Friday, August 17, 2007

Doi Ilish and Machha Besara

Doi Ilish, Hilsa in Yogurt Mustard sauce

Ek Phul…Do MaliOne Spice, two Different Fish….bad joke, agreed

But this is really a tale of One Spice, the all famous Mustard and not only two different fish but two very different fish recipes, one from my own state Bengal and the other from the neighboring state Orissa.

Orissa is close to Bengal, not only in miles but also to people’s heart, the main reason being Puri of course, which is not only a place but an integral part of the Bengali culture. Every Bengali director has a tear jerking Bengali movie to his credit, with visuals shot in Puri, every Bengali Writer has characters in their work of fiction who go and visit Puri at least once in the span of the entire book, every newly married Bengali couple had their honeymoon in Puri before Mauritius came into picture. A Maestro like Satyajit Ray too had many of his short stories set in Puri which surely proves something.

I have been to Orissa once (not honeymooning though) and done the usual touristy stuff but to an average Bengali, Puri in Orissa is as close to heart as is Darjeeling. Maybe Puri holds a higher place because it not only has the sea(Bay of Bengal) but also a temple (Jaganatha temple) and who can avoid such a divine combination

In fact you are a true blue Bengali only if you have done the following:

1.You have to love fish. There might be phases in your life where you refused to eat them but you must be in love with your fish for 90% of your lifetime
2. You have to see the sunrise at Tiger Hill, Darjeeling clad in your mittens, scarves, all other woolens that you have accumulated in your life time not forgetting the Monkey Cap with pom-pom (a typical woolen cap that covers your head and face leaving a window for your eyes alone, have seen it only among Bengalis till date)
3. You have to see the sunrise at Puri Beach sans the woolens, finding your place in a beach teeming with million other true Bengalis in their Dhonekhali and Kurta-Pajama
Though I love fish, I absolutely refused to see the sunrise at any of these places. Vacation for me does not mean getting up in the crack of dawn to see a star rise because a planet is rotating. I was duly chastised for my impudent behavior I remember and my parents were forced to go to the beach without me budging an inch.

Though it has been really long and I don’t remember any specific food from that time, I do remember the Mishti Wala (the sweet seller) who would come to the Puri beach with a pole balanced on his shoulder and two huge aluminium pans hanging on the two ends. These aluminium dekchis(deep round pans) had sweets which we used to gorge on every evening sitting on the beach. Again I cannot recall what those sweets were (chanapoda ?) but I remember him going “Dhai Kiri Kiri” as he rushed catering delicious sweets to his sweet loving customers.

I think “Dhai Kiri Kiri” meant “move fast” or some such thing, but it has been a favorite adopted term in our house since and we use the term often.

While looking for an Oriya recipe I found that there is a lot of similarity between Bengali and Oriya cuisines. I wanted to try an Oriya dish which is not typical of Bengali cuisine yet had a bond with it. So I had to choose something which guessed it right...Mustard.

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Now the first recipe of Doi Ilish today is the Bengali one with Hilsa in a Yogurt based Mustard Sauce. Hilsa or Ilish Mach is such a great tasting fish that cook it any way you want it will taste nothing but great. I got this recipe from my Bengali Recipe book. I added more mustard paste than the recipe called for but I am putting up the recipes as in the book. Also since I get frozen Hilsa here I fried the fish lightly. The original recipe does not ask for fish to be fried.

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And then I came across Machha Besara, an Oriya dish of fish in mustard sauce. What interested me was the recipe had asked for mustard to be ground with garlic and green chillies to make a paste. Now in a Bengali recipe, mustard paste or shorshe bata is a wet paste of mustard with green chillies and no one can even imagine adding garlic to the paste.
Second was the use of potatoes in a mustard paste based fish dish, another thing very different from a Bengali Recipe.
I decided to give it a try and was pleasantly thrilled and even D (not a fishy bong) liked it. I used Tilapia (fresh Tilapia cut in steak size pieces) for this dish and I would implore all Bengalis to try Machha Besaara at least once, it would be a very different albeit beautiful mustard experience.

