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.
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 Khichuri, bhaja, chaatni & 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 jhol( Hilsa in a light curry)
"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.
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
Wash and clean 4-5 pieces of Hilsa. Pat dry and smear with 1/4 tsp of Turmeric 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.
Since this is Ilish/Hilsa we will not throw away the oil and use the same oil for the jhol
Temper/Chaunce the oil with 1/2 tsp of Kalonji/Nigella seeds and 5-6 slit hot Indian Green Chilli
Once the spice pops add 1 long japanese eggplant washed & chopped longitudinally in length of 1&1/2" to 2"
Saute the eggplant till they are lightly browned and soft.
Add 1-1&1/2 cups of water. Add salt, a little turmeric and cook till the eggplants soften. Sometimes I will add a little corriander powder but mostly I don't
Add the fish pieces and cook for 2-3 minutes
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