Tasting cultures along the Indian coastline

K and I on our way back from a play on a bright Saturday afternoon stumbled into a bookshop. As soon as I entered the bookshop I quietly escaped into the travelogue section and started flipping through the pages of “Following Fish”. True to the title, the author Samanth Subramanian follows the fish across the Indian coast and takes you on a tour from Bengal to Gujarat.  Each chapter is devoted to the ways in which fish is much more about gastronomic delight. While it is as much about taste of fish, it is also about tasting cultures. This is why I would recommend this book to every readers of this blog. You don’t have to eat fish to love this book; you have to be curious about tasting cultures that dot the Indian coastline to enjoy this book.

The trail of fish begins with Bengal – and its most prized fish – Hilsa with a subtle indication of how this fish is much more than food. It is also about identity of East Bengal and West Bengal. Samanth Subramanian takes us through a whirlwind tour of the various fish markets of Kolkata before stopping and stumbling on the Ganga Hilsa. The author’s self reflexive account makes the book an interesting read. This is particularly so in the second chapter that documents the Bathini Goud’s festivities on thrusting live fish with secret medicine – a treatment for asthma that has become part of the state calendar in Hyderabad as it attracts thousands of people who come for this treatment.The chapter documents the medical treatment that is offered to thousands for free amidst belief and scepticism.  Each of the chapter seamlessly weaves in local history, politics into the making and survival of cuisine. Samanth Subramaniam takes us through the world of Tuticorn to discuss in detail the history of conversion, the tension between the church and chieftain to tell us how Tuticorn, despite being the strong Portuguese stronghold  retained their distinct cuisine.  The gem dish of the region is Fish Podi- dried fish powder which is eaten with rice and dollops of ghee. The spicy trail of fish has just begin as  the author takes us through the  Kerala’s toddy shops and their treatment of fish and I already have my eyes set on the Alleppey shop mentioned in the book in my next visit to Kerala, followed by the stunning revelation of the President of the Managlore Fishermen’s Cooperative,  Secretary of National Fish Workers Federation and of the Coastal Karnataka Fishermen Action Committee that he does not eat fish as the author is treated to the Mangalore fish curry in his house. The author then winds off his fishing trail through his accounts on angling, and his accounts of fishermen in Goa who has taken to other professions because of depleting fishes in Goa’s coastline due to overfishing. The author then takes us to the hustle bustle of the Sassoon Dock in Bombay with his guide Yeshi followed by a stopover at the shrine of Mumbadevi Temple in Zaveri Bazaar to a nice hot meal of fish curry at Anantashram ( one of the remaining khanawals) , a peep into the culinary affair in a Koli household and finally taking us through the markers of Gomanatak and Malvani cuisine. The final chapter stops with the crafting of fishing boats in Gujarat- which supplies much of the fish that finds its way to fish markets across India and in our kitchens and is also renowned for crafting fishing boats.

The book manages to unravel the history, geography of “fish” beyond its gastronomic qualities which makes it an interesting read.

Book Review: Subramaniam, Samanth. 2010. Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast. New Delhi: Penguin Books.


Feasting during Durga Puja III

Today is Navami- practically the last day of the Puja. As a child I dreaded this day and to compensate for the end to the four days of fun and frolic I used to keep aside the best of the five dresses for the pandal hopping. Cut to 2012. One had heard that Chittaranjan Park (popularly known as C.R. Park) the Bengali neighbourhood puts on its festive colours during Durga Puja and I thought it would not be like Kolkata in terms of the crowd,the endless queues. Well, I was wrong.

If you are wondering that pandal hopping is an easy exercise in CR Park let me give you a word of caution. If you hate traffic, avoid travelling near 5km radius of C.R. Park. You might have to walk down. Its as simple as that. All the entry points to C.R. Park are barred and only vehicles with passes are allowed to enter and exit. Basically, you need to brave the traffic regulations around Chittaranjan Park (C.R.Park) – the Bengali neighbourhood of Delhi to see how festivities grip this otherwise quite neighbourhood in Delhi. The strings of bulbs hang from the trees welcoming the devotees and leading the way to the theme based pandal. As you enter, each of the pandals you will be led to three distinct spaces- first, designated to Goddess Durga, second to the food court and third to the cultural programmes that are held from Saptami to Navami.

The food courts of the pandals have all the known names in the business giving food stalls to make most of the business. B-Block Puja Pandal Food court had food stalls by Karims to Yo China. Beyond that the famous egg rolls, chicken rolls and Fish Fry were all there. The Puja Pandal adjacent to GK II Gurudwara also had an interesting mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian affair in their food court. Shiv Mandir Puja ground saw some interesting stalls of Phuchka, Ghugni and Biryani. The most interesting part about the food and festivities during Durga Puja is also how people occupy the streets and pavements for food stalls. For instance, the otherwise busy Kalibari Mandir Marg near Connaught Place which wears a busy traffic during weekdays has made way for a string of food stalls selling Ghugni, Jhal Muri ( infact one of the stalls claimed famous Jhal Muri from Burdwan), Mughlai Parantha, Rolls with various fillings like egg, chicken and mutton, Fried Rice and Chilli Chicken, tandoor items and of course Biryani.

The by lanes of CR Park have been taken over by people selling Ghugni, Kachori Alur Dam and even Masala Papad and various fries. The neighbourhood is buzzing with people making their way out from the pandals and the faint screeching noise of the traffic signalling how the life changes during festivities. As I struggle my way through the by lanes to reach Market No 1 to take my friends on a guided tour of the pandals I receive a call, “ We are stuck in traffic. It does not seem to move”. I wait patiently hanging around the magazine stall, flipping through all the Puja Barshiki (special editions that are published during Puja), make a wish list of all the new songs that I must try to listen to on youtube ( songs/ music albums are also released during this time) and of course collect a menu from all the food stalls. I begin my evening food trail with a plate of Phuchka popularly known as Panipuri in Delhi. In Bengal we use tamarind water flavoured with Gandhoraaj Lebu and the potato is mashed and mixed with chana, masala and tamarind pulp. The phucka prepared from Atta is peculiar to Bengal as well. As I wait for my friends to arrive I also head towards Kamala Sweets to help myself with a sweet dish- Chhanar Jilipi. Around 8pm my friends arrive and we head straight to Annapurna Hotel which has closed its air conditioned outlets (Shop no 142 and 143) and laid out chairs and tables in the open space of Market No 1. We decide to head straight for “fish” y meal thalis of Pabda, Hilsa and Rui. The Hilsa Curry was the perfect way to end a Navami Dinner- a day when we are allowed to have non vegetarian food and most households cook Panthar Jhol ( Mutton). The Hilsa Curry was spot on. As one my uncles would say, “ Maa Annapurna ( also the Goddess of Rice in other words, provider of food has blessed this place… there is magic and it is because of Annapurna’s blessing..”. I left the place and might go back again to have a Hilsa thali all for Rs 180/-


Time to get some rest and get ready for Bijoya Dashami…

© itiriti

Why you might not get to cook Hilsa this season?

As the clouds descended on Delhi sky, I dreamt of my favourite fish of the monsoon – Hilsa(Ilish). Hilsa is the fish close to Bengali souls. It is also known as Ilish. But the exorbitant prices have forced many Bengalis to forgo their favourite fish.  Over the course of the past few weeks, I tried putting on my best smile to negotiate with the salesperson in Market No.1 , Chittaranjan Park, New Delhi and he politely replied, “Didi, hobe na. Hole Ditam Na. Maximum Discount dusho taka. Last price 1200” (Sister,Not possible. I will not manage. I can give you a discount of Rs 200. Last price Rs 1200).

Well Hilsa is available for Rs 1200. Yes, fish lovers if you are gearing up to have you favourite fish- Hilsa you should be ready to spend Rs 1000-1200. Not only in Delhi markets have Hilsa been priced at Rs 1000-1500 but this fish is also being sold in Kolkata from Rs 700-Rs 1000 depending on quality and size.  One of the reasons of the increase in price of Hilsa is the restriction of exports from Bangladesh in 2012. Hilsa is the national fish of Bangladesh. The Hilsa lovers will be acquainted with prefixes as Padmar Ilish, Kolaghat Ilish signifying the river belts and areas from where this fish is found in abundance on both sides of Bengal landscape.

Padmar Ilish or the Hilsa found in the waters of Padma river of Bangladesh is famous and if you happen to take the bus from Kolkata to Dhaka even in the wee months of December (off season of Hilsa) you might get to try a meal of fried Hilsa on the deck of the Barge that carries the bus. Significantly, this fish has played a key role in the economy of Bangladesh and approximately 2 million fishermen in Bangladesh depend on this fish for their livelihood.1 This year, Bangladesh imposed a ban during the holy of Ramdan on the exports of the fish. Did it help?