Machha Besara is my contribution to RCI-Oriya hosted by Swapna of Swad and created by Lakshmi of Veggie Cuisine


What You Need
Hilsa/Ilish ~ 2 lb of fish cut in Bengali style pieces. (Yes this what you need to say outside of bengal else you can also get it cut in steak pieces) Usually a small Hilsa weighs around 2 lbs.

This recipe is for 5 pieces of Hilsa or Ilish

Mustard paste

To make Mustard Paste soak 2 Tbsp of mustard seeds in water for an hour.
In a wet spice grinder or Magic bullet, strain and add the mustard seeds + 2 Green Chilies
With a few splashes of water make a thick mustard paste.

Thick Yogurt ~ 1/2 Cup

Green Chillies ~ 4 or more
Kalo Jeera/Kalonji/Nigella Seeds(for tempering) ~ 1/4 tsp loosely packed

Turmeric powder ~ 1 tsp
Mustard Oil ~ preferred for a fish like Hilsa

How It is Done

Wash the fish well, pat dry and rub the pieces with about ½ tsp of turmeric powder a little salt and keep aside

Heat oil in a Kadhai/Deep Frying Pan/Wok. When the oil is piping hot reduce the heat and slowly slide the fish pieces into the oil. There is going to be a lot of sputtering so be careful. The fish pieces should not be on top of each other, they should remain side by side in the hot oil. So do not add all fish at the same time. Once you have slid the fishes, raise the heat

Once the fish is fried to a light golden yellow (with hilsa very little frying is needed, be careful that the fish does not get fried too much) take it out and drain on a paper towel

In a bowl beat the yogurt well and then mix in the mustard paste. Add 1/2 tsp of Turmeric powder and mix.

Discard the fishy oil if you wish and heat some fresh oil. With hilsa however the mustard oil in which the fish is fried holds a special value for most Bengalis and we dare not throw it out.

Heat oil now, for tempering. Temper with kalonji and green chilies and wait for the spices to pop.

Lower the heat and the yogurt-mustard sauce.

Add salt and let it simmer for a couple of minutes. 
Add the fish pieces.

Then add water(about 1 cup) and let the gravy simmer and reduce to desired consistency

Cook till you get a gravy of the right thickness, not watery mind you, add a little mustard oil on top and serve with white rice

Machha Besara

Recipe adapted from OriyaKitchen

What You Need

Rohu (or other fresh water fish) ~ 1 cut into pieces. I used fresh Tilapia cut into steak size peices
Potato ~ 1 , peeled and chopped in longitudinal pieces
Yogurt/Curd ~ 1/2 cup
Green chilies ~ 5/6 slit
Mustard-Garlic paste ~ Soak 2 tbsp of mustard in water for 15 mins. Then make a paste with juice of 1/2 lemon, 2 green chilies and 2 cloves of garlic.
Turmeric Powder ~ 1 tsp loosely packed

Panch Phutana/Panch Phoron ~ ¾ tsp loosely packed
Mustard Oil or any other oil

How It Is Done


Wash the fish well, pat dry and mix it with about ½ tsp of turmeric powder a little salt and keep aside
Grind the mustard ,3 green chilies & garlic along with the yogurt to make a mustard paste
Then peel the potato & cut in to any shape you like . I chopped in longitudinal pieces


Heat Mustard oil in a Kadhai. When the oil is piping hot reduce the heat and slowly slide the fish pieces into the oil. There is going to be a lot of sputtering so be careful. The fish pieces should not be on top of the other, they should remain side by side in the hot oil. So do not add all fish at the same time. Once you have slid the fishes, raise the heat
Once the fish is fried to a golden yellow take it out and drain on a paper towel
Again add some more oil in the heated pan & add pancha phutan & green chilies.
When it starts crackling add the sliced potato & fry for 2 mins
Add the mustard paste, turmeric and salt. Let it simmer for 10 minutes. Add 1 cup of water for the gravy and let it simmer. Add little sugar to taste.
Add fried fish in to the curry & again cook it for 2 more mins
Garnish with fresh coriander leaves
Serve hot with plain rice

