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Healthy Cooking Techniques for Fish in Bengali Style

Updated on July 2, 2012
Fresh water fish: Hilsa or Ilish in native language
Fresh water fish: Hilsa or Ilish in native language
fresh water fish cut in steak pieces
fresh water fish cut in steak pieces

Importance of fish in a Bengali's life

The people of Bangladesh and West Bengal, the eastern state of India speak Bengali language as their mother tongue and are called Bengalis. They boast of their diverse cooking techniques and innumerable variations of fresh-water fish recipes.

A regular Bengali meal is incomplete without fish and every auspicious occasion such as in weddings, good relationship between two families is established by exchanging fresh whole fish, smeared with turmeric and vermillion (sindur).

I have travelled in US, Europe, Thailand and Japan and love enjoying different kinds of international cuisines, but I still feel Bengalis' experimentation on cooking fresh-water fish really stands out.

I would like to share with you some unique techniques, spices and cooking sauces they use to prepare nutritious and delicious fish recipes. There are about 200-300 different species of fresh water fish and specific fish needs to be selected for different cooking styles.


Steamed Hilsa fish in mustard sauce
Steamed Hilsa fish in mustard sauce
black and yellow mustard seeds
black and yellow mustard seeds
mustard cooking oil
mustard cooking oil
mustard paste or sauce
mustard paste or sauce

Steamed fish with mustard sauce and mustard oil

Steaming is a very healthy way of cooking fish. The most widely chosen fish for steaming is Hilsa/Ilish, available in the Bangladeshi stores in US, Japan and UK. The best season for Hilsa to be available is the monsoons in Bengal that is around June to August.

Hilsa is tasty and nutritious when cooked fresh and not frozen for too long. It is an oily fish enriched with omega 3 fatty acids, good for a healthy heart. The whole fish needs to be washed well and cut in steak sizes.

The most favorite preparation is steamed Ilish steeped in mustard sauce, which natives call "Bhapa Ilish". The cooking sauce is mustard sauce or a mixed paste of black and yellow mustard seeds with a little water. Some people add poppy seeds and green chillies while blending the mustard seeds into paste to reduce the pungency.

Marination of fish with mustard sauce for long is not required, only spread the sauce generously over all the fish pieces with a liberal dousing of mustard oil, a pinch of salt to taste and the fish is ready to be steamed.

There are four ways of steaming, in an oven, in a steamer, in microwave or in a pressure cooker. The oven version works well with other kinds of fish as well, such as salmon, herring and shad which are presumably close in taste to Hilsa. Bengalis always prefer mustard oil for cooking fish. This delicacy is served and enjoyed sumptuously with white rice.

Benefits of mustard oil: contains low saturated fatty acids, rich in antioxidants, loaded with essential vitamins and though pungent in taste, it takes good care of your heart.

Benefits of using mustard sauce in cooking: Some health benefits of mustard sauce are:Speeds up metabolism, stimulates digestion through enhanced secretion of gastric juices, increases saliva as much as eight times more than normal and lowers of high blood pressure

Skills required: Ilish/Hilsa has a lot of pin-bones, hence one needs to adopt the skill of removing bones while eating, but the delicious taste is worth the effort. Hence those who want to enjoy steamed mustard fish without making much effort can go for salmon, herring or shad.

grilled fish in banana leaf
grilled fish in banana leaf
fish wrapped in banana leaves
fish wrapped in banana leaves
turmeric powder
turmeric powder
banana leaf
banana leaf

Grilled fish with mustard sauce in banana leaves

Grilling is also another healthy way of enjoying fish with all its proteins retained. The most preferred varieties of fish chosen for grilling are Rohu (carp), Bhetki and Ilish/Hilsa.

First the fish steak pieces need to be washed and marinated with salt, turmeric powder, paste made from mustard seeds and mustard oil for an hour. Then the fish pieces are wrapped well in greased rectangular pieces (10 inch by 10 inch) of banana leaves and secured with a string. The banana leaf packets are directly put on the greased tawa (wok) and cooked in a very low flame until the leaves are burnt. Care has to be taken as turning the banana leaves occasionally will ensure uniform cooking.

This grilling could also be done alternatively in an oven preheated to 180 degree centigrade for about 15-20 minutes. This awesome dish is called "Machher Paturi" by the natives. The fish pieces are taken out of the packets before serving and is best enjoyed when served with parboiled or steamed white rice.

