I never imagined that my voyage from Bangladesh to Assam, India, with a half-fried Hilsa fish would provide me with so much information about this fish Hilsa.

Hilsa or ilis is a sacred fish, according to some.

Hilsa fish

After acquiring the 1.5 kg hilsa fish from Bangladesh’s famous Dinajpur market, all precautions were taken to transport it to my home town in Assam once customs clearance was completed. 

All of my coworkers showed keen interest and gave all necessary instructions to the custodian and cook in our guest house to half fry the fish in aluminium foil so that it could be passed through the border in Banglabandha, West Bengal, and then to Assam, where I was born. 

 

Banglabandha land port

My wife was really interested, and all instructions were given to the L&T experienced cook Rashed on how to half-fry it and pack it for a long-distance trip.

Hilsa is a one-of-a-kind fish with a wide range of abilities.

Ilish, Hilsa herring, Hilsa Shad, Ellis, Modar, Palva, Pallo Machhi, Sboor, Terubuk, and other names were given to it.

Do you know that the Hilsa is Bangladesh’s national fish?

Even during my voyage from Bangladesh Saidpur to Bnaglabandla land port, my wife would call every 30-minutes to inquire about the progress of Hilsa fish!

 

Saidpur to Banglabandha land port

Ilish, a popular Bengali dish, is on its way to earning its Geographical Indication status as a product unique to Bangladesh. 

Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar account for 65 per cent of the world’s hilsa supply, according to World Fish, an international, nonprofit research organisation that leverages the potential of fisheries and aquaculture. 

Nonetheless, despite what Bengalis would like to believe, hilsa is not just for Bengalis.

Do you believe Hilsa fish is only eaten by Bengalis? 

It is also well-known in Assam.

But it’s not just Assam…

The Ilish, also known as Hilsa, is a favourite dish among South Asians and Middle Easterners. 

It’s also popular in India, particularly in West Bengal, Odisha, Tripura, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, and Southern Gujarat, as well as in Mizoram, and it’s exported worldwide.

Hilsa fish availability

Other shad fish are sometimes used as an ilish alternative in North America (where Hilsa/ilish is not always readily available), especially in Bengali cuisine. 

This fish is most commonly found near North America’s East coast, where fresh shad fish with a similar flavour can be found.

Hilsa has certain unusual characteristics that are often misunderstood. 

We all know that as soon as they are taken out of the water, they die. 

This occurs for two reasons. 

They are incredibly sensitive to light and temperature, so when they are taken out of the water, they die almost instantly. 

The second reason is that, unlike most fish, they lack air sacks, or Patka as we refer to them. 

Air sacks allow fish to float while still retaining oxygen. 

Because Hilsas lack these, they are easily depleted of oxygen.

Hilsa lives on planktons, hence they must be continually on the move, unlike other fish. 

Hilsas must swim even when other fish sleep or rest at night.

Unique feathure of Hilsa Fish

The other puzzle is why we never come across a Hilsa who isn’t carrying eggs. 

We must see a lot of Hilsas who have laid eggs if we see so many Hilsas with eggs. 

Hilsas must return to the sea after laying eggs, and many of them should have been caught by fishermen? 

What happens to the male Hilsas? 

Is it true that they die as soon as they lay their eggs?

Fishermen also catch Hilsas that have laid eggs, according to Dr Md Anisur Rahman, principal scientific officer of the Bangladesh Fisheries Research  Institute, but they do not bring them to market because they grow very thin and would not fetch a good price. 

So they either eat them whole or cut them up and salt them to make salted Hilsha or Nona Ilish.

The Padma-Meghna-Jamuna delta, which flows into the Bay of Bengal and the Meghna (lower Brahmaputra), and Jamuna rivers in Bangladesh; the Rupnarayan (which has the Kolaghater Ilish), Ganges, Mahanadi, Chilka Lake, Narmada, and Godavari rivers in India; and the Indus River in Pakistan are all known for Hilsa fishing. 

Freshwater fish are thought to be more flavorful than their sea counterparts. 

Hilsa is special fish

The fish’s bones are extremely sharp and rough, which may make eating difficult for certain people.

During my three and half hour travel from Saidpur in Bangladesh to Banglabandha Land Port near Siliguri, India, I’m fascinated by the hilsa fish and wanted to learn more about it.

I’m fascinated to learn more and more about this fish Hilsa because its delicate scent accompanies me throughout the journey.

The Hilsa has a fusiform body that is deep and compressed laterally. 

It has 18-21 dorsal soft rays and anal soft rays but no dorsal spines.

There are 30-33 scutes on the belly. 

The body of these fish is usually coated on large scales. 

Their bodies are usually bright silver in colour, with a somewhat green rear.

Their gill rakers are straight or slightly bent, and their jaws are toothless.

The fish can be found all around the world. 

However, Bangladesh catches roughly 60% of the fish, totalling to 3.87 lakh metric tonnes last year.

Hilsa farming in Bangladesh

In Myanmar, 20% of the population is enslaved, while in India, 15% is enslaved. 

Oman, Pakistan, and Bahrain are home to the rest.

Because I was carrying half-cooked Hilsa fish, I was concerned about whether or not the unique taste of Hilsa would be consumed, especially since Hilsa fish has extremely soft meat.

Do you know that 4,50,000 Bangladeshis are currently employed in hilsa fishing? 

The value of this fish’s exports is estimated to be in the range of $10 million per year. 

In 2002-2003, Bangladesh’s total revenue from all fish exports was $24.77 million dollars.

Tenualosa ilisha and Tenualosa toli ilisha are two types of hilsa found in Bangladesh’s marine and freshwaters. 

However, according to sources in the country’s ministry of fisheries and livestock’s department of fisheries (DOF), the hilsa has either become extinct or its numbers have plummeted in the previous 20 rivers.

Hilsa in Bangladesh

You’ll understand why my wife is so worried about maintaining the hilsa fish in good condition once you learn about the advantages of Hilsa fish cuisine.

It has a rich flavour and a silky, greasy feel to its meat. 

Hilsa has a long list of health benefits.

Health benefits of hilsa

Calcium is essential for bone health and is found in a protein-dense source.

– Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial to your health.

– Prevents coronary heart disease from developing.

– Hilsa fish also provides vitamins A and D to your body.

– Your skin will be healthy if you consume Hilsa fish.

Bengali fish curry, as you may know, is a popular dish cooked with mustard oil or seed.

The Hilsa is a delicacy in its own right, with significant cultural and gastronomic significance and a strong fan base across the country. 

You’ll never go back once you’ve had a taste of it. 

The tempting Hilsa has such an allure.

Hilsa recipe

Throughout my drive from Saypur to Banglbandha port, I became increasingly aware of why my wife is so anxious about the Hilsa fish I’m transporting. 

She’s probably aware that hilsa is high in good-quality fatty acids and Omega-3, which protect individuals from coronary heart disease.

Hilsa is also regarded as one of the most delicious fish due to its peculiar soft oily texture, delectable flavour, and an excellent mouthfeel. 

The fish is known in the area as “Macher Raja,” which translates to “King of Fish.”

My wife’s anxiety over the Hilsa fish is linked to Bengali culture in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, where Ilish has been freely welcomed to grace their meals on several occasions and festivals.

The Hilsa has gradually gained a place in the traditions, beginning with Poila Boishakh (Bengali New Year).

That’s why I took great care to transport the half-cooked hilsa or ilish, because my wife deserved to taste authentic hilsa at the end of the day.

Sweet, sour, salty, and bitter are the four basic flavours recognised by the human tongue as sensory reactions in various taste buds (Keller, 1985). 

Sweetness is detected at the tip of the tongue, saltiness at the tip and edges, sourness at the edges, and bitterness at the deep rear. 

Bitterness takes longer to detect and has a tendency to persist. 

When volatile flavour chemicals excite the olfactory fibres in the nasal air passages, the flavour is felt. 

Mouthfeel is felt in the mouth cavity via a variety of nerve endings. 

Human sensory organs detect not just the four basic tastes, but also warmth, cold, pain, tactile sensations, and pressure when tasting. 

When food is placed in the mouth, all sensations are typically recognised in order to determine the degree of tastiness (Keller, 1985).

The taste for hilsa is similar. 

The abundance of fatty acids such as stearic acid, oleic acid, and numerous polyunsaturated fatty acids has been credited with giving Hilsa its distinct flavour.

Hilsa recipe

Ilish is smoked, fried, steamed, and baked in young plantain leaves in Bengal, and can be made with mustard seed paste, curd, eggplant, and various seasonings such as cumin. 

Ilish can be prepared in almost 50 different ways, according to legend.

This delicate fish could be prepared in a variety of ways. 

Alternatively, you may shred the fish and combine it with a variety of greens and vegetables to make delectable side dishes.

Nona Ilish (‘Nona’ meaning salty) is a dried and salted variation that some people enjoy. 

It’s a popular meal among Bengalis and people from other parts of India, such as Tripura and Odisha.

Hilsa recipe

Generations of Bengali hilsa or Ilish fans have worked hard to create a variety of Ilish dishes that are unique, flavorful, and indisputably savoury, to say the least. A handful of these recipes, such as Ilish Jhuro (crispy crumbling hilsa), Tetul Ilish (Hilsa in Tamarind Sauce), and others, have nearly vanished from practise over time.

It is usual to eat a dinner of Ilish Maach and Panta Bhat (fermented rice) with friends and family during the Bengali New Year celebrations in Bangladesh. On special days like Poila Boisakh, durga puja feasts, bhai phonta, and so on, West Bengal absolutely revels in any and all exquisite recipes with Ilish, as well as their chingri and mutton.

So, why not convey my undying love for my wife by transporting this one-of-a-kind fish from Bangladesh to Assam

Carrying a Hilsa from Bangladesh is, after all, a way for me to convey my true affection.

What better way to communicate love than by carrying this one-of-a-kind fish hilsa from another country?

That’s what happened on November 27, 2021, when I delivered my wife the half-fried hilsa.

Hilsa fish to wife as love

It’s like the ancient Burmese proverb: when choosing a fish to eat, choose a hilsa, and when choosing a woman, pick a teenager.

The second half is better ignored for obvious reasons, however, the Burmese do create a number of interesting meals with the hilsa.

Final Verdict

Even though there are various ways to prepare Hilsa fish, once you learn about Burmese culinary ingenuity as a traditional dish in which the hilsa is marinated overnight with vinegar, soy, and fish sauce and slow-cooked the next day with garlic, ginger, chillies, and other ingredients, including shrimp paste, for several hours on a bed of lemongrass stalks, until the hilsa bones are tender enough to melt in your mouth, could you keep yourself away from trying to have a taste of this delicious Hilsa fish??

Hilsa fish recipe

I’m sure you’ll become addicted to expressing your sincere love to someone someday because of the delicacy of this Hilsa fish.

-End-

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