Meet Hilsa, the Beloved Fish That Connects Bengalis

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Where and how one sources, cooks, and devours hilsa, the fish beloved across the Indian subcontinent, conveys a lot about one’s Bengali roots. In the 1947 Indian Partition, Bengal was divided along religious lines, and Muslims fled to East Bengal, while a majority-Hindu population stayed in West Bengal (an Indian state). Later, in 1971, East Bengal became the independent nation of Bangladesh.

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Bengalis divide into two major groups: Bangal and Ghoti. “Bangal” refers to Bengalis from East Bengal, while “Ghoti” refers to those native to West Bengal. Perhaps surprisingly, the Bangal-Ghoti divide is largely innocuous amongst Bengalis, sparking fun debates such as how hilsa—a fish adored across the Indian subcontinent, but particularly in Bengal—should be prepared.

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East Bengalis love Poddar ilish (“ilish” is another name for hilsa) that’s been sourced from the Padma River. East Bengal jhol, or fish curry, is heavily spiced with ginger, garlic, and cumin. In the West, Bengalis argue that the fish caught in the Ganges, however, tastes better. Unlike their eastern counterparts, they prefer mildly spiced, sweeter curries.

Despite its widespread popularity, fresh hilsa comes at a high price—due to its naturally oily texture and its rich, tender flesh. Fresh hilsa goes for 1800 rupees a kilo, roughly $11 a pound—more than what 60 percent of the Indian population earns in a day. At O Maa Go, a moderately upscale restaurant in Guwahati (the largest city in northeastern India), a modest lunch of bhapa ilish—steamed hilsa with mustard sauce—had cost me 450 rupees ($6).

“It’s not common man’s food. You cannot eat it every day,” Manager Bijoy Das tells me, as I devour the thick, creamy fish curry with rice. Also the mark of a good catch? “The more bones hilsa has, the tastier it is,” Das says, catching me trying to remove the near-invisible bones.

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Das recalls ilish dishes from his childhood spent in Kolkata. His mother would cook ilish for the morning panta bhat—soaked rice, sliced onions, and green chili, topped with a piece of fried ilish. Madhurima Chakraborty, a Bengali-Hindu like Das, grew up 200 miles away, but too remembers growing up with panta bhat and fried illish. Across the India-Bangladesh border, Dhaka-based Muslim, Samin Kashmy, did too. “About 15 percent of the population in Dhaka is Hindu. The rest of us are Muslim,” Kashmy says. “But somehow we all share the same love and memories of ilish.”

But, the divide between Bengali Muslims and Hindus is much more defined, even violent in present-day India. While there’s not a history of inter-regional conflict in Bengal, religious tensions came to a head all over India last August, when the government’s National Register of Citizens excluded 1.9 million citizens of Assam from Indian citizenship—most of them Bengali Muslims.

Mere months later, the Indian parliament officially passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, legally excluding Muslim immigrants from Indian citizenship, while favoring Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. The future for Muslims, especially Bengali Muslims remains uncertain.

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Despite this political unrest, hilsa somehow continues to be a lasting symbol of connection and shared humanity in Bengal. At O Maa Go, Das fries hilsa in mustard oil for his customers in Guwahati. In Bangalore, Chakraborty steams the delicate fish in a wonderfully thick, creamy mustard gravy. Across the border in Bangladesh, Samin Kashmy recreates the fried ilish roe of her childhood. A devotion that existed long before the delineation and shifting of geopolitical boundaries, hilsa remains the love affair of all Bengalis—religious and cultural tensions withstanding.

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