Role of turmeric powder: Bengalis sprinkle turmeric powder in almost all kinds of food, especially fish and meat as it has antiseptic, antiinflammatory and antibacterial properties.

Role of banana leaves: The banana leaves, which were used as traditional plates in southern and eastern India, enrobe the fish and impart its flavour, aroma and colour as well. Exposure to heat releases the leaf's natural oils and flavour and enhances the taste and aroma of the cooked fish.


fried fish in yoghurt sauce
fried fish in yoghurt sauce
garam masala
garam masala

Pan fried fish immersed in yoghurt sauce

This is a healthy and moderately spicy preparation and has a very soothing taste. A wide range of fish could be chosen for this preparation of pan frying in yoghurt sauce. The natives call this dish, "Doi Machh".

The fish steaks are marinated for 2 hours with a marinade of yoghurt, salt, turmeric powder, red chilli powder, ginger paste, garlic paste and onion paste. In a pre-heated pan with mustard oil, whole spices ("garam masala") are added, which comprise of cardamom, cinnamon sticks, peppercorn, bay leaf and cloves. When an aroma starts coming out and the spices become golden brown, chopped onions are added and fried till brown. Then the marinated fish is added and mixed gently taking care not to break the fish pieces. Approximate cooking time is 10 minutes per inch of thickness.

When the fish is done, some mustard oil is drizzled over the fish and garnished with green chiilies. You can enjoy best when served hot with white rice.

Role of garam masala: These spices of Indian origin add flavour and taste to the cooked fish.

Role of yoghurt: Helps digestion and smoothens the taste.


fish curry with seasonal vegetables
fish curry with seasonal vegetables
black cumin seeds
black cumin seeds

Pan fried fish and vegetables curry

This is the simplest way of cooking fish in Bengali style and is one of the most popular dishes. The natives call it "Machher Jhol" and enjoy almost everyday in their meals.

The fish steaks are washed and mixed with turmeric powder, salt and red chilli powder. In a pan mustard oil is heated and the fish pieces are fried well on both sides till light golden brown. The oil is reduced and a teaspoonful of black cumin seeds are added and stirred for a minute till the aroma comes out. Potatoes sliced longitudinally, onions, green chillies, eggplants, carrots and any other favourite seasonal vegetables could be added and stir fried until done.

Then the fried fish pieces are added along with two cups of water and allowed to boil, covering the pan with a lid. When the volume of water is reduced and the vegetables become soft, the fish curry is ready to be served.

This is a very healthy version of having fish with vegetables and the thin watery curry is easy to digest and hence preferred in hot summer days. Pan frying is necessary to get rid of the fishy smell, hence this version is difficult to try with variations other than the fresh water fish.

All the earlier three cooking techniques could be used with salmon, herring, shad or any other fleshy fish with good results.

Benefits of using black cumin seeds in cooking: These contain numerous essential fatty acids, supports the immune system (fights diseases in the summer), improve the skin, help with respiratory ailments and addresses digestive conditions.

A small advice to the readers: If you ever get a chance to visit India, do make some effort to taste these fish delicacies, especially in the following restaurants in Kolkata. And if you have a friend out there, his/her mom will give you the best treat at home, you can bet.

Restaurants which serve the above fish delicacies:

  • Bhojohori Manna
  • Oh! Calcutta
  • Peerless Inn Aheli



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    • taazakhabar profile image


      6 years ago from New Delhi, India

      I love fish but my children have a problem with the fish bones. So we usually get a fish with the least fish bones, but you have mentioned Hilsa which has one of the most number of bones. Is that correct?

    • NP.QUEEN profile image


      6 years ago from Dubai

      I think these are very tasty items.I want to try it.Thanks for sharing.

    • sriparna profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from New Delhi

      @SteveoMc: Thanks a lot for your inputs, I still need to get Google Adsense account and figure out how to put Amazon ads

      @Aiden Roberts: Thanks a lot for your comments

    • Aiden Roberts profile image

      Aiden Roberts 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      Welcome to hubpages.

      Some of these look very tasty, particuarly the pan fried fish with curried vegatables. Nice hub.

    • SteveoMc profile image


      8 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

      Good looking hub, will be able to tell more when the ads are placed. Well written and informative. The hub looks good and has great information included. The photos are really nice. Maybe the first two should be one or half size. This hub should do well.


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