Bengali Illish Macher Paturi (steamed Hilsa Fish in banana leaf with Mustard paste)

Dear Rinki ,
This year the Bengali bhadrolok (Gentleman) has been quite  glum ..why you might ask …  You know how we Bongs are a bit crazy when it comes to maach (fish) and mishti (sweet-meats). These two are a part of our cultural, social and emotional fibre. And this season, the famed Illish mach ( Hilsa fish) is not as plentiful as other years. A true Bengali waits with the patience of a tiger hunter….for this delectable fish which is available only around the monsoons.  Usually, if one visits the early morning fish markets any where in Bengal around this season, rain or hail, you would encounter all varieties of men fighting to buy one variety of fish. Rolled trousers, cigarette in one hand and the striped ubiquitous shopping tote in the other, the usual gossip put aside, jostling in the muddy slime of fish markets….and the loudest haggling this side of NASDAQ. The fish makes its appearance in all hotel menus, just like a celebrity, which it rightly is. One reads of Hilsa festivals and new concoctions like Hilsa in orange sauce.  It has been written about in songs, poetry and literature. We are a crazy a good way of course 🙂 Sadly this year, the supply has been nowhere near satisfying the eager wait. Most prized of all the Hilsa is the one from the River Padma in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government has put a ban on the export of the fish…..the Indian government retaliated by threatening to curtail the export of rohu, and katla (varieties of fish)…a stink was raised…tempers were raised higher and the price of Hilsa skyrocketed! Talk about fishy politics!!!

Even here in Santiniketan too, we have been lamenting the lack of the golden fish. But yesterday Prasanta, by a stroke of luck found an excellent specimen….and proudly came bearing his good fortune like a victorious battle weary soldier wears his wounds! And what an occasion it was. My parents were duly invited for lunch. Much reminiscing  and discussion ensued about the good old days when one would eat the fish every day, what its ideal shape and weight should be and how it should be cooked. One would think we were at some scholarly discourse. But it’s my kitchen, my rules! Of course I was going to cook the preparation I like best. I wanted to make the most delicious of all Hilsa preparations ..the bhaapa maach or steamed fish wrapped in banana leaf. The steaming in the ground spices leaves the fish exquisitely soft and preserves  its unique aroma… Oh even thinking about it now can put me in an ecstatic mood .

Illish Macher Paturi

Illish Macher Paturi (if made without the banana leaf, then called Bhaapa Shorshe Illish)


Hilsa steaks 6
Black Mustard seeds 1 tbsp
White Poppy seeds 2 tbsp
Turmeric 1 tsp
Red chili powder 1 tsp
Green chilies a few
Mustard oil 2 tbsp
Salt to taste
Banana leaves


Grind the mustard and poppy seeds together with one or two green chilies . Mix together the salt, turmeric, chili powder and oil. Smear the fish with the paste. Wash and cut banana leaves into large rectangles  and warm over the gas flame swiftly to make it pliable. Arrange the marinaded fish in the leaves and make a parcel.  Top with a few split green chilies and drizzle some more oil over the top. Tie with a string or banana fiber. Keep on a heat proof plate. In a large vessel add water and a stand (a ring or metal lid) on which to stand the parcel bearing dish. Steam for 20 minutes on high heat. Serve hot with rice.

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Do you get Hilsa there ? If not try using any meaty Australian fish like say, John Dory or Monk Fish. Let me know how it tastes when you make this recipe using local ingredients instead of the traditional ones….You must make it at least once this season, although I know its winter there..but nothing to beat the chill like a taste of home….And if you don’t have a Banana leaf do make it in foil or in a oven-proof covered dish with some extra 2-3 tbsp of Mustard oil and bake in the oven or microwave for 20 mins. If you don’t get poppy seeds you could try and substitute coconut paste. And don’t worry about the mustard oil, just use any oil. Food should after all be about enjoyment, and we are no purists, hey even mustard out of a bottle is just fine.  When it comes to food  my motto is….cooking thy name is flexibility!

Ciao, Didi

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