Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ilish Begun er Jhol | Hilsa & Eggplant in a light gravy

Ilish Begun er Jhol | Hilsa & Eggplant in a light gravy

This is a delicious stew kind of fish curry made with lightly fried pieces of flavorful Hilsa (Ilish), chunks of tender eggplant and infused with flavors of Kalo Jeere(Kalonji/Nigella Seeds), Green Chilies and Mustard oil. The simple spices used for tempering are very common across the length and breadth of Bengali cuisine and depending on the dish being cooked, these spices enhance the flavor in a unique way. This delicious jhol, light stew, has no other spice except nigella seeds, green chilies, turmeric and depends solely on the fish for its taste and flavor.

Till the age of sixteen I didn't know that Ilish(Hilsa) could taste so good in a simple light jhol (a soupy gravy) like this. My Ma never made this particular preparation of Ilish, it was always ilish bhaja(fried Hilsa), ilish bhaape (steamed Hilsa) or shorshe ilish ( Hilsa in mustard sauce) at our home during monsoon, the Ilish season back home.

Ilish Begun Er Jhol, Hilsa Fish with Eggplant

Years ago it was the day of Saraswati Pujo. In our home(as in most Ghoti bengali homes) this was not only a vegetarian day but a day on which you ate Khichuribhajachaatni & such. I was a teenager who didn't like her khichuri and that too one served even without a omlette. The day didn't hold much of a prospect for me until my friend called and invited me over to their home for Lunch. I wasn't too enthusiastic about the food thinking it would be the same fare but the lure of her latest Sidney Sheldon was there and so I went.

Come lunch time, the table was laid out and we sat. There were hardly 2-3 covered serving bowls on the dining table and I felt forlorn, till her Mom started serving. There was no Khichuri but plain white rice, dal, alu bhaja(potato fries) and a ilish er jholHilsa in a light curry)

Ilish Maachh | Hilsa Fish

"How can you eat fish on Saraswati Pujo ?", I was aghast

"But Bangals have a tradition of eating Ilish on Saraswati Pujo, we absolutely must and if it is Jora Ilish(a hilsa pair) all the better", said the friend's Mom. Wow, Bangals (Bengalis originally from East Bengal who later migrated to India or West Bengal. East Bengal is now part of Bangladesh) are such intelligent people, must marry one of that species, I thought.

And then I saw Ilish with all that begun (eggplant), a Ilish Begun er jhol (Hilsa in a light gravy with eggplant) they told me. I was skeptical, Ilish being one fish that is not cooked with vegetables in our home and then I took my first mouthful. The simplicity of the curry bursting with flavor of soft brinjal, the taste of the Hilsa and the mustard oil was too much for me. It was absolutely delicious, it shifted Ilish's position from a special fish you would respect to a homely fish you could love.

Ilish Begun er Jhol | Ilish Begun

I have been in love with this dish ever since. My in-laws being Bangal make this exactly the same way and now when I get Ilish I make this before venturing into ilish bhapa(steamed hilsa), shorshe ilish(mustard hilsa) and others. This is served with white rice for a homely meal and has no trappings to make it famous except the fresh light taste.

Ilish Begun er Jhol | Hilsa & Eggplant in a light gravy


Hilsa Fish cut in steak pieces - 4-5 good sized piece
Eggplant - Slender Japanese Eggplant or any other eggplant chopped in 2" long pieces. You will need 10-12 pieces of eggplant.

Turmeric powder - 2 tsp
Kalo Jeere/Kalonji/Nigella seeds- 1/2 tsp
Green Chilies - 5 slit

Salt - to taste
Mustard Oil - 1/4th Cup

Fry the Fish

Wash and clean 4-5 pieces of Hilsa. Pat dry and smear with 1 tsp of Turmeric, few drops of mustard oil and salt. Keep aside for 15-20 minutes

Heat Mustard Oil to smoking in a Kadhai.

Gently slide the fish pieces into the hot oil. Beware of all the spluttering. Note: sometimes I sprinkle a little turmeric powder on the hot oil and then slide in the fishes to reduce the splatter

Fry the fish pieces to a light golden yellow on both sides. Try not to brown or burn them. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain them on a kitchen towel.

Make the jhol

Since this is Ilish/Hilsa we will not throw away the oil and use the same oil for the jhol

Temper/Chaunk the oil with 1/2 tsp of Kalonji/Nigella seeds and 5-6 slit hot Indian Green Chilli

Once the spice pops add the eggplant.
Add 1 tsp of Turmeric powder mixed with little water.
Sauté the eggplant till they are lightly browned and soft.

Add 1.5-2 Cups of water. Add salt. Bring to a simmer and then cover and cook till the eggplants soften. 

Add the fish pieces and simmer for 5-8 minutes at low heat to let the flavors meld.

The gravy will be light and soupy and tastes delicious with white rice.

** Here in the US, the fish tasting closest to Hilsa is Shad. I have tried it a few time but never after I found Hilsa at the Bangladeshi Fish Sellers

Other Ilish(Hilsa) dishes in my blog

Doi Ilish


  1. We make a few mutton preparations with veggies but not fish, tho' I have heard of them. I have some fish heads in my freezer, am thinking, dare I make that Bengali dal dish with them or not?

  2. Interesting fish for Saraswati pooja? Fish is considered as vegetarian? We combine small eggplant and small fish in tamarind gravy. But this one is absolutely delicious with crispy fish in the bowl!

  3. hi Sandeepa.
    Marrying a bong had a lot of surprises in store for me.listing some ... My eyes popped out when I saw fish being brought in during wedding rituals of my BIL, and eeeeee!almost jumped out of my chair when I saw a fried fish head kept as a decoration next to the plate during the wedding lunch ;)...LOL god! it was fun though. It's interesting to know different customs and rituals.

    LOL...on the thoughts u got on tasting the begun Ilish jhol ;0

    The recipe sounds interesting for I've never used this combo yet. Simple one, shall hop on to this post sometime for making it.Keep ur posts coming I love the comical sense in ur writing.

    Enjoy the week ahead

  4. Thank you Sandeepa, for tickling my tastebuds once more.

    I am a confirmed Bangal, that too from Barishal. So jora Ilish on Saraswati Puja day, is what I grew up with. Though I too do a light frying/ saute of the pieces before doing the 'jhol', the most authentic recipe, which my Grandma used to do was with out frying.

    Once you do the jhol, and it comes to a boil, instead of pre-fried fish, dip them kancha into the jhol and boil till you get the right consistency.

    I am not always confortable with kanchaa maachh recipes, specially since in Delhi we do not get that fresh a fish(usually in some frozen avtar), kanchaa maachh leaves a smell(could as well be my imagination).

    Has Big Didi S been initiated on Ilish Maachh bhajaa?

  5. My nakakima makes this plain ilisher jhol with alu and begun ... agey khub odbhut lagto ekhon simple flavours appreciate korte pari ... tai post o kore felechi sheta! :-)
    Shada bhaater shathe ei jhol ... aha!
    Khichuri without omelette is torture for me too. :-)

  6. Fish and brinjal go hand in hand but I cannot imagine a fish gravy without chilli powder and tamarind. But I trust your words :) Eating fish in Saraswathi pooja is news to me !!

  7. I can understand you are in love with this dish from 16.
    I only seen them now and i am totally in love with it.Looks so so yumm.

  8. Wow this looks all yum yum...never knew fish is eaten during saraswati pooja...

  9. looks yummy,..nd loved readin ur story too,..:-)even i luved to read shidney seldon once upon a time,..but now no mood,,..;-(

  10. Sandeepa, I have never paired veggies with fish. But this looks delicious and simplicity of the spices makes it even better.

    What is Hilsa in Englihs? Do you deep fry the fish or shallow fry?

  11. This is divine!! I do not want anything else:-D koto bochor hoye gelo ilish khayini amar kono thikana nei. since i have to get a big fish, i don't buy.. no one else will eat this other than me:-( amar ebar prochondo craving hochey...

    ami o begun diye kono din khayini, shudhu bhaja, bhape & sometimes knacha lonka kalo jeere diye.

  12. What a coincident ...
    I also posted one ilish recipe (Ilish bhapa)in my blog post today . I never had ilish with vegetable . Next time I will try that .
    Please check my recipe @ http://www.doloncookbook.blogspot.com/

  13. Sra
    I have never had mutton with any veffies except potato, what veggies do you use ?


    No fish is not considered veg. But for people whom fish is a prime source of sustenance, I guess it is considered auspicious.


    I can well imagine your situtaion :D Did you have to hold live fish in your hands ?


    Oh I didn't know that. But then again I fry ilish for all my preparation 'coz of same reason as yours
    Big Sis S loved ilish bhaja a year or more back, now no more. She only likes boneless pieces of fish


    With all other fish we do add a lot of veggies especially begun, fulkopi. I love all those simple jhols


    Bengalis and especially my home tends to use lot less chilli powder. I use more green chilli than red chilli powder. You can add red chilli powder of course but no tamarind :)

  14. HC

    Thanks :)

    Parita and Notyet
    Thank you


    Hilsa is the english name. But here you can find a fish called Shad which tastes similar. I get my Hilsa from Bangladeshi stores
    I shallow fried this time 'coz the fish pieces were smaller and thinner


    Begun diye darun lage. halka anekta kalo jeera-kancha lanka'r moton halka. Kintu begun gulo norom hoye jhol tar taste bariye dai
    Choto maach kine anek din dhore khao kimba kono jodi bangali bondhu thake tader sathe half-half fish bhaag kore nao ar noyto amar bari esho :)

    This is a simple jhol which tastes really good

  15. Being a ghoti, I too am used to only bhaja or jhaal of this revered, rare and expensive fish. So, I am little apprehensive, if this will be with too 'mecho' gondho...tomar ki mone hoi ?

  16. This looks so simple to make Sandeepa and you're write-up makes me want to try it soon. The thought of fried fish with velvety eggplant in a soupy curry makes me drool. What locally available fish can I substitute Hilsa with?


  17. sandeepa,
    Ilish is not available here LOL..wish It could so that I can also enjoy the feast...more or less it is so very expensive here ,it burns on the pocket ...we also dont eat Fish on sarasvati Puja..
    hugs and smiles

  18. I dont get Ilish here, with those few varieties that I could grab I make anything and everything possible... shall try your version looks very divine and tempting!!!

  19. I use tomato, dosakaya (melon cucumber - that's a classic combination), gongura, capsicum (very tasty with green capsicum), and The Spouse made it with raw mango a few times. In fact, I use potato v rarely with meat.

  20. Sandeepa, ami ekhane natun. Tomar ilisher jhol dekhe desher katha mone pore gelo. Ami Midweste thaki... ki maach pabo jaani na, kintu ek baar try kore dekhbo... :)

  21. sandeepa,
    this one is my favourite dish too..and after marriage i cooked this recipe for my husband..and he loved it more than bhape and sorshe ilish...btw he is 100 per cent ghoti..I make the jhol exactly the same way your recipe says...but I add a pinch of ground radhuni....it adds a nice aroma to the dish..this is a secret from my granny's kitchen...it works like a majic...you can try it..the aroma of kachalonka, kalojeera sorsher tel, radhuni, begun and ilish all togather comes out very well...

  22. Yummy! We make fish curries with brinjal, but have never tried with Ilish. Looks yummy! Nearly all our fish curries are made with some vegetable or the other.

  23. Mystic
    No mech gondho at all. It is absolutely divine (if you like fish)

    Shad comes to mind, close but not exact

    see what I told mamtha

  24. sayantani
    Didn't know the radhuni trick. Thanks but sadly I have no radhuni now

  25. Being a hardcore Bangaal, every year, at my parents place, not only do we eat Ilish on Saraswati Pujo, but Ilish ar Begun er biye hoy, on Saraswati Pujo day & that too in front of the Goddess's idol!

    And exactly as you mentioned, the heavenly taste of this simplest of simple preparations is heavenly!

    Another interesting thing about Ilish & Bangaal....traditionally ilish is not eaten from Dashami to Saraswati Pujo...must be something to do with the breeding & egg laying season which led to this tradition being conceived....

  26. my mom aften puts begun in fish curries as a way to make us eat vegetables. even now though i am 35 and meet her occassionally as we live in different cities

  27. You've got me craving for some hilsa even though I've no idea what it tastes like. Haven't heard of Shad either, but I will keep an eye out for it.

  28. After weeks of looking for Ilish or shad, I gave up and made this with catfish instead. Still delicious, so very delicious (despite my general ineptness with fish). Thank you a million times!

  29. I was so thrilled to read your blog on begun ilish. My husband who is from Calcutta doesn't like khichudi and doesn't seem to try anything other than shorshe/ bhaja preparation of ilish. Me on the other, thanks to my bangal roots cant understand why. Was nice to know that these experiences are quite common and my husband has agreed to try out the begun ilish dish! Thanks!

  30. This is the best preparation of Ilish which maintains the real flavour of the fish.

  31. I never get tired of cooking and eating this " Kalo jeere kacha lanka Morich PoDa Holud Jhol"..just too good.

    Need to read and try some recipes here ..looks very interesting

    Many thanks and regards

  32. awesome recipie ; i have just made it and writing this comment with full stomach :). here we have something called milkfish(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milkfish) which i think kinda taste similar to ilish - however elish is the king no doubt about it.

    i used milkfish with regular eggplant. the gravy was light very tasteful with fish turmeric and chili and kalonji infused - awesome taste !!! thank u 4 this lovely recipe. i noticed one thing u havent mentioned how much oil we need - so i just guessed on mine.


  33. Hi,

    Ilish-Begun is a popular dish.
    You can also try "Ilish with Kacha Kala". If you want I can share the recipe too...

    1. I would love to try this dish. kindly share the recipe on my blog too :)

  34. I hope you know Bangladeshi ilish is tainted with formaldahyde --I would not serve tainted food to my family nor to myself

  35. My grandmother used the same recipe but tempered with kalojeere and shukno lanka and used kumro(pumpkin) if begun was not available.


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