November 23, 2022
The steaming banana leaf arrives on the table, enclosing a signature dish: bhapa hilsa. At London’s Chourangi restaurant, chefs coat the ilish maach, a beloved favorite of Bengalis, in a coconut and mustard marinade, painstakingly deboning it before wrapping it in leaves. Bhapa hilsa is a reassuringly expensive dish, the priciest on the menu at £27.50.
For those who are unfamiliar, ilish maach is a tender, bony fish rich in omega-3 acids — equally known for its concentrated flavor as it is for how difficult it is to eat. Bengalis call it the “queen of fish”; Bangladesh has declared hilsa its national fish, while West Bengal has declared it its state fish. Other parts of India, including Odisha, Assam, and Tripura, also love hilsa. Ilish maach — thanks to the rise of regional cuisines in the diaspora — has been finally making its way to menus outside the homeland. But, in recent years, many factors have made it far more difficult and expensive to source the fish, both locally and abroad. And with that, a food tradition core to an entire people may be at risk of withering away.