People’s Republic of Bangladesh

I was really afraid of this entry, which is weird because it was one of the easiest times I’ve had finding ingredients so far. My neighborhood is brimming with families from Bangladesh, so much so that the hilsa (or ilish) fish, most prized among Bengalis but absurdly esoteric to probably everyone else in the world, can be found, frozen, in a large vertical freezer in my grocery store. I should be clear: it wasn’t the preparation that scared me – it’s a relatively simple sauce of mustard powder and green chilis – but rather the idea of scaling, gutting and fabricating a freshwater fish that came from a river in a country halfway across the world. If you caught a whiff of what I did when I sliced open the shrink wrapped bag this lil’ swimmer came in (and saw what I pulled out of it…hint: it rhymes with “massive, veiny fish placenta”), you’d feel the same, I bet.

But first some side dishes…

To go with my shorshe ilish, I made a variety of traditional accompaniments – soupy, pungent masoor dal, a proper Bengali pulao, and a sinus-clearing, pickled green chili achar.

Masoor dal are a type of orange-red pulse, basically a lentil but nothing like the green or French lentils that Americans are used to seeing in the Goya section. These red lentils have a starchy, earthy aroma and will disintegrate readily after a short stew in some turmeric-tinged water. And… that’s basically it. The only other part of the recipe is to quickly fry a mélange of whole spices in ghee – this is called a tarka – and then stir this potpourri into the lentils.

“But which spices?!” you may excitedly ask.

Bengalis are particularly fond of a mix called panch foron. There are a couple versions of panch foron, so I opted to make the one that is most common to Bangladesh, swapping the typical mustard seeds for the much more exotic, ordered-directly-from-Mumbai, arrived-in-an-unlabeled-plastic-ziploc-baggie radhuni.

If you’ve ever used ajwain seed in Indian cooking – and, I mean, all of you definitely have – you will find radhuni to be more overpowering and smoky. It’s known as wild celery seed in English, but that’s a bunch of horse puckey, because it’s not related to celery at all.

Along with the radhuni, the other elements of panch foronblack cumin seed (pungent and rich), fennel seed (fresh and astringent), fenugreek seed (sweet, like maple syrup) and nigella seed (oniony smoke), once fried in smoking-hot ghee, each splatter a unique and unmistakeable color onto the neutral canvas of these masoor dal.

By the way, I wasn’t joking about the unlabeled ziploc baggie from India. Ehhhh.

Now the rice – Bangladeshi pulao is based on showcasing the golden child of the country’s agriculture, their so-called “Prince of Rice”: kalijira, also known as “baby basmati” or, in Bangladesh, gobindo bhog – “a offering unto [the god] “Govinda” [an earthly incarnation of Krishna]. This rice is seriously tiny in comparison to regular basmati:

Dry regular basmati (top) and kalijira (bottom)

On its own, kalijira blooms with an intense fragrance that is oddly calming. Once soaked and cooked, this aroma becomes more savory – it’s like regular basmati multiplied by a field of flowers. (I’m guessing this has to do with a high concentration of 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, but hey… what the hell do I know?) It also cooks super fast – all I had to do was boil it for a few minutes, toss it with some ghee-fried spices and it was ready. I felt confident here, since I had followed my friend Ria’s advice – “as long as it’s yellow rice, sweet, and with cashews and raisins in it, it’s Bengali pulao!” Thanks Ria (and thanks to your mom)!

The last accompaniment was really new for me – pickled green chilis, or achar. Indian and Bengali cuisine includes lots of different pickles – mango, tomato… pretty much anything you can think of. These pickling ingredients are not shy, and are classically Bangladeshi – mustard oil (the musty, sharp fat that finds its way into innumerable dishes), mustard seeds, vinegar, and the indispensable garlic and ginger. This will blow your face off.

Sleep with one eye open.

…whiiiiich brings us back to the shorshe ilish. Here we go.

You hand-grind yellow mustard seeds with green chilis and then fry this paste along with an onion in smoking mustard oil. Splash in a little water, and there’s the sauce. The ingredient list is short, but the heat and intensity of this dish is very high.

Once I added the fish steaks to the sauce, it immediately started giving off an aroma that reminded me of catfish – sort of swampy and salty (relatedly, remind me to tell you sometime about the day I thought I could make stock from catfish bones… ugh). As it cooked longer and its flesh changed from light pink to white, its odor mellowed out, perhaps tempered and molecularly dismantled by all of the raging acids in the sauce. Whatever the reason, it had come a long way from the obscene rankness that had coated my fingers when I first started cleaning it.

Yellow, ain't it?

As I mentioned, I was actually of afraid of this dish. Luckily, it turned out to be a small palette of strikingly pure flavors – pure fishiness; pure, mouth-coating mustard essence; and pure, unadulterated capsaicin fire that rockets to the back of your throat in a moment of both exhilaration and terror. As new as it was to me, I could easily identify the comforting, warm feelings that this dish must evoke for those who eat it regularly. It tastes like something that a mom or grandma makes after you’ve been away for awhile, crafted from just a few simple ingredients.

It will also peel the paint off a car.

Now you go:

Shorshe Ilish
1 Ilish (Hilsha) fish, scaled, gutted, cut into steaks
3 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
6 green chilis
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 large onion, diced
2 tbsp mustard oil
Salt to taste

Rub some salt and turmeric on the fish steaks and set aside. In a coffee/spice grinder, grind the mustard seeds into a paste along with the green chili and a tablespoon of water.

