As the first monsoon showers hit the dark waters, the silvery fish spring out of the water and dance delightfully only to be quickly netted by the fishermen. This lyrical description can be heard in many Bengali songs since the Hilsa fish is a staple in the Kolkata monsoons.
The ilish (hilsa) fish swims upstream and rises above the turbulent monsoon currents, lending itself a prominent place in local poetry and philosophy. But, most importantly, it’s the subject of a unique culinary tradition. It is the star of many a specialty dish in many regions of the country and has its own nickname for every region.
Sindhis, who call the fish palla, even considered the species sacred, terming it ‘Darya ka Phool’ (Flowers of the Ocean). Parsis affectionately call it bhing. In Tamil Nadu, the hilsa is ulasa and in Karnataka, paliya. For the Bengalis, the hilsa is full of history and nostalgia. But more than anything it is a prominent part of the region’s gastronomical identity. In the Bengali region, which is the last remaining bastion of the quickly dwindling species, the arrival of the silver-tinted hilsa fish is celebrated with delicious feasts every monsoon.
The seasonal catch is brought to the city’s auction centres around mid-morning. The fish are inspected by eager buyers who often casting an admiring look at the streak of pink running across it. At times, the auctioneering reaches fever pitch as tons of enthusiasts gather to pick up the best of the catch around afternoon. Bengali restaurants celebrate the fish with full gusto, organising Hilsa Fish Festivals around the time from July to September. Bengali food festivals throughout the country are incomplete without the hilsa.