Bhapa Ilish or Steamed Hilsa is one of the favourite dishes of Bengali households, especially ‘Bangaal’ whose roots are from the erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh). During monsoons, Hilsa can be seen in abundance in markets as well as in Bengali kitchens. Hilsa sourced from Padma or Ganga rivers is the best in taste & flavor, and is rarely available outside Bengal. In most other regions, fish from Allahabad or Chilka is sold. In a way the Bengali diaspora is lucky because it can get exported Padma river fish, which is otherwise not sold in Indian fish markets.
There are numerous versions of cooking Hilsa but this is the signature dish. In my childhood days, I used to watch my mother marinate the fish in a steal lunch box and place it inside a boiling rice handi. It used to get cooked in steam and was opened right before serving lunch to keep the flavours intact. That method is the traditional method of preparing Bhapa Ilish, but it has become easier to prepare by using a pressure cooker, a metal double boiler, or a microwave oven.
The method of preparing Bhapa Ilish is quite similar in Ghoti & Bangaal kitchens. Bangaal kitchens prepare a sharper variety using only black mustard & mustard oil, whereas in Ghoti kitchen, posto (poppy seed) paste is added to make the mustard a little milder. My recipe is a combination of both to get the best results.
Cook with me!
- Hilsa Fish – 6 pieces
- Black Mustard – 1 tspn
- White/Yellow Mustard – 1 tspn
- Poppy Seeds – 1 tspn
- Thick Curd – 1 tspn
- Green Chilis – 6
- Black Caraway (Kalonji) – ½ tspn
- Turmeric Powder – 2 tspn (divided)
- Maida/Flour – ½ tspn
- Mustard Oil – ½ cup
- Salt to Taste
Wash the pieces of fish in running water, but do not soak them, as they will lose their flavour. If you are using frozen fish, then thaw the pieces till they become soft before washing.
Sprinkle ½ tspn each salt & turmeric powder over the fish and coat it nicely. Keep aside.
Soak both mustard seeds & poppy seeds together in lukewarm water for around 10 mins. Strain them and make a fine paste together with 3 green chilis, a quarter spoon each of turmeric powder & salt (Turmeric and salt keeps the mustard from becoming bitter).
In a small bowl beat the curd along with maida to make a fine paste. Keep aside.
Pour the mustard paste, caraway seeds, the remaining turmeric powder, salt, slit green chilis, curd paste and mustard oil in a cooking vessel (preferably one with a lid). Alternately, a stainless steel tiffin box, a roti box or a microwave safe container can also be used. The vessel can also be tightened by covering its rim with wheat dough and sealing it with silver foil (like dum cooking). Mix nicely. Now coat the fish pieces one by one with the paste. Cover the container with lid/foil.
There are different ways to steam the fish. I’ve listed down the 4 popular methods:
- Rice Cooker: Pour 3 cups of water and place the fish container for steaming. Put on the lid of the cooker, and set the timer for 15 mins. Keep a watch on the water level and add more if it dries up before time.
- Double Boiler: Take a flat bottom deep kadai or a pan and pour 2 cups of water. Place the fish container over the water. Cook in high heat till the water starts to boil, then cook in low heat for 10-15 mins. Add water if it dries up while cooking.
- Pressure Cooker: Pour 2 cups of water, put the grid and place the fish container. Cook in high heat till 1st whistle, and then reduce the flame and cook for another 10 mins.
- Microwave: Pour 1 cup of water in a flat microwave safe container. Place in it the container of fish. Cover the container and cook for 15 mins.
Serve with piping hot steamed rice.