Trivia: The Hilsa or Ilish as we call it is kind of a National fish for Bengal & Bengalis (can there be such a thing ?).The river Padma in Bangladesh and the Ganges in India are the prime source of this fish. Every part of the Hilsa from the Roe to the delicate flesh is exquisite in taste and flavor. With its fine bones it might be a tad difficult to eat for someone who is not used to such delicacies though


  1. Hey, you're up late! I just posted a comment on your previous post and I see a new one!
    I've never really acquired the taste for fish (i know, I know, I'm missing something really good!) but I must say, the photos are fabulous and the dish looks delicious! :)

  2. hey...I stay up late on Fridays and Saturdays, its so much fun...can't do it on weekdays :(

  3. Sandeepa, this is so delicious my dear. Can I come over for dinner sometimes? :D

  4. Sandeepa. thanks for nominating me for the rock blogger! I am touched! *hug hug*

  5. Hey, i don't eat fish, but i love the pictures :). And i enjoyed every bit of this cute write up, especially the dhai kiri kiri bit (very rhythmic sounding) :). and the fishy bong reference is crazy ;). Only you can come up with such metaphors!

  6. I *LOVE* Ilish. My husband's mashi in calcutta made the best ilish dish ever. I can't wait to back during durga puja time. Puri beach is beautiful at sunrise. Both your recipes sound good. I will have to print for In-law impressing. :)

  7. Thanks for insight into Bengali-ness :) I love mustardy fish, think this is going to be my lunch tomorrow.

  8. A white plate always does justice to its contents...

  9. That was very educational, and the photos are delicious

  10. oriya cuisine seems to favour garlic. even their posta has lots of it. i loved posta with garlic.

  11. The Maccha Besara seems intruiging. I can't quite imagine how the mustard-garlic will taste. BTW, another reason for Orissa ought to be special to Bongs is because the Roshogolla was invented there (I posted about this in June 07).

  12. Back after a hectic week , Sandeepa - to 2 lovely fish recipes . We're currently in ilish so to say - my family would eat it for breakfast if they could . Will try the Orissi recipe but not with ilish - maybe bhekti - janabo kemom hoye . And Puri is my favourite destination as you'll see from my blog !

  13. I just got some prawns from the supermarket and since my parents seem to be out, I couldn't make the SOS call that my mother is so familiar with. So I was searching for a recipe for malaikari/chingri recipes when I bumped into this treasure-trove. I haven't even looked through all the treasures yet...

    The ilish photos look delicious, and I am drooling.
    I have one question though. How do you make the mustard paste? Back at parents' of course it is done using shil-nora, but if I try to use the mixer-grinder it turns bitter (and rather dilute). Even if I use a mortar and pestle (that's painful) I can't get rid of the bitter taste. My mother suggested filtering the already-dilute paste, that seems to work, but makes it even more dilute.
    What is the secret of painless shorshe-bata?

  14. Sandeepa, both the fish dishes look super delicious. I am beginning to learn to use mustard in cooking. Tilapia was in last week's Wash.Post food section, ever since I have been meaning to go get some.

  15. AS

    I used to have the exact same problem with my shorshe bata getting bitter.
    Now I have a "Magic Bullet"(mixer) which doesn't make it bitter if I grind shorshe with salt and green chillies. Also remeber to soah shorshe for some time before you grind.

    When I used to get the bitter shorshe bata using my previous grinder...this is what I used to do. I would add a little vinegar (the salt & the chilli also) to the paste and let it sit for 30 mins. The tartness of the vinegar would make the bitterness go away.