Heat the oil in a flat bottomed pan. Saute the onions until light brown. Add the mustard/chili paste and rest of the spices and stir fry 2-3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water, making sure you scrape any spices that are stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Add the fish steak and cook covered over medium heat for about 10-minutes. Flip over the fish and cook covered another 5 minutes until excess water has evaporated. Check for salt. Serve.

Masoor dal
2 cups masoor dal
1/4 cup onion, chopped
1 tsp garlic, minced
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
3-4 green chilies
1 tbsp chopped cilantro
2-3 dry chiles de arbol
1/2 tsp panch foron
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp ghee

Wash the masoor dal and boil with 6 cups of water. Add the turmeric and salt. Continually skim off any foam that forms on top of the dal.

Boil until dal is beginning to soften. Add the green chilies, and if needed, some more water – it should still be a little soupy.

In a separate pan, heat ghee to medium and fry the onions and garlic until lightly browned. Add the panch foron and the dry chilies, and fry 3-4 more minutes.

Pour all these ingredients into the soupy dal and garnish with the cilantro. Turn off heat. Serve hot.

Panch Foron
black cumin seed
fennel seed
radhuni or yellow mustard seed
fenugreek seed
nigella seed

Combine in equal parts. Use.

Can be stored in an airtight container.

Bangladeshi Pulao
1/2 cup ghee
2 cups kalijira (“Baby Basmati”) rice, washed and soaked for at least an hour
3 tbsp golden raisins
1/2 cup raw cashews
4 bay leaves
1.5 inch cube ginger, peeled and sliced into thin sticks
10 cardamom pods, whole
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp sugar (more to taste)
salt to taste

In a large pan, place soaked rice, 6 cups of water and turmeric and boil over medium heat. Taste rice frequently – when it is juuuuuust getting soft (al dente, more or less – kalijira is tiny and cooks fast!), take it off the heat and drain in a fine colander. Set aside.

Melt ghee in saucepan. Add cashews and fry until golden brown. Add raisins and fry till plump, then the bay leaves. Next, add the ginger and fry until browned. Add the cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods. Fry all of this together for about a minute, stirring constantly.

Remove from heat. Add reserved rice to spices, cover with lid and shake pan aggressively to combine the ingredients. Finally, add sugar and salt to taste (Bengali pulao should be on the sweet side!) and serve.

Green Chili Achar

1 lb. green chilies, sliced into 1/4″ rounds
1 cup mustard oil
3 tsp ginger paste (fresh ginger that you have ground)
3 tsp finely shredded ginger
2 tsp sugar
3 tsp chili powder (I used mirchi reshampatti)
4 tbsp garlic paste (garlic you have ground/pressed)
2 tsp turmeric powder
3 tsp mustard seeds, ground, plus 1 tsp left whole
3/4 cup white vinegar
salt to taste

Add about a level tbsp of salt to the chilies, mix and set aside for a few hours or overnight.

Grind the masala paste with vinegar instead of water. Heat half the oil to smoking in a pan and fry the chilies in this for about 10 minutes. Remove chilies to another dish. Add ¾ of the remaining oil to the pan. Allow this to become smoking hot. Add the tsp of mustard seed and when it stops spluttering, add the shredded ginger. Fry for a minute and then add the other masala pastes, ginger and garlic. Fry for a good 10 minutes or more until the masalas change color, then add the remaining vinegar and 2 tbsp of sugar. Add the fried chilies to the masalas in the pan, fry for another 10 minutes. Adjust seasoning. Just before removing from fire, add the remaining oil and mix well. Cool and store in Jars.


7 thoughts on “People’s Republic of Bangladesh

  1. Beautiful and meticulous post and one of the best shorshe ilish recipes online! I am the founder of a chain of cosmetic surgery centers in Mumbai. Don’t let the surname fool you. I am Punjabi married to a Bong but divorced. I tried making the recipe as mentioned above but used a steamer. I also replaced the hilsa with the Kingfish Mackerel (surmai) readily available in Mumbai’s fish markets. It tasted great. I had a question? Is a two-tiered steamer (with boiling water below and the fish placed in the compartment above) good for cooking this or should I stick to a pressure cooker for greater taste. Since the upper compartment had perforations for the steam to enter, I wrapped the fish and the accompanying sauce in banana leaf. When it was ready, the yellow fish pieces and sauce over the green leaf added a great visual accompaniment.

    • Hi Sunita! Thanks so much for the kind words, I’m really glad you had success using my recipe. This is such a unique dish and very much worth the effort.

      Regarding the use of a two-tiered steamer – I don’t see an issue with at at all. In fact, several of the recipes that I auditioned for this post called for cooking the fish in a sort of casserole dish seated within a pot of shallow boiling water, so I believe that many people choose to cook the fish in this way. Just be sure to do the onion/mustard/chili saute in a hot pan first, then transfer everything to the steamer.

      I also really like your idea for a banana leaf, that must have looked beautiful and probably functioned well in keeping the fish coated in the sauce.


  2. Wow! I just happened upon this part of your blog while looking for a good recipe for the kalijira rice that I had bought. Your recipes are so authentic and true to the recipes that have been passed down to me from my family (my parents are from Bangladesh and West Bengal, India). I am not used to putting turmeric or ginger in pulao but I still followed your recipe for the most part and loved it.

    Oh and bravo on your courage in making Hilsa, it took me years to attempt making such an iconic Bengali dish!

    • Lani! I can receive no greater compliment than the kind you have given me. Thank you so much for your kind words, they make me feel like I am accomplishing what I have set out to do! And yes, the hilsa was a real adventure… especially cleaning it! Phew!

      – Mark

  3. Pingback: Bangladeshi Banquet | What's in Elly's Belly

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