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Ilish Lament

There was a time when Ilish melted in the mouth but not any more, complains Kingshuk Mukherji.

Kingshuk Mukherji
Mon, Oct 13 2014

Photographs: Kingshuk Mukherji

About Kingshuk

My thoughts are that of a wanderer in search of an address. Err, many addresses actually. And unique life experiences. I am an expert at nothing but curious about most things. If my writing provides a moment's joy or respite to a fellow traveller looking for a destination, I would have done my job.
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The Bangladeshi, just like his Bengali cousin across the border, will give his right hand for a rich Ilish maachh-bhaat meal. Complaints on both sides of the fence are the same – not enough Ilish left in the rivers, quality isn’t half as good, time was when Ilish melted in the mouth. On a rare occasion, if you do come across such a specimen, it’d be on the rich man’s plate.

An Ilish roundtable can keep Bengalis engaged, involved and in a state of intense agitation for interminable hours. Typically, such discussions begin with forceful and emotional outpourings. A little later nostalgia takes over. Participants invariably have special Ilish moments. These have to find mention.

Bengalis as a race are argumentative and aren’t known to be great listeners. Everyone has a point and they specialize in talking together. The sole exception to this rule comes when a participant reminisces about the best Ilish he or she has ever had. Each one’s best Ilish betters the other.

Once the emotional content is exhausted, it’s over to the tail piece – the science behind the disappearance of the great silver fish. I’ve heard people blaming this on everything – big dams, bridges, over-fishing, plain human greed that’s insatiable, bordering on cruelty to a species that has graced and charmed the Bengali palate like nothing else has.

This time around in Dhaka, I had the good fortune of being privy to several such Ilish roundtables. The first was at an upscale restaurant after a waiter walked in with gleaming plates piled high with Ilish biryani – a strange delicacy, clearly an innovation in this part of the world.

Biryani, if I’m not terribly wrong, was meant to be a nutritious meal for the soldier in a rush in Mughal times – a mouth-watering mish-mash of fuss-free spicy rice and chunks of meat that the fighter was to quickly fill his belly with and either rush off to battle field or retire with after the day’s fighting was done.

But there’s nothing rushed or martial about Ilish biryani. It’s a piece of art – aromatic, delicate made out of glistening long, white grains of rice garnished with saffron, gentle, sophisticated. Chunks of shiny, meaty Ilish peek from under the thin rice blanket. This is poetry on a plate. “This one’s unique. Very Bangladeshi. You won’t get to eat this anywhere else,” the host informs proudly as he scoops a substantial portion on his plate. Cries of “touch of class”, “food for the Gods”, “pure magic”, “melts in the mouth”, go up. “Makes Bengalis proud, the acme of superior Bengal culture,” gushes one poetically.

The mandatory burp-and-crib session follows. But that’s only after plates go empty, only bare bones bear testimony to a meal well appreciated. But hold on, there’s good news. Things aren’t as bad. “They’re trying to breed Ilish with the help of GPRS…it’s an Indo-Bangla project…satellites will track tagged Ilish. It’s one ambitious project. This’ll solve the shortage for good,” an enthusiastic eater informs.

But at such brainstorming sessions, sceptics are ever-present. “Aarey, how can you breed tasty Ilish …can’t be…impossible…Ilish swims upstream from the sea against the current when it needs to breed…this gives its muscles the unique texture, the suppleness that makes it delicious and juicy. It’s a natural thing. How do you create such ideal conditions?”

“Dams, they have had disastrous consequences. And, we have so many of them…they kill Ilish. And, what of those nets the fisher folk string across rivers, trapping the fish as they furiously swim upstream, goring and bloodying them?” another agitated voice cuts in. Not that he isn’t an Ilish aficionado. For, he too has this mouth-watering tale of eating a plate full of rice with lukewarm Ilish oil, green chilies and a dab of salt somewhere in north Bengal after tucking in a big leja (the tail) and a succulent peti (the gut). A Calcutta resident, he informs he scouts for stout “mota petir” Ilish at Gariahat Market and simply can’t resist when the seller gives it to him for a bargain.

“Aare maach aashbe kothatheke? Everything, even the scales of good Ilish is exported. You’ll get to buy superior, fresh Ilish only at Brick Lane in London. “I know for a fact that crates are stowed into aircraft holds and sent to London. All the good stuff goes out. What you get in the bazaars here is the leftover, quality indifferent.” His listeners nod sagely.

The Bengali from Delhi has a sad story. He’s given up on Ilish. Almost. “Can’t touch it. The prices singe you. Thousand rupees a kilo! And, even if you spend a fortune, there’s no guarantee you’ll get genuine stuff. If at all, we get to eat the catch from Gujarat, bland and tasteless. It’s so spurious, what’s the point of getting that stuff home?” No, he doesn’t venture into C. R. Park, “Oh, well, it’s too far. Worse, that market is way beyond my means. I can only stand around and window shop – can’t imagine buying. In any case, I am convinced shelling out that kind of money for the silver fish is a criminal waste.”

It’s past midnight, time for the restaurant to shut. The Ilish roundtable must end. Some other time then, some other place – the Bengali’s Ilish lament will resume at another roundtable.

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