    Again I have seen I cannot make little shorshe-bata, enough for one dish using the grinders here, the paste doesn't come out well. So I make a larger quantity and then store it, that way it is not diluted either

    I think the key is in the Food Processor, something like Sumeet would be good, I think but I make do with the "Amreeki" ones

  16. Thanks for the detailed response. After I posted here, I found your page on mustard where you suggest mixing it with posto, and also hunted around the internet for the answer to this question. As you say, it seems to depend on how powerful the mixer/grinder is and that there should be enough solids in it... either more mustard, chillies, and some people even suggest adding nuts (peanuts or cashews). And some people also recommend decanting until the husk remains behind.

    Since I'm not in a hurry to change my mixer/grinder, I'll probably go with your suggestion of pre-soaking, making a larger quantity and storing the excess. The question now is how do you store it-- mere refrigeration or freezing. I'd prefer freezing aliquots, but would that remain ok? And if one merely refrigerates, how long can one store it?

    Thanks once again!

  17. Sandeepa...I have been telling CJJ that I am going to prepare a pure bengali meal one day but dont know what to pick from ur blog...coz everything is so authentic...can u suggest something for me...for a lunch ? :)

    say lil S's shadow finally !! :)


  18. When I saw the "puri" highlighted and linked I was half expecting it to be the puri of puri bhaji! I know I know..... blurr me! With the puri bhaji all over the blogs I am dreaming of it all day :P

  19. Wow, looks really yummy :). I really need to go to Kolkata during December to relish all the maach. Btw, do you have any good travel agent in mind that you could recommend for booking flights to Kolkata ?

  20. how are you my dear??? Thanks so much for leaving me a note, I had been so busy until now.....and summer's almost gone. :(

    That yogurt mustard sauce is lovely, I had an idea to use it with some "drumsticks" instead of the fish...think that would work?? :)
    hope all's well with you!

    hugs, trupti

  21. Sorry don't mean to be rude but while you were talking (text copy) I kept staring at the fish. :) I do love me any fish cooked with some gravy/sauce, a little pickle and some rice. Am I bad? :D

  22. Anh
    Sure...why not ? Its nice weather here too :)

    And you have to say it fast with the Kiri Kiri faster...try it sounds good like a drum beat

    You had Ilish ????? Your in-laws are bong ?

    I don't make mustardy fish very often but I love Hilsa with a touch of mustard and the Tilapia tasted good too

    The contents did justice to the white plate too :)

    Thanks :)

  23. Bee
    I have never had posto with garlic. Bengali Cuisine doesn't use a lot of garlic and Posto for us is strictly "niramish" so no garlic. also the garlic overpowers the flavor of Posto which is itself very nice I think

    You are right that's what attracted me to it. Its pretty good if you like the garlic flavor. But definitely will not do with Ilish. I don't want garlic with my Ilish

    Eve's Lungs
    Yes as I told Shantanu, try the Orissa recipe with Rohu, Ilish will not be a good idea for that garlicy taste

    Of the fresh fish that we get from the Asian Market, Tilapia is the one that is most popular closely followed by striped bass and strout

    Since you are a Mallu and Coconut is in your blood :) I would say you try the Prawn Malaikari.
    Also again since you are a Mallu I can completely trust you with the prawn and also with the prawn head which makes the dish more delicious

    You made me do it. bad girl :)

    I have been to Darjeeling several times but long long back :)

    Ami to East Coast e thaki, tumi SJ ke jiggesh korte paro about the Travel Agent

    Good to see you after so long :) Yeah summer is getting over, how are your boys ?
    There is a dish with bhindi and mustard, never tried with drumstick

    You do love your pickle don't you ? :) The fish is yummy

  24. I missed this one..! That's what happens when we have weekends different from the rest of the world!!!

  25. Hi Sandeepa
    Felt like I must have overslept for a full week. Looks like you had it easy this week to key in 2 posts, during my weekend break from blogging.

