This prized Bengali recipe for hilsa steamed in mustard sauce looks gorgeous, but cooks quickly. Perfect for dazzling guests!
Ilish bhaape, also known as Shorshe lish bhapa (or bhaape) meaning steamed mustard hilsa, is a Bengali recipe of hilsa fish (a type of shad) steamed in a potent mustard, doi (yoghurt) and coconut paste. Even though it looks very polished, it is a fairly easy recipe to execute, requiring few ingredients, no special technique, and very little time.
It is especially convenient for entertaining guests. You can keep everything ready in a tiffin box, and just as the guests are sitting down for the first course you can put the container to steam. It will be ready by the time the guests are finishing the vegetable courses. You can then bring this to the table and open the lid to reveal the beautiful steaming hilsa while your guests are suitably excited and impressed.
Ilish or hilsa is, however, facing extinction due to high demand and overfishing. While policy initiatives between India and Bangladesh are underway to tackle this alarming situation (hilsa conservation depends a great deal on water flow in the Padma-Meghna and Hooghly-Bhagirathi river systems), we can do our bit too.
How can you help?
- Don’t to buy any hilsa that is under 500 g / 25 cm. Catching of hilsa before the spawning stage is detrimental to the progression of the next generation.
- It is equally important also to not buy hilsa during the breeding season (especially October to November, but even better, until March).
In 2016, Bangaldesh was able to increase its hilsa yield by 50 per cent by putting measures in place to ban fishing in the breeding season. It also laid down and imposed specifications for net size to prevent the catching of juvenile hilsa. There is a need to create more consciousness about the importance of conserving a fish that is perhaps Bengal’s greatest cultural icon.
COOKING TIME 40 minutes
YIELDS 4 servings
CALORIES 300 kcal per serving
|250 g (or 4 pcs)||Ilish machh (hilsa fish, 3-cm-thick pieces)|
|40 g||Mustard seeds (brown + yellow mixed, soaked for 2 hours)|
|8 pcs||Green chillies|
|40 g||Coconut (peeled)|
|25 g||Yoghurt (beaten)|
|½ tsp||Turmeric powder|
|20 g||Mustard oil|
- Kadai | large pot or pan (with lid)
- Steel tiffin box with tight-fitting lid
- Soak mustard seeds in water for 2 hours.
- Clean the ilish machh and cut it in 3-cm thick slices. Ilish bhaape is best made with thick slices of fish. Fish without roe (eggs) is fattier and, therefore, ideal for this recipe. If your fish has eggs, remove them, as they may not cook fully when steamed. You can add them to your bhaja (fry) or jhol (curry).
- Drain the mustard seeds of the water they’ve been soaking in and add them to a grinder jar. Add 4 green chillies, roughly chopped, along with the salt and 100g water. Grinding green chillies with the mustard ensures that it doesn’t turn bitter.
- Grind these to a fine paste. Take your time with this process. Scrape down the sides of the jar and grind as many times as it takes to form the smoothest possible paste. The finer the grind, the better the flavours.
- Now, add the peeled and chopped coconut to the grinder jar. Grind once again until the coconut has broken down completely.
- Transfer this paste to a steel tiffin box. Add beaten yoghurt, sugar, turmeric, and mustard oil. Mix until the oil is fully incorporated.
- Now add the fish, one piece at a time, and coat it with the spices. Use your hands to make sure every part of the fish, including its cavities, is well coated.
- Slit four more green chillies and place them on the ilish pieces.
- Fasten the lid of your tiffin box (you could also seal the top with thick aluminium foil) and set the fish aside to marinate for 15 minutes.
- Heat up your pan and place a stand at the bottom. Pour hot water, making sure it doesn’t reach up to more than half the height of your tiffin box, or there’s a danger of water seeping in. Once the water has come to a boil, place the tiffin on the stand. Cover the pan and steam on medium heat for 15 minutes.
- Remove from the pan and allow it to rest for another 5 minutes before serving.