Ilish Maacher Mudo’r Tok (Hilsa fish’s head in a Tamarind gravy) and Bengali Women

Dear Cousins,

Hope you both are doing well. I have been a bit out of action lately as I was attending a conference here in Melbourne on India and Australia Relations.  I didn’t get much time to cook at home during these days, but I can happily tell you this that I was part of a 2 member team catering for almost 40 people’s dinner!!! My contribution in this amazing food spread were making 2 dips for crackers that were served with drinks (mushroom pate and a yoghurt+garlic+mint+ ricotta dip).  I plated them so well that Mary, the head chef of the day was totally in awe with the results!! The second thing I made was Red Peppers stuffed with Spiced Chickpea and Lentils.  I must proudly inform you both that many guests (Indians and Australians) came and personally congratulated me for all the three!!! One gentleman said, “The aroma of the peppers was so intoxicating that I couldn’t wait till the vegetarians had had their share!! I quietly took one :).” The appreciation was heartening!

Considering that the conference left me intellectually bombarded with so many esteemed researchers and activists giving speeches, I have been thinking about a few things myself as well…and while cooking too such thoughts don’t leave me…like the other day I was making Ilish macher matha (Hilsa fish’s head) and a question popped up in my mind. As you guys know, the head of the fish is considered very auspicious and very healthy (they say if you eat fish’s head you would have a sharp brain).  Both men and women therefore must consume it.  So I asked Niloy how would he like me to cook it. He said, “I don’t eat this piece.”  Now this was expected. In many Bengali households it is eaten normally by the women because eating it can be time consuming as well as difficult. There are large bones in it which make it cumbersome. I have heard from many Bengali women that because of this reason they end up eating it as no one else wants to eat that piece.  I guess this trend is also a result of the old Indian tradition when women ate after everyone had eaten (mind you, in many parts of India, it still happens and that includes the urban cities as well).  So lets say there is a big pot of fish and first the men eat, then the children and then the women.  Since fish head and tail are two cumbersome pieces, they would sit in the pot till the end and invariably the women would eat it.  To avoid this, I think Bengali mothers and grandmothers invented the recipes like Mudi Ghonto (Rice and fish head mix), Macher matha diye muung daal (Fish head with Moong daal), and many others that mix fish head with some vegetable or rice and make it tasty so that everyone eats it.  Is it because Bengali women are more progressive? Any comments?

I too learned a recipe like this from Ma’s late aunty – my grandmother (Mami Dida).  I think grandmothers are a repository of awesome tips & recipes; and so was she, an accomplished cook who could even make a simple dish like daal, tasty!!  Her prawn curry (Chingdir Jhol) was totally out of this world!! I wasn’t lucky enough to taste much of her cooking as my trips to Chandernagore (her home) weren’t too often.  But whatever little I have eaten from her kitty, has left an indelible mark on my memory….so here is the recipe..

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Ilish Maacher Mudo’r Tok (Hilsa Fish’s head in a Tamarind gravy)

2 Hilsa fish head, cleaned and cut into halves

2 medium sized Onions

2 tsp Panchphoron dry roasted and powdered                                                                             (Bengali five spices – mix 1 tsp each of cumin seeds, nigella seeds, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds)

1 tsp Turmeric

A table-tennis ball sized Tamarind ball soaked in water

5 tbsp Mustard oil

Salt, sugar and red chilli powder to taste

Fresh Coriander leaves to garnish

Wash the heads well and sprinkle 1/2 tsp of salt and turmeric on it. Mix well and leave for 2-3 hours.  Then heat the mustard oil well in a deep pan and fry the heads (its best to deep fry them, but I didn’t do so as I don’t have a kadhai or wok). Don’t forget to cover the pan or else hot oil would splatter all over.  Fry till both sides are golden brown.  The Hilsa flavored oil left in the pan tastes wonderful with hot rice and bit of salt, but only a true blue Bengali can understand that taste and swoon over it 😛 So I set aside some of the oil for rice and in the rest I fried 2 onions that I had finely sliced.  When they were complete caramelised, I poured in the tamarind pulp, turmeric, sugar, salt and chilli powder.  Check the seasoning (I like it sweet, very sour and pretty hot!!).  Then add the fish heads and 1 tsp of the roasted and powdered panchphoron.  Simmer for 5-7 minutes on medium fire and then add another tsp of the spice powder.  Take off from the fire, garnish with freshly chopped coriander and serve with hot rice!!

Any other fish can be made the same way, but I think that the taste of Ilish Maacher Mudo’r Tok cannot be replicated!! What say?

Sending loads of love,

Dakhina

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4 comments on “Ilish Maacher Mudo’r Tok (Hilsa fish’s head in a Tamarind gravy) and Bengali Women

  1. Dhrupadi Chattopadhyay says:

    Dear Dakhina,

    Have been following your delicious posts for a while and I must say I am in awe…. Illish macher tok is one of my favourites! Although we donot add onions and coriander and do add the tail pieces because I guess my mum is ghoti :). This just reminded me of lazy rainy afternoons well spent , tackling the fines bones of the delectable Hilsa :).
    Love,
    Dhru

  2. Thanks a ton Dhrupadi! Yes, from next time I too would add the tail part…i think the caramelised onions add a dimension to the taste…but am sure without it too hilsa would taste awesome coz its hilsa!! right? do sign up to our blog for regular updates! looking forward to more comments and ideas 🙂

  3. Sam says:

    Hi Dakhina,
    Could you please get in touch with me at my email. thanks

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