    Ilish is always ilish and so is shorshe... So never mind, can only drool over the recipes till next weekend

  26. Hey those two recipes for fish are out of this world and so are the photos... Wish I stayed close-by to you, I would have invited myself to taste them both. I love the way you write the story behind it...also how is the fish cut in bengali way ans where do u get such kinda fish in NJ
    will surely like to make this one day! My DH is not a fish lover :(

  27. hey, would like to try the mustard-yogurt mix, any suggestions for a veg version?

  28. very informative post Sandu. I still put monkey caps for my Son here in winters. very safe:))

  29. Photos dekhe mukhe jol eshe-geche. I'll surely try this out... yummy - fish. Amazing how all the posts I have seen for RCI - Orissa remind me of the good - old Bangali dishes.

  30. So you mean, this is the "tale of two fishies?"??

  31. Sandeepa, I was browsing through Desi Momz Club and I have to say I am so impressed. You should start a professional website on this topic. It was really great to see what is going through everyone's mind. Great work, and a really nice community service I think.

    Kudos to you.

  32. Your blog is a thesis to the culture through food.

  33. this is my first venture into cooking bengali food after trying the cuisine for the first time in WB this past summer....was wondering, what is the "american" equivalent of hilsa in the states?? this recipe looks delicious....!

  34. Since we are vegetarian, I had to think a bit to adapt this recipe for us, but I am so glad I made the effort. Your pungent mustard-yoghurt sauce is a wonder to experience - next time I make it I will even get a little bit of mustard oil into the house.

    To give you some idea of how much I appreciated the recipe, I can just say that my adaptation of this was the first recipe I posted to my new food blog; you inspire people to unusual steps :-)

  35. Hi,

    I tried th Macha besara, but dint add the curd. Now, when I ate the curry with rice, i got chest burn and i felt all my tongue and cheeks were burning for a it common? i had added 1/2 cup of fresh raw mango puree instead of curd...but couldnt get better. now a lot of curry is sti;; there.. can i do something abt it? pls help in this case. tnk u.

  36. Aby

    1. First of all I don't know why you would add mango puree instead of curd, the taste will be hugely different. I have never had such a combo in fact.

    2. I am not sure if you are used to Indian food. Maybe the spiciness of the mustard paste did not suit you ? The curd was supposed to mellow it down.

    3.I have no idea what you can do with the curry as I don't even know how it tastes with mango puree

  37. This comment has been removed by the author.

  38. Hi Sandeepa,i am a new user.i love bengali food.i like your lots of in-laws came from india.they are diabetics patient.can you suggest some receipe for me.thanks

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  40. Hi Sandeepa, could you suggest a substitute for hilsa in Doi Ilish? My local grocer doesn't carry hilsa. There is a speciality store near by which carries large variety of seafood. I will check there but, incase I can't hilsa, which fish would u suggest?

  41. Hi Sandeepa, I tried Doi Ilish over the weekend. It came out well. The only annoying part was the bones in the hilsa.... it was a pain removing the bones and it has too many bones... the fish was tasty though.... next time I will try it with salmon or tilapia fillet. Thanks for sharing this recipe!

  42. Bong Mom, You are awesome...your recipe of Macha basera is wonderful....we tried it couple of times....Please keep posting such wonderful pieces...

  43. I am going to try the typical Oriya dish. Lets see how it comes. :) I will also try your variation, sometime. :)

  44. Hi Sandeepa, I am a Keralite who loves fish more than anything else I have ever tasted.Your post has compelled me to try out the Doi Ilish, and I must say that I am pleasantly surprised...You know how it differs from the way we cook fish, mallu style. So, this was a totally different gastronomic experience...even my fussy 3-year old gobbled it all up!
    So, I just couldn't go away without telling u that you rock!

    BTW, I have also tried your spicy egg bake, and have loved it!


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