For every Bengali, Illish conjures up more than just a dish – it conjures up a memory in itself. Of waking up on lazy Sunday mornings when the usual sound of the radio is replaced by the gentle pattering of rain, accompanied by one particular fish cooked in sorshe (mustard), served with rice. One can almost smell and taste the fish – if one tries hard enough.
However, this fish is seasonal – and limited to monsoons, when they make a trip from the sea towards the river – and are caught at deltas.
Somak and Agni from 98.3 FM Radio Mirchi recently turned this sentiment into a song – parodying a very popular Bengali song called ‘Bela Bose,’ by Anjan Dutt.
The song captures the sentiment in the most perfect way. In the same strain as the original song, he calls and tells his lover about getting – the fish. The original song was about finding a job.
Anybody who has been to a Bengali fish market will know how significant finding Illish is because it is the true example of demand and supply – there is a lot more demand than the catch trawlers will bring in.
After the difficult task of navigating the fish market and dodging hurried people with umbrellas– comes the cooking of the fish.
Illish’s signature dish is made by coating the soft fish with sorshe (mustard). The fish is then steamed, where it is cooked on the inside and creates a layer of mustard outside, that almost falls apart in your mouth, and the song emphasizes this point by saying that “bhapa chara cholbe na” (without steaming, won’t do).
The song continues that all you need with Illish is just hot rice – no other accompaniments.
Illish is also cooked in a special kind of oil – known popularly in Bengal as ‘macher tel’ (fish oil) which is eaten with rice, as well. Deep frying this fish and simply having it is also as popular, for people who want a low-effort version of this fish.
But this fish itself is constant – and the song aptly states that when it says, “Illish chara brishti ta jombe na.” (Without hilsa fish, the rains won’t be as perfect.)
The last paragraph of the song delves into how the fish is 1200 rupees per kilo, and very, very expensive for fish, but that’s fine.
Illish is an indulgence, and as the song ends with “It’s fine, I’ll substitute my budget by eating sabzi and saag for the rest of the week, if I get to eat this great fish for one day.”
The money is not the only factor that makes the fish exclusive – it is the feeling of landing your hands on sometime that sells out within minutes of hitting the market and has people squabbling over prices, and handing over notes, to coming home with a sense of achievement, knowing that you are going to feast well for one lunch – and it makes you feel like a ‘Maharaj.’
The song ends with Somak asking, “kanta ta benche dibi toh?”(you’ll pick the bones out for me, right?) bringing to full circle all the nuances of Illish – the bones being a characteristic feature of the fish, as it is riddled with thin, tiny bones which are all over the place and almost a task in itself to dig out.
Despite these, what Bengali’s term as a minor inconvenience, the hilsa sales sky-rocket everytime they hit the market every monsoon, and no matter the time, this fish is always a favorite.
The composers of the song, Somak and Agni have started putting out occasional videos with humor content, on their live radio and also on their YouTube page.
Watch the song, here: