From Iraq to Burma: These recipes show that Bengalis aren’t alone in their devotion to hilsa

Sindhis and Burmese also grow up on stories of the beloved fish.

Bengali’s beloved Ilish is all set to earn its Geographical Indication tag as a product unique to Bangladesh. According to reports and data from World Fish, an international, nonprofit research organisation that harnesses the potential of fisheries and aquaculture, Bangladesh accounts for 65% of the world’s hilsa supply, followed by India and Myanmar. Nonetheless, the love for hilsa is not restricted to Bengalis – much as they would like to believe so.

Most Bengalis grow up on tales of hilsa or ilish: there is the wicked petni, or the ghost of an unmarried Bangali woman, who followed a man across rambling fields late evening to snatch the hilsa from his bag, there are pompous reminisces of fish market bargains, heated debates around the superiority of hilsa from Bangladesh’s Padma river compared to that from the Ganga, near-lyrical eulogies to the silver beauty of the fish. Recently, conversations have shifted to a concern for the dwindling hilsa population, thanks to years of intemperate consumption and irresponsible fishing.

Bengalis might like to believe that the only hilsa worth eating is found in the Padma or in the Ganga, but the herring is found in the rivers of several countries, including Iraq and Iran in West Asia, and Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia in the East. In many of these places, hilsa is praised and eaten in myriad avatars.

Following fish

Photo credit: Bhapailish/via
Photo credit: Bhapailish/via

The mantra to cooking hilsa for many Bengalis is to keep it simple. Mustard oil is mandatory, the use of strong ingredients like onions and garlic sacrilege and experiments and innovations strictly prohibited. Years ago, when an adventurous chef made a hilsa dish with muddled strawberries, an uncle remarked: “No wonder the fish is near extinction.”

But in Malaysia, the hilsa is called Terubuk, and Betty Saw’s book, Best of Malaysian Cooking, recommends cooking it with soya bean sprouts, ground anchovies, turmeric leaves and fermented Durian. In her book For My Children…What I Cooked For You, Malay cookbook author B Bot has archived a unique recipe – salted fish cooked with a paste of dried chilies, galangal, turmeric and shallots along with pineapples and coconut cream. A rather expensive rendition of the dish, she writes, replaces the ordinary salted fish with the salt-cured roe of hilsa.

#Terubuk Masin... #Nyamannnn.....😄😄😄😄

A post shared by نورحيدايو (@uyunnailaa) on

Terubuk. Photo credit: uyunnailaa/via Instagram

In China, Zhengjiang, on the southern banks of the great river Yangtze, is famous for its seasonal catch of hilsa herrings that go by the name Shi Yu. Shi Yu means time fish, named after its by-the-clock migration up the Yangtze every year. Eleventh century Chinese premier and poet of the Song dynasty Wang Anshi wrote in praise of the Shi Yu: “Served with bamboo shoots, tender and delicate Shi Yu tastes better than milk.”

In his essay The Hilsa Herring of Zhengjiang in Late Spring Zhao Heng also mentions a recipe for steamed Shi Yu, stuffed with bamboo shoot and bacon slices, studded with dried winter mushrooms, that calls for a minimum of spices and a dash of Shaoxing wine.

There is an old Burmese saying – when you select a fish to eat, choose a hilsa, when you select a wife, choose a teenager. It is best to ignore the second part, but the Burmese do turn out quite a few unique dishes with the hilsa.

“In Myanmar the hilsa which is mostly from the Irrawaddy, is not cooked in mustard oil,” said Chanda Dutt, who runs Kolkata’s only Burmese specialty restaurant, Chanda’s Khaukswey. Dutt was born and raised in Taunggyi, in Myanmar’s Shan state. She recalled early morning breakfasts of steaming hot rice and fried hilsa roe, cooked in a spicy gravy made with ngapi chet (fermented fish paste) and tomatoes, which she would relish at a neighbour’s home.

A typical Burmese meal: rice with a mè hnat (stewed beef), chinyay hin (hot & sour soup), ngapi yay-jo (thin pickled fish sauce) and to za ya (raw or scalded vegetables to go with it). Photo credit: Wagaung/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 3.0]
A typical Burmese meal: rice with a mè hnat (stewed beef), chinyay hin (hot & sour soup), ngapi yay-jo (thin pickled fish sauce) and to za ya (raw or scalded vegetables to go with it). Photo credit: Wagaung/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 3.0]

“They would also make a hot and spicy soup with ilish bones, including the head, and vegetables like aubergine, wilted greens and pumpkin, flavoured with garlic, fish sauce and green chilies,” added Dutt.

One of the finest samples of Burmese culinary ingenuity is a traditional dish in which the hilsa is marinated overnight with vinegar, soy and fish sauce and slow-cooked the next day with garlic, ginger, chilies and other ingredients including shrimp paste, for several hours on a bed of lemon grass stalks, until the hilsa bones are tender enough to melt in the mouth. “An uncle visiting from Burma once prepared the dish with fresh Padma Ilish in my Kolkata kitchen,” Dutt recalled.

Local variations

In India, hilsa is found in the Narmada, Tapti, Mahanadi, Krishna and Godavari. Known as Pulasa in Andhra Pradesh, it is a much sought after delicacy in the region – an old adage justifies the selling of one’s nuptials just so one can eat the Pulasa.

“Its dwindling population in the Godavari adds to its exoticism and price tag,” said Srinivas Velidanda, a partner at the popular Andhra restaurant Coringa in Bengaluru. “The price can go up to Rs 9,000 per kilogram. A treasured dish in the Godavari districts is the Pulasa Pulusu, a piquant, slow-cooked curry with a distinct tang from tamarind. Recipes, of course, vary – some call for a smidgen of jaggery, others a splash of mango pickle oil, and there are those that include whole okra cooked with the fish.”

The Parsis know the hilsa as bhing. “An iconic dish is the bhoojelo bhing,” said archaeologist and caterer Kurush F Dalal who runs Katy’s Kitchen, a popular catering business started by his mother, the legendary Katy Dalal. The bhing is cleaned, gutted, laced and stuffed with a mix of fresh coriander, mint, chilies and other spices, wrapped in soft muslin cloth, which is then smeared with sticky, riverine clay and roasted on fire.

In Parsi Food and Drinks and Customs, BJ Maneckshaw writes about a particular rendition of the dish in which the bhing, stuffed with spicy chutney-like marinade made with fresh coriander, grated coconut, sesame and poppy seeds, tamarind extract and a few other spices, is then stuffed with roe or prawns – before being wrapped in banana leaves, followed by muslin and finally caked in clay or wet sand, covered with hot charcoal to cook, unhurried.

Sadly, such elaborate dishes are now rarely made.

I Love My Motherland Sindh/via
I Love My Motherland Sindh/via

The bhoojelo bhing is similar to the Sindhi rendition of a roasted hilsa called Wadi di palla. The dish is traditionally cooked in pits dug in the sand – a recipe perhaps born in the deserts of the Sindh region, in Pakistan. “The whole palla [hilsa] is stuffed with a mix of onion, ginger-garlic, chilies and fresh coriander muddled into a paste,” said blogger Alka Keswani, who runs the food blog Sindhi Rasoi. The stuffed fish is wrapped with uncooked rotis and roasted in a pit. “Of course now people cook it in an oven,” added Keswani. “Besides, there’s the iconic kok palla – palla fillets laced with a spice masala, with chopped onions, tomatoes, chilies and fresh coriander.”

Among Sindhis, the palla also enjoys major cultural and religious significance. “Our patron saint Lord Jhulelal is seen riding the palla,” said Keswani, “Among Hindu Sindhis, it is considered auspicious to eat palla during Maha Shivaratri.” Several legends and folklore exist about the palla in Sindhi culture. “We have grown up on tales of how the palla swims up the Indus to the shrine of Zinda Pir in Sukkur, Pakistan, to pay homage to the great saint. It is only then that the fish gets its signature taste and silver gleam,” Keswani recalled.

Comparable to caviar

In most cultures, it is the roe of the hilsa that is more sought after than the fish itself. Parsis, for instance, love bhing roe: “In its simplest form, the roe is first steamed wrapped in muslin, anointed with spices typical to Parsi kitchens and fried. Or, we make the gharab nu achaar, which is pickled roe.” said Dalal. The whole roe of the bhing is pickled in sarko – barrel matured sugar-cane vinegar which no Parsi kitchen is complete without. Pickling spices like turmeric, roasted cumin, garlic and sometimes, cinnamon are added too.

The hilsa roe has been compared to caviar and the Sindhis love it too. A treasured dish is the aani ji bhaaji, a curry made with fried roe or aani. Surprisingly, what is served as aani ji bhaaji in a Sindhi household is often a vegetarian dish, made with chickpea flour dumplings slow cooked with onions, tomatoes and spices.

The besan ji aani is a classic case of culinary jugaad, perhaps for the benefit of Sindhis who have embraced vegetarianism. “Unlike in the past when palla roe was easily available in the bazaars of Sindh, often for free, today the palla roe, and the fish are hard to get,” said Keswani. So the dumplings perked up with spices, are given a grainy texture akin to fish roe with the addition of poppy seeds and shaped like roe too.

Fried ilish. Yummraj/via
Fried ilish. Yummraj/via
We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.


In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.


Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.


The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.


The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.