretty important role in the complex mesh of the Bengali cuisine. However the highlight today is not going to be vegetables. Along with the other varieties of fishes that are consumed in Bengal everyday, the one that is cherished treasure is the Ilish/Hilsa.
Back home Hilsa/Ilish is deep fried, steamed, smoked, baked/steamed in banana leaves, cooked with mustard paste, yogurt, or combined with vegetables like brinjal/eggplant/aubergines. Spices like Nigella seeds/Kalonji/Kalo Jeera along with mustard oil is used to enhance the flavors of the this fish. “It is said that people can cook hilsa in more than 50 ways.” Hilsa/Ilish can be cooked in very little oil since the fish itself is very oily- a good kind of oil since it is a fish of benefit, rich with the essential omega 3 fatty acids.
Shad and Herring are near relatives of the Hilsa. In North America (where Hilsa is not always readily available) the Shad is sometimes used as a Hilsa substitute, in the Bengali cuisine.
Here I have given 3 ways to steam the fish: In the microwave, in the oven, and in the pressure cooker.
Bhapa Ilish/Steamed Fish in Mustard Yogurt Sauce
- 4-5 Hilsa/Ilish Steaks – each steak about 1/2 – 3/4 inch thick
- 3-4 tablespoons pure mustard oil
- 3 tablespoons yogurt
- 2.5 tablespoons grated coconut
- 1/2 – 3/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
- few green chili, slit for garnish (optional)
For the paste:
- 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
- 1 tablespoon poppy seeds (white)
- 3-4 hot green chilli (or as per your taste)
- Salt to taste
Preparing the paste:
Soak the ingredients for the paste in 1/4 cup of water for about 30 -45 minutes. Grind the mustard, green chilli and the poppy seeds with salt to make a thick paste (This paste is called “shorshe bata”; Shorshe=mustard Bata=ground into a paste).
[Alternate way to make mustard paste : Dry grind the seeds (mustard and poppy) and then mix the powdered seed with about 1/2 teaspoon vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, salt, and green chillies and let it sit for about 30-45 minutes.]
Wash and clean (remove scales) of the fish and cut in steak size pieces or you can have them clean and cut at the place from where you buy the fish (that is what I do).
In a bowl add the mustard paste, yogurt, mustard oil, coconut, turmeric powder, red chili powder, salt. Mix well or blend them all together in a blender for a few seconds. This is going to be the sauce for the fish. Do not add any extra water.
Combining the sauce and the fish and cooking:
In the microwave (the easiest and the fastest way to cook. This is usually how it is made in my home)
Coat an microwave oven safe container with mustard oil. Place the fish pieces in the bowl in one single layer. Pour the above mustard sauce over the steaks so the sauce covers all of the steaks completely. Add a few slit green chili peppers on the top. Drizzle some more mustard oil on the top if you wish.
Cover with a lid or with a plastic wrap. Cook for 3 minutes; take it out and stir the sauce (do not move the fish around). Put it back in the microwave, cover and cook for 2 more minutes. Uncover, take out, stir; cover and put it back and cook for 2 more minutes. Uncover and cook for 2-3 more minutes. (the cooking time may slightly vary with the power of the microwave).. adjust to your microwave.
In the oven
Coat an oven safe container with mustard oil. Place the fish pieces in the bowl in one single layer. Pour the above mustard sauce over the steaks so the sauce covers all of the steaks completely. Add a few slit green chili peppers on the top. Drizzle some more mustard oil on the top if you wish.
Preheat the oven to 375 degree F. Cover the container tightly with an aluminum foil and bake for about 15 minutes. After 15 minutes remove the foil and bake uncovered for about 15 more minutes.
In the pressure cooker
Coat a container that can be used in the pressure cooker with mustard oil. Place the fish pieces in the bowl in one single layer. Pour the above mustard sauce over the steaks so the sauce covers all of the steaks completely. Add a few slit green chili peppers on the top. Drizzle some more mustard oil on the top if you wish.
Cover the container very tightly with a lid (no water should go inside the container while cooking). Place the container in a pool of water (refer to the manual of the cooker to how to steam). Cook in the pressure for about 10 – 15 minutes.
Serve with hot white rice.
Having the Bhapa Ilish is a truly sensuous experience for me. I make sure I get plenty of time to eat. Besides the innumerable bones that the Hilsa has to offer , I need that special time to myself to enjoy the taste and the flavor completely.
Chingri Maacher Malaikari (Jumbo Shrimps in Cream of Coconut)
Hilsa from other blogs