Sunday, November 9, 2014

ILISH ...a love story

Having grown up in a Bengali neighbourhood, I have always found fascinating Bengal’s love for Chhana Mishti, its fish, and the inbuilt importance of fish and food in Bengali rituals, from pujas to marriages.
It’s said that Bengal has more fresh water fish than weeks in a year, and many customs and rituals revolve round these fish, like dressing up a pair of Rui carp in beautiful detail, like a bride and groom, and sending it to the girl’s house on the eve of the wedding or presenting a Joda ilish to Maa Saraswati post which only it comes to the house for consumption.
The fish that undoubtedly stands tall above all others and is my first and eternal Bengali love is Hilsa or Ilish, and that’s our conversation today.
Bengal has two distinct cooking styles the ‘Ghoti’ style represents West Bengal and the ‘Bangal’ style from East Bengal, which is more rustic and tastier in my opinion, and voicing this opinion has made me many enemies among my Ghoti friends. Among other heated arguments that ensue when Ghotis and Bengalis eat together, the most common one which I recently was a witness to is about the queen (ilish).
Sudipa n me at the Gariahat fish market
Sudipa Mukhopadhyay is a wonderful lady, who cooks the most amazing Bengali food and hosts the longest running cookery show in Bengal Rannaghar. She shared the most interesting Ilish recipes and stories this January on my visit to Kolkata. Her husband is a Bangal and they are a lovely couple except when it comes to the conversation on which ilish is better, the Ganga Ilish from West Bengal or the Padma Ilish imported from Bangladesh. This conversation lights up the dining table instantly like a haybarn on fire, and that fire is the spice to her marriage, she jokes. But there’s no difference of opinion over the fact that Hilsa is the Queen of Bengal and it rules both sides of the Padma. The fact that no fish can rival its exquisite flavour and tenderness, not even the giant prawn with its succulence and flavoursome coral-filled head.
All good stories have a message right? Even love stories. This story has a heartfelt message too. It’s painful to see the Ganga Ilish become a rare commodity due to river pollution and overfishing. The Padma Ilish is the only variety available in fish markets and the Ganga Ilish are only becoming rarer and smaller and skinnier because of the not so great water of today’s Ganges. If you are a fish lover, try out this recipe, fall in love with the ilish and then do drop a line to the Ganga pollution control unit giving them another reason to
keep up the good work.

Ilish Patori
l 1 inch Ilish Darne (locally known as the ring cut): 2 no.s
l Poppy seed paste with green chilly: ¼ cup
l Kasundi mustard: ¼ cup
l Mustard oil: 1 tbsp
l Curd: ½ cup
l Turmeric powder: 1 tsp
l Salt and lemon juice to taste
l Banana leaf to wrap
Marinate the fish with turmeric and salt, leave aside for five minutes. Mix all the other ingredients and apply
on fish. Wrap in banana leaf and steam, serve hot

Magic, even at 95

            Lucknow has its share of great food and some bewildering food fables. Stories of dal cooked with gold that bought an old dead tree to life or of ‘Parind Pooris’ that had small birds fly out of them when cracked, are just a few common ones that you would hear sitting in an erstwhile Nawab’s or Taluqedar’s house. 

             These are more than just stories and food folklore, they are the connect to Lucknow’s glorious cultural past. While tracing this past in parlance I met a gentleman, Rishad Rizwi, in his haveli in old Lucknow. He was a proud Lucknowite with his stash of secret recipes and family dishes, on requesting a taste of which he invited me over for lunch. I was more interested in the cooking process and so chose to start early morning with his chef Mubarak Ali. 
              But before that, here’s how old Nawabi kitchens were set up: each kitchen had a ‘daroga’, who was the administrative head and bawarchis, who would cook for the courts, hakims, who would identify what the royal family needed to eat as per the season (or their body needs) and the raqabdars, who were the highly paid cooks and would cook only for the Nawabs/Taluqdars. 
            The bawarchis were the famous lot, as they would be widely appreciated by virtue of their food being tasted by a lot more people. These chefs had their names printed on wedding invites, as they would be the real crowd pullers. A famous chef cooking for a wedding was sure to draw huge crowds.It’s the raqabdars though who were the masters of creativity and finesse, as they cooked for the most choosy, moody and the easily-bored class. These raqabdars are a lost tribe now, and the next morning when I learned that Mubarak Ali was a third generation raqabdar I felt honored to be working with him.
             When I arrived to meet him, I saw a frail, old and lazy man lying on his charpai and abusing the whole world.When he got up, he could hardly walk, had a very noticeable hunchback, and then the raw material arrived and the transformation happened.
           Suddenly there was a glow in his eyes, he was sprinting between his three wood-fired chulhas and talking to me like we were friends forever. He started cooking with his father when he was 12 and professed to being 95! Which meant he had cooked for eight decades!! A fact later verified by his knowledge of ingredients, his skills, and his never ending stories, and later by Rizwi saab himself. 
               His kitchen had only fire wood, itr and potlis of masalas not numbered, not named, and all I did was light the fire and follow him around trying to keep up. He cooked a meal for six people of six dishes in 45 minutes while I was just wondering what hit me. Then he yelled at the waiter to take the food and quietly lay back on his charpai and started abusing the whole world again. What I had witnessed was like a dream for a chef; pure magic of a raqabdar, a 95-year-old chef, who would probably never have his work or his name acknowledged outside of the royal family he cooks for. So Mubarak chacha, here’s a small chef trying to talk about a grand master chef... when he is still stunned and speechless.