A Bangalee’s account on Hilsa — Bangladesh’s national fish

Recipes for Sindhi Pallo may be very different from the recipes of Bengal but the fish ties two nations together.
22 Aug, 2023

I should clarify at the very onset how I, a Bangalee from Bangladesh, ended up writing this article for a Pakistani newspaper. I will use the word “Bangalee” throughout as I do not like the anglicised word “Bengali”, the constitution of Bangladesh calls us “Bangalee”, and more importantly — my writing, my rules!

I grew up in the 90s in the hilly region of Sylhet of Bangladesh. As a child from a family which was directly affected by the 1971 war, I grew up hating everything about Pakistan and Pakistanis in every aspect imaginable. I hated Pakistan with all I had until I came to Europe on an Erasmus scholarship in 2021 and met a Pakistani for the first time. I became friends with Tarik, who was always busy bunking classes and asking me to make presentations for him. However, this mischievous doctor from Sindh changed my entire idea about Pakistanis. I started to understand that there is a completely different perspective about Bangalees among the Pakistanis beyond the prevalent political rhetoric and the demagoguery of the populists of both countries. And due to Tarik, I fall in love with Sindhi food.

By a stroke of twisted luck, I came to Manchester in 2023 and there I met a Pathan doctor from Peshawar — Najeeb. We were having our lunch at a small shop run by an Afghan chef in the midst of the typically windy weather of Salford when Najeeb and I somehow ended up talking about the upcoming elections of our two countries. When I came back home at night, I wanted to check about what is happening in Pakistan right now. That’s how I ended up reading an article by Zehra Khan — Bengali Hilsa Bhaat and Sindhi Pallo Chawal — where cuisines and cultures collide.

Khan’s article is ripe with the smell of Hilsa fish, and I am inviting her to Bangladesh to taste some Hilsa of River Padma, despite the fact that there are some descriptions of Bangalee’s handling of Hilsa which I consider blasphemous. I understand that no one is going to submit a charge sheet against someone for cooking eggless Hilsa with tomatoes and garlic (and a lot of people in Bangladesh do that), but I curse the people who violate the sanctity of Hilsa with their treacherous cooking. The purpose of my writing is to give an account of a Bangalee on Hilsa fish. After all, Hilsa is our national fish, and we do not tolerate any tarnish on Hilsa.

The first question is who died and made me an authority on Pallo? The answer is no one. We Bangalees consider ourselves self-declared scholars of culinary science. While the Germans are famous for their ‘developing’ sense of humour, the Italians for their hand gestures, and the British for their departed queen, we Bangalees are famous for our power of tastebuds. We really get angry when the waiter is late serving our food. We become nostalgic when we talk about eating one kilo of mangoes after three plates of beef biriyani at someone’s funeral. Those experiences made me a Hilsa connoisseur.

Hilsa is a fish with a strong smell. During our childhood, when our father brought Hilsa, you could smell it in the entire house. Nowadays, the Hilsa lost its smell. Some blame climate change, I blame the government, like any other Bangalee.

Every cuisine has its own set of spices. Take the example of Mughlai food. A Mughlai biriyani will require garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, poppy seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, and bay leaves, to name a few. You can cook Hilsa with all these spices, but you will never get the smell anymore. And it is important that you eat Hilsa with all your senses. You look at the piece of Hilsa fish lying on your plate, you gently take it and put it in your mouth while your nose enjoys its smell, you close your eyes and imagine you are in heaven. That’s why the most revered form of Hilsa recipe is devoid of any of these spices. We cook sharshe ilish (Hilsa with mustard) with only turmeric, mustard, and green chilli.

You can divide the Hilsa of Bangladesh into several categories depending on their age. Hilsa is a fish of monsoon. If you want to taste the best Hilsa at the arrival of monsoon, buy the eggless Hilsa. These Hilsa are coming from the Bay of Bengal and swim upstream of the rivers Meghna and Padma. They have lavish amounts of fat in their body, in preparation for laying eggs. In my mother’s words, these fish are coming directly from heaven. I never knew that heaven lay in the Bay of Bengal.

Now what is the recipe for this eggless Hilsa? Cook smoked sharshe ilish. Make a smooth paste of mustard seed and green chilli. My mom would always prefer yellow mustard, as brown mustard has a more pungent taste. Add a bit of turmeric and salt to the paste. Marinate your Hilsa pieces with the paste. At last, steam your marinated Hilsa and serve hot. It is blasphemy to cook these eggless Hilsa with ginger and garlic.

When there is a drizzle during the monsoon, we call it ilsheguri brishti, which literally means Hilsa drizzles. The fact that we named a type of rain after the Hilsa fish is itself a testament to our propensity to taste the fish during that time. The Hilsa lays eggs when the monsoon becomes heavy. And this is the time to eat the eggs. Separate the eggs and you can fry them or make a curry out of them — I always prefer fried! And then the fish itself can be cooked with some vegetables, such as pumpkin. This is a fish you want to cook with gravy. You can make gravy with onion, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes with other spices, but I would ask you to be cautious. Do not undermine the taste of Hilsa under the smell of spices.

After the Hilsa lay their eggs, they neither have any fat in their body nor any eggs. This Hilsa is only good enough to be fried. Deep fry the pieces and serve with fried dry chillies. One of the popular recipes for this Hilsa is making a mash of the head and tail with dried chillies and mustard oil.

There is a fourth kind of Hilsa, which I call a rudderless Hilsa. These are the Hilsa who lost their way while returning to the sea after the monsoon and end up in different small rivers such as Rupsha or Modhumoti. These Hilsas have a strange yet appealing taste. You want to make a curry out of it.

The Sindhi recipe of Pallo is quite different from the usual recipes of Bengal. However, it has a strong resemblance to what is colloquially called Ilish biriyani. Although it is called biriyani, in essence, it is not biriyani, but Hilsa cooked almost in the Sindh recipe and served with polao rice.

It is quite remarkable how two different nations can be tied with the same fish. While Hilsa has always been a source of identity for Bangalees, and we expatriate Bangalees find some solace and nostalgia in frozen Hilsa, I am sure Sindhis can also find the same kind of taste of home when they cook Pallo. After all, we bear the same feelings, longing for home, and nostalgia for our childhood as any other person despite our differences in culture and politics.