* The ilish has delighted and comforted Bengalis through rainy days
It is difficult to pin down the South Asian monsoon to one particular season. To my mind, it really starts with the first big kalboishakhi (nor’westers) storm in the beginning of summer and continues till the end of hemonto, the season after autumn when the last rain of the year makes way for a dry winter. During the monsoon season, there are some days when the clouds are darker and the rain falls heavier. That is when you long for certain kinds of comfort food — chanachur (savoury gram-based mixture) with moori (puffed rice), kacha aam bhorta (green mango salad), hot tea and khichuri with ilish (hilsa).
The ilish, perhaps because of its reputation or maybe because of its fantastic taste, is my favourite fish. It was never inexpensive, so the portions served at home, although not small, were still limited. I always cleaned my plate so thoroughly that my grandmother regularly asked me to seek forgiveness from the neighbourhood cat, since I refused to leave even the bones for it.
The relationship between ilish and its people is intriguing. It is undoubtedly an expensive food item to be savoured only a few times a year, but, at the same time, it is a comfort food. Its strong flavour is also an acquired taste; you appreciate it as you grow older. Children generally keep away from the fish because of the abundance of small and sharp bones, but adulthood comes with an unshakable appreciation of it.
My first memory of any significance with regard to ilishis from my eighth birthday. I was born at the tail end of monsoon, during the last week of shrabon (the rainy season). That year, for some reason, a famous biryani bawarchi of Bangladesh decided to bring in the marvel of a whole smoked ilish into the country. Bangladeshi food culture accommodates numerous preparations of ilish, but smoked whole ilish was a novelty, and my mother felt it should substitute for a birthday cake. As a Bengali kid in the early ’90s I had almost no say in the matter. Thus, it was with mortification, heartbreak and helplessness that I stabbed a smoked whole ilish decorated with cucumbers, carrots and green chillies, while my utterly bewildered friends sang happy birthday to me. Suffice to say, I was not fond of the fish at that point.
Yet, with prolonged monsoon come numerous khichuri lunches, and with those comes a love for the ilish: Ilish that saturates the house with its delicious aroma while the sky is pouring, and the accompanying cool wind brings in much-needed respite from the melting heat. By the time people grow up, they fall in affection with ilish, primarily for the taste but also for the memories of the music of the rainfall and touch of the soft cool wind.
Perhaps this is why I missed ilish as much as I did in Paris, a city of perpetual rain amidst stints of brilliant sunshine. I lived there for nearly a year and, on one occasion, was so homesick that the only thing that would provide me with any sort of comfort was ilish. So, I trudged all the way across town to Pigalle, to the lone Bangladeshi grocery there, for a frozen ilish. The grocer kindly cut the fish for me since I had never cut a fish before.
I went home with budding excitement, processed the fish, fried it and had my first gleeful bite when I realised I hadn’t scaled it. Getting the scales out of fried fish and salvaging the meat was one of the most frustrating activities I had ever taken part in. The experience was so harrowing that a friend, living in Singapore at the time, got my room-mate to bring me back fried ilish from Singapore. She made sure to scale it beforehand. Thank god for girlfriends!
With the growth of income and population comes a higher rate of ilish harvest. With the acceleration of climate change, the river Padma, where the fish come back to spawn, dries up further. Prompted by the falling supply, the price rises. During the Bengali new year in mid-April, a pair of ilish can sell for over ₹13,000 (15,000 BDT), the prices rising with each passing year.
Like all Bangladeshis, I also carry my longing for the ilish wherever I am in the world, but somehow the ilish no longer tastes quite the same as it did back home, just like the rain never seems to fall as musically. As people become busier with the complexities of 21st-century life, we can’t always pair heavy rains and dark clouds with khichuri and ilish any more. Still, ilish soaks our collective consciousness with its delicious smell and memories of the times we left behind, and I hope that the memories of our kids will also save some space for the fish that has delighted and comforted Bengalis through the ages.
Fairuz Haque is a Bangladeshi writer residing in Ontario, Canada