A ‘Farzi’ take on the legendary Bengali hilsa

Farzi Cafe in Kolkata took the good old hilsa and gave it a Farzi twist! Read on to find out what the purists thought of it.
Farzi cafe kolkata
Farzi Cafe in Kolkata situated in the famous Park Street.

Hilsa is a match for the Bengalis made on the lunch table. Any non-vegetarian, who has spent some years of their life in any part of Bengal, know the drill. Come monsoon, and the community drools over the mustard hilsa – a preparation where the fish is slow-cooked in a mustard gravy. Just to savour this taste, many would happily exceed their monthly grocery budget to buy a fish – which could cost anywhere between Rs 200 to Rs 3,000, per kilo.

In fact, such is the power of the Hilsa (Ilish, in local dialect), that even as the ‘vocal for local‘ movement picks pace in line with local ingredient sourcing, this iconic fish is an exception – in an otherwise sustainable ‘Bangali’ kitchen. The Gangetic Hilsa, which comes from the Bangladesh side of the Ganges, sits at the top of the pile for where the fish is sourced from. For the perfect one, many Bengalis may not even think twice, before spending a fortune.

If you visit Kolkata during monsoon, you would be overwhelmed by the barrage of hilsa festivals all around – from four-seater cafes to fine dining restaurants, nobody gives this opportunity a miss. This season, after all, is perfect for getting an ideal-tasting catch.

Savour the classic hilsa dishes and then some with the Farzi twist.

An otherwise marine fish, Hilsa enters the freshwater to lay eggs. The baby fish are born on the upstream of a river. After they grow enough to sustain, they swim to the ocean – and this is the exact juncture when the hilsa festival begins. To ensure that the hilsa population isn’t harmed, the government prohibits fishermen from catching the baby fish.

Joining in on the celebrations this year was Farzi Cafe at Park Street, with their own Hilsa Utsav. Much to the surprise of the Ilish-elitist community, the restaurant served up a lavish spread with the traditional dishes – as well as a host of some significantly experimental ones.

A brainchild of restaurateur Zorawar Kalra, Farzi Cafe has been bold with its experiments since inception. Could it pull of the same with the hilsa, too?

Hitting the right notes

A full-sized hilsa typically weighs above 700 grams, but less than two kilograms. But, what newbies to the hilsa-world must learn is its body composition of a million bones – something that gives the fish a bit of notoriety among the faint-hearted. Naturally, many from the Bengali community will tell you that before venturing into a hilsa festival, one must go through the ‘how-to-eat’ tutorial.

Ilish Paturi – hilsa wrapped in banana leaf and then steamed.

Sticking to these traditions, while innovating through this fest, was Chef Soumyadip Dutta of Farzi Cafe, Kolkata. His ‘Hilsa Utsav’ menu started with the classics – Ilish paturi (hilsa wrapped in banana leaf and steamed), doi Ilish (hilsa cooked in a curd and mustard-based gravy) and shorshe ilish (the iconic mustard gravy hilsa). These are quintessential hilsa dishes, which are either slow-cooked, or pot-steamed with hints of green chilli and nigella seeds.

The names sought to give the fish a somewhat global appeal – with ‘mustard hilsa en papillote’ for the paturi, and ‘Farzified sour curd hilsa’ for the doi ilish.

But, that’s where they drew a line with the experimentation. These dishes tasted exactly how a Sunday meal of hilsa on a Bengali table would – with the overpowering flavour of hilsa intact, and the spice levels balanced, creamy and smooth.

Bringing it to the world

“Hilsa deboned! Hilsa with naan and lachha paratha, even? This is blasphemous!”

You’d hear this cry from most folks of the community, if you presented them with these experiments. In fact, if de-boning was still a forgiveable crime, pairing it up with lachha paratha may well be held as a crime. Most of the Hilsa-loving population is on the conservative end, and wouldn’t let anyone dilute their love for what they deem to be the queen of the fishes.

However, Farzi and Dutta’s take is definitely an evolutionary progression.

The oomph arrived with ‘un-earthed pit roasted hilsa’, served with garlic naan. A full piece of boneless hilsa fillet is cooked in a spicy red tandoori marination, which at the get-go smells and looks like an Amritsari korma in red tikka gravy. The moment you tear a bit of the naan and dip it in the hilsa, you can feel the joyous taste to the core. The subtle hint of garlic and the balanced tikka masala taste did not vanquish the core flavour of the hilsa. It was well conserved, indeed.

Then arrived on our table the showstopper – ‘peri peri chilli charmed hilsa’, served with lachha paratha. A boneless hilsa fillet in peri peri masala is gently cooked in the tandoor. You could feel the globalisation of the senses, and it truly leads you to hilsa-laden nirvana. The tandoor flavour adds to the richness of the dish, and the paratha does justice to the spice level, by giving it enough room for absorption.

Taking on a classic challenge

Hilsa made the Farzi way!

Hilsa is not an easy fish to cook. It’s not just because people have a built-up notion of flavours inside their head and heart – but also because it is very soft in texture. Add to this, a kilo of fish will have close to 1,500 bones! Innovating with this kind of a fish is no less than a ‘challenge accepted’ moment for the young chef at Farzi Cafe, Kolkata.

As the Durga Pujo vibe catches up with the city and the monsoon bids adieu, Farzi Cafe’s gastronomic sojourn with the queen of fish is truly one to savour.