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,



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