Well Iqbal Mahmud, in his article ‘Hilsa Dreams” alerts us that the reason for this ban was the escalating prices of Hilsa this season even in Bangladesh. There has been a sharp increase in the production of Hilsa in Bangladesh. The official statistics record production of 3.22 million tonnes (Fiscal year 2012), which is some 5.2 per cent higher than that of 2011.  Despite such huge production and record exports, the prices of Hilsa remain unaffected and the recent ban led to a mere decrease of 200-300 Taka in Bangladash. So, if the fish lovers were forced to pay Tk 1000 for a middle size fish after the ban they would pay Tk 600-700.  Iqbal takes us through some of the prominent fish markets and Fisher Association/s in Bangladesh, pointing the happiness as well as distress. For instance, representatives of Barishal Fish Merchants Association expressed serious concern and fear that Bangladesh might lose out on export of this fish to India and Myanmar. One of the fishermen also indicated that exporters are waiting to get payment from their counterparts from West Bengal for their previous exports. The report also alleges concerns from government officials and fish traders that illegal smuggling will continue and is the primary reason for the increase in prices.2

One of the commendable efforts of the Fisheries Department in Bangladesh is the Jatka Conservation project undertaken by the Department of Fisheries. What is a Jatka? The young Hilsa fish is called Jatka.  Jatka Conservation, Alternate Income Generation for the  Jatka   Fishers and  Research Project was sponsored by Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock and the executing agency was Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI)3. It was initiated in June 2009 and wrapped up by June 2013 and in one of the conservation weeks held in April 2012 the BFRI claimed that the project has been successful.

BSS ( the national news agency of Bangladesh) in an article “Hilsa output may rise to 5 lakh tonnes” hails this project as successful. The Department of Fisheries alternative food and employment assistance given to fishermen since 2003- 04 (1.99 lakh tonnes) has led to increase of Hilsa production(3.40 lakh tonnes in 2011). What is significant to note is that considering Hilsa is a migratory fish and it continues to change its course very often not only do we need to preserve Jatka but also have transnational research agency and work towards a tri-nation agreement between Bangladesh, India and Myanmar to conserve this fish which migrates extensively . As a senior scientific officer Dr. Md. Anisur Rahman remarked on this occasion, ‘The country also needs to sign a tri-nation agreement with Myanmar and India for conservation of the fish through enhancing regional cooperation’.4

A similar effort on conservation of Jatka has been promised by Honourable Chief  Minister of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. Since the past three years there existed a ban on catching the juvenile fish in West Bengal as well which clearly has been ignored. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has promised alternative employment and rice at Rs 2 per kg for 200,000 fishermen in West Bengal if they abstain from catching Hilsa during the breeding season April- May, October – November. Another reason for the decline in catch in West Bengal side is the decline in rainfall in Southern Bengal and the choking of various creeks in Sunderban delta due to emergence of islands and heavy siltation forcing the fish to take a new course.5

Apart from the low catch in West Bengal, even the yields in riverine tracts of Narmada have been low. Madhvi Sally and Sutanuka Ghoshal in their report on souring Hilsa prices in early August 2012 in Economic Times clearly points the decline of the availability of Hilsa in the rivers of Narmada. In this article , one of the fishermen in Bharuch Fish Market clearly indicated he decline in catch . The fisherman quoted in this article thinks that industrial pollution along Narmada river and increase in the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam is responsible for the less number of catch.6

As Hilsa prices reach rocket high it’s time we put a stop on Jatka catch if we want it on our plates in Monsoon and secondly considering the fish is migratory in nature its important the three countries (Bangladesh, Myanmar and India) come together to conserve this migratory fish because a lot of fishermen from these three countries depend on fishing as a living. May be it is also time to check ourselves to buy fish in the breeding season or avoid buying Jatka if you want to enjoy Ilish Machch Bhaja (Fried piece of Hilsa) with Bhuna Khichdi in monsoon.


1 Hilsa- National Fish of Bangladesh.

 Source: http://www.mediabangladesh.net/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=424:hilsa-national-fish-bangladesh-ilish&catid=8:bangladesh&Itemid=38; Accessed on 27 August 2012.

2. Iqbal Mahmud, “Hilsa Dreams”. The New Age, 17 August 2012,

Source: http://www.newagebd.com/supliment.php?sid=111&id=814; Accessed on 27 August 2012

For details on BFRI visit their web portal http://www.fri.gov.bd/index.php?module=content&action=default&cntid=1607&mid=-1&lan=; Accessed on 27 August 2012.

4 For details see, “Hilsa output may rise to 5 lakh tonnes”, BSS, 12 April 2012

5 For details on this see Romita Datta, “Worried by falling Hilsa catch Mamata intervenes”, 16 August 2012,

http://www.livemint.com/2012/08/16233352/Worried-by-falling-hilsa-catch.html; Accessed on 27 August 2012.



6 For details see Madhvi Sally & Sutanuka Ghosal, “Hilsa prices soar to Rs 1,000 per kg as shrinking Narmada and Hooghly make breeding difficult”, 8 August 2012.


http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2012-08-08/news/33100832_1_hilsa-catch-utpal-bhaumik-hilsa-prices; Accessed on 27 August 2012.



